Are equal opportunities achievable?
Since we have discussed aspects of equal opportunities before I will limit myself to two issues: The first is: what is the nature of unequal opportunities (to disadvantage others)? Do we disadvantage people or discriminate against them because we act on social whims? Or is there a more fundamental reason why we would disadvantage people? To put it more directly, is it natural to disadvantage people?
The second issue is: what are the necessary and sufficient conditions that will help us achieve equal opportunities? And by extension, can we achieve universal equal opportunities or do we have to accept what we can possibly achieve?
By establishing the nature of unequal opportunities (I am using this term to mean disadvantage people and the opposite of equal opportunities) we would be able to decide with more confidence the complexity of our problem and the possible options open to us. If, for example, this form of disadvantage is a social whim, we might have to take measure that change behaviour. But if the problem is more natural then we might have to educate and inform ourselves to achieve the desires effects.
The importance of necessary and sufficient conditions is that they would provide us with a predictive model of this form of human relationships. Thus, we can say that the positive/positive instances of equal opportunities we encounter the more our conditions might prove to be causal rather than correlations. For example, we cannot tell whether the results of affirmative actions are caused because of a reduction in discrimination in the general population or because of a suppression of discrimination in the general population. I would therefore say that affirmative action might seem to bring about the "desired" results, but in my opinion the most we can say is that this is a correlation and not a causal effect. Forcing someone to behave in a good way is not the same as someone behaving in a good way because of their good nature. "Equal opportunities" is an intellectual concept and not very well defined. We apply it to many situations such as employment, education, medicine etc. But does it make sense to speak of equal opportunities in our personal life? Are we obliged to have a good representation of minorities in our group of friends?
For a very detailed article on equal opportunities in philosophy I strongly recommend the article in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Equality of Opportunity* (Encyclopaedia).Wikipedia has a brief but equally good article on Economic discrimination** (Wikipedia). I will therefore won't try to give a historical perspective of the issue. For a working definition of what we mean by equal opportunities we can start with the following definition from the Encyclopaedia article, "..when equality of opportunity prevails, the assignment of individuals to places in the social hierarchy is determined by some form of competitive process, and all members of society are eligible to compete on equal terms." And usually for job applications the criteria would include something like, "...applications are judged on their merits, and the most qualified according to criteria that are relevant to job performance are offered positions."
The key terms must surely be to compete on equal terms and judged on merits. The Wikipedia entry for Equal Opportunities (very short article and mainly gives other links) defies it as people "not excluded" from the activities of society. These social activities are mainly, employment, education and health care. We strongly associate equal opportunities with employment opportunities for women; or rather with career development opportunities for women. But it is now accepted that there are minority groups or disadvantaged people who also do not have equal opportunities in society.
But before we can consider the necessary and sufficient conditions issue we still have to consider the nature of equal opportunities. Therefore, what test can we employ to find out whether disadvantaging people is natural or rational (i.e. social based)?
To answer this question we have to look at the genetic and evolution background of human beings. For example, one important feature of the evolutionary and genetic process is that we naturally prefer to cooperate with those who are in our genetic group than those who are not. In evolutionary history it made sense to help a member of our tribe. Moreover, it made sense to select mates who were healthy. This gave any offspring not only better chances to have good genes but also to be provided for during the formative years of their life. This is why it makes more sense to have both parents provide for a child rather than one parent: division of labour.
What else can we look at, as philosophers, to help us establish whether a particular act is based on some natural criteria or social whim. I propose that if we can conclusively exclude natural criteria we ought to be left with social ones. And the most direct way to help us decide this is to look at actions based on emotions.
Emotions have a direct causal link to our physical (genetic) make up. Thus, an aversion to distrust strangers would be a natural thing to do, but what is not natural is to exclude them from say, medical care, simply because they were a stranger (or an immigrant). Or maybe offer a job to someone from our race and exclude someone else purely on the colour of their skin or social background.
A lot of discrimination is based on stereotyping: blacks are lazy, women are not interested in careers. But stereotyping is probably a very bad form of statistical discrimination (see the Encyclopaedia). However, statistical discrimination is also very common in our society: single men in their forties tend to have unhealthy lifestyle, so we exclude single males in their forties from health care. Statistics will tell us what the group dynamics is like, but not necessarily tell us what the individual is like. Stereotyping, is statistics without the maths, in other words prejudice based on hearsay or whims.
But why should we care whether discrimination is natural or not? Some might even see this fact of discrimination as being natural as a justification to discriminate. For example, in a programme on CBS Radio*** it is shown that hierarchies are natural phenomena in groups. And an experiment conducted on monkeys showed evidence that low status monkeys had a natural tendency to be submissive to the dominant members of the group. It might therefore be argued that some people might indeed belong to a low status group precisely to be exploited: consider the caste system in India and the status of the Dalit who are sometimes also called untouchables, or outcasts. (Wikipedia relevant terms) It might very well be the case that in the wild and with small tribes discrimination was de jure, but today we have evolved into larger communities were brute force has been supplanted, in whole or in big part, by rational strategy. In other words: apply cooperation or win-win strategies also with strangers.
Thus, although there is no natural reason to allow immigrations, should this be adopted we ought to do so on the basis that these new comers also participate in our win-win strategies. And if we don't we can conclusively infer that the reason to open our borders for immigrants is to exploit these new comers. In my opinion when Alpha members of a group start advocating the need for more immigrants, it is time to polish our conspiracy theories.
I would therefore argue that whilst discrimination is indeed a natural phenomenon, social type of discrimination (employment, education etc) is not nature based but social based. Employment, medical care etc are win-win strategies for a group and therefore rational strategies.
We usually consider cases of equal opportunities at the demand-supply end of social relationships. An employer is looking for someone to fill a position: a woman wants to make a career move by joining the board of directors. What sort of necessary and sufficient conditions ought to be in place so that the applicant to a job gets a fair assessment or the woman an equal chance to be promoted?
One of the solutions to this problem is to legislate against such discrimination. For example, demanding that women form a proportion of board members in a company or parliament. But as I have already pointed out with affirmative action, legislation does not tell us whether the discrimination behaviour is eliminated from society or simply suppressed. Maybe to manifest itself in other ways, for example, moving production to a country where they don't have ethical labour laws. More importantly, this solution of legislating solutions does not tell us whether the job applicant from the minority group or the career minded woman were themselves members of an Alpha class in their group who might have exploited subordinates in that group. Not only doesn't legislation tell us anything about this background but it also does nothing to solve this very possible discrimination.
Thus legislating is not sufficient for our purposes, and in any case this type of legislation addresses the wrong issues any way. The problem might be that we are trying to solve the problem at the demand and supply end of social relations. When applying for a job or trying to be promoted to the board. Maybe the solution lies with offering equal opportunities throughout someone's life. It is not enough to offer someone health care when they develop some fatal disease.
Consider what Clive Hertzman*** says on CBS programme about the conclusions of a study aimed at find what happened to British children born in March 1958. The conclusion of the study was that the health status of a 40 year old depended on whether, when they were young (about 7 years old), they (1) were read to; (2) adjusted early at school; and (3) achieved a certain height proportionate to adult height. And the reason why this has a direct bearing on someone's health is because they have a direct causal link to status and earning capacity at 40. In other words, those who were read to when young, adjusted early at school and had a good height ratio stood a better chance of earning a good salary at forty years old. And studies have shown that there is a direct link between income, status and health. The equal opportunities at the demand end for a woman in the labour market might be too late for her career prospects.
I propose that in order to achieve equal opportunities parents, for example, need to be informed and guided on how to bring up their children based on solid scientific evidence and not some woolly headed mumbo jumbo educational policies. Hugging trees might not be the best way to create geniuses in our society.
This study alone has already shown us what kind of necessary conditions we are looking for so that we can achieve equal opportunities. By setting up programmes that address these issues and were also universally effective, in the same way VAT and Coca Cola are universally effective, we would be addressing the natural (genetic) aspect of our problem. Adopting rational solutions to genetic problems is something we human beings are very good at; think sliced bread here. Taking this approach might not even leave us time to contemplate what merit and equal terms mean, because we'd be too busy solving real problems. But we probably have to do more. There is a direct link running across health, social status and income as I have already mentioned. Thus universal health care is also, in my opinion, a necessary condition. People get sick, they need health care. This is a fundamental fact of life but political philosophers seem to have forgotten about this when they wrote there red books, green books, blue books, capital books and all the various shapes and colour books.
But having a health care system is not enough, there should also be a healthy food policy as well. There is no point spending billions trying to cure obesity if one cannot find healthy food in the shops. Malnutrition is not just an emaciated baby in some African desert which the media love to splash on their front pages or screens. Malnutrition is also something that might happen to your neighbour.
Another set of necessary conditions might probably be the way we conduct our work and educational routine.
Dr. John Medina in his book Brain Rules+ suggests twelve rules on how we can improve the performance of our brain. For my purpose of establishing the necessary and sufficient conditions for equal opportunities, I want to refer to two of these rules.
Medina suggests that the present educational system disadvantages a large number of students because it is based on the age of students for progress and not their brain development. He suggests that our brains are all wired differently and therefore the development of our brain is not the same as everyone else at a given age. But the educational system does not make allowances for this; they assume all brains are the same. Imagine what humanity might be like, as Medina wants to persuade us, if we received our education tailor made to our unique individual brain development.
An important factor that determines our performance at work (and education) is sleep or rather sleep deprivation. Not only do we need a certain number of hours of sleep for the brain to function normally, but that our waking-sleeping habits (chronotype: owls, larks and humming birds) determine how we perform at school and at work. The 10 to 20% of the population who perform best at night (owls) might have a serious sleep deficit which affects their performance; because many social activities start in the morning. But those in charge, think that owls (I'm one of these) are lazy, unmotivated and not interested in the activities at hand just because they look so groggy in the morning. Medina suggests that having schools and places of work scheduled to take into account these chronotypes would revolutionise our performance. Owl doctors can do the night duties and larks can do the early morning duties thus patients have, literally, the full attention of the doctor and not of someone who should be in bed asleep.
Studies like those of Dr Medina can probably serve as blue prints to our necessary and sufficient conditions. They show us how to solve genetic problems by applying rational solutions. Thus, by creating a social environment where everyone is performing, whether at school or at work, at their maximum brain capacity we might be that close to achieving universal equal opportunities. The woman who is prevented from reaching the top of the company might have had a better historical performance in her career if she were able to manage her sleep routine. But because baby decided to cry at night and her company has a policy of stating at 9am sharp she probably went to work with a monster size sleep deficit. It is not that women are less clever than men, or that woman prefer to have babies instead of pursuing their career that stops them from reaching the top. But maybe the fact that management consultants did not discover during their MBA years that women are genetically made to have babies and they these little mites tend to cry at night.
To conclude, introducing first impressions type of solutions (i.e. cosmetic solutions) to solve problems concerning equal opportunities do not necessarily help us achieve our objects. Not to mention that they address the wrong issue and have nothing to do with what is really required. Thus affirmation policies, calling someone chairperson, having holidays for heroes of minority groups, genetically engineer babies or pretending to learn the language of immigrants do not go to the core issue of discrimination or unequal opportunities. Don't forget our genes have survived more serious challenges than these cosmetic solutions. Maybe Kant was right when he suggested that we ought to do unto others what we want others do unto us. This might be right, logical and rational but these criteria have not always been enough to move people to do something. Everyone knows that driving on the left is much better and more rational, for example because most people are right handed, but the 66% of the world population who drive on the right are not about to change their bad habits soon. (Wikipedia: Right- and left-hand traffic) By the same token, it is probably just as hard to persuade seven billion people to go forth and be good.