Offer a Critique of What John Rawls Meant by ‘Fair Equality of Opportunity’ Essay

Q. Offer a critique of what John Rawls meant by ‘Fair Equality of Opportunity’ Introduction: The purpose of this essay is to discuss what ‘Fair Equality of Opportunity’ means and John Rawls view point on this subject. Rawls was a well known philosopher from the USA and arguably the most important political philosopher of the 20th century. Rawls is well known for using the basic structure of society as his subject matter and most famously for his work entitled, A Theory of Justice (1971).

Here he explains how the “logical ordering of principles of justice can help to structure and regulate an ideal structure society” (John Rawls, 2003) This is not to say that the theory of justice principles can be used to restore justice to society, Rawls simply thinks that basic rights and duties assigned to individuals of society should be equally distributed and that if social and economic advantages were to be evenly distributed to all members of society this would inevitably help regulate and maintain an ideal and fair society.

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We will look at what Rawls means by “fair equality of opportunity”, by looking at what he believes is fair, equal and what he means by opportunity. Discussion: “Rawls argues that the term ‘justice as fairness’ does not imply that justice and fairness are identical, but that the principles of justice are agreed to under fair conditions by individuals who are in a situation of equality” (John Rawls, 2003). This statement above by Rawls is stating that if individuals are treated fairly this is when justice is being done and equality prevails.

There are two principles outlined by Rawls in ‘justice of fairness’ which are: First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. Second Principle: (a) To the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, … and (b) Attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. ” (Callinicos, A, 2000).

Based on these two principles Equality can then be defined as everyone being treated fairly and in the same way hence, job opportunities, access to welfare, benefits, healthcare and education should be open to all individuals regardless of colour, class, gender, religion or their status. So “all social values-liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the base of self respect are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these goods is to the advantage of the least favoured. In other words, the presumption is in favour of equality. (Callinicos, A, 2000).

Throughout modern society there is evidence that inequality exists and although there may be opportunities there they may not always be fair access to the available opportunities. If you are born into a wealthier family there appears to be more opportunities available from having private health care to private education leading to better greater job prospects. However if you were born a in less wealthy family you will not have the benefits of private education or private health care as you may not be able to afford them.

Less wealthy families would have limited funds and sending their children to private schools would be difficult (work and society p. 153-180). If it was possible to achieve equality and if everyone had the same income and people were no better or worse than each other would this kind of society really flourish? Firstly achieving inequality is very difficult to achieve and to be honest it would probably make for a very boring world. Equality would create more financially stability and more happiness for individuals however realistically I don’t think it will work (Drake, R. 2001), p48). As Blackstone (1969) states in the principles of social policy p. 48 that “A society without differences and, concomitantly, one without differential treatment of persons, would not only be boring, it would also be one in which the level of culture and civilization would be retarded and one which would result in great injustices”. Purely for the fact that if everyone had the same amount of money be it rich or poor, it will most likely work out that we still be in a similar position as we are now.

This is because no matter how equal we try to be there will still be a few of us who will want more in life than what they have as this is human nature, never to be satisfied with what you have and always wanting more “it is common to hear people object to equality on the grounds that it would be unrealistic and undesirable for everyone to have the same income or the same level of wealth” (welfare theories p22) This is part of human nature always striving for more, and to be the best we can be, However we should not orget those in poverty through no fault of their own, are totally unaware of the opportunities available to them, so there aspirations are limited. If everyone was equal and earned the same amount of money, what would drive certain individuals to provide services we have all come to depend on as a society such as, out of hour’s medical care.

Although as Rawls has outlined in one of his principles that in order to bridge the inequality gap things have to be favoured toward the poor, a certain amount of inequality may be necessary to allow society to function. He is not alone in this thinking “… nequalities are only unfair were there exists a distribution of opportunities (whether that is characteristics or finances) which unjustly favours some section of the population over the rest. ” (Drake, R. (2001), p. 8) This is further proven by the fact that in any establishment to flourish a management structure is necessary individuals need to have defined roles and defined accountabilities and a management structure to oversee this for examples schools, colleges, employers all have an hierarchical influences for their establishment’s to do well there has to be a certain amount of inequality between individuals” (Drake, R. 2001). This same example can be applied to a wider society and hence prove that if no one is made accountable and everyone is equal in what they do and earn then society cannot function as well, there needs to be a certain level of inequality and leadership to ensure everyone does their bit to contribute towards a fully functioning society.

So although total equality is an unrealistic and possibly undesirable expectation it is fair to say that the gap between the rich and poor appears to be getting bigger so Rawls principles do have a place in today’s society and “applying the principle of equal opportunities is therefore a means of trying to correct these deficiencies: ensuring that everyone is subjected to the same rules” (welfare theories book, p. 26-7).

However in the theories of welfare it states; “Giving everybody an equal start in life (starting-line equality) might imply introducing a system of publicly funded education so that success in life derives from talents and hard work rather than luck and accidents of birth”. This has been somewhat achieved by the government in the last 60 years when they bought the education in where everyone is entitled to a free education up to the age of 16 hence helping to bridge this rich poor divide somewhat and giving our children a better future or so e hope. Previously the government offered assisted places to children so bright children from less well off families had the opportunity of a private education this has since been abolished in favour of readdressing these funds to the public sector schooling so, instead of just a few children benefiting from private education the overall standard of state school education can be improved. Although this is justified it still creates inequality in something that is a basic right and this inequality continues throughout all sectors.

Also the labour government say that education is one of their main priorities and to help support people by offering this to them has seen major improvements in the last five years. You may argue the fact that, that the example I have just given has got nothing to do with “equality of opportunity” but if you look into this with a deeper view you will see how this is relevant. For example if two people are applying for the same job, they both maybe suited for but only the one who passes the initial test gets the job.

Now this can be seen in two ways; 1) the right person who had all the abilities got it; 2) the other person was just as good but because they had a lack of education or knowledge didn’t fit the right criteria. Now would it be candidate no2 who was at fault for not having the relevant experiences/knowledge? No because we need to take in other factors of the person’s life into consideration for example they may have immigrated from another country or may have not had private education etc so in some terms some people may agree with Rawls when he say’s; “… nequalities may not only be fair, but may provide greatest benefits to the least advantaged, furthermore, in arguing that positions (offices) should be open so that all may aspire to them; and that each candidate should undergo the same fair tests of fitness, Rawls is describing equality of opportunity, not equality of results”(Drake, R. (2001), p. 9). By this Rawls is looking if candidates are given the chance to take the test fairly rather than what the outcome of the test is. An example I can give you is of somebody with dyslexia wanting to further their education but obviously have barriers to their learning beyond their control.

By the educational establishment providing support through additional finance, tutorials and materials this person is now at a more advantaged position than he first was and has access to educational opportunities the same as his peers. Supporting this idea is the words of Tony Fitzpatrick (2001); “However, there are three reasons for believing that equality of opportunity is insufficient (baker, 1987). First, subjecting everyone to the same rules now might not be enough to compensate for many of the injustices inherited from the past. Second, equal opportunities cannot, by themselves, eliminate poverty.

Finally, the principle implies an equal opportunity for people to become unequal, potentially contradicting the very values of egalitarianism. Critics therefore propose that equality of opportunity has to be supplemented by a further principle, that of equality of outcomes. However, equality of outcomes is criticised, in turn by those who insist that to artificially determine the results of the race is to interfere with something that should, strictly speaking, be left to the determination of individuals merit and desert (barry, 1987).

If I work hard to become rich, what right has the state to tax the wealth that I freely choose to leave to my children? ” (Fitzpatrick, 2001). Conclusion I agree with Rawls to an extent that we should all have equal opportunities and everything should be fair for us but there are certain principles which need to be followed in order to achieve this. For example Rawls “veil of ignorance” also known as the “original position” (Rawls, 1999). Where Rawls wants you to see yourself and everyone around you with only the basic minimum, that way you are not rejecting or accepting anyone because of their wealth/status or class.

It’s a bit like blindfolding yourself and seeing everyone as the same and that way they cannot benefit one person over another as they will not know who the other person is. This way everyone is treated as equally as possible for a just society. (Drake, R. (2001) p. 43) however feminists will argue against that saying that gender is a primary characteristic, and that at birth you are born unequal.


Baker (1987) in Fitzpatrick, T, (2001) Welfare Theory an Introduction, Hampshire: Palgrave. Barry, (1987) in Fitzpatrick, T, (2001) Welfare Theory an Introduction, Hampshire: Palgrave. Callinicos, A, (2000)Equality, Cambridge: Polity Press. Pp 1-65. Drake, R, (2001) The Principles of Social Policy, Hampshire: Palgrave Publishers Ltd. Eltham Labour Party, (2009) Whats the Labour Government ever done for Education, Eltham. London, Available at http://www. elthamlabour. org. uk/whats-the-labour-government-ever-done-for-education [accessed on 9th November 2009] Fitzpatrick, T, (2001) Welfare Theory an Introduction, Hampshire: Palgrave.

Lomasky, L, (1987) Persons, Rights, and the Moral Community,Oxford: Oxford University Press. Rawls, J, (2003) A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), p. 26. Available at http://www. angelfire. com/md2/timewarp/rawls. html [accessed on 7th November 2009] Strangleman, T & Warren, T, (2008) Work and Society Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods, Oxon: Routledge. The Labour Party, (2009), Unlocking Britain’s Talent, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Available at http://www. labour. org. uk/further_and_higher_education_and_skills [accessed on 9th November 2009].