When a fair chance isn’t an equal chance

Even without knowing him personally, it should be obvious from the title of his book on school choice, ‘How Not To Be A Hypocrite’, that Adam Swift is an interesting guy.  This is the sort of moral philosophy that tries to reach out from academia and give us a practical guide for the difficult choices we face in practice, including the question: should we ban private schools?

Banning private schools is an infringement of freedom, but allowing their existence is an offence to meritocracy.  While Swift clarifies five types of objection to private schools, what really interests me in this post is the response of another excellent philosopher, Elizabeth Anderson.  Anderson argues in response to Swift that fair chances are not the same as equal chances – an argument that seems to have a striking similarity to some of the public attitudes I referred to in a previous post

(Quick note: I here use ‘private’ and ‘private’ in the US not UK sense. The UK meaning of ‘public schools’ schools seems designed to confuse as many people as possible…).


What’s wrong with private schools?

Swift’s problems with private schools are fivefold (according to Anderson):

  1. Efficiency – private schools allow less able students to rise to senior positions in society, despite their lack of (relative) ability.
  2. Queue-jumping – private schools students unfairly jump public-school competitors in the queue for valuable universities and jobs.
  3. Peer group effects – more motivated students are split from less motivated ones, and the less-motivated students suffer from being surrounded by other less-motivated students.
  4. Parental voice – many parents who care most about education are split from the public school system, who therefore have fewer pressures to improve.
  5. Solidarity – students are segregated along the lines of wealth, thereby undermining social solidarity.

If you’re like me, then this initially seems persuasive.  However, Anderson argues that only the last argument here is a valid objection to private schools.  For the ‘peer group’ and ‘parental voice’ objections, her main counter is that these are not likely to be that large (p108) – and are therefore too weak to restrict the liberty of parents. (Readers may find this as unconvincing as I do…). But  it is her two other arguments I found provoking and thought-provoking.

The construction of ‘merit’

As gets repeated endlessly, the term ‘meritocracy’ actually comes from a satire of the idea by Michael Young. Young defined merit as ‘IQ plus effort’, which I take as meaning ‘innate’ and ‘constructed’ ability respectively; the complexities in what ‘innate ability’ means I leave for another occasion.

Often when talking about meritocracy, we refer to only to natural ability (as in Leon Feinstein’s ‘killer chart’). Yet when we consider constructed ability, the problem of ‘efficiency’ isn’t actually an objection to private schools at all. In fact, according to the ideal of the meritocracy, it is desirable for private school students to jump over public school students with the same innate ability – as long as their effort and education lead them to have greater levels of achieved merit (the ‘efficiency’ argument above).  As Anderson puts it (p102):

“Meritocracy does not care whether people are meritorious because they are ‘natural born’ talents or were born with a given temperament, or because their parents invested huge effort in developing their talents, and relentlessly pushed them until they internalized their parents’ ambitions. It just wants the most productive workers.  How they came to be that way is no concern of the meritocrat.”

What I find particularly powerful here is Anderson’s scepticism that ‘innate ability’ has any greater worth than achieved ability. The accidents of genetics have no deeper moral value – or in Anderson’s nice phrase (p103), “we have no reason to defer to any aristocracy, whether ‘natural’ or artificial.”

The meaning of ‘fair chances’

What really struck me, though, was Anderson’s rejection of the idea that ‘equal chances’ were a central aim for meritocrats (the ‘queue-jumping’ argument above).  She argues from her wider theoretical perspective that what really matters is chances that are fair enough to ensure democratic equality (p106):

“Democratic equality is egalitarian in its conception of just relationships among citizens, but sufficientarian in its conception of justice in the distribution of resources and opportunities.  What is important is not that everyone has equal opportunities to acquire resources and fulfilling jobs, but that everyone has ‘enough’.  The ideal of democratic equality specifies how much this is: enough to secure the conditions of citizens’ freedom and civic status as equal to other citizens.”

Anderson clarifies that everyone must be entitled to a ‘fair chance’ to get a fulfilling, well-paying job, but that this does not mean an ‘equal chance’ – partly for the reason above (that it contradicts the efficiency basis of meritocracy) and partly because it denies more-motivated parents the opportunity to help develop their children’s talents. She therefore denies that the queue-jumping argument has any force, instead saying that from the perspective of democratic equality, the main problem is one of solidarity. (Which she argues is insufficiently strong to lead them to be banned, problematic though it is).

Final thoughts

The point here is not the philosophically validity of this claim (with which I disagree), but rather how far this seems to fit the public attitudes in the JRF report I described a couple of weeks ago. People know that there are barriers that make it easier for some people to succeed – but they nevertheless feel that everyone has a chance to succeed that is fair enough. Arguably this ties in with the extensive sociological evidence that education is both the main means of social mobility and simultaneously the main means of the reproduction of inequality.

If people are to be convinced that there are unfairness that demand action, then we not only need to show inequities in life chances, but that these violate the threshold of what is acceptable. And it is this that most conventionally-presented statistical coefficients fail to do.

About Ben Baumberg Geiger

I am a Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research (SSPSSR) at the University of Kent. I also helped set up the collaborative research blog Inequalities, where (after a long break) I am again blogging about inequality-related policy & research. I have a wide range of research interests, at the moment focusing on the role of social science, disability, inequality, deservingness, and the future of the benefits system, and I co-lead the Welfare at a (Social) Distance project (on the benefits system during Covid-19). You can find out more about me at http://www.benbgeiger.co.uk
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5 Responses to When a fair chance isn’t an equal chance

  1. You might like to pick up on Adam Swift’s own response to Anderson’s article:


    • Ben Baumberg says:

      Thanks Steve – I’d missed this completely (I arrived at Anderson’s article when looking at her other (more extensive) work on the role of values in science. I should also flag that I haven’t read the Swift book, instead having seen him speak plus a couple of articles, and I’d been impressed).

      Looking through Swift’s response, I figure I should say three things:

      1. In terms of the first main point in the post (‘the construction of merit’), Swift is clear that he’s not arguing about ‘meritocracy’ in the book (p329-330). Swift nicely summarises this difference, “for [Anderson], the meritocratic principle is appropriate when allocating jobs to people with already-developed talents, whereas my book is concerned with principles to govern the distribution of opportunities to have talents developed.” I think Anderson’s point is interesting, but I probably unfairly implied that Swift was a strict meritocrat in these terms, when he isn’t.

      2. I definitely didn’t want to suggest that I agreed with Anderson’s view that Swift is wrong (as I tried to hint at). Swift mounts a highly convincing counter-attack on Anderson’s notion of ‘fair enough chances’ – “I think that it is unfair if, for reasons beyond their control, people have better or worse lives than one another…I agree that there are reasons why we might choose unequal chances to develop merit…But in my view, when we do that we choose unfairness” (p325).

      3. Instead, I found it interesting that Anderson presents a clearer, more articulate version of a view I think is common outside of academia – that everyone in rich societies has a fair chance, even if they don’t have an equal chance. Like Swift, I think this view is wrong. But it’s helpful in trying to understand why the outrage of many inequalities researchers isn’t shared more widely.

      Thanks again for flagging this – not only are the clarifications on the post helpful, I enjoyed reading Swift’s response (like I do with all his articles!).

  2. Paul Kelleher says:

    I have not read the Swift book, but Anderson’s explication of the meritocratic principle is quite different from the explication Swift gives elsewhere. If they are indeed talking about two different things, then Anderson’s rebuttal to Swift’s arguments will miss the mark.

    Here is Swift writing with Harry Brighouse in “Educational Equality versus Educational Adequacy” (which is actually a partial reply to Anderson):

    “The [meritocratic] principle precludes us from allowing people’s chances of achieving offices and positions to depend on their class of origin…”

    So stated, a believer in this principle would not qualify as a “meritocrat” in Anderson’s sense. In her view:

    “[Meritocracy] just wants the most productive workers. How they came to be that way is no concern of the meritocrat.”

    This interpretation completely conflicts with Swift and Brighouse’s interpretation. For them, it violates the Meritocratic principle if people get into a great school purely because of class, even if this makes them more productive than any workers would be in any alterate arrangement. For Anderson, the meritocrat cares about efficiency only, and so does not care if people’s productivity is initially shaped by class origin.

    Finally, my guess is that Swift believes that the Meritocratic principle can sometimes be outweighed by other principles (perhaps efficiency-related) principles (he and Brighouse allow for this in their article). It may therefore turn out that Swift’s wider view coheres nicely with Anderson’s wider view, especially if they are both advance solidarity-related arguments.

    • Ben Baumberg says:

      I was hoping you’d reply Paul – I knew you’d know more than me about this! As the reply to Steve above suggests (which came some hours after your reply, despite WordPress suggesting otherwise…), you were completely right about Swift’s views – Anderson’s comment on meritocracy is (to my mind) interesting, but it’s unfair when applied to Swift.

      More generally, the post/ comments remind me that the issue about what parents should be allowed to pass on to their children is both conceptually interesting and practically relevant (schools policy, social care/tax policy and anything that affects financial transfers etc). I’ll try and dig around this a bit more – and definitely interested if you want to write anything about it!

  3. Pingback: links for 2011-06-30 « The NRB

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