Barry on equal opportunity

Notes for Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Main points

Rawls views inequalities due to either natural or social contingencies as suspect. Barry proposes a different way of thinking about it. He proposes that inequalities due to traits that people identify with as their own are acceptable. Inequalities that are due to unwelcome influences, by contrast, are suspect.

Our discussion

Barry was mostly concerned to criticize Rawls’s way of understanding equal opportunity. His basic point was nicely captured in an example Dani gave: if someone genuinely wants to be a housewife, the fact that this desire can be traced back to social influences does not itself show there is anything wrong with her taking up that way of living.

Barry himself did not have more than a suggestive way of drawing the line he had in mind. Accordingly, we had a lot of questions about it.

Barry’s point covered both social and natural differences. Patrick thought that for the natural differences, the distinction should be drawn between the normal range of ability and disability.

Dani was reluctant to accept Barry’s reliance on subjective factors. We can’t say that my inability to play professional basketball is something that raises concerns about equal opportunity even if I sincerely fail to identify with my, ahem, modest height as something that ‘happened’ to me as opposed to something that I own.

Patrick observed that the inequalities that are important are going to be socially relative rather than natural. A lack of education matters quite a lot in a society like ours, but is completely irrelevant to a society of hunter-gatherers. (I think Barry did a pretty good job of explaining the importance of higher education in our society, for what it’s worth.)

We ended by mentioning a problem to which we will return: adaptive preferences. In a nutshell, people can internalize values that oppress them. So when we read Sen, we will read about women who think they need less health care and nutrition than their male relatives. They identify with the system that accords them second-class status. But most of us think that does not make the inequality of the system acceptable.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2014. It was posted October 7, 2014.
Freedom, Markets, and Well-being