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  • Dilemmas of Rawlsian Opportunity
  • Paul Gomberg (bio)

In A Theory of Justice and elsewhere John Rawls writes that the basic structure of any society affects the life prospects of those growing up in different 'starting places,' yet his conception of equal opportunity seems to require that one's opportunities not be affected by the class position of one's birth.1 Here I explicate this apparent contradiction and reconcile these assertions. In Rawlsian fair equality of opportunity children from working-class families have lesser opportunity to attain advantaged positions.

Rawls's view cannot be easily revised to allow equal prospects for all children. Within the framework of Rawls's understanding of a just society, he is right to say that his own conception of fair equality of opportunity allows deep inequalities in life prospects.

Nevertheless, Rawls's vision of a just society rests on some dubious sociology. Moreover, Rawls's assumed division of labor — between highly trained and less skilled labor — unjustly blunts the development [End Page 1] of ability in many children. Equal opportunity for all children regardless of class of origin would require abolition of that division of labor.

I Rawlsian Fair Equality of Opportunity and the Basic Structure

Rawls's conception of equal opportunity seems to imply abolishing advantages associated with class position. In his late Justice as Fairness: A Restatement he writes

…fair equality of opportunity is said to require not merely that public offices and social positions be open in the formal sense, but that all should have a fair chance to attain them. To specify the idea of fair chance we say: supposing that there is a distribution of native endowments, those who have the same level of talent and ability and the same willingness to use these gifts should have the same prospects of success regardless of their social class of origin, the class into which they are born and develop until the age of reason. In all parts of society there are to be roughly the same prospects of culture and achievement for those similarly motivated and endowed.


In §12 of Theory he criticizes not only 'the system of natural liberty' but also the 'liberal conception' of the second principle of justice. (The liberal conception would advance fair equality of opportunity but would distribute wealth and income according to market rewards for ability.) He writes that 'the principle of fair opportunity can only be imperfectly carried out' in the liberal conception. The development of natural ability 'is affected by all kinds of social conditions and class attitudes.' As a result, 'it is impossible in practice to secure equal chances of achievement and culture for those similarly endowed' (Theory, 64). These inequalities, apparently, would be not be present on the democratic conception, where distribution would be based on the difference principle.2

Rawls defends two principles of justice as ordering relations among people in a system of social cooperation. The first is 'a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.' The second principle of justice allows social and economic inequalities provided that those inequalities meet two conditions: there must be fair equality of opportunity to attain the more advantaged positions and inequalities must benefit the least [End Page 2] advantaged members of society, the second condition being called 'the difference principle' (for the principles of justice see Restatement, 42-3; cf. Theory, 266-7).

When, in Theory, Rawls introduces the principle of fair equality of opportunity, he explains it in words similar to those in Restatement, as follows: 'assuming that there is a distribution of natural assets, 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. In all sectors of society there should be roughly equal prospects of culture and achievement for everyone similarly motivated and endowed. The expectations of those with the same abilities and aspirations should not be affected by their social class' (§12 at 63). Superficially this seems to mean that in any society where there is fair equality of...


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