Justice as Equality of Opportunity

In the 20th Century philosophical classic, A Theory of Justice, the Harvard moral and political philosopher John Rawls suggests that we see ourselves as being behind a “veil of ignorance,” and on the other side of the veil is a society that we can construct from behind the veil, but we don’t know the social location in which we would be born into such a society. Behind such a veil, we don’t know the economic position or educational level our family will have, we don’t know what race or ethnicity we will be, and we can’t see what gender identity or sexual orientation we will have.

Although it is difficult to put all of our current biases to the side to fully and effectively engage in such a thought experiment, Rawls posits that if we took such a thought experiment seriously, it would most likely lead to an awareness that we would want the society on the other side of the veil to be one with as much equality of opportunity as is possible so that no matter what one’s lot is at birth, one will have a relatively equal opportunity for human flourishing.

If equality of opportunity were accepted as the key to a good and just society, it would call for fairly radical changes in our current society.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then we would not be funding our public education system with property taxes with widely disparate property values in different school districts, thus baking inequality into public education with unequal funding.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then access to clean air and drinkable water wound not be contingent upon what zip code one lives in. One’s chances of lead poisoning or getting cancer from toxic chemicals would not be directly correlated with income level.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then one’s chances of experiencing police violence, being incarcerated, or receiving longer and more punitive sentences would not increase owing to the color of one’s skin.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then access to quality healthcare would not be lost to those in poverty and no one would fear the risk of bankruptcy simply because they got sick and required medical attention.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then there would be just as many women in positions of economic and political power as there are men, and gender identity or sexual orientation would never be a factor that would limit one’s opportunity to flourish.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then every worker would be paid a living wage and CEOs would not be allowed to make hundreds of times more money than their employees.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then all discriminatory practices in relation to lending, real estate, housing opportunities, and home appraisals would be eliminated; and we would not see example after example of the property of black persons being appraised at levels much lower than when the appraiser is led to believe that owner is white.

If equality of opportunity were truly accepted as a core principle of justice, then those with more wealth would not have any more access to political participation and power than those who are poor; and it would never be more difficult for black persons, indigenous persons, or persons of color to vote or run for office.

Equality of opportunity means quality public education for all; equal access to the ballot and political participation; equal access to healthcare, breathable air, drinkable water, and livable climate for all; a fair and just criminal justice system; and no glass ceilings in relation to economic opportunities based on gender, race, or sexual orientation. In short, equality of opportunity means equal opportunity for human flourishing no matter what the circumstances of our birth might be.

The element that is missing from John Rawls’ veil of ignorance thought experiment is the possibility that we might not be a human being on the other side of the veil. Such a shift in thinking would lead to a radical shift in what justice for all life should be if for example you knew that there was just as good a chance you could end up being a veal calf on the other side of the veil as being a human or any other non-human animal restricted to a life in a concentrated animal feed operation and bound for slaughter. If we would not want to be born as another life form because of how that life form is treated by human beings, then doesn’t that raise a moral question about how we are treating that life form?

If we moved from Rawls’ anthropocentric veil of ignorance thought experiment to a non-anthropocentric veil of ignorance thought experiment, then the core principle of justice would likely become equality of opportunity for all life to flourish, not only equality of opportunity for human persons. Such a world would be one of much less suffering and death for both human and non-human life. We can imagine in such a thought experiment how much more kind, gentle, peaceful, equal, and just such a society and world might be. I invite us all to join in the work of making it so.

2 comments

  1. We discuss John Rawls in my Ethics of Communication class at OCU. Not only would the veil of ignorance change how we construct society and protect opportunity, but it would also reveal how blatant are the efforts of our society to intentionally stereotype people through visual images. During the Julius Jones clemency hearings, the accused was always shown on local news channels walking through the halls of the prison in his orange jumpsuit, looking at the camera in a way that suggested he was dismissive or arrogant. This loop was shown over and over again, in slow motion–every time there was a story about the case. When discussing the victim of the crime Jones says he did not commit, Paul Howell, a head and shoulders still photograph was shown of a smiling white man, much like a facebook cover photo. If John Rawls has given us a powerful way to imagine the “blindness” of justice, just think how clearly we not only see others, but how intentionally we manipulate images of the other to increase bias and discrimination.

  2. In other words, it would be Shalom. Everything you have written in this post is Good News. And Good News moves us towards Shalom – wholeness and completeness, which is the Kingdom of God in our midst.

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