“Equal chances don’t mean a thing when you can’t use them to demonstrate your competence.”
Every so often, a young student will say something that just stops me right in my tracks. I guess that’s what you might call the blessing of youth: a freshness of thought; to see old things in a new light. That’s why, every so often, I’ll end up completely ‘MIND = BLOWN’ by my student’s ability to re-frame a problem I thought I was already familiar with.
Last week it happened again. While teaching a class about (economic) inequality, I was giving my students an introduction into the political philosophy of John Rawls. To make the unpopular subject of economics somewhat entertaining – a holy plight for teachers nowadays -, I took the central thought experiment from Rawls ‘A Theory of Justice‘ and turned it into a real class experiment.
“John Rawls wants you to imagine you’re like the soul of someone who isn’t born yet,” I said. “You’re a foetus on a cloud. You might be wondering here: ‘Who will my parents be once I’m born?’ But aye, there the rub! There’s just no way to know! You’re not born yet. You’re a blank slate, as it were. So, will you be rich or poor? A man or a woman? Religious or irreligious? Healthy of sick? At this stage, as pure a soul as you could be, you don’t know.”
To wander around in this place is to inhabit what John Rawls called ‘The Original Position‘. In this peculiar place, you find yourself behind a ‘veil of ignorance‘ of some kind. How so? Well, because you don’t know what your future position in society will be. Every specific aspect of your life to come is currently unknown to you.
“Now, imagine that on this cloud, in this original position, you’re surrounded by every soul that is yet unborn. And imagine, before you’re all collectively cast into the world, that together you can establish some rules to make for a fair world. What would those rules be?”
It doesn’t take the students long to figure out it’s only rational that all people should have equal rights and opportunities. Why is this to their advantage? Because they don’t know what position they’ll inhabit in this society! Remember they are sitting behind a veil of ignorance? Well, imagine they would decide to purposefully give privileges to one group in society – rich people, say. This would surely be irrational for them to do, because they might end up poor, and so – because of their ruling – without that privilege. Only a truly reckless person would take that risk. Even teenagers can agree on that.
But how should you handle inequality, the distribution of riches and resources, from behind your veil of ignorance? That question mostly proves to be a lot harder to crack than the first. That’s why I usually provide my students with a dilemma.
“Imagine that you can choose between two alternatives. You can choose to be born in the current world – a world with great inequality and lots of poverty, but where, in theory at least, you can work yourself up and where the sky is the limit. Or you can choose to be born in a world that’s more egalitarian: a world where there is no poverty, but even though how hard you try or how smart you are, you can only make three times the minimum wage that’s provided for everybody.”
After I have explained this dilemma to my students, I back away from the group. They’re all unborn souls now, burdened with the choice between two possible worlds. I sit back and listen. What arguments will they give? What world will they choose?
I’ve noticed that most of the times, the students will pick the more egalitarian society. Their rationales are always the same. They don’t want to take the risk of being born in the most probable of all circumstances in our current world – i.e. in poverty. Sure, they have to give up the possibility of become super rich through hard work – but in their eyes, that’s only a small sacrifice to make when their basic needs are being met.
Now, that’s most of the times. But not last week. The students were quick to figure out that – the first rule of equal rights and opportunities already in place – the second rule focussed on another kind of equality instead – equality of outcome. Equity, in short. This is the conversation that followed.
“That’s not fair!” a student exclaimed. “I wouldn’t want to live in a system like that.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Well, sir… Imagine that you would give us a test. And that I’ve studied really, really hard, but someone else didn’t work at all. Why would you set up a rule so that I cannot get the score I worked so hard for, just to ‘make things equal in the end’?”
All the students agreed. That’s when I decided to play the devil’s advocate.
“Do you think, on average, man and woman work both as hard?”
“Nooooo, women work much harder!” all the girls screamed, while all boys yelled: “MEN! MEN! MEN!”
“Come on, seriously?”
“OK, yes,” they admitted after a while. “They work just as hard.”
“Well, then how come it’s mostly men on the top of big companies? Wouldn’t we want our companies to reflect our society? 50% men, 50% women? That’s what most people mean by equality of outcome – by equity.”
“All jobs should be open for everyone,” one student said. “So, there here should be equality of opportunity. But you shouldn’t enforce equal outcome. That would make the competition for the job TOTALLY unfair.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“Well, that’s obvious, isn’t it?”
“I’m not sure it is,” I answered. “Some people argue that our current situation (i.e. more men at the top op big companies) reflects the fact that the game is rigged from the start – because some groups have more advantages and privileges than others.”
“Maybe,” another student said. “But why would those differences be unfair? Isn’t that why all candidates enter the job application? So that the bosses can determine who the best candidate is?”
“So you’re saying things are fair,” I tried to paraphrase, “as long as everyone has equal access to apply for the job – even though they differ in abilities?”
“Is that true? Does equal acces necesarrily imply a fair competition?”
“OK, not necessarily…,” the student admitted.
“So wouldn’t we want to set in place some rules so that the competition is fair, even after everyone had an equal opportunity to enter the contest?”
“Yes, but no such rule as equality of outcome!”
“And why not?”
“Well, because, in that case, it doesn’t matter that everyone had free access to enter the competition. When the results of the game are already set – for example, by making all outcomes equal beforehand – then equality of opportunity loses all its meaning.”
“What do you mean by that?” I stumbled.
“It isn’t about access per se,” the student explained. “Equal access is only a way to make sure that everybody can prove their talents. Only then can the real competition begin.”
“Do I understand you correctly?” I asked. “Equality of outcome – equity – subverts equality of opportunity, is that what your saying?”
“Yes,” the student said. ““Equal chances don’t mean a thing when you can’t use them to demonstrate your competence.“
That was the point my mind was blown. Even though I had always know, subconsciously, that this would be the true outcome of equality of outcome would be an unfair game – a total eradication of equality of opportunity – I had never succeeded in formulating it quite so succinctly. Maybe I’m becoming too old to do so, I thought afterwards. Maybe no one but a 17-year old could still have such clarity of thought.
“So…” I ended the conversation. “What would you think about gender quota, you being a young woman?”
“Idiocy,” she retorted. “Just watch me, I’ll cut all those weak men in half.”
I’m sure she will. In that moment, she already decimated her teacher.
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