Equal Opportunity and Justice

“Equality of opportunity has seemed to many writers to be the minimal egalitarian goal, questionable (if at all) only for being too weak.” Robert Nozick, ASU, p. 235.

While the left stresses equality of results, some on the right promote equality of opportunity and think that everyone deserves an equal chance. While they do not see equality of outcomes as a matter of justice, they think that equality of opportunity is a requirement of justice and seek to use the state to at least give everyone an equal chance while letting the chips fall where they may after that.

But this is wrongheaded. Conservatives who reject equality of results should, for the same reasons, reject using the state to create equal opportunities. Consider an illustration from Nozick:

If the woman who later become my wife rejected another suitor (whom she otherwise would have married) for me, partially because of my keen intelligence and good looks, neither of which did I earn, would the rejected less intelligent and less handsome suitor have a legitimate complaint about unfairness? Would my thus impeding the other suitor’s winning the hand of fair lady justify taking some resources from others to pay for cosmetic surgery for him and special intellectual training, or to pay to develop in him some sterling trait that I lack in order to equalize our chances of being chosen? (I here take for granted the impermissibility of worsening the situation of the person having better opportunities so as to equalize opportunity; in this sort of case by disfiguring him or injecting or injecting drugs or playing noises which prevent him from fully using his intelligence.) No such consequences follow. (Against whom would the rejected suitor have a legitimate complaint? Against what?) Nor are things different if the differential opportunities arise from the accumulated effects of people’s acting or transferring their entitlement as they choose…Is it unfair that a child be raised in a home with a swimming pool, using ti daily even though he is no more deserving than another child whose home is without one? Should such a situation be prohibited? Why then should there be objection to the transfer of the swimming pool to an adult by bequest? (237-8)

It is important to note that if the rejected suitor has a complaint of justice that someone else pay for plastic surgery, then he has a right against someone to his or her money for the surgery. But against whom does he have such a right? The other suitor? The lady? Everyone in his city? Country? The world? The question seems to have no good answer. This is not to say that the surgery would not be a good in his life; perhaps it would. But not everything which would be a good in one’s life is something to which one is entitled. It would be a good in my life if I knew everything there is to know about biology, but I have no right against anyone to all the knowledge there is of biology.

This is not to say that conservatives should not have some concerns of justice with respect to equality of opportunities. They should, but only in eradicating rights violations which prevent people from having equal opportunities that justice demands. For instance, if a gym teacher tells students that they are going to fun a race and that everyone is going to have an equal chance at winning, but he allows some to start on the inside lane while not staggering runners so that they all have to run the same distance around the track, those on the outside lanes have been treated unjustly (though of course a minor injustice in the grand scheme of things). The unequal starting points requires rectifying justice since each deserve the gym teacher setting up a fair race. They deserve this, at least in part, because they deserve him doing what he promised that he would do.

So too conservatives might have reasons apart from reasons of justice to create equal opportunities just so long as no one’s rights are being violated. For instance, a professor might be motivated by his students well-being to provide them all with an equal opportunity to do well in a course and receive A’s. Though too much concern for perceived well-being and equality could result in grade distributions like this.


A former police officer, AR-15 (or “AR”) knows the difference between an assault rifle and home defense rifle. AR now fights with other weapons and demolishes arguments. He agrees that the pen is mightier than the sword, but he isn’t so stupid to bring a pen to a gunfight.

View All Posts


  1. I am not sure that Nozick really captures the essence of the “equality of opportunity” ideal. I think it has more to do with artificial or legal restrictions or enhancements of opportunities–like in caste systems. Or to play upon Nozick’s analogy, equality of opportunity would be denied only if the government created a courtship system in which only those with “keen intelligence and good looks” can seek mates among other persons with “keen intelligence and good looks.” This is a somewhat “thin” conception of equality of opportunity, but it is the only one that is feasible in a free society.

  2. I am not sure I am following you, Lee. There are at least a couple points Nozick was making. One is that not all unequal opportunities are injustices. Most are not. Another is that if the government (or anyone for that matter) tried to create wide scale equal opportunities, it could only do so by engaging in wide scale injustices–taking what rightfully belongs to some and giving to others who are not entitled to what is given in the first place. There is no equal opportunity ideal. To invoke another phrase from Nozick, “liberty upsets [idealized] patterns.”

    • Sorry for not getting back with you . . . work and all that. I guess what I tried to get at was that Nozick in this passage seems to be responding to progressive critiques of equality of opportunity. Progressives argue that opportunity is NOT equal–that some people are “disadvantaged” and need the government to remove those disadvantages or at least the consequences of those disadvantages. Instead, I think the original ideal of equality of opportunity recognizes natural disadvantages (the fact of the “lack of keen intelligence and good looks) but does not consider them a problem. From this point of view, the real problem is artificially created disadvantages–as if Nozick used his connections in government to secure his advantage in “keen intelligence and good looks” or Nozick was advantaged by government regulations about the dating pool. These would be artificial advantages that subverts any idea of equality of opportunites. My quibble does not effect the conclusions of Nozick–that the government should not try to adjust for “natural” disadvantages or inequalities–whatever the result.

  3. What would be wrong in your view with using the state to redress unequal opportunities resulting from past injustices, including but not limited to those the state caused? It seems to me that if this were allowed, then the state would have enormous latitude to improve the radically unequal opportunities in society as we find it. This would of course have nothing to do with attempting to redress inherent differences in ability, interest, etc., nor with redressing rightful transfers of property. The problem of course is that what many consider rightful transfers are actually at least partly the result of (often state-sponsored) injustices. Nozick himself understood this, though many of his fans do not.

  4. Eric,

    I do not have any problem with the government redressing unequal opportunities resulting from past injustices, in principle, especially ones that were partly the result of unjust state actions. In fact, the state would have a duty to address those in many instances. A major problem, however, results when a state tries to rectify inequalities due to injustices that happened ages ago due to no fault of anyone alive.

    • Thanks. I agree that’s a major problem. Would you agree it’s also a major problem that millions of people today face radically less opportunity that is not their fault either? If so we have two major problems. A common way to construe the first major problem is in terms of rights and desert. Specifically, the people alive today (let’s assume) who benefit from past injustices are not responsible for the injustices and so do not deserve to have their property redestributed or be disadvantaged. It would violate their rights to do so. But this thought seems mistaken in principle even if in practice things are of course very messy. It doesn’t seem to violate rights to take away what someone does not deserve, to seek equality of opportunity by those means, if the inequalities are not the result of either party’s actions. If my dad steals your dad’s or granddad’s fortune, gives it to me, and then all are dead but the two of us, you have good grounds to appeal to the state to take the money back from me even though (let’s assume) I did nothing wrong.

      More generally, If equality of opportunity is an important goal, especially where that inequality results from injustice, then it seems that the state has grounds for far, far more means of redress than are normally contemplated. The fact that the relatively well off people today might have their rights violated is a major problem. But it seems that that major problem is in practice the only one that is given any real attention, and works to preclude any real thought being given to what ought to be done, rather than being an authentic part of such thought.

      What do you think?

  5. I do not agree that there is nothing necessarily wrong with taking something from people who do not deserve it. They might not deserve something that they are still entitled to. If my father gives me $20 to spend on dinner, I might not deserve it, but once he gives it to me, I am entitled to it.

    The case of the dad stealing is trickier but my inclination is to agree with you that the government should side with me in the case and return to me my father’s fortune. You were never entitled to it. However, suppose your father stole a fairly rare musical instrument of some sort from my father. My father had willed it to me, but I didn’t know about it. Both fathers croak not long after. You go on to build a musical career with that instrument and your career is in fact defined by that particular instrument. Your name is carved in it. Nearing the end of your career I find my father’s will. I learn that that instrument was one time rightfully mine. Is it still? I have my doubts; if it is, I do not think it belongs to me entirely. A good judge would take into account how much that instrument was worth at the time it was willed and how much sentimental value it has for me, etc. and try to compensate for my loss accordingly while not probably not returning the instrument; the judge should perhaps force you to pay me something from the fortune you have amassed (though you should do so voluntarily in the first place!), but probably no one else should be made to pay me (via taxes or otherwise). But these sorts of cases are tough. That is why I am much more in favor of judges dealing with these cases on a case by case basis rather than trying to make a one size fits all law, especially when injustices occurred long ago and the logistics are a nightmare. Reparrations for slavery is, thus, nonsense. It would take someone like God to be able to work out the calculations.

    I am not quite sure what you have in mind in your last paragraph. I assume that not only the rich but also the poor are genetically linked to people who have committed injustices going all the way back to the first humans. I would have no way of knowing what sort of law could be derived to account for that.

  6. Hi, good points. Your first example shows that it’s not always ok to take something from someone just because they don’t deserve it. I agree, and didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.

    Your second example is relevant and raises difficult problems for any attempt for the state to redress past injustices. However, a few points:

    The first is that the example relies on intuitions about the value of tremendous artistic achievement accomplished by means of an instrument acquired innocently. It’s unclear at best what relevance this has to our modern situation. Did most or even any significant fraction of those now benefiting from past injustice achieve magnificent, glorious things with things their ancestors robbed, all while being unculpably ignorant of this? For the intuitions in a case like yours are only as relevant as the analogy is strong to modern circumstances. If the thought experiment is meant to show a conceptual possibility, I already concede it. However, you imply that it has some relevance to large scale reparations. I can’t see what that relevance is. This doesn’t mean I’m in favor of reparations, I just don’t see the relevance.

    Something that is relevant is the complexity, as you say. However, the complexity doesn’t render the project nonsense, it renders it difficult. There would be lots of possible ways to proceed, some would err on the side of redressing past injustice and others would err in the opposite direction. No matter what’s done, large amounts of injustice are likely. But large amounts are certain if nothing is done. Hard questions aren’t nonsense questions. Maybe the right answer is to not do reparations. But that’s a hard question, not one rendered easy due to complexity.

    Finally, state sponsored and state tolerated injustices occurred, very conservatively, up until the civil rights bill. I think there is overwhelming evidence that they continued beyond that as well. But it is beyond the possibility of legitimate question that there were massive and systematic injustices until the mid 60s. If being farther in the past makes things harder to deal with then being less far in the past makes things easier to deal with. Then why not attempt to deal with these? Even through individual court cases if you prefer?

    • Eric,

      I did not mean for the musician example to be unique. Switch the musical instrument for money that you invested in a factory manufacturing AR-15s and I would say the same thing. You might not have been entitled to the money in the first place, but you are entitled to what you produced with it.

      I think large scale reparations are nonsense because of the complexity and because there is no statute of limitations on injustices committed. (Do we go back 50 years? 200? 1000? 2000? Force DNA tests on everyone? Invest billions in archeology and history to learn more about everyone’s ancestors?) So I would need a concrete example of what you have in mind and how it might work in practice.

  7. Opportunity means “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something”, thus in order to have “equal opportunity” every element in the set must be equal. Returning to the race example, running the same distance is only one particular element in the set. Now the purpose of racing is to finish before the other racers, but obviously running the same distance is not enough for most of the racers to make it “possible to do something”, where the something is to win the race. Is there any sense of equal opportunity that doesn’t arbitrarily choose particular elements of the set? Why talk about equal opportunity at all? Why not just stop at “don’t violate rights”? Or in the race example, it’s simply following standardized rules for racing.

  8. AR-15,

    Hey there. I guess I don’t see why someone would normally be entitled to what they produced with stolen goods, even if they didn’t know they were stolen. It seems to me that one would not normally be so entitled, though there could be all kinds of interesting exceptions. I think your specific musical example was doing important intuition-pumping work, without which we’re left with a generalization that doesn’t seem true or even supported. If there is no prior reason to think I could or would make a better factory than you, given equal opportunity, but my dad steals all your dad’s savings just before he dies, gives them to me, and then I build a factory with them, while you have no real opportunity to do that or much else because you have been left destitute, I can’t see why I would be entitled to all the fruits of my factory while you toil away at a degrading job for low pay, or perhaps are unable to send your kids to a state school, while I send mine to the Ivy League. One important reason to object to such norms about entitlement is moral hazard: for obvious reasons, such a practice incentivizes such thefts. There are, it seems to me, several other good reasons to reject the generalization that the receiver of stolen goods is entitled to what they produce with them, especially if the thief is or is abetted by the government. The burden seems clearly on the person wishing to defend this generalization, since it seems very unattractive on its face.

    I don’t have any answers to those questions about reparations, I just think they are live questions. The more apparently absurd the option, the more likely it shouldn’t be done. So billions for ancestry study probably shouldn’t be done, but then again I wouldn’t rule it out. The federal government uses billions every year in far worse ways, in my view. Lots of things seem absurd before we’ve made any real effort to look into them. Other questions about how far back to go are just those, questions. It seems to me they deserve actual scrutiny, but I don’t pretend to have any of those answers. There has been a sustained effort to set up a commission to just look into such questions, but unsurprisingly, no success there. In my view, this is just not something that most people want to do, especially the people who matter politically. I don’t know if it should be done or not, but the little Socrates in me is always warning me against thinking I know what I don’t really know (or am anywhere close to knowing). I guess I see a lot of that all around, in every socio-moral-political group.

    As long as I’m on that topic, let me say that the reason I’m on here in the first place is that I have come to be nauseated by much of the complacency I find on the left, with so many people so determined to signal to themselves and others that they know the right answers to all the interesting questions (which are therefore not really interesting), and are often bemused (not to mention angry!) that anyone could fail to see what they see so effortlessly. But, and you probably saw this coming, I see the same sort of thing on the right. Not from everyone, on either side, but just so much of it on both sides, and each side making the other side more that way all the time. Basically, group polarization, in-group signaling and the pathos of distance (the will to feel oneself and one’s group as superior to rivals) combining to make it nearly impossible for a huge portion of the population to even really consider the possibility that they might be wrong, not to mention depraved (that is, to consider the possibility that they might be even half as willfully ignorant or demented as they imagine their rivals to be).

    That said, I have enjoyed our conversation and don’t mean for this to apply to you in particular (I know it has applied to me many times). But I would like to recommend, in this vein, that this blog not advertise the belief that “the left” is against free speech. I can easily think of several prominent leftists who are very, very strong proponents of free speech, at least as strong as anyone on the right, and more generally, I think the majority of those on the left also strongly support free speech, though there are very significant exceptions. I recommend it in the same way I would recommend to some leftist bloggers not to denigrate those on the right (or Republicans, which is different). It not only poisons the well, but serves to reinforce the idea that “we” are fundamentally different from and superior to “them”–an idea that is almost always self-deceptive.

    Sorry for getting off topic,


  9. Eric,

    You would be entitled to what you produced with stolen goods (provided you weren’t culpable in unjustly acquiring them) because you are entitled to the fruits of your labor (as long as those fruits aren’t themselves unjust). Even if you were not entitled to, say, 100,000 or a guitar or a shovel, etc., you are entitled to what you have used such things for in conjunction with your labor. I am not sure how to argue for that but it just seems obvious to me. Granted, if I were entitled to that 100,000 in the first place, a good judge should make you hand it over; but I cannot see why a judge would have a duty to give me any more than $100,000 (or what it would be worth today given inflation). I was only entitled to that much to begin with. How could I then be entitled to what you did with it and the millions that you made with it?

    Regarding the side comment on the “the left” and free speech, I know plenty on the left who are pro-free speech and academic freedom, but I am skeptical that most leftists (as well as a lot who are generally to the right) are all that pro-free speech. Of course this is an empirical question, and perhaps there are some reliable polls or questionnaires I am unaware of but here is my thinking. The U.S. is unique in having the 1st Amendment. You can be arrested in Canada or Europe for street preaching or saying that homosexual sex is a sin. As far as I know, most European countries have hate speech laws. And if you look in the U.S. and the rise of hate crime legislation, I think on the whole we have some good evidence that free speech is not as important as it once was. Or take the RFRA laws forcing bakers ultimately to go to jail if they refuse to participate in a gay wedding (when the gay couple can easily bake their own cake or buy one at another bakery down the road). There is not only a religious conscience but a free speech/expression right violated. Not even Mike Pence had the stones in Indiana to support a strong RFRA law protecting those rights. When it comes to sex, gender, and race issues I bet that most Americans would be in favor of outlawing so-called hate speech and a greater percentage on the left would be for this than on the right.

    Nice comments by the way. Glad you are reading and finding some use from this blog. None of us are paid or receive any kind of compensation except in the comments section. Such is the price of pseudonymity.

  10. Hey, sorry for not responding sooner. Got busy and distracted. I’ll just make one quick rejoinder. I meant in my earlier post to suggest that if your having been robbed of your inheritance meant you had vastly less opportunity to make a good living than I did since I was given your inheritance, and ex ante we had no reason to think you more capable than I in making a good living with it, then I think it would be appropriate to (have to) give you much of what I made with the stolen money, especially if what I did with it was pretty unremarkable (that’s why I think the violinist example was doing a kind of intuition-pumping that isn’t relevant in the overwhelming majority of cases. Normally, people do unextraordinary things, the sorts of things other people could have done if given the same chance).

    So I don’t think it’s at all obvious that I just get to keep what I made with stolen capital, when you having lacked that capital substantially impeded your ability to make enough money, say, to send your kids to college at all, while I am sending mine to the Ivy League. Having money greatly increases one’s ability to make money, and so if your money was stolen from you and given to me, then the sheer fact that I used your money to make more money for myself doesn’t entitle me to keep what I made with it, when you had vastly less opportunity to make money in the first place, due to your money having been stolen by my father. I’d say if we have no good reason to think that you wouldn’t have made as much money as I did with the capital, then you should get enough to bring us about even. And that’s not even including a rationale from moral hazard, which would suggest giving you even more of it.

    So I guess it seems obvious to me that one isn’t automatically entitled to what one makes out of capital, even if one is not culpable in acquiring it. It depends on a lot of other stuff, including the differences in opportunities resulting from the theft. If I could reasonably have been expected to do just as well as you, but wasn’t given the opportunity because your dad stole my dad’s money, I don’t see why you would get to keep all the money you made. It’s not a punishment to give me some of it, it’s just a recognition of the fact that there’s no reason to think I couldn’t have done just as well other than for the fact that I was deprived of the opportunity that you were unjustly given. In fact there might be good evidence I am am even harder worker than you, and only made less money because you were given my inheritance (now I’ve switched who’s been stolen from; hope that’s not confusing). Or your friend might steal my money, give it to you, then you play the lottery with it and win. I think I get half of the winnings. Do you think you should keep them all?

    Ok, not so quick after all :).

Leave a Reply (Be sure to read our comment disclaimer)