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How to Make Opportunity EqualReview - How to Make Opportunity Equal
Race and Contributive Justice
by Paul Gomberg
Wiley-Blackwell, 2007
Review by Sylvie Loriaux, Ph.D.
Oct 21st 2008 (Volume 12, Issue 43)

This book is essentially about equality of opportunity and racism. Its main thesis is that we should think of social justice in 'contributive' rather than in 'distributive' terms: we should concentrate not primarily on the amount of resources that each receives from society, but rather on the extent to which each can meaningfully participate in society. This, according to Paul Gomberg, is an important lesson to be learned from racial inequalities in the United States. The racial division of labour that has taken place -- and more specifically, the fact that black people have systematically been offered fewer opportunities to contribute complex skills and knowledge to society, and to attain the esteem that comes from these contributions -- indeed highlights the injustice of a broader social inequality, within the working class. While some routine and boring work has to be done in order to sustain human society, it is difficult to morally justify that anyone should occupy worse positions and have lesser opportunities than others.

The best way to grasp the originality and significance of Gomberg's position is to contrast it with traditional views of equality of opportunity. As Gomberg rightly points out, these views are most often competitive. They start from the observation that some social positions are more desirable than others and that more desirable social positions are significantly fewer than the number of persons who want to attain them. They see it then as their task to devise a procedure whereby relatively scarce desirable social positions can be distributed in a way that is fair. To this end, they generally recommend to 'level the playing field': success in attaining scarce desirable social positions should, as far as possible, depend on 'relevant' characteristics of the person (e.g., their talents, efforts, autonomous choices). On this understanding, two persons have equal opportunities to win the prize at stake in a competition when irrelevant factors that might affect their chances of success have been equalised.

Yet, Gomberg doubts that competitive conceptions of equality of opportunity can ever provide people with equal opportunities. The reason is that persons' attainment of desirable social position depends not only on their qualifications, but also, and no less importantly, on the way society is organised. If society creates only a few number of challenging jobs, then the fact that people redouble efforts in order to get one is, for instance, no guarantee that they will all succeed in doing so. This reveals a more fundamental problem with competitive equality of opportunity: it requires that some people lose an opportunity when others realise an opportunity. When positions of advantage are scarce, the success of the ones must affect the ability of others to succeed. This suggests that the amount of social goods available to people is of utter importance: where these goods are limited, not all who qualify will be able to attain them, which means that opportunities will be unequal. Competitive equal opportunity is therefore impossible (p. 1).

The key question for Gomberg is the following: how to organize society so that the accomplishments of the ones do not jeopardise the prospects of the others? His proposal is to share complex and routine labour. The argument runs broadly as follows: to be equal, opportunities must be non-competitive, and to be non-competitive, opportunities must be unlimited, that is, they must be for goods that are not scarce. This, according to him, is possible only by sharing labour: sharing complex and routine tasks makes important social goods available in unlimited supply -- namely, complexity, contribution and esteem -- and creates equal opportunities to attain them -- namely, a) to develop and practice complex abilities, b) to contribute abilities to the benefit of society, and c) to be esteemed for these contributions. Behind these 'universal human goods', as Gomberg calls them (p. 67), lies an ethical ideal of human beings as social contributors, which grounds a 'contributive' conception of justice. At its core, we find not only the necessity to provide people with equal opportunities to contribute to society (to which the largest part of the book is devoted), but also a duty to contribute to society understood as a duty to do one's part in a cooperative venture from which one benefits.

Now, Gomberg's claim that competitive equality of opportunity is impossible may need to be qualified. As just indicated, his argument hinges on the idea that when social goods are fewer than the number of persons who want to attain them, then these persons will not have equal opportunities to attain these goods. However, the satisfaction of this scarcity condition does not seem sufficient to invalidate competitive equality of opportunity. Imagine a competition where no competitor is barred from winning the prize at stake because of irrelevant factors and where the winner is clearly identified as being the best qualified competitor. On a competitive account of equality of opportunity, all competitors will be said to have enjoyed equal opportunities to succeed in the competition because their chances of success have not been affected by irrelevant factors, and this even though there was only one prize at stake in the competition. This shows that competitive equality of opportunity is not by definition doomed to failure: its aim is not to guarantee success for all competitors, but only for those who best qualify (however the criteria for qualification are defined); and in the example just given, this aim has been achieved. But suppose now that persons A and B have exactly the same qualifications but that there is just one position X to be filled; a choice has to be made between A and B, and A gets the position. Would it be accurate to say that A and B both enjoyed equal opportunities to occupy position X, but that only A 'realised' her opportunity? It seems that here competitors' chances of success have been affected by irrelevant factors since, ex hypothesi, both had exactly the same qualifications. Genuine equality of opportunity would have required the appointment of both A and B, which, ex hypothesi, was not allowed. It is in cases like this that Gomberg's criticism gets its strength and that competitive conceptions of equality of opportunity indeed prove impossible. But the important point is not that when the goods at stake are of limited supply, such conceptions must generate winners and losers (although this kind of inequality may also be problematic for egalitarians). The important point is rather that when the goods at stake are of limited supply, such conceptions may not be able to guarantee that similarly qualified competitors will attain similar positions, and thus that all competitors will enjoy equal opportunities to win.

These remarks do not in any way detract from the overall worth of Gomberg's book, which undeniably represents a significant contribution to the debate on equality of opportunity. By bringing into relief the interconnectedness of individuals' socioeconomic positions, it calls into question some of the central tenets of the leading liberal trend in social and political philosophy -- among which, the separateness of persons and its corresponding norms of individual responsibility. While it contains only a first sketch of what 'contributive justice' might exactly entail (in the last chapter), it does valuable work in demonstrating the need to explore a more 'human-activity-based' approach to equal opportunity and provides as such a good starting point for further research. It is written for a broad audience: its argument is accessible and challenging not only for advanced students and professors in the social sciences, but also for general readers. Gomberg succeeds in combining abstract philosophical reasoning with lively illustrations and anecdotes borrowed from the history of the United States, but also from his own experience as a teacher in a public university with a high proportion of black students.

© 2008 Sylvie Loriaux

Dr. Sylvie Loriaux, Centre for Law and Cosmopolitan Values, University of Antwerp, Belgium


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