Equality of Opportunity (EOO) balances our competing desires for egalitarianism and individual initiative, which gives it tremendous intuitive appeal. As many note, the most common critique of EOO is that it doesn’t go far enough. Many would like to see stronger egalitarian principles govern their world, like some that guarantee a universal basic income or a full redistribution of assets. Very few think EOO is unjustifiable. Robert Nozick is among the few.
In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, he attempts to provide a counterexample to EOO. Nozick says,
If the woman who later became my wife rejected another suitor (whom she otherwise would have married) for me, partially because (I leave aside my lovable nature) of my keen intelligence and good looks, neither of which did I earn, would the rejected less intelligent and less handsome suitor have a legitimate complaint about unfairness? 1
There is some position (the woman’s husband) that applicants (Nozick and the other suitor) can earn via their qualifications (intelligence and good looks). Nozick claims if we subscribe to EOO, we must equalize the romantic chances of both of them. This is because Nozick’s intelligence and physiognomy put him at an “unearned” advantage over the other suitor. As a result, EOO requires we level the playing field. Perhaps we give the suitor additional tutoring and vouchers for plastic surgery, or a million dollars to at least make him financially attractive.
Nozick will say something is wrong with applying EOO like this. To him, it demonstrates the principle is absurd. It doesn’t follow that because an individual was granted a weak jaw and sullen eyes he/she is entitled to cosmetic surgery and a gym membership (or perhaps a move to a country that values those features), in the name of romantic equality. EOO is not an appropriate principle to apply here, and therefore it’s an inadequate principle of justice. How can we trust it to regulate our society if it fails so spectacularly in this case?
Formalizing Nozick’s argument clarifies what we’re up against.
- We can’t apply EOO everywhere (it doesn’t work in our love lives)
- If you’re an appropriate principle of justice, you can be applied anywhere
- Hence, EOO is not an appropriate principle of justice (modus tollens!)
The clearest way to defend EOO is to deny (2). In the next section, I present various arguments that attempt this. I also supply how Nozick might respond.
Claim: Equalizing economic opportunity is hard enough, and attempting to level the romantic playing field might be harder. Given limited resources, we should pick the low-hanging fruit and ignore equalizing romantic opportunity.
Rebuttal: This is a sound argument, but notice it is not a philosophical one. It only concludes we shouldn’t implement EOO for romance, not that it’s a faulty principle. Even if a problem is intractable, solving it may still be the right thing to do.
Claim: We might say EOO as Nozick describes it is not what we mean by equality of opportunity. Instead of everybody having an equal chance of success, we want people with the same talents and abilities to have approximately equal chances of success. Under the modified EOO, we’re not required to give the worse suitor intellectual training or vouchers for cosmetic surgery. Instead, we expect his chance of success with Nozick’s wife to be equal to the chance another, similarly abled suitor would have. Nozick having a better shot isn’t a problem as his qualifications are greater.
Rebuttal: Unfortunately, modified EOO is still problematic. There are many good-looking, intelligent philosophers out there. Modified EOO requires all of them to have an approximately equal chance of marrying Nozick’s wife. Do we fly all of them to Boston to have an audience with her? Does she have to travel the world and give everyone a fair chance? What if she doesn’t want to expend the effort to sort through the world’s philosopher-bachelors for a husband? Is she behaving unjustly? We’re still led astray.
Claim: There’s a significant overlap between economic and romantic opportunity. Financial stability can render potential mates more attractive. For the most part, we would rather date the independent careerist rather than someone who still lives in his/her parent’s basement. Economic freedom also gives people opportunities to conform to various beauty standards. With more income, perhaps someone can afford a gym membership, eat healthier, or dress better. Financial EOO is approximately the same as EOO for romance. As a result, we can apply both with only economic interventions.
Rebuttal: Still, the two aren’t one and the same. Equalizing romantic opportunity might also require subsidizing plastic surgery, or sending people to therapy to correct maladaptive traits. It’s easy to understand how someone can be wealthy and also deeply unattractive. EOO for romance is not regular EOO in disguise.
Claim: Romance is so personal that no principle of justice can apply. Your romantic partner has considerable influence over your life. You will spend tremendous amounts of time with this person, divulging your deepest fears, your greatest aspirations — and they will do the same to you. It is the most intimate relationship two humans can share, and as a result, activities in this realm are immune to considerations of justice. Professional activities, those concerning the distribution of wealth and status, are less emotionally consequential. Thus, we must heed EOO for those, while romance is exempt.
Rebuttal: Unfortunately, emotional significance is a sketchy line to draw the limits of justice. Many professional decisions have just as much, if not more, emotional significance than romantic ones.
Imagine a business founder who is hiring a CFO. The two will spend thousands of hours together, and, depending on how much they work, might even spend more time with each other than with their spouses. In the process, they will likely share their thoughts, exchange their fears, get to know each other in a (platonically) intimate way. Because the company’s success and the emotional health of the founder are dependent on the CFO’s performance, the decision to hire one candidate over the other has incredible emotional import. If the industry is unpredictable and the CFO’s role is particularly important, the CFO might be a larger contributor to the founder’s emotional volatility than the latter’s romantic partner! Emotional significance doesn’t draw a clear boundary between love and work. As a result, it probably can’t tell us why one is exempt from considerations of justice while the other isn’t.
Claim: Principles of justice regulate only materially important activities. Economic opportunity determines whether an individual lives in luxury or squalor, so we must ensure it is distributed justly. Romantic opportunity, though having great emotional significance, has no such consequences. 2 A successful job interview can provide years of economic security, health insurance, and social status. If you’re lucky, a successful date only produces a second one.
Rebuttal: But, in regulating material activities, aren’t the principles of justice securing our ability to pursue emotionally significant things? At its most severe, economic opportunity makes the difference between life and death, but this is rarely the case in developed nations. Being denied it in places like the United States is unjust because it constrains our ability to live comfortably and pursue what’s important to us. Without wealth and security, people are unable to cultivate their hobbies or interests or spend time with loved ones. If the principles of justice are explicitly concerned with material activities, at core they aid our pursuit of emotional significance.
In light of this, why must the principles of justice stop at economics? Romantic opportunity leads to just as much, if not more, emotional significance for an individual. A successful date might lead to a second one, a third one, a fourth one, and perhaps to a wonderful union. Principles of justice that exist to advance fairness and our pursuit of what’s meaningful, assuming only material things can aid us, ignore a fundamental part of life.
Claim: We can object to romantic EOO on libertarian grounds. Principles of justice are applied by the government, and the government should not interfere in romance. Hence, no principles can be applied to our love lives, and EOO for romance is inappropriate.
Rebuttal: We’ve put the cart before the horse. We don’t decide what the government can and cannot do and then formulate principles of justice around that. It happens in reverse. First, we come up with principles that would regulate a just society. Then, we define the scope of government in terms of these principles. Because of this, we cannot use restrictions on government to constrain what we think is just. If we believe the state has no place in romance, we must defend independent principles that support this.
Nozick’s argument is stronger than we thought, though it need not cause us to abandon EOO. There are non-philosophical reasons why it is a good principle in certain forms. Recall the modified version of EOO that says people of equal abilities should have approximately equal chances of success. An advantage of this principle is that fewer peoples’ talents go to waste. If ability is the only relevant factor in distributing jobs, then we’re probably going to have the most able people in the most demanding jobs. What (hopefully) results is better institutions, better government, and a more competent society overall.
But this argument does not appeal to fairness or justice. It does not demonstrate EOO is something “good in and of itself” or worth doing for its own sake. We might like its consequences, but this is a far cry from treating EOO as a deeply held moral intuition.
Adopting a consequentialist perspective also forces you to think seriously about EOO for romance. If its consequences are good, if giving people equal romantic opportunity increases total/average/whatever utility, you must adopt it. You’re not allowed to object on principle.
And, prima facie, EOO for romance might have great consequences. Who wouldn’t want to be more appealing on the dating market? Who wouldn’t want a larger pool of mates to choose from? What’s there to dislike?