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Equality of Opportunity and Social Justice: Affirmative Action Essay

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Updated: Sep 28th, 2021


In the history of mankind, the concepts of democracy and social justice have become very prominent only in the last two hundred and twenty-five years. The French Revolution and the American War of Independence contributed much to this turning point. In England, as in almost all European countries, the unlimited monarchy was the order of the day. From Magna Carta to modern times it took several centuries for the British to evolve democratic norms and they now form the basis of governments everywhere. Even then the transition from feudalistic privileges of a few to at least equal application and protection of the law for all required many struggles.

The French Revolution loudly proclaimed the ideas of Equality, Liberty, and Fraternity to the whole world as universal ideals to be achieved and practiced. The founding of the United States of America was based on the principle that all men were created equal though it took a hundred years to abolish slavery and another hundred years to bring about legal acceptance of equality among races. If this is the situation in advanced nations of the world, the plight in the newly emerging states in Africa, Asia, and Latin America can easily be imagined as to how difficult would it be to bring about social justice where people had for centuries lived under one form of oppression or the other.

Democracy and problems of social justice

A democracy guaranteeing to its citizens the political rights and participation in the government has undoubtedly its merits. But mechanically voting in the elections and very formally participating in the democratic process is not enough. What made democracy gain a universal acceptance is its sense of justice, that too, social justice. It is true that absolute equality in all respects among the members of a democratic society would be very difficult to attain. Human beings are not endowed alike and there are differences in many respects. But the perpetuation of privileges for some and denial of opportunities to others would make democracy a mockery. Social, economic, and political justice should be the ultimate concern for anyone genuinely interested in the promotion of welfare and happiness of all. We will not worry here about the different economic theories or welfare concepts but will analyze some aspects of social justice and how they could pave the way for the true realization of human values.

Historical circumstances bring about people together for the common objective of better living. The evolution of various factors in nations, therefore, varies from place to place. We have, however, racial, linguistic, gender, and economic injustices in some form or other everywhere. They inflict wounds upon the less privileged sections of the people in getting a good education or employment or even good standard of living, leave alone political power or influence.

Should merit be sacrificed for equality?

A society or a nation could make progress only if it is governed by the meritorious. There can be no two opinions on that. In order to possess leadership at any institutional expression of the state or economic organization, the right education is the surest path. Therefore, the question of equality assumes significance. In the name of equal opportunity, should we encourage then filling up of posts in government offices or in the educational portals percentage representation of different sections of the people in the state or strictly adhere to merit alone? Should university admissions freely accept affirmative action?

There are two principles, the non-discrimination principle, and leveling of the playing field principle, which is freely debated. (Roomer John E.1998). The first one would not brook interference with the merit as the sole basis because lowering the efficiency of the institutional expressions would lower the outcome in many respects. As opposed to this many have argued that age-old discriminations which have been perpetrated against some sections of the society could be eliminated only by providing a level-playing field whereby opportunity is afforded

to disadvantaged sections to come up. In other words, affirmative action would redress the age-old imbalance. However, Dr. Mark Corey says, “Few would quarrel with at least a modicum of social welfare to provide the necessities of a dignified life for such social casualties. But it is a perversion of welfare in the guise of the sweet reason that offers the biggest challenge to the merit principle at present. It is the movement whose present culmination has produced affirmative action, involving the introduction of equal employment opportunity (EXEO) imprecisely expressed.” (Human Rights in Australia, 1985)

Chris Armstrong points out, “Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: first, they are to be attached to positions and offices open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; second, they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.” (p.28, Rethinking Equality, 2006). So the concepts of Equality and Justice would seem to present conflicts for citizenship and democracy. If discrimination were to be practiced, inequalities could continue. If inequalities are sought to be eliminated by providing special preferences to the less privileged it could violate the principle of equality! On this dilemma, naturally, there are serious discussions on the issue and the final word has not yet come about. It is in this background that attention must be paid to ‘affirmative action’.

Affirmative Action

“In its modern form, affirmative action can call for an admissions officer faced with two similarly qualified applicants to choose the minority over the white, or for a manager to recruit and hire a qualified woman for a job instead of a man. Affirmative action decisions are generally not supposed to be based on quotas, nor are they supposed to give any preference to unqualified candidates.” (Dan Frocking, 1998). Accordingly, in educational institutions, one student is to be preferred over the other by virtue of some accepted norm. The question is do we not deliberately inflict harm on the left-out by denying the opportunity to learn for no fault of his other than an accident of birth?

It must be borne in mind that equality of opportunity is not equal opportunity for all. The latter is naturally untenable in many situations. To afford fair opportunity for all on some selected norms is one thing. To afford everyone an opportunity to do a particular thing is certainly different.

A European Commission report also stresses the need for affirmative action in some form or other to give relief to disabled members of society. It sounds sensible and logical that some gesture must be made by society to lessen the burden of some of the disabled at least to some extent. And there is also this gender discrimination. Of the 187 nations or so there are hardly 15 or 20 real or nominal heads of state and government who are women! These two are largely in the most advanced European Nations. Then the the plight of women to come up politically and educationally and therefore socially, too, in emerging nations can easily be imagined! Would not ‘affirmative action’ to some extent lift the womenfolk out of this mire of permanent stagnation?

According to Loretta Cape heart and Dragon Milovnovic, an affirmative act is based on substantive rationality. So too is comparable worth, which concerns challenging work practices whereby the only distinguishing factor is the position title, where the actual functioning is the same.” (p.35, Social Justice).


Now we have to arrive at a reasonable conclusion as to the necessity and extent of affirmative action. Equity, fair play, and justice should not be treated as empty rhetoric. A society genuinely interested in the welfare of all should look at the obstacles for the disadvantaged in many respects and find amicable solutions without detriment to the efficient working of universities and general administration. For centuries many sections in the society had lived under discrimination and neglect in many forms. From the Age of Reformation and Renaissance to arrive at political equality, it took some two hundred years and another hundred and fifty years or so to give substance to the principle of equality of mankind. To carry forward further this principle of equity and fair play it would appear that some sort of affirmative action is needed. We do not find much evidence for privileged people and those who exercise authority voluntarily coming forward to share the same with others. That is how revolutions were inspired. We cannot afford to have civil wars everywhere to share the fruits of economic and social justice.

If the true spirit of nationalism, democracy, and justice are any guide to enhance human values, there is nothing wrong with having affirmative action to help sections within a nation advance educationally and socially. One could go to the extent of saying that there is a moral obligation on the part of people who are educated, enlightened, and with a commitment to overall growth and prosperity of the nation to come forward and do as much as possible to help the weaker sections. And it is not just the better placed alone who have to sacrifice a little. Those who are to reap the gains of affirmative action should remember that ideally, they must have all opportunities to equip themselves with the required knowledge and not claim any special privileges merely because for centuries their ancestors were denied many opportunities. Efforts must be collectively made to give full help during the formative years of learning to increase the vision of the underprivileged so that affirmative action does not have to be a permanent feature in educational institutions. The tremendous growth of technology and social consciousness should be directed to increase the learning capabilities, knowledge, and perception of the weaker sections of the society so that in the reasonable future all citizens shall have acquired enough grooming to compete on absolutely equal footing. This is not just a distant ideal but a goal that must be vigorously pursued. And economically advanced nations should serve as models to the rest of the world in bringing about this ideal situation as early as possible.


Armstrong, C. 2006, Rethinking Equality: The Challenge of Equal, Manchester University Press.

Capeheart, L. Social Justice, Theories, Rights and Movement, Loretta Rudgets University Press, 2007.

Clayton, M. Andrew Williams, 2003. Social Justice, AndreBlackwell Publishing.

Dr. M.Cooray, M,. Human Rights in Australia. Froomkin,D. 1998.

Jensen, R. , 1998 White Privilege shapes the US, first appeared in the Baltimore Sun.

Rawls, 1999. A Theory Of Justice, Harvard University Press.

Roemer, J.E., 1998. Equality of Opportunity, Harvard University Press.

Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, 2001: Affirmative Action.


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