When we demand equality we are rightly demanding recognition of our fundamental equality – our essential human dignity or worth. And naturally we often want this deep equality to be reflected in our social and economic conditions. This usually implies some kind of universal right or response, for example an equal right to high quality healthcare. However each right often has to be reflected in a personalised or tailored responses to that right: a particular entitlement that reflects particular needs. For example, I want the right medication for my particular condition.
One of the rights that is broadly accepted by everyone as a good thing is the right to equal opportunities. But when we demand equal opportunities we can easily slip between two very different conceptions of equality of opportunities:
- We may be demand that no specific difference is to be taken into account that is not relevant to the opportunity we seek. This is the demand that there should be no prejudice in offering people opportunities. For example, my skin colour should not effect whether you offer me a particular job.
- However this reasonable idea may then slip into a much more worrying account of equal opportunities – wanting the ‘best’ people to achieve the ‘best’ opportunities – this is the meritocratic hazard. On this view the problem is not one of unfair prejudice but that some kind of unfair obstacle is being put in the way of the ‘brightest and the best’. In fact this vision of equal opportunities is deeply prejudicial.
In fact there are no ‘best people’ (accept in relationship to specific opportunities) and there are no ‘best opportunities’ – unless we choose to narrow the paths open to us. Rather, if we let wealth, power and influence become the only kind of ‘best’ then we are on the path to hell.
Human differences are real and good. And human differences can flourish in all their diversity so long as we let there to be many different kinds of opportunities for that diversity to flourish. We need to let there be many different things that people can and should value – many different paths that we can explore – possibly even a unique path for each of us.
We must not let the rightful demand that there should be no prejudice slip into the dangerous demand that the powerful should be allowed to sort us according to their own narrow account of human worth.