Tag Archives: opportunity

Fair Equality of Opportunity and self-realization

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls writes that:

‘[I]f some places were not open on a basis fair to all, those kept out would be right in feeling unjustly treated even though they benefited from the greater efforts of those who were allowed to hold them. They would be justified in their complaint not only because they were excluded from certain external rewards of office but because they were debarred from experiencing the realization of self which comes from a skillful and devoted exercise of social duties. They would be deprived of one of the main forms of human good.’ (TJ, 73 (emphasis added))

This claim appears to be the main justification of a principle Rawls called “Fair Equality of Opportunity” (from now on, FEO)  that forms part of the “democratic equality” interpretation of the second principle of justice. Rawls thinks that this principle has a higher priority than the difference principle (DP) that deals with economic inequality and is satisfied only when the least well off individual gets the highest amounts of good as compared to what he or she would get under any other viable institutional system. This means, basically, that if an economic system satisfies DP but not FEO than we should try to establish FEO even if by so doing we would reduce the amount of income and wealth that goes to the least economically well off members of society (to unskilled labour force). Self-realization must be a really important good indeed, if we are allowed to sacrifice the interests of the many economically disadvantaged members in order that a few of them (those with the best talents) have a reasonable opportunity to get to the positions of highest power and responsibility! What the priority of FEO basically means, in few word, is that  we should’t endorse a policy that would increase the wealth and income of the poorest among africanamerican if by so doing we significantly reduce the possibility for someone like Obama to become the President.

We shall therefore analyze the argument from self-realization in some detail. (Unfortunately the justification of FEO and of its relation to the DP is not at all clear and is subject to many intepretative disputes, as it was evident by listening to some talks at this conference). Here I shall argue that, under a somewhat plausible interpretation, the argument from self-realization fails its purpose.

I shall assume that the idea of the priority of self-realization rests on the following claims:
1) gains of self-realization should be weighed more strongly than gains in material goods like wealth,
2) gains of self-realization derive primarily from accessing those among existing social positions one feels more attracted to,
3) losses of self-realization follow from being unable to access those among existing social position one feels more attracted to;
4) the higher the share of existing social positions one is able to access, the higher a person’s chances of self-realization in that society (from 2 and 3).

The conjunction of (1) and (4) is understood as justifying the superiority of FEO with respect to a “natural aristocracy” where, despite higher abolute levels of wealth for those at the bottom, the children of those born at the bottom (or people subject to racist discrimination) have very little or no chances of accessing positions at the top.

If this is an unacceptable interpretation of the “priority of self-realization” idea, just ignore what I’m going to say next. If I am right, then please read the objection below.

My objection is that 1) 2) 3) and 4) are valid, they justify going beyond FEO+DP in the direction of “social equality”, namely in the direction of simple egalitarian society where DP has no or very little role to play. Consider the following example.

Call S1 a society which satisfies both FEO and DP, which is a complex post-industrial economy with income and wealth distributed more equally than in any society we know of. Now consider S2. You may imagine S2 as an economically more primitive society, e.g. an agricultural society with a lower degree of economic (functional) differentiation than advanced capitalistic society. I shall assume that S2 offers low-talent citizens higher “shares of opportunity”, than S1. What do I mean by that? Just imagine that S2 as simpler society, where social positions are more similar between each other than in S2, in terms of the prerogatives of power and responsibility attached to them and in terms of the qualifications required to access them. In this society, being born with relatively poorer natural talents does not close you off from as many possibility of career as in S1. So In S2 those of low talent and ability will have more “opportunity for opportunities” (access to a larger share of the normal opportunity range), than in S1. (S2 may be considered, if you want, a step ahead with respect to S1 with respect to A. Buchanan’s “morality of inclusion” idea)

If a person’s chances of self-realization are proportional to the share of normal opportunities open to him, the priority of self-realization leads us to prefer S2 over S1. The reasoning can be reiterated a couple of times until we get to a very functionally indifferentiated society with very little (too little!) room for the sort of incentive-generating inequalities that DP is supposed to justify. This clearly shows that the Democratic Equality interpretation of the second principle is incompatible with using the priority of self-realization as a justification of FEO.

(One way to reject my argument is to argue that self-realization does not depend only upon one’s share of the opportunity range, but also upon how vast an array of opportunities one can pick up from (which I accept), so that one reaches a point where any further sacrifice of functional differentiation would reduce a person’s chances of self-realization by reducing the variety of occupations within the normal range of opportunity in absolute terms, while increasing a person’s share of that range. I disagree because the existence of a higher variety of possible occupations to pick up from does not significantly contribute to the self-realization of the least talented individuals, who only have access to the least self-fulfilling ones)*.


A definition of talent

This is for use within the context of Rawls’ fair equality of opportunity principle



P’s talent for A at time (t) = P’s capacity at t to acquire the skills required by activity A, at a certain absolute level of excellence, as standardly defined by the social practice to which S belongs, as measured by the hypothetical cost of making P acquire those skills at t,  discounting for costs deriving from the existence of social prejudices against P

With respect to A, P1 is equally talented as P2 at t <–> apart for the costs of removing the adverse effect of social prejudices, the cost of training P1 and P2 to the same level of excellence at all the skills required by A, at t, is the same

social prejudices about P =  false beliefs about P, held only in so far as P is recognized as a member of a certain social groups or community

The definition fits with current usage. Examples:

“At birth, blacks have generally the same level of talent as whites” <–> “for any human activity, apart from the cost of removing prejudice and its consequences, the average cost of training a black man or a white man from birth for the skills required by every human activity (at every level of excellence) is the same”

(some people deny this, because they believe hat blacks can be more easily be trained to become Olimpic runners)

“With respect to all intellectuctual jobs, before means of transportation and buildings are constructed, wheelchair users and normally gifted individuals have the same talents at birth” <–> “for any intellectual job, apart from the cost of removing prejudice and its consequence, and before means of transportation and buildings are constructed, wheelchair users and normally gifted individuals have the same talents at birth”

(This is one the things that disability activists claim when they claim that disability are socially constructred. It is true if building wheelchair accessible buildings and vehicles has roughly the same cost. If true, it could be used as a premise together with Rawls FEO for  claiming that a just society, when deciding to build means of transportation and buildings, ought to choose to build the wheelchair accessible ones)

Some people may believe the following:

“At birth, women and men are not equally talented as chil caretakers” <–> “the average cost of training men and women from birth to the same level of skill as child caretakers is different”

(It may be true if, suppose, women have statistically a higher amount of hormons making the acquisition of certain skills for them easier than for men)”

All reasonable people believe the following:

“at birth, deaf people are on average less talented than the rest of the population with respect to music” <–> “it is more expensive to train deaf people to acquire musical skills from birth than it is to train non deaf people”

Rescuing Justice as Fairness from Norman Daniels

Daniels’ extension of FEO seems unacceptable, for it seems to collapse two issues that ought to remain distinct in any “social structural” account of equality of opportunity, such as the one Justice as Fairness provides.

As I see things, Daniels starts from a good point, but then spoils it. The good point is that you can extend FEO in a plausible way to deal with certain cases where equality in the access to health care is at issue. He spoils it because he wants to extend it to an altogether different type of cases.

Case 1. Here we have two individuals with roughly similar “natural endowments” (similar biological constitution) from different sectors of society (e.g. different socio-economic classes): P and R. Suppose that P is born in a poor family, which cannot afford health insurance, and as a result gets sick three times as often as R, who is born in a rich family. Because P gets sick so often, he fails to express and develop his talents to the same degree as R.

Daniels can appeal to our intuition about such cases to claim, quite plausibly,  that FEO extends to access to health care. After all it seems wholly correct to say that, just like unequal access to education, inequality in the access to health care affects opportunities between P and R, so that they end up with different social positions even if the two even if they are equally motivated and endowed .

Consider the second scencario (case 2). Here we have two individuals who are born with different “natural endowments” from the same sector of society: U and L. More precisely, U has a congenitally higher disposition to get sick than  L, and since none of them has access to high quality health care, U actually gets sick twice as often as L. Because of more days free of pain, U has a more successful education and gains access to a more rewarding professional career.

Ought case two figure as a violation of FEO? I think the answer is clearly: no! The case does not differ substantially from that of people born with different talents, for which equal access to opportunity according to Democratic Equality is not an issue. From the point of view of Democratic Equality, inequalities in income and wealth between U and L should satisfy the difference principle.

Daniels disagrees: he wants to extend FEO according to an intepretation that treats case 1 and case 2 as instances of the same scenario, while avoiding the “luck egalitarian” implication of his way of dealing with case 2 by placing a (seemingly arbitrary) constrain: only departures from normal functioning determine a violation of FEO.

I fail to see what could motivate Daniels’ solution, except wanting to respond to Sen’ and Arrows’ criticism of Rawls.

Germ-line enhancements and education.

So I had a chance to present some of my ideas concerning the lottery for germ-line enhancement to a very good audience at Oxford University (James Martin Seminar Series – Future of HUmanity Institute). As it happens, I have received some good feedbacks. One of these led me to revise my argument quite a lot.

Basically my old argument started by taking Mehlman’s “genetic nobility” hypothesis as a plausible description of the destiny of a society able to produce germ-line enhancements but lacking egalitarian institutions. The lottery solution had the purpose of achieving a more “egalitarian” distribution of access to germ-line enhancements.

One of the objections I received concerned the plausibility of the hypothesis in question. As it has been pointed out to me, genetic technology will lead to a genetic aristocracy only if genetic enhancements will always bee expensive, so they can only be afforded by the rich. But why shouldn’t we think that the price of genetic enhancements will go down, like that of computer or cell phones? If that happens, we won’t get a genetic aristocracy. The idea of a genetic aristocracy requires the possibility of an accumulation of good genes in the genomes of the most well off families, as the children of the richest members will both have higher than average chances of receiving enhancements and moreover will inherit germ-line enhancements from the previous generation. But if the price of enhancements goes down, old inherited enhancement will simply confer no competitive advantage, as new and probably better enhancements will be available to all. Inheriting your grandfather enhnacement will be like inheriting your grandfather’s computer and have no moral significance at all.

This criticism led to aks me if genetic enhancements in a society where everyone has access to them will pose a threat to justice. My answer is that they pose a threat to justice because genes are not magic, they need to be complemented with education. Rich  parents will be able to pay special education for their enhanced kids, while poor parents won’t. So rich kids will profit from enhancements while poor parents won’t. And this will lead to a greater gap between the abilities of the rich and the poor than is now thinkable.

It may be objected that this just assumes that education is not available to all on a fair basis. The problem can be fixed by simply making sure that people have fair access to education.

The answer to that is that fair access to education may become a more difficult goal to achieve in a post-geneticenhancment society. Some  enhanced talents and abilities may be very difficult to train and it is implausible to think that the school (under ordinary budget constraints) will be able to offer the needed services.

It may be objected that fair access to education cannot be too expensive: it simply requires making private education illegal. If people know that no opportunity to get special education is available, they will only buy those enhancements that confer an advantage under normal (that is public school) conditions.

This is an interesting result on its own right. The idea that justice requires prohibiting private schools is a controversial one for our societies. It signals a limitation most people (outside the academia) are less willing to accept than any limitation on human enhancement. So what looks as an argument for prohibiting private education could be turned into an argument for prohibiting enhancements, once non-ideal theory factors are factored in. Quite simply one may argue that:

1. access to germ-line enhancements leads to a fair society only if private schools are prohibited (or if parents stop sending their kids to private schools)

2. it will be much easier to make germ-line enhancements illegal than to make private schooling illegal (or to convince parents that they should not send their kids there)

3. hence a just legislator who takes into account the difficulty of enforcing norms that the public do not regard as fair would rather prohibit germ-line enhancements than prohibit private schooling


on reformulating equality of opportunity

I want to come back on a problem that I had already confronted in a previous post.

As I pointed out there, social barriers to access germ-line engineering appear to be outside the scope of the Rawls’ Fair Equality of Opportunity Principle (from now on FEO), at least in the formulation Rawls gives. This is, shortly, because the principle does not require equality of opportunity for people with different talents. ( “Fair” equality of opportunity is really inequality of opportunity, operationally defined). In other words FEO aims to abolish social barriers against the use of a person’s fully realized talent (careers open to talents), the cultivation and expression of talent potential/natural ability (through wide educational opportunities), but social barriers in the access to germ-line enhancements are not social barriers against the use of realized talent or the cultivation of talent-potential, they are social barriers to factors that pre-exist the ascription of talent-potential to one individual .

As I explain in this post this formulation leads to a bunch of counterintuitive consequences, since it would allow a sort of “genetic aristocracy” to exist without apparent violation of FEO. To avoid that implication, it seems, socially manipulable biological factors affecting talent-potential should not be considered  “natural”, even if they are biological.

It is unclear how FEO should be formulated – as to make clear that biological factors affecting talent potential should not be considered “natural” when they are subject to “social manipulation”. One possibility would be to stipulate that “natural talents” in the Rawlsian explanation of FEO only refers to “that portion of the determinants of a person’s talent that is not subject to manipulation”. This would exclude “genetically enhanced” (or engineered) abilities and disposition from a person’s asset of “natural talent” (with respect to FEO), but it would not work with another kind of “social manipulation” that closely resembles genetic enhancement in its social and moral consequences, but that does not count (at least, arguably) as a “manipulation” of a person’s biological (genetic, or otherwise) endowment: the selection of embryos and gametes with “desired” and “favorable” characteristics. (For by selecting embryos or gamates one is not changing (“manipulating”) biological matter; it is only deciding which among several possible configurations of biological matter to allow to exist.) The point I am making is that exclusive access to screening technology would also confer the families of the wealthy unfair advantage over the families of the poor as the richest would be able to have children with advantageous characteristics (say – children requiring less economic and human resources for achieving the same educational results).

For this reason, in this post, I suggested that “natural talents” in the context of Rawls’ FEO should be understood as those characteristics which do not  “[result] in a systematic and predictable manner from intentional human acts or from the working of human institutions”. The problem with this solution, however, is that many human characteristics that we normally consider talents result from the intentional actions of parents in a quite systematic and predictable fashion. For instance, a man who marries a very talented musician and decides to have a child with her certainly acts intentionally (by so doing) and can predict that her child will have higher than normal chances of being musically talented. A woman who marries a very handsome man and decides to have a child with him also certainly acts intentionally and can foresee some good chances that her child will be more than average handsome. The difference between such decision and the decision to use biological information to select gametes (or embryos) with “advantageous” genes is, at most, a matter of degree, rather than a qualitative gap. (Of course, I’m deliberately leaving aside questions on the moral status of embryos; if that is believed to imply disanalogies with respect to justice, the same questions can be framed in terms ofthe selection of gametes.)

Hence, if we decide that “natural talent” should be understood (in the context of RAwls’ FEO) as “a talent which does not result in a systematic and predictable manner from intentional human acts or from the working of human institutions” we end up denying the existence of natural talents (at least, among characteristics affecting access to offices and careers) and FEO becomes an empty principle.

For this reason, reflection suggests leaving FEO as it is and adding a further clause for dealing with genetic enhancements:

“In all sectors of society there should be rougly equal prospects to improve the inheritable genetic determinants of the “all-purpose-talents” or “natural primary goods” of one’s child.”

This principle, I believe, closely resembles FEO in meaning and function. It does not imply that society ougth to aim at the equalization (or more broadly, some form of patterned distribution) of the inheritable biological bases of talent (e.g. certain human genes), the sort of result that those embracing luck-egalitarian intuitions should embrace. But it is not also wholly indifferent with respect to the way in which social factors – in particular wealth and social standing – affect the distribution of “genes”. And its inclusion in a theory of justice would allow us to object in a principled manner to the distribution of “genes” that would lead to a genetic aristocracy.

on equality of opportunity, talents, and genes

Rawls’ principle of fair equality of opportunity says:

“those who are at the same level of talent and ability, and have the same willingness to use them, should have the same prospects of success regardless of their initial place in the social system.”

So the school can promote the goal stated in this principle. It is supposed to cancel the impact of social disadvantage, that  prevents the expression of the talents of some (but not all) citizens.
But certain characteristics that we may want to enhance can be viewed along similar lines. For we should not think of genetic enhancement as suddenly “creating” a talent. This would not be just scientifically undefendible genetic determinism. It would, rather, amount to not understanding what a talent is. A talent is not a simple disposition or function; rather, it is a complex interaction of dispositions, leading to superior performance in certain specific areas of human activity. Think about what we call musical talent, which includes as a vast arrary of psychological functions such as (at least): processing sound information in terms of pitch and rythm, in terms of expressive meaning, in terms of social meaning, capacity to translate emotional meaning into musical meaning and vice-versa, and manual dexterity. Each of these caracteristics may be subtly influenced by the performance of one or the other brain function. An enhancement would contribute to the development of a talent, not by, so to say, creating it from scratch, but by modifying one aspect of a characteristic into one that better contributes to the functioning of the whole. An example may clarify. Some musicians have the so-called “absolute ear”: the capacity to instantly recognize the pitch of a note. The absolute ear is neither a sufficient, nor a necessary condition for being a great musician. However, few would deny that it greatly simplifies the acquisition of musical skills and that it confers a competitive advantage to those (talented) musicians who have it.

Let us then suppose that some enhancements can be viewed by analogy with an improvement in social circumstances. What would the principle of fair equality of opportunity imply if we think about them in this way? If we have to think enhancements by analogy with the school system, then what FEO requires is basic education for all, and additional resources for higher education, open to the most talented, only to the extent that they contribute to the conditions of the worst-off. An analogous principle would be: guarantee normal functioning (through genetic technology, if needed) and put additional resources for enhancements, open to the people with the most talent and willingness to use them, only to the extent that they contribute to the conditions of the worst-off.

Do we have a problem here? With regard to the school system, FEO selects the recipients of higher education in virtue of their talents and displayed willingness to use them, which is a good predictor of their efficiency as converters of educational resources into social wealth and progress. Most liberals are convinced that talents are not the monopoly of wealthy, so the potential beneficiaries of higher education rarely happen to be all from the same social class of origin, and the resources injected into higher education do not lead a strongly stratified society. If this conjecture holds when one is thinking to enhance capacities through education, then, it seems that it should also hold when one is thinking to enhance capacities through genetics. What would be the problem, then, in providing further enhancements to the people displaying the best natural talents?

Rawls on natural talents

Rawls writes that “the extent to which natural capacities develop and reach fruition is affected by all kinds of social conditions and class attitudes” (TJ 2nd ed 164).
What are natural capacities in Rawls?
It is tempting to think that natural capacities are those characteristics whose development is influenced in a minimal part by ordinary external interventions such as education and training and in a major part by a person’s genetic endownment. In this sense, a natural talent for music would be that part of or factor in a person’s characteristic way of playing music which could have not been created by ordinary external interventions.  

Notice the implication of this interpretation for Rawls’s principle of fair equality of opportunity. According to Rawls, his own principle implies that people with equal natural capacities, and willingness to develop and use them, end up in similarly good positions. (ibid. p. 63, assuming equivalence between “natural assets” and “natural capacities to be”.)

In the light of this interpretation (which is wrong, as we shall see), fair equality of opportunity obtains when there is a rough correspondence between the genetic endowment of persons and the social positions they end up in, assuming equal efforts for cultivating and using those genetic resources.
Now it might be argued that there is a different interpretation of natural talents, that matches the role that the concept of a natural capacity plays in Rawls’s theory better than the former . According to this second interpretation, what makes a human capacity a natural one is its not resulting in a systematic and predictable manner from intentional human acts or from the working of human institutions.

Hence the fair equality of opportunity principle would be satisfied when (assuming equal willingness and efforts to cultivates those characteristics which are abilities and which do not result from systematic and predictable manner from intentional acts or human institutions) there is a rough correspondence between positions and possessions of such characteristics.

The two conceptions differ in relation to genetic interventions. According to the first conception a personal quality deriving from genetic enhancement or genetic screening technologies would still count as a natural talent, while on the second it would not.
Arguments against the first interpretation and in favor of the second:
1. the second interpretation is more plausible in the light of our judgments of fairness about a society which would make extensive usage of genetic interventions.
What would we think of a society were the best social positions (meaning those characterized by a high level of income and prerogatives of power) were occupied by people whose parents could afford expensive genetic treatments? This would be a society were individuals who – for no faults of their own – are born in low-income families are deprived of any significant chance to end up occupying privileged positions. I think that we would not say that these institutions guarantee equal opportunities in a fair sense.
Unfortunately, according to the first interpretation of “natural talents”, the first society could be fair. It would be enough that people characterized by similar genetic endowments and similar efforts end up occupying positions of similar wealth and autority. This is perfectly compatible with all positions of wealth and responsibility being occupied by people whose parents could afford expensive genetic treatments.
According to the second interpetation, however, this would not be the case, as the qualities granting access to privileged social positions would not count as natural anymmore.