Social Justice: Equal opportunity and privilege

Last Sunday, I observed that at the heart of American democracy is the promise of equal rights under the law, which provides for ‘equal opportunity’, especially for social, economic, and political advancement. This is very different from ‘equality of results’.

Equal rights under the law does not deny the possible of different social or economic classes, nor the privilege that comes with some sort of class differentiation, but would make those classes less rigid and more permeable so that ambitious members of the lower classes have the opportunity to advance their standing and will not be impeded by law from doing so.

This does not mean equal opportunity in the sense that everyone has the same opportunity to become rich, nor does it mean that everyone has equal access to the opportunities available. The person who stands to inherit a million dollars has the privilege of a head start in terms of wealth, while those who receive a higher caliber education will have a greater awareness of various opportunities and more easily know how to take advantage of them.

Equal opportunity really is no more than a prohibition against unjust discrimination; it means that a black man and a white man applying for the same job should have the same opportunity to be hired. Neither should be excluded on account of his race. In that sense, equal opportunity is a consequence of equal rights under the law.

Equality of results, however, rejects in principle class differentiation and demands absolute equality (economic, social, and political) across the board, declaring that the lack of such equality can only be due to unjust discrimination. Equality of results would mean that everyone, regardless of circumstances of birth and parentage, should, for example, have the same opportunity to attend Harvard University. That would finally mean the opportunity would even have to be independent of qualifications.

The idea of a classless society is a pure fiction and illusion the deceives the unwary by the offer of an appearance of justice and seduces the lazy by the offer of reward without merit. The truth is that, if we consider a purely monetary example, if tomorrow the world magically started anew on a basis of complete economic equality, within a year’s time society would be once again divided between rich and poor.

So also, it will always the case that there will be some who enter into this life in a more privileged condition, whether as regards health, or wealth, or access to education, or nationality, or social standing, or any other factor that bears upon the goods of this world.

Sometimes the privileged condition will be connected with some past injustice that cannot be corrected without doing more harm than good (even if there were a human being capable of making such a judgment); sometimes the privileged condition will be connected with an injustice that must be corrected (e.g. the parents are stripped of their ill-gotten gains and so the child who was born into a wealthy household ends up being raised in a poor household). In general, we can say the more remote the past injustice, the less connected it is to present privilege, and the less possibility there is of a present correction that would in any way be just.
Unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of democratic society is that it either gives an illusion of a classless society or it inculcates the idea that there should not be class differences. As a result, the ‘de facto’ elites, feeling themselves equal to the lower classes, sense no obligation towards them. The elites in a democratic society tend to feel their privilege as due to them, rather than as a privilege bestowed upon them, a privilege that entails obligation. A truly aristocratic society inculcates the idea of ‘noblesse oblige’ (nobility has its obligations) among the elite. Of course, human nature being what it is, aristocrats often take their privilege as their due and neglect their obligations. Nevertheless, beneath the influence of grace, true nobility is possible and has been lived, as evidenced by canonized saints among ancient royalty and nobility.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.