论机会平等 – Equal opportunity – English

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When talking about social justice, most people’s consider that equal opportunity is the key.  And when talking about equal opportunity, what comes up in people’s mind is generally the image of the starting line on a running field. As long as everyone stands on the same starting line, the competition is fair; and then, whatever the results of the run may be, they are also fair. The problem is: in the end, what conditions need to be met so we can say that we stand on the same starting line? Furthermore, when we use the athletic metaphor of the starting line to think about justice, what kind of reprentation of morality do we have as a background?




To start with, let’s put some order in the concepts. First, when we talk about equal opportunity, we always talk about valuable things that are scarce and that everyone wants in a competitive fashion,  such as jobs, college admission, prizes and honours in competitions, positions of authority, wealth, etc. And equal opportunity is actually about building a fair competition system.


Second, since it is a competition, there is necessarily a competitive process, at the end of which, necessarily, there are winners and losers – so that in the final result, there are necessarily differences. Thus, equal opportunities and equal results are like two ends of a process. Equal opportunity ensures a fair starting point for efforts, but it then allows free play to competitors, and the results of these interplays are not equal, they are what everyone deserves, and are therefore morally acceptable.  The greatest attraction of equal opportunity seems to be this: it is not opposed to competition, it allows for differences, but it is also fair.


Third, a so-called “fair” starting point does not mean that all differences between competitors need to be erased, but excluding those factors resulting in an unfair competition, then leaving the reasonable factors. In the College Examination, for instance, I think many people would agree,  a fair examination system should be based only on the students’ academic achievements, but the place of residence or family background should not influence a student’s chances to enroll at University.


Finally, equal opportunity is a very modern concept. In a society where every person’s social role is firmly connected to their descendance, origin, class, religion, ethnicity, etc,  the importance of equal opportunity will be very limited. Only in a society that fully guarantees equal rights for its citizens will equal opportunity be regarded as a fundamental principle to regulate social competition.


Some people may instantly ask, why should equal opportunity be a fundamental principle? What is its importance? I believe, equal opportunity reflects the following moral conviction: we are equal members of the political community, when we take part in different competitions, we must receive fair and equitable treatment, and nobody should suffer unjustified discrimination or exclusion. This means that, we do not accept that society is a ruled by the law of the jungle, and jobs and opportunities are arbitrarily attributed by those in power, without obeying any moral constraint based on justice, constraints coming from the government having equal respect for each individual. Many people, when discussing equal opportunity, 往往倾向从社会整体后果的角度来考虑,例如 能否促进社会流动、增加经济效益或有助社会稳定等。但这样的思路有个危险,就是政府可以用同样逻辑,拒绝保障公民的平等机会,例如在升读大学和职位申请 上,以集体利益之名给予某些城市或某个阶层的人特权,却无视这些政策对那些受不公平对待的个体带来的伤害。


Since equal opportunity relates to whether each individual is treated fairly, 那么我们就不应该将个体视为整体的手段,而是认真对待每个人理应享有的权利和尊严。只有这样,我们才能很好 地明白,为什么我们目睹或亲历富二代和穷二代,做官的和平民的,农村的和城市的孩子,从一出生开始,大家的人生命运就在不同方面受家庭背景和社会身份决定 的时候,我们会心有不平,会充满愤怒屈辱,甚至对这个社会感到绝望。We are also fully aware that the injustices in these systems are artificial, and can be changed. So, basically, what should be changed?




The first step of change is to establish a good system and good procedures ensuring that every citizen in the competition receives an equal treatment. For instance in recruitment, there must be an open and transparent process, and noone can go through the back door or pull relationships to obtain advantages and privileges. I know very well that, in China today, what I’m saying is just wishful thinking. But everyone is thinking, as long as this situation doesn’t change, our country will remain an unjust State, the citizens will never build trust in the system, people who achieved results through numerous efforts and have actual talent, but don’t have relationships, will find it difficult to demonstrate their skills, and thus build resentment. 更可怕的是,当不同领域的资源和权力都需要用贿赂或其他不正当手段获得时,整个社 会的道德资源将慢慢被淘空,我们的道德敏感度将日益迟钝,甚至不自觉的视此为不可改变的理所当然之事,我们每个人的道德心灵遂跟着日益萎缩荒芜。我们身在 其中,遂同受其害。

The second step of change,是要确保竞争的游戏规则,不可以用一些和该职位不相关的标准将某些人排斥出去,例如不可以因为一个人的性 别、种族、肤色、信仰或性倾向等而有所歧视。那么什么是相关的标准呢?这要看工作的性质。例如政府在招聘某类公务员时,因应工作性质而设定最低学历要求, 我们不会视此为歧视。同样道理,如果某类工作需要某些特别技能,例如消防员由于要有足够的身高和体力才能有效执行任务,所以不招收女性消防员,我们也觉得 可以接受。


Some people may immediately ask, how can we determine what is “relevant”? This indeed cannot be generalized, but every particular case must be dealt with specifically, and there is often controversy. For instance, some schools are religious schools, and require that the appointed teachers must have the same faith. But is this not a violation of the principle of equal opportunity? 赞成的人认为,只要不是教和宗教相关的学 科,就不应该设下这样的限制。反对的人却认为,宗教学校需要一种宗教氛围,如果老师没有那样的信仰,就做不到言传身教。我们应该容许甚至鼓励这样的公共讨 论,因为只有通过这些讨论,我们才能对不同的道德观点有所了解,宽容和尊重才有可能,同时也在讨论中累积和丰富整个社群的道德资源。与此同时,政府也需要 设立类似平等机会委员会的组织(香港就有),一方面在有争论和投诉出现时,可以担当调停和仲裁角色,另一方面可以筹办不同的活动,在学校和社会推广平等机 会的理念。




After taking the two steps described above, have we met all the requirements of equal opportunity? Not really. Let’s return to the metaphor of the starting line. The most important meaning of this metaphor is: take away all unjustified and irrelevant obstacles, and thus open positions for all who are capable. Therefore, in the international arena, whether you’re black or white, no matter what your ethnic background or religion, as long as we start on the same starting line, whoever runs the fastest can win the championship.


The question now is: 什么使得「有能者」之所以「有能」呢?There’s at least three reasons. First, he worked very hard, training diligently every day; second, he’s intrinsically distinct, and has good natural aptitudes; third, he’s received very good professional training, 从而将他的天赋能力发展得淋漓尽致。I think that, lacking any of these three elements, it will be very difficult to have the opportunity to succeed. Someone who only has one leg, no matter how hard they train or how much training they receive, I’m afraid that they will find it really hard to run faster than someone with two legs. And if we put these two people on the same starting line, I’m afraid it’s not easy to say that they have the same opportunity. Through the same reasoning, two people with the same innate talent and the same willingness to work hard, one has sufficient material conditions at home in his childhood, where he can receive good nutrition, develop good psychological and physiological qualities, and receive good athletic training, the other can’t eat enough or keep warm, let along receive any training. If you put these two men together, the former probably has a far greater chance to win than the latter.


This shows clearly that the concept of equal opportunity cannot be restricted to the starting line, as previously discussed, but requires ongoing interrogation 到底导致大家有不同竞争能力的因素,有那些是合理的,有那些是不合理因而需要矫正和补偿的。I believe that a majority of people will agree the condition of “personal effort” is appropriate and will not influence the fairness of the competition. So let’s focus on the other two.

The impact of a person’s family background on their career is undeniable. The most obvious element is education. Empirical research shows that a child from a middle class family background has large advantages over children from a lower middle class or lower class family through nutrition, education, personal development, social networks and interpersonal relations; therefore, their chances of staying in the middle class or climbing up further are also much bigger than the latter. In other words, these two groups of children, from their birth onwards, cannot possibly be said to be on the same starting line. And these differences are not related to their efforts, but pure luck: that they were born in the right family.


如果我们真的重视机会平等,就有必要在制度上,尽可能将这些差异减到最低。 例如政府有责任提供同样好的义务教育给所有孩子,甚至要限制贵族学校的出现,免得有钱的人可以用钱买到更优质的教育;政府也要提供相当广泛的社会福利,使 得穷人的小孩,也有最低度的条件去发展他们的天赋能力,建立他们的自信和自尊;又例如政府要征收相当高的遗产税,从而不会将前一代的优势延续到下一代。要 做到这些,政府就要积极介入市场,而不是任由市场这个看不见的手决定人们的命运。但我们也要见到,要做到这些,会有相当大的困难,而且不是技术上的困难, 而是伦理上的困难。例如从父母的观点看,总是希望自己的子女有最好的教育,从而将来有最好的竞争力,因此必然会用尽各种方法栽培自己的下一代。只要竞争的 格局不变,政府几乎不可能将家庭对孩子的影响完全消除或平均化;同时这样也不可取,因为这既会伤害家庭本身的价值(例如关怀和爱),同时会有过度干预个人 选择自由的危险。因此,在现实的制度设计中,如何平衡这两者的内在张力,是个极具挑战性的问题。


Finally, the most difficult is the question of natural talent. Everyone has different natural gifts, and these capacities are unrelated to later efforts, 因此运气色彩更浓。我们也难以否认,这些禀赋也在相当大程度上,影响我们每个 人在竞争中的成功机会。And so, should we do something to minimize the differences of natural talent, in order to ensure equal opportunity? Or are we asking the wrong question: the requirements of equal opportunity should not go that far, the government absolutely should not deal with these differences, 机会平等的要求,不应该去得那么远, 政府根本不应处理这些差异,而应任由它们自然发展,因为这样的干预不仅未必能带来好的效果,同时更会严重伤害个体的独立自主和自我拥有?This is one of the most contentious questions in contemporary political philosophy.




The discussion above allows us to see, the moral ideal of “equal opportunity” is quite complex and controversial, whether in theory or in practice. The contents, range of application and institutional requirements of equal opportunity all deserve to be seriously discussed, because they relate to justice and deeply affect each one of us. To finish, I would also like to stress that, to bring about increased equal opportunity in our society, we can’t just rely on changes in the system, we also need to rely on changes in people’s minds. Equal opportunity requires us to have a very unique moral point of view to look at ourselves and our social life: although we have many innate and acquired differences, although we compete with each other in society, we are still equal citizens, we hope that the competition modalities and procedures are fair and reasonable, and such that they will convince everyone. And behind this, there is a deep insistence on fairness and justice, as well as care and respect for people.


Source: 1510, June 15 2012 – http://www.my1510.cn/article.php?id=79611

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French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact julien@marcopoloproject.org