Men are not born equal, they are not born free; they are born a most various multitude enmeshed in an ancient and complex social net.

The Outline of History, H.G. Wells

This is one of the most powerful quotes in H.G. Wells’s wonderful popular history book. To me it encapsulates an inescapable fact. In any complex society, however egalitarian, resources are not distributed equally. Power, money, influence, and cultural capital are usually distributed hierarchically; and having powerful parents, a rich family, or being the “right” race, sexual orientation, gender, or whatever—these things you are born into.

Karl Marx makes a similar point in this famous passage:

Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of whole cloth: he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close as hand. The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.

“Equality of opportunity” is a phrase we like very much in the United States. It is an ideal, and like any ideal is something we strive for but can never achieve. Yet what does it mean? People born into wealth are at an obvious advantage to people born into poverty. They have better schools, they can afford to go to elite colleges (and elite colleges often can’t afford to turn them away), and thus they are many times more likely to get high paying jobs (besides being able to inherit money). This is an obvious case of inequality.

But what could we do about it? It’s a difficult problem. Should we prevent people from bequeathing money to their children? Should we make private schools illegal? Should we make laws preventing elite universities from accepting more than a certain percentage of people from wealthy families?

Perhaps it’s better to focus on improving the opportunities of the poor rather than restricting those of the rich? We can improve the schools, legislate affirmative action for disadvantaged groups, and make higher education more affordable (and less dependent on rich donors and students for their survival). These are all good things, for sure, and to a certain extent we are already striving to accomplish them.

A work in progress is all we will ever achieve. Like everything perfect, perfect equality of opportunity is an unrealizable dream. And yet, even if the dream were realized, would we be living in a perfect society? This is a question worth asking.

Even if we managed to equalize the starting point of every child, there would still be the question of how they would be measured. The idea behind having equality of opportunity is that, if some people are more successful than others, we can consider the outcome fair. This is an ideal meritocracy, where everyone gets their just desserts.

In a perfect meritocracy—where opportunity is equal—we advance or fail to advance because we possess certain qualities. But these qualities are arbitrary. In the United States, for example, we tend to value certain types of intelligence, certain personality traits, and certain goals. In other cultures, they have other values.

Every culture arbitrarily chooses some characteristics to value and others to ignore. Yet even when you subtract all the environmental influence, we are still left with our genetic endowment: each of us is born with different abilities, propensities, and weaknesses. Is it really fair that these inborn qualities should determine our success? It seems not—especially when you consider that these native qualities are being measured against an arbitrary standard.

Because of this arbitrariness, I think any fair system needs a kind of social safety net. Even with perfect equality of opportunity—which does not exist—some people will always have more trouble succeeding than others. Providing a basic minimum standard of living is an acknowledgment of this fact.

2 thoughts on “Quotes & Commentary #9: H.G. Wells

  1. It’s an area, interestingly, where political activism seems to have far outstripped philosophical theory, I think. As you say, everyone agrees in equality of opportunity. But… why, exactly? Few political theories actually explicit focus on ensuring equality of opportunity per se. Most just seem to sort of produce it as a byproduct. Liberal egalitarianism and other maximin approaches (which you allude to here) produce some equality of opportunity as a byproduct of aiding the worst-off. Marxist approaches produce equality of opportunity as a byproduct of eliminating exploitation. Free-marketeers produce equality of opportunity (they think) by eliminating repressive interference and letting the market fix everything and judge everyone according to their merits. Everyone seems to say “look, my approach produces equality of opportunity!” as an advertising slogan, but few if any of them explain why exactly they think that that’s a good thing, per se, or, indeed, what it even means, or address the fact that their theory, by focusing on something else, will always at least potentially fail to deliver maximum EoOp. And now it seems we have to go further – I was reading an article recently arguing that “equality of opportunity” is inherently racist and sexist, and that we need to move toward equality of outcome instead…

    You’re right, though, to question the role of genetic endowment. Equal opportunity is fundamentally an invention (which isn’t to say it’s right or wrong!) of the enlightenment, and of Kant. From Kant, we have inherited the idea of the autonomous soul warring against the material, determined body: some things are ‘our fault’ (or to our credit), while other things aren’t our fault because they’re the result of our bodies (or the physical actions of others). So it’s fair to reward someone for their wisdom, gentleness and curiosity, but it’s unfair to punish someone for, say, happening to be born with a deformed spine. From this, liberal egalitarianism goes further and, to simplify, says we need to compensate people for the bad things that aren’t their fault (but not for the bad things that are their fault). Some on the left have tried to reverse that, compensating people for their own bad decisions (to respect their life-choices – eg through basic income) but not ‘compensating’ people for acts of god like disabilities (because that’s patronising and doesn’t treat them as equals). But even that approach still shares that dichotomy: my fault, not my fault.

    What we are now finding, though, is that that distinction is increasingly attacked not only by philosophers (who have been attacking it in Rawles since he was published) but also by science, both sociological and psychological. Increasingly, the bad things about people can be “blamed” on things that “aren’t their fault” – no, he’s not a violent bully (his fault!), he’s suffering from ADHD, oppositional-defiant disorder and antisocial personality disorder (all not his fault!). Conversely, the good things can no longer be credited to them. No, he’s not peaceful, he has low testosterone; no, he’s not curious, he grew up in a privileged background that taught him to ask questions, how is that something he can get credit for?

    The conservative response is often to just deny the science (and reason) and insist that their pure autonomous soul is exempt from scientific explanations. But that’s presumably going to be harder and harder to hang on to, as science marches closer and closer to the heart of personality. And yet the pure alternative – living without blame or credit – does not seem to be possible in practice, which actually can leave us in what seems a pretty cold and brutal sort of place. Someone once used the analogy: you can call it a bad chair without ascribing blame to the chair. Likewise you can call a person a bad person without blaming them for that. Something about that, however, just seems… brutal. Writing people off en masse for things they had no control over. Putting people in prison because they’re inadequate, not because they’re immoral… it’s hard to see how we can avoid it, but it doesn’t seem pleasant either]. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this question – how we reconcile folk ethics with an increasing awareness of the role of external factors in individual characteristics and actions – may be the dominant question of philosophy and politics for the foreseeable future. And needless to say, it calls the whole idea of equality of opportunity into question starkly. EoOp depends on our ability to distinguish a person from their circumstances.

    It has real, political consequences too. 100 years ago Chesterton was already worrying about how this would impact civil liberties, in a way that seems prescient. It moves punishment from what is deserved to what is needed:
    “To say that we may punish people but not blame them is to say that we have a right to be cruel to them, but not a right to be kind to them. For blame is itself a compliment… it is an appeal to a man as a creative artist making his own soul…. when we call a man a coward, we are in so doing asking how he can be a coward when he could be a hero. When we rebuke a man for being a sinner, we imply that he has the powers of a saint… there are some limits to what ordinary men are likely to say that an ordinary man deserves. But there are no limits to what the danger of the community may be supposed to demand.” What’s more, the cruelties demanded by the protection of the state can be imposed without the need for clear guilt, or even a crime at all, but can be imposed preemptively. Somewhere Chesterton makes the point (I can’t find it off-hand) that when crime is considered a mental disorder, the mentally disordered can be punished even before they have commited a specific crime, to ‘protect the community’. And the oppression will be inflicted “chiefly on subordinate and submerged classes of society”.

    [Looking at it, Chesterton also comments more directly on the theory of the self (in the context of criticising the Edwardian idea of education as helping children ‘find who they really are’: “anybody might amuse himself trying to subtract the experiences and find the self; anybody who wanted to waste his time…. God alone knows what the child is really like, or is meant to be really like. All we can do is fill [the child] with those truths which we believe to be equally true whatever he is like.”]

    Of course, everything said here about punishment also applies to reward.

    Going back, though: some have argued that the distinguishing feature of ALL modern political philosophies is their commitment to egalitarianism. But it’s not equality of opportunity, but equality of importance that is constant: modern theorists pretty much all agree that everyone has equal worth, or at least that we ought to assume so (whereas earlier writers like Nietzsche did not agree with that). But actual equality of opportunity is much harder to reach theoreticaly, even before you start undermine the kantian notion of the self!

    Anyway, just a few idle thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a fascinating comment! I’ve actually been thinking about much the same issues, as this little post exemplifies. For my part, I think the decline in the belief in free will is a good thing, Chesterton’s worries notwithstanding.

      I wrote a fairly brief essay on my thoughts on morality and free will, but I feel embarrassed even to show it, since I’m sure it has some serious shortcomings. But as Epicurus said, the person who is proven wrong in a philosophical debate is the victor, since it is she who learns the most.

      You can find the essay here:


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