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Cover Issues in Political Theory

6. Equality and social justice  

Jonathan Wolff

This chapter addresses equality and social justice. In the 1980s and 1990s, the goal of social justice was challenged both on political and philosophical grounds and was largely supplanted by an emphasis on economic growth and individual responsibility. Although still given little emphasis in the United States, considerations of social justice came back onto the political agenda in the United Kingdom following the election of the new Labour government in 1997. To rehabilitate social justice, it was necessary to decouple it from traditional socialist ideas of common ownership of the means of production. Key debates on social justice concern theories of equality, priority, and sufficiency, and how inequality should be defined and measured. Of particular concern has been the place of personal responsibility for disadvantages causing inequalities. The chapter then considers equality of opportunity and social relations.


Cover Contemporary Political Philosophy

3. Liberal Equality  

This chapter examines the notion of liberal equality by considering John Rawls’s alternative to utilitarianism. In his A Theory of Justice, Rawls complains that political theory was caught between two extremes: utilitarianism on the one side, and what he calls ‘intuitionism’ on the other. The chapter presents Rawls’s ideas, first by discussing the two arguments he gives for his answer to the question of justice: the intuitive equality of opportunity argument and the social contract argument. It also analyses Ronald Dworkin’s views on equality of resources, focusing on his theory that involves the use of auctions, insurance schemes, free markets, and taxation. Finally, it explores the politics of liberal equality, arguing that liberals need to think seriously about adopting more radical politics.


Cover Introducing Political Philosophy

6. Schools and Equality of Opportunity  

William Abel, Elizabeth Kahn, Tom Parr, and Andrew Walton

This chapter addresses the value of equality of opportunity and assesses its implication for the design of the school system, arguing for the radical conclusion that the state should prohibit elite private schools. It begins by outlining how elite private schools create inequalities in prospects between children, and develops an account of why this is morally problematic. A challenge to the chapter’s argument comes from those who reject equality of opportunity in favour of educational adequacy. The chapter then considers the possibility that it is wrong for the state to prohibit elite private schools because this interferes too much in family life. It offers a framework for assessing which choices should be protected on these grounds, and argues that the choice to send one’s child to an elite private school does not fall in this set.


Cover Political Thinkers

32. Rawls  

Rex Martin

This chapter examines the main arguments for John Rawls's ideas about justice. Rawls identified two principles as central to political liberalism: the principle of equal basic rights and liberties, and a principle of economic justice, which stresses equality of opportunity, mutual benefit, and egalitarianism. In Rawls's interpretation, these two principles take place ultimately in an ideal arena for decision-making, which he calls the ‘original position’. In time, Rawls became dissatisfied with this approach and began to reconfigure his theory, moving the focus towards a ‘family’ of liberal principles. The chapter begins by discussing Rawls's first and second principles before considering his concept of ‘original position’ as well as his views on overlapping consensus. It concludes with an analysis of the main ideas contained in Rawls's 1999 book, The Law of Peoples.