Why We Don’t Truly Want Equal Opportunity

December 2, 2011

Learning, Political Theory


Humans are self interested. This is what we take as a truth from Hobbes, “I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death… because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more.” (Hobbes p.85).  We also accept that natural inequalities truly do exist in our society from readings this years and from our own personal experience “I conceive that there are two kinds of inequality among the human species; one, which I call natural or physical, because it is established by nature, and consists in a difference of age, health, bodily strength, and the qualities of the mind or of the soul: and another, which may be called moral or political inequality, because it depends on a kind of convention, and is established, or at least authorised by the consent of men. This latter consists of the different privileges, which some men enjoy to the prejudice of others; such as that of being more rich, more honoured, more powerful or even in a position to exact obedience.” (Rousseau Part I). Natural advantages is a pretty easy concept but I believe this Calvin and Hobbes comic by Bill Watterson explains the concept and the concept of higher status for those gifted with advantages.

Tigers are just born with swag.

When we look at these two truths we can assume that many times mankind can not equalize the playing field for everyone involved, but political philosophers such as Rawls propose that as a society we should do our best to make equal opportunities in society as much as we can because this provides the greatest good for the society. We see his basic theory in his Two Principles of Justice and his Difference Principle. However even though in many experiments and hypothetical situations this would be the best path for everybody to take from the start of society it is counterintuitive to human nature to allow ourselves be equal (an example would be Rawls’ veil of ignorance and the choice of which political system we would desire).

Take for example the issue of public vs. private education. There is nothing wrong with either system, and as a product of a public school I hold no ill will against those of us who went to private schools, but I am envious. There is no hiding the fact that private schools provide their students with more opportunities to succeed academically whereas many lower income schools struggle to just get kids to graduate (my school was one of the latter). There is nothing wrong with this in society overall, but it is just an example of how overall we wish for equal opportunity in education, but for kids whose parents can afford to give them an advantage they willingly do so to give them an advantage. It is  natural for them to want to do so.

Burton Memorial Tower U of M

Cook Carillon Tower GVSU

Taking this a step further into the college world we still find people trying to gain a separation in opportunity, and I am guilty of this one myself in a way. I am attending the University of Michigan which is obviously the best school in the country, whereas my older sister attended Grand Valley State University which is a decent school in its own right. Yet if she and I were to apply for the same job an employer would definitely give me an advantage because of the big blue M on my diploma. That big blue M represents nothing but the reputation of this university. This is all well and good for me, but even though my sister received a bachelors degree the same as me she does not have an as equal opportunity. So you would say that the University of Michigan is a better school and I probably know more and/or I am more prepared to join the workforce. This is true in many ways, but for a base education there is not much of a difference between the two. Last week my sister helped explain Rawls to me because she read about him in her intro political science class her freshman year… made me feel like I’m spending a few extra grand on just a big blue M on a piece of paper, but if it gets me a job then its worth it.

This is the part where some readers will form the argument in their head that we have been given advantages in our life or we have made our own advantages because we have worked hard and deserve them. I’m not saying that people don’t deserve an advantage when it comes to opportunity (like I said I’m guilty of seeking advantages myself). What I’m trying to discuss is the inherent self interest that we all have is what keeps us from creating a society that provides equal opportunity to its citizens. And if as a society we create environments for equal opportunity this will not stop individuals from trying to create their own personal advantages.

So how do we create equal opportunity in society and where do we need to establish it is the question? Having my own personal grudge on not having the same opportunity as others in high school a part of me wants equal opportunity in high school and lower education because there was no way I could create those advantages for MYSELF as an individual that was up to my father (who is a dentist that graduated from the dental school here…not a bum). Whereas I personally believe that my hard work in my crummy high school got me into U of M and that is an advantage that I created for MYSELF and therefore I should reap its benefits.

But that is my own personal bias upon the matter. What are your opinions on equal opportunity and personal advantages in areas such as education, health care, economics, etc.?

https://ctools.umich.edu/access/content/group/36906f1a-78bf-444e-bd94-61b4ed057c86/Readings/September%2015/Hobbes%2C%20Leviathan%2C%20excerpts.pdf

http://www.constitution.org/jjr/ineq_03.htm

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4 Comments on “Why We Don’t Truly Want Equal Opportunity”

  1. Phil O'Donnell Says:

    There are a few issues which I would like to discuss regarding this very interesting and provocative post. Firstly is the issue of colleges being equal in terms of ‘base education’, such as the comparison of U of M and GVSU provided in the post. It is an argument that you often hear from students at MSU or other ‘smaller’ schools, they argue that they read the same textbooks and learn the same ‘base’ material as we do here at the University of Michigan. This may be true in many situations, I know for a fact that MSU use the same economics textbooks in some courses. Yet this doesn’t really tell the full story and hence doesn’t really provide an accurate explanation for why THE University of Michigan is a ‘better’ school then MSU or other ‘smaller’ schools; in terms of base education or many other educational criteria.

    I argue that, specifically looking back to the beginning of the course and the first text we read, college is like a sorting hat. A sorting hat, similar to the ones that come before it in life and similar to the ones that come after it; whether this is in for example sports or employment. Life essentially is a continuous sorting process; perhaps not an equal process, often seen as manipulated, yet a sorting process all the same.

    Take for example, how we arrived at the University of Michigan. We were sorted from all the applicants as the ‘best’ (best grades, most prepared, children of alumni; whatever the criteria was, we were sorted and selected as the students Michigan wanted), those who were rejected were deemed to be not ‘worthy’ of being at U of M. Whether you agree or disagree with this selection process, it is what happened.

    So how does this explain why U of M is a ‘better’ school then the other smaller ‘schools’? Firstly, because we (the students) are deemed to be more qualified or suited for this tier of education then the rejects (there are issues of personal finances and the problem of affordability which obviously complicates the matter, yet as a whole I believe this doesn’t disapprove the hypothesis provided), hence we have already been marked as ‘better’ high school students by professional academics in the admissions office.

    Hence I have established that U of M, at least initially, has ‘better’ students then other ‘smaller’ schools; students who performed better in high school. U of M has the better silly-putty to mold if you will, the better crayons to draw with. Thus, when you leave Michigan with a degree, it signals that at the very least you were a good student in high school; perhaps not Harvard or Yale, but good enough for Michigan, better then State.

    Yet there is more. So Michigan has the better high school graduates and hence as most of the classes at Michigan are graded on a curve (at least to the point where not every student receives an A grade); success at U of M signals an ability to succeed at reasonably high level of competition. What’s better a 3.5 GPA at U of M or a 3.5 GPA at MSU? We believe it to be Michigan because of the academic reputation which our alumni have granted us; to be blunt, our alumni have been better, out students have been better, our base education has been better at creating great students and alumni. That’s why, rightly or wrongly, you are more employable and hence why Michigan is deemed a better educational institute (through the perspective of the sorting hat theory of higher education). To be cynical, you are paying for the right ‘to stand on the shoulders of giants’ and wear the University of Michigan name; you’re judged as a Michigan graduate. Not to mention that U of M has, to name but a few; a better global reputation, higher levels of diversity, the higher standard of professors and greater opportunities for extracurricular activities (if only in terms of the levels of funding and diversity at the University) then ‘smaller’ schools.

    The theory of life as a sorting hat seems to suggest some kind of social Darwinism. I would argue that it perhaps is not such a hash level of Darwinism, one where the ‘weak’ are being eradicated from our society, but I would agree that in terms of levels of success in society (primarily financially) it is a type of Darwinism, the ‘weak’ make less money and are less prosperous. A Michigan Law School graduate is presumably going to make more money than a Washtenaw Community College graduate, the exceptions helping to prove the rule.

    This brings me to my final and most troubling point. The issue of whether this almost Darwinist setup can be used to justify elitism. I will address this problem or dilemma using arguments or discussions regarding parents’ rights and responsibilities concerning their children’s wellbeing and preparation for their own futures. For example as mentioned in the post, parents seemingly have the right to send their children to private schools if they desire, that is a reasonable assumption to most people (admittedly there are many who oppose this). Furthermore, as mentioned in the post, seemingly this prepares the children better for college and subsequently future employment. Hence, obviously this seems to manipulate the college or employment micro societies and make it unequal; hence private school can be seen as a form of elitism, or at the very least a process which makes distinctions in society. Are parents who send their children to private schools participating in a form of elitism? What about providing their children with connections for internships or paying for tutors (such as for the SATs) which other parents may not be able to afford?

    Yet, why shouldn’t parents be able to provide for their children? Isn’t a parent looking after their ‘offspring’ a natural human tendency and characteristic? Hence, is this type of elitism justified in respect to the issue of social Darwinism? Furthermore, where is the line? Are political dynasties justifiable?

  2. Brian Hall Says:

    Inheritance and nepotism are unfortunately the way of the world, and our society enthusiastically encourages it. I don’t really see any problems with sending kids to private schools or the relative ineqaulity of different colleges, as there is nothing that can really be done about that. If one were to try to rectify some of this inequality, increasing scholarships for bright students would certainly be one valid method, as it would to some extent ease the injustice of smart but poor students not being able to attend good schools while dim-witted children of wealthy parents are allowed to coast through life.

    It does irritate me a bit that students at private east coast boarding schools are given specific classes designed to prep them for taking the SAT, not to mention the extensive private tutoring always available to those with means. I was a National Merit Finalist without any tutoring or studying; I showed up at the SAT with nothing more than a good night’s sleep and wrecked it using my own natural abilities and intelligence. I have absolutely nothing to show for it though beyond a piece of paper and a rather empty sense of satisfaction (since UM uses the ACT anyway). To be fair, I grew up with all the advantages an upper-middle class child can have in terms of a very solid public school education and never worrying about whether my parents could afford to send me to college (actually, I wouldn’t be able to afford to go to UM if I were out of state, but as luck would have it…).

    Most of the people from my school district came from similar economic means, and are going to UM, MSU, GVSU, or Grand Rapids Community College (barring the occasional rebel who decides to go out of state, like my sister). We all had similar opportunities from the beginning, yet it can be fairly argued that inequalities in natural ability were accurately reflected in where people ended up (to some extent). If one has the proper combination of money, intelligence and motivation, they will succeed. Life is extremely unfair that way.

  3. jkb34383 Says:

    Unfortunately contingencies are the main factor that seem to impose boundaries on one’s economic and social background. Some people are just born with more, while others are born with less. That is just the way of the world. However, climbing the economic ladder is all about recognizing opportunities that you are presented with. If you seize that opportunity you will be presented with additional opportunities in the future. However if you are born on the top of the economic ladder, it is just as easy for you to find yourself sitting at the bottom of that ladder because you chose not to pursue any opportunities at all.

    True equal opportunity cannot exist in the way our society functions; unless there was a way to change our nation into an impossible place where everyone was the exact same.

    Equal opportunity is the wrong way to approach equality. Your story showed that despite you were at a disadvantage in receiving academic opportunities compared to private school students, you were still accepted to such a prestigious university. To those who do not have equal opportunities have to accept the fact that they may have to work harder than those who are considered more fortunate in order to have similar opportunities.

  4. steverzthoughts Says:

    I guess it may seem idealistic but the solution maybe to make society equal until a person proves to have an advantage or works hard enough to gain an advantage. This would be the best thing because despite the last comment made a good point in proving that equal opportunity doesn’t actually achieve equal opportunity I believe it does help. jkb34383 said, “To those who do not have equal opportunities have to accept the fact that they may have to work harder than those who are considered more fortunate in order to have similar opportunities.”. This, I believe, is an extremely generalized and elitist statement because it takes nothing into account about the conditions people actually live. How can people born into extremely impoverished neighborhoods with escalated rates of crime and violence ever be expected to compete with people from Long Island? Also, why should I have to work harder than someone born with a silver spoon in their mouth?

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