What the public thinks of ‘fair chances’

The other week I wrote about how ‘fair chances’ are not necessarily ‘equal chances’, spurred by writings of the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson.  In one of those satisfying coincidences that happen from time-to-time, these ideas helped explain a conundrum that Karen Rowlingson presented at a conference session a matter of days later – showing empirical data on the difference between fair chances and equal chances.  I’m now convinced that people don’t believe in absolute equality of opportunity; instead, they hold close the ideal that people have a good enough chance of getting on in life.

What the data show

Karen Rowlingson argued that there is a contradiction between two different accounts of social mobility attitudes (Karen is one of the main researchers of attitudes to inequality in the UK, and one of those people whose work is consistently interesting).  On the one hand, Bamfield & Horton (in a study I’ve previously written about) found 69% agreed that ‘There is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to. It comes down to the individual and how much you are motivated’.  This seemingly shows that people believe that Britain is a fair country.

Yet at the same time, Rowlingson own analysis (with Michael Orton and Eleanor Taylor ) of the invaluable British Social Attitudes data  shows that people believe Britain is unequal (the report is also available here, for a fee):

  • 80% agree that ‘children from better off families have many more opportunities than children from less well-off families’
  • 68% agree that ‘some people have higher incomes than others because they are born to rich parents and have advantages from the start          ‘
  • 62% agree ‘there can never be equal opportunities in a society where some people have higher incomes than others’
  • And only 27% believe ‘people in Britain today have similar opportunities regardless of their income’

At the Social Policy Association conference, Rowlingson argued that these data contradict one another – and that this might be explained by the lower quality of the survey in Bamfield/Horton (using an online panel).

Yet to my mind, there is no contradiction between these survey results. The public generally believe some people have advantages over others – but ‘there is enough opportunity for virtually everyone to get on in life if they really want to’.  In other words, some people have better chances than others, but everyone has a pretty good chance that allows them to succeed if they work hard enough.

Researching fair chances 

With a little extension, we can say that public opinion is pretty close to Elizabeth Anderson’s considered view that I described in the previous post:

“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.”

To be clear: I don’t want to argue in favour of this point of view.  My own opinion is that (i) some people have barriers that are so severe that they don’t have a ‘reasonable’ chance; and (ii) that even for people that do have reasonable chances, the advantages that some people have are sufficiently great to constitute a great unfairness.

Yet if the public do believe that societies like the UK are unequal but fair, then this helps explain a number of questions that vex researchers: why inequality is so widely tolerated, and why their research appears to make so little headway in challenging it. It also explains why Leon Feinstein’s ‘killer chart’ that fell from grace was so influential: there’s lots of evidence on inequalities, but this was evidence of a substantial inequality that appeared to violate the idea of ‘reasonable chances’.

I take two things from this. First, like Daniel Goldberg, I think we need to consider the relationship of inequalities to injustices, a connection that lies just beneath the surface of much research but which only sporadically rises to the surface.  And second, public opinion will not be swayed by evidence of the existence of inequalities, but rather will only demand action if these inequalities pass some threshold of unfairness.

None of this is that surprising – it simply reflects what people tell us, in research and in more informal conversations. But at least for me, it’s proven surprisingly easy to forget this in the drive to document the existence of inequalities per se. Elizabeth Anderson’s arguments and the Rowlingson/Orton/Taylor data are a welcome reminder here.

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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4 Responses to What the public thinks of ‘fair chances’

  1. This is a great post — mostly because it cites me! — and it sort of touches on something I struggle with professionally. Namely, while a lot of my research is focused on social justice, inequities, and urging collective action, I am not a populist. The kind of beliefs you describe above are simply wrong, and I have no hesitation whatsoever in judging it as such.

    This is not to say the research you assess here has no merit; it is of course critical to understand what people do and do not believe in order to identify rhetorics that justify a hope that things and people can change for the better (indeed, the Renaissance humanists expressly built this idea into their educational program). This is the kind of pragmatism that is absolutely essential to shaping policy (well, that, and money/power, to be blunt). But in describing what people do and do not think is fair or just, or what they do and do not think about inequalities, we again want to be mindful of reading out the ought.

  2. Paul Kelleher says:

    Daniel, What does it mean to be a populist in the sense you’re using?

  3. Hey Paul,

    I was using the term very loosely, but I basically just meant that from an ethical perspective I’m not overly excited by learning about people’s preferences regarding health and inequalities. To use an example from a slightly different paradigm, many studies have documented that patients seem not to care much whether their health care providers accept gifts of small value from the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. I am not a “populist” in the sense that while I see some value in documenting such findings, I ultimately do not care that much whether a large majority of people think the practice is copacetic. I think the practice is wrong, and hence the majority’s preferences on this just aren’t (remotely?) dispositive.

    This general view also flows from some perspectives I have maintained in a legal context, generally regarding the problems of majoritarian tyranny and the wisdom of frustrating unfettered democratic rule (therein lies great danger, too, of course).

  4. Pingback: Beyond the uncertainty of The Spirit Level | Inequalities

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