We all know what we mean by “equality” – that people are treated as equal to each other because at a fundamental level they have equal value as human beings. But equal treatment shouldn’t be confused with identical treatment. Although all people have equal value, they have different skills and talents. They thrive in different conditions, see the world in different ways, and make different contributions.
The difference between individuals means that perfect equality of outcome is impossible. Furthermore, even if it were possible, it would stifle personal characteristics, resulting in widespread unhappiness. But by the same measure, perfect equality of opportunity is also impossible. No opportunity can be wide enough not to prioritise one quality above another.
The balance between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome is a difficult one. Those on the left have tended to support outcome, bringing in rules and legislation to boost under-representation from a particular section of society. Those on the right have tended to support equality of opportunity, seeking to abolish discriminatory laws and to make new legislation blind to gender, class or race.
On the whole, my belief in individualism leads me towards equality of opportunity. Equality of outcome is philosophically flawed because it promotes a false essentialism and pragmatically flawed because tokenism creates a backlash. I believe that change should primarily come not from heavy-handed legislation (although sometimes this does have a place) but from shifting attitudes and cultures. I support equality of opportunity because I believe the fight for equality is more a social battle than a political battle.
However, equality of opportunity is only meaningful if people recognise that the opportunities really are open to all. The role of the state is to provide equality of opportunity, but the role of society is to encourage people to take up the opportunities.