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Here’s the context:

During our Tippling Philosophers’ Zoom meeting last night, we got to discussing identity politics, positive discrimination and positive action. Being the leftie liberal I am, I was arguing that positive discrimination is most often straw manned (as I thought it was last night), is actually illegal (in the UK), and most often manifests itself in positive action, a slightly different thing. I talked about the Rooney Rule in the context of consequentialism whereby you need to measure such actions over the long haul to see the positives it brings about over and above some short term issues it might have for some candidates.

All that aside, we got onto talking about striving for equality of opportunity, and one of my very good friends opined that it was getting ridiculous (think LGBTQI+) and how about we consider the barriers that, say, ugly people or short people have in getting jobs, and so on.

I have written about this before because we talked about this before:

Equality of Opportunity

In talking about equality of opportunity, I would certainly see this as a worthy moral ideal. If, on account of some cosmetic property you were born with (i.e., the way you look: skin colour, height, ugliness, or even biological sex etc.), you were disadvantaged based not on your actual ability to do the job (or similar) in question, then this is unfair.

Okay, if this is our starting point, where do we go?

Well, the first thing to do is work towards levelling the playing field. This is what redistribution of wealth looks to do and was the sort of thing I was talking about regarding inheritance tax. We do this with free school meals in the UK to level the playing field with nutrition for pupils from the lower socio-economic standing, as well as pupil premium funding for the same group. This is just a small example of how we try to aspire to equalising opportunities for all people, no matter their backgrounds. Then, it can be argued, success comes down to merit, and not the randomisation of the environment. I’m sure you can think of many other ways in which we do this. As mentioned, we talked about the Rooney Rule, and the idea that whilst you may get something that looks unfair on an individual basis to some people but, in consequentialist terms, the means justifies the ends. Eventually, the scenario as a whole is fairer.

That aside, we agreed that equality of opportunity (EOO) was a desire for fairness, and this starts with equalising the environment.

Imagine we equalise the environment for everyone (and this might be impossible to do and look very odd indeed). We could do things like blind applications (devoid of names, addresses etc.). There are many things we could do in order to help out here.


Next, though, if we are truly concerned with EOO (and thus fairness), we need to look at the whole set of variables. Having theoretically sorted out the environment, we only really have the genes to look at (given that biology is the interaction of genes and environment). In reality, genes are randomly distributed in the sense that an individual can’t choose their genes. Therefore, when looking at a meritocracy, where people deserve their success from effort and ability, effort and ability are genetically determined, especially given the fact that the environment is equalised.

So you can’t really have a meritocracy. Meritocracy doesn’t make sense when seen in this kind of deterministic sense (see ideas of praiseworthiness and blameworthiness). John Rawls talked about the “natural lottery” whereby the success of certain people in any given situation is largely determined by something outside of their control: their genome. This isn’t arguably that far off in what we will be able to achieve, scientifically and theoretically.

We get to the point that, if we really are interested in striving for equality of opportunity, you have to level the playing field for all people. But, in order to completely level the playing field for all people, you have to equalise the environment and equalise the genes of all individuals.

The end result is some kind of homogeneity. If you really want to strive for moral perfection (given that EOO is at least a component of this), which is kind of natural and intuitive, then the outcome may well be less than desirable. It may be that fairness for all humans is the goal, but this fairness leads to a homogenous humanity with no diversity.

Of course, this assumes that equality of opportunity is the one and only thing we want to strive for. Fairness can be seen in different ways, perhaps. Or we could equally value knowledge. Or prosociality. Or diversity. Or any number of moral currencies. It could be that effectively levelling the playing field for EOO means you lose something in diversity or some other metric. You could argue that if women and men did all jobs and roles equally, this would lose a certain variety or differentiation to life. There are many such tacks you could take, some more, some less justifiable than others.

Multiplying Categories and Shrinking Membership

Taking a step back to seeking equality for certain groups, what we have is looking at the big subsets of humanity first, with the most open and obvious discriminations attached. Initially, this has been with biological sexes and ethnicities. A white male has traditionally been far more privileged than a black female in, say, US or UK contexts. Okay, imagine these are being sorted. Next, gay people. Tick. Bisexuals. Disabled. Tick. Transexuals. Tick.

So on and so forth. Once one injustice is dealt with, a smaller (in terms of membership of that subset, usually) one is then latched onto. However, you could argue that certain other ones are much bigger and need addressing: say, height. It turns out that height biases people in the job market to a fairly considerable degree.

Fine, add it to the list.

Eventually, we get back to this almost individualised subgroup. The reductio ad absurdum would be that someone with X coloured hair, or with a bent nose, or some other characteristic would need positive action in order to have a fair and equal access to opportunity.

The added issue is that many people would look at the greater and greater granularity here and argue that this is ridiculous, so let’s call the whole thing off. This nuclear approach then damages the fight for equality for those more obvious and egregious imbalances such as sexual and racial discriminations. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Pragmatism vs Granularity of Equality

We could then argue that the pragmatic implications of working hard to level the playing field for all granular instances of inequality of opportunity is simply too much. It is not worth the effort to fight for this level (bent nose) of what many will call “PC”. Indeed, this would be “PC gone mad!”

So at some point, there is an optimal equilibrium of granularity and pragmatism. We’re not there yet, I would argue (some would argue we were there before fighting for racial and sexual EOO, sadly…) but it will be interesting to see, assuming (and that’s a big assumption) that the many forms of inequality would be solved by then, what we will be fighting for in fifty years time.

We will no doubt add to the acronym list of LGBTQI+ so that it just becomes another term (EOO – “I am fighting for EOO for everybody”). We will no doubt get lawsuits based on people not getting a job because of their height. See “Height discrimination is a real lawsuit risk“. Indeed, Terry Pratchett wrote about the Campaign for Equal Heights (comically so):

Campaign for Equal Heights: An interest group aiming to reduce discrimination against dwarfs. The Campaign is mostly run by humans who think that the dwarfs are being exploited, looked down on, or otherwise unfairly dealt with. It is interesting that the Campaign might be discriminating against humans. One time, the Campaign lobbied that dwarf members of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch should be sent to investigate only crimes committed by tall people. Dwarfs themselves don’t care much about what the Campaign is doing; they only want to work and send more money home. The Campaign had a fallout over the case of one Mr. Thomas Stronginthearm (Feet of Clay), but continues to be active.

A very active and equally officious member of the group is Estressa Partleigh, who vexes Moist von Lipwig with the demand that the Post Office should employ more Dwarfs. Her logic is typical of the CEH: that as dwarfs are on average two-thirds the height of humans, true employment parity may only be achieved if the Post Office, as a responsible employer, hires three dwarfs for every two humans. Some people have too much time on their hands…

The joke here is what my friend was originally railing against: the notion that positive discrimination is actively racist (or some other -ist) in trying to solve issues of racism. There was definitely an element of taking aim at social justice warriors and the progressive left. As mentioned, I think this is mostly about a misrepresentation of the actual laws and what is going on, and perhaps cherry-picking poor interpretations of said laws to fit in with a certain agenda.


We should fight for equality of opportunity but also bear in mind that, as we do so, there is a danger that we are striving for homogeneity and that, at some point, it will become impractical to continue to do so as we arrive at a granularity/practicality equilibrium.

Food for thought, anyway. I hope. You’ll let me know.


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Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...