Against equality of opportunity?

by John Q on March 20, 2004

Since I’ve argued previously that there’s a lot of confusion in discussions about equality of opportunities and of outcomes, I was interested by this story that UK Home Secretary David Blunkett has hired as special advisor on race someone named Matt Cavanagh, most notable for writing a book called Against Equality of Opportunity which says that employers should be permitted to engage in racial discrimination.

This interview with Cavanagh in The Guardian does not seem very promising – he comes across as the worst kind of contrarian[1] – but is not really enough to go on. So I was hoping someone with a subscription to the London Review of Books might send me a copy of Jeremy Waldron’s apparently favorable review. In case you’re worried about the sanctity of intellectual property, I am a subscriber but I’ve never registered with the website and don’t have the required address slip to hand.

Meanwhile, I’m confident that lots of readers (and probably other CT members) will be well ahead of me, so I’d welcome comments, particularly setting me straight if I have misunderstood Cavanagh (or Waldron).

fn1. That is, one who makes great play with contradictions in the conventional wisdom, does not put forward a coherent alternative, but nonetheless makes authoritative-sounding pronouncements on public policy.



Brian Weatherson 03.20.04 at 5:20 am

It’s not as exciting as Waldron’s review, but here’s a positive review by Louis Pojman in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.


John Quiggin 03.20.04 at 6:47 am

From the things I’ve read so far, Cavanagh seems to take the naturalness of capitalist property relations as a given, and argue against equality from there, in the manner of Nozick, though not with the same commitment to pushing premises to their logical conclusions.

Is this about right?


Chris Bertram 03.20.04 at 9:34 am

I think I’ve met him, not that I can remember much about the encounter. Anyway, I don’t see the Nozick comparison at all.

Since I’ve not read the book, I can’t comment on the specifics of his arguments, but from what I can gather from the links you’ve put up his argument there is not that race discrimination should generally be permissible but, rather, that where it should be prohibited it should be prohibited on different grounds (it manifests contempt etc) than the ones that most liberals favour (equality, etc) and that these different grounds will capture a different range of cases.

The other day I posted about Barbara Fried’s invocation of the grubby details of the public relations of US politics into a review of a philosophical treatment of matters of basic justice. The objection to Cavanagh from soundbite politicians under questioning from tabloideques journalists seems to be that when he considered such questions in a philosophical study (probably originating in his PhD thesis!) he said some things which clash with their pre-existing sensibilities and beliefs. Well, of course he did.

But that’s no objection to him, now, pursuing a different career with different imperatives, functioning as an advisor to Blunkett. (And kudos to Blunkett for appointing him).


Chris Bertram 03.20.04 at 9:44 am

I hadn’t appreciated when I followed the link from John’s post that the Guardian are running this as their lead story today under the headline “Blunkett aide in row over race”. This is really poor coming from the Guardian, really poor.


push 03.20.04 at 9:48 am

I thought it was the other way round from the links that (like a very 17th century argument) you can’t use the law to legislate against racial contempt which is an issue of inward conscience. But I hope, and I don’t know if he agrees, that he isnt ruling out state intervention to secure equality on other grounds…but perhaps that is the argument of his book.


John Quiggin 03.20.04 at 11:57 am

Thanks to reader Peter Evans, who sent me the review within a few hours of the post. This is such a great blog!

Waldron’s review focuses on comparisons with Nozick, so I don’t think I’m drastically off the mark there. Similarly Waldron’s concluding sentence “the unforgiving rigour of his argument yields an odd sort of obtuseness as to what the underlying concerns about equal opportunity really are” mirrors the point I made about Nozick (though I’d say that Nozick takes this to an extreme that is unlikely to be matched any time soon).


tim quincy 03.20.04 at 3:02 pm

The Guardian quotes him as saying (Sorry for the length, seems warranted though)

“A company realises that its customers, who are predominantly white, tend to prefer to do business with white staff. Depending on how strong this preference is, it might be rational for the company to discriminate against black applicants on the basis that, for this reason alone, they tend to be less good at the job,” he wrote.

The special adviser stated : “Perhaps we wouldn’t naturally describe what the employer is doing as unfair”, before going on to suggest that, while an employer was translating prejudice into effect, it should not be unlawful unless there was “unwarranted contempt” or very extreme discrimination.

“At the very least he is left with dirty hands. But perhaps this is not the kind of wrongdoing that warrants state intervention. We might think that whether he keeps his hands clean is a matter for his conscience alone,” wrote Mr Cavanagh.

No academic since Milton and Rose Friedman has denied that discrimination s sometimes rational. Nozick didn’t. The point is, that’s precisely why we make laws restricting individually-ration-but-socially-harmful behavior. Like laws against mugging, fraud, murder – we don’t call these “dirty hands” problems. It would be a strange argument that good laws should duplicate things we’d do anyway in our rational interest. Not a libertarian arg, surely.

Of course, spotting individual rationality-> suboptimality is only the start of an argument for legal remedy. Cavanaugh might have interesting arguments about the details; Chris, you suggest he thinks there are better than E of O. I’d like to hear more. Harms to political equality? (Although the Guardian quotes him saying women’s equality should be based on a debt of gratitude for reproduction, not equal respect or chances, perhaps that’s out of context, but not promising.)


Brett Bellmore 03.20.04 at 4:08 pm

Of course, some of us would argue that there’s a substantial difference between assaulting someone, ad refraining from hiring them. Even that compelling me to hire somebody is conceptually no different from compelling them to work for me, just the flip side of slavery. And doesn’t freedom exists precisely in that space between what we should do, and can be compelled to do, what we shouldn’t do, and can be punished for doing?

Is everything that’s not manditory to be forbidden?


Matt Weiner 03.20.04 at 4:11 pm

Is everything that’s not manditory to be forbidden?


This has been easy answers to unnecessarily complicated questions, part IV. (Hat tip: the Poor Man.)


harry 03.20.04 at 7:02 pm

Am I the only person who has read the book here? Its pretty good, if a bit naive in places. Some of the arguments sound like Nozickian arguments, others sound like Arneson/Clayton arguments for natural aristocracy (the difference principle unconstrained by equality of opportunity). SO its hard to place politically. I read the Guardian interview when it was first published and also heard him on the radio sounding equally odd, but you really can’t judge from that — the first couple of times you get interviewed you do not necessarily come off as yourself. People I respect a great deal like him and think he’s v. smart, and the book is certainly smart. I think, of course, that being appointed by Blunkett is generally condemning, but he does appoint some good people…


Ginger Yellow 03.21.04 at 1:29 pm

I’ve only read the Guardian article, not the book or the LRB review, but if he’s been reported accurately, then it’s a pretty naive (at best) thing to say. The point of anti-discrimination laws isn’t just to correct actual injustices, it’s to change social norms and marginalise discriminatory views. If you yourself are not racist but use discriminatory employment practices to appease racist clients, you are guilty of perpetuating racism. It’s noway near as bad as inciting racial hatred or racially aggravated assault, say, but it certainly shouldn’t be legal.


Holden Brown 03.23.04 at 12:20 pm

I was at school with Matt Cavanagh and during an inter-house cricket match he emerged from the pavilion in stocking feet carrying his cricket shoes. He was quite peculiar and singular in this activity, I believe it was in order to save ‘mashing his spikes’ as he had to walk about 12 yards over some tarmac. Well, when he came to don his beloved cricket boots he began an inspection of the underside of his sock. Then, with a pained look on his face he started scooting one foot back and forth on the grass in the manner of a bull pawing at the ground, preparing to charge or more accurately in the style of someone that has stepped in steaming dog turd on the way over from the pavilion.

What was most amazing was he then slipped his shitty besocked foot into the heart of his prized cricket shoe, something that I would suggest flies in the face of simple logic and common sense. There was nothing stopping him discarding the soiled sock or indeed returning to the changing rooms and fetching a replacement.

I would suggest that if he can’t tackle this simple logical conundrum then his philosophy is at best wobbly and at worst tosh.

Dirty hands – crappy foot!

PS I haven’t read his book and I can’t say I’m inclined to.


Smythe Thomas III 03.23.04 at 5:55 pm

I was at said cricket match and as I remember it, Cavanagh came on as twelth man and went on to score 157 n.o.
His display secured our first house blue in over twenty years!!
As we carried him shoulder high across the seam toward the pavillion, the stench of shite was obscured by the heady scent of victory.

If he writes half as good as he bats I’ll be reading all his publications from now on.

Let’s just hope he’s changed his socks!!!

Comments on this entry are closed.