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Opportunity Pluralism, Class, and Distributive Justice

At the outset, let me say how happy I am to be a part of this symposium, and how much I’m looking forward to our conversation. Joseph Fishkin’s Bottlenecks strikes me as an important and urgent addition to thinking on equal opportunity, particularly in a liberal egalitarian vein. I’m planning at least two posts. This first post will summarize Fishkin’s argument (as I understand it), then raise some questions about the relationship between opportunity pluralism, class, and distributive justice. Another will consider whether opportunity pluralism supports or even requires more robust wage-compressing institutions, in particular labor unions. Time permitting, and depending on other commentators’ interventions, I may also post some thoughts about opportunity pluralism and employer responsibility under antidiscrimination law.

At the heart of Bottlenecks is a simple but profound argument: “equal opportunity is far more radical than distributive fairness.” (42) Even a cursory review of egalitarian social movements and their demands demonstrates this point. Movements for abolition and civil rights, women’s rights, disability rights, and LGBT rights have all demanded an end to legal and social structures—ranging from formal inequalities to social norms and even the design of physical spaces—that enable one group to dominate another. This is also true of the labor movement, which in its more ambitious moments has argued for workplace citizenship, a form of full participation and equality within the enterprise, understood as an analogue to political citizenship.

And yet, as Fishkin notes, political debates around equal opportunity have been stuck for some time on questions of “meritocracy, discrimination, and affirmative action,” particularly around university admissions and employers’ hiring policies. (23) Philosophical debates have been focused largely on the justice of enabling those with particular talents to capture outsized distributive shares. Both approaches risk making matters of justice feel like zero-sum games, whether between racial groups, the sexes, or rich and poor.

Fishkin demonstrates that these debates are too narrow. In doing so, he builds on two ideas central to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice: First, that justice is a characteristic of systems of social institutions taken as a whole, not of the fairness of particular rules taken in isolation; Second, that social institutions are the primary subject of justice because they exert such a profound effect on our life chances, shaping not just our opportunity sets but also our preferences and desires. A society that takes fair equality of opportunity seriously must address that deep opportunity structure.

Hence Bottlenecks. To achieve a minimally decent standard of living today one must pass through or get around any number of bottlenecks. Tests such as the SAT are the most obvious example. But bottlenecks also include “developmental bottlenecks,” such as the need to speak and read English, and “instrumental goods” bottlenecks, the most important of which is money. Many bottlenecks are unavoidable—I think of the educational requirements for a neurosurgeon—but other are relatively arbitrary. A society committed to Fiskin’s version of “opportunity pluralism” will seek to eliminate arbitrary and powerful bottlenecks. As a result, the opportunity structure...

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