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Christine Sypnowich is right that an egalitarian society should be concerned with egalitarian outcomes. But she’s wrong to reject equal opportunity as the fundamental goal which motivates that concern. As I see it, egalitarians should care about people living equally flourishing lives because egalitarians should care about people having equal opportunities to flourish.

This claim might sound odd because opportunity equality is conventionally contrasted with outcome equality. But in fact, the two converge in substance. Our moral concern should be for equal opportunity, and genuinely equal opportunity requires a great deal of outcome equality.

Let me begin my case with three observations about equal opportunity.

First, there are two distinct questions that left liberals might answer by advancing opportunity egalitarianism. The first concerns fundamental entitlements of distributive fairness: What is each person due as a matter of basic justice? The second concerns the arrangement of social institutions: What principles ought to guide the design of our social arrangement? These are distinct questions: while our fundamental entitlements of justice surely matter to the design of our social arrangement, they are arguably not all that matters. Perhaps the social arrangement should secure fundamental entitlements only as far as is consistent with democratic legitimacy, for instance.

In response to the first question, my own answer is: we are all entitled to enjoy equal opportunities to live flourishing lives. In response to the second question, my answer is: one principle that ought to guide our social arrangement directs social institutions to work together to equalize developmental opportunities (e.g., through progressive education) and to undermine the influence of social class background on our prospects for leading flourishing lives (e.g., through economic justice measures like inheritance taxation). In other words, social institutions ought to work together to equalize developmental and competitive opportunity. By virtue of these two answers, I’m a proponent of equal opportunity twice over.

A second observation is that equal opportunity is a distributive rule that favors equal opportunities for something; it leaves open the question of what that something is. Sypnowich emphasizes that her outcome egalitarianism regulates the distribution of flourishing. But opportunity egalitarians are entitled to conjoin their distributive rule with a flourishing metric of justice, just as outcome egalitarians are. Hence my formulation above: I think we are all fundamentally entitled by justice to equal opportunities to live flourishing lives.

Now for my third observation. Egalitarians of all stripes think that some outcome inequalities are objectionable inequalities. Sypnowich thinks that outcome egalitarianism impugns more inequality than opportunity egalitarianism, and that this fact counts in its favor. But quantifying this divergence depends upon descriptive facts about the social world we inhabit. To the extent that outcome inequality results from or causes unequal opportunity, opportunity egalitarianism coincides with outcome egalitarianism in condemning inequality.

Together, these observations weaken Sypnowich’s case against equal opportunity.

Consider equal opportunity as an answer to the first question, about the fundamental entitlements of justice. Opportunities are unequal, on my view, when we flourish less than others due to causes for which we’re non-responsible. For which flourishing deficits are we non-responsible? Here, as Sypnowich points out, we enter the difficult terrain of free will, determinism, and social influences on seemingly voluntary choice. My own conviction is that vanishingly few inequalities pass the test for responsibility. Sypnowich seems to agree: “If the individual is embedded in a complex weave of social factors, it is poor sociology to conceive of the ideal society as one where individuals enjoy absolute authority over judgments of value.” Critics of opportunity egalitarianism spill much ink pointing out the flaws in this bit of “poor sociology.” But opportunity egalitarianism is not a sociological claim, nor does it entail a sociological claim. We must distinguish the normative issue—whether and why inequality is unjust—from the descriptive one: how much responsibility we in fact have.

These are independent questions, however much they are run together in political rhetoric; a moral commitment to equal opportunity says nothing, in itself, about what we are responsible for. I agree with Sypnowich’s sociology, and it tells me something about which inequalities equal opportunity impugns: if the complex weave of social factors within which we live makes fully responsible choice exceedingly rare, then equal opportunity dictates that unequal outcomes are exceedingly rarely just.

Equal opportunity dictates that unequal outcomes are exceedingly rarely just.

Now consider the second question, about how we should arrange social institutions. I’ve endorsed an equal opportunity principle that favors equalizing developmental opportunity. But equal developmental opportunity is (at best) very difficult to achieve in unequal societies precisely because advantaged parents find ways to give their own children a developmental leg up. This intergenerational transfer of advantage (and disadvantage) means that unequal outcomes obstruct equal developmental opportunity. And that means equal opportunity impugns the unequal outcomes that disrupt it. As a principle guiding the arrangement of social institutions, equal opportunity favors equal outcomes as a means of preserving equal developmental opportunities.

Equal opportunity is radically egalitarian. Egalitarians should be concerned about outcomes. But this is because equal opportunity captures the basic entitlements of justice, because vanishingly few outcome inequalities are fully attributable to individual responsibility, and because unequal outcomes themselves contribute to unequal opportunities. What’s unjust is still unequal opportunity. Only when the facts on the ground reveal that virtually all outcome inequality implicates opportunity inequality do we see that virtually all significant outcome inequality constitutes a failure of justice: a failure to secure equal opportunity.

If outcome and opportunity egalitarianism converge in regarding a great deal of inequality as unjust, why not dispense with opportunity talk? I see two reasons not to.

First, in some contexts, accuracy matters, and the convergence between the two forms of egalitarianism is not total. Responsibility plausibly comes in degrees, and degree of responsibility might matter when resources are scarce. People can flourish in different ways of life, and most of us need some trial and error to find a good fit. We’re plausibly entitled by justice to second and third chances to live flourishing lives when one life path fails to pan out. But do basic entitlements of justice favor a subsidy of someone’s fourth chance over someone else’s first? What if the fourth chancer was born into privilege relative to the first chancer? If we’re even marginally responsible in even some cases of failed experiments in living, that can affect how strongly we’re entitled to social subsidy when our subsidy would come at a cost to someone else’s and when we’ve enjoyed greater subsidy already. Only equal opportunity can explain this plausible conviction and the egalitarian convictions on which I agree with Sypnowich.

Second, if we care about democratic community, we cannot pursue equality by just any means at our disposal. We must build a democratic constituency in favor of equality, for which equal opportunity is a powerful tool. Many citizens reject Sypnowich’s and my socialist commitments. They might nonetheless endorse equal opportunity as a principle to guide our social arrangement. If so, then building a democratic constituency for socialist reform doesn’t require settling first principles. It only requires that we make visible the sociological facts in virtue of which a shared first principle favors more equal outcomes. Socialist egalitarians should retain equal opportunity as the moral goal that motivates their concern for equal outcomes. Equal opportunity is radically egalitarian, and it can serve as a shared premise in public political deliberation.

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