Equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome: Which is better for society?
- A PBS Newshour/Marist poll from 2015 revealed that 52% of White respondents said that opportunity for employment was equal between Blacks and Whites, while 76% of African Americans disagreed.
- Statista reported that in the second quarter of 2022, the majority of wealth in the US was owned by the top 10% of earners.
- Over 6% of the CEOs on the 2019 Fortune 500 list of the highest-grossing firms in the US were female.
- In 1961, President Kennedy issued an executive order instructing federal contractors to utilize 'affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” and also created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity the same year.
Although equal opportunity has its philosophical merits, our current reality shows how opportunities while appearing equal, are continually warped into being unequal for many people. Society was built on various unjust bigotries—sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and more—and, despite our admitted progress, we have not yet eliminated these biases from our culture overall. Because of how deeply ingrained these attitudes are, people tend to fall back on them. Hiring processes, for example, can no longer flatly deny employment based on race or gender, as unspoken biases make it so that when applicants with the same level of qualification but different identity markers are presented before a company, one will be chosen while the other is overlooked. In these instances, the applicant usually has an identity that has historically held power, such as being White, male, able-bodied, straight, etc. An applicant with other identity markers might not be given the same consideration, therefore experiencing a different outcome entirely: not getting the job. One study showed that when identical applications with only the names changed were sent to jobs, White-sounding names got a much higher callback rate than Black-sounding names. The opportunity appeared equal, but the flaws of the people judging applications warped the opportunity to be unequal.
Attitudes don't change on their own. Creating paths for historically marginalized people to reach positions otherwise obstructed due to societal biases force people to normalizes the image of those people in such positions. The more this happens, the more society will begin to think of this as normal, and cultural biases will lessen over time. Equality of outcome doesn't have to be the end-all-be-all of policy. Still, it is a necessary tool to combat harmful cultural biases while we work toward a society that can provide truly equal opportunity.
In recent times, society considers disparate outcomes between people or groups as evidence of discrimination. But, in reality, no one is guaranteed the same prospects as someone else; striving for equality of opportunity (equal rights under the law) is how society can aim to treat all people equally regardless of race, gender, and socio-economic standing.
Providing equal opportunities to everyone exercises true justice, allowing everyone to participate under the same rules and be judged by the same standards. Equal opportunists don't ignore inequalities—they're recognized as a part of life, innumerable and individually nuanced (which is why blanket 'outcomes' don't satisfy everyone). People are free, autonomous agents of their life, able to make decisions that either promote or diminish their success. Inequality doesn't automatically mean bias, discrimination, or injustice.
Righting these perceived 'wrongs' of unequal outcomes (or 'inequity') among people is a noble yet unattainable contention. It instead produces mediocrity, reducing everyone to the lowest common denominator and ignoring how diverse individuals make a spectrum of diverse choices. This also stokes resentment, entitlement, envy, and bitterness, further dividing society. Plus, imposing equal outcomes requires severe government regulation and restriction over individual freedom. This runs contrary to America's founding ideal that 'all men were created equal'—equal in rights and in value to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Equal opportunities are essential to liberty, where one is not limited by discrimination. But when the government is given the authority to ensure outcomes, this requires complete seizure over individual freedom to impose 'equality' above human choice.
The fairest society is one where individuals can rise to the level of their ability. Humans are transient beings, never fated to stay at the level they started. That's the beauty of America—it allows us the liberty to pursue opportunities equally despite all odds.