For much of human history, the idea of equal opportunity has been a founding principle of society. In its simplest form, it says that all persons should have an equal chance to succeed. However, since many of society’s institutions and practices still discriminate unfairly against some groups, this ideal has been weakened. In order for society to move towards a more progressive view, it is necessary to draw clear lines and to specify rules governing who gets to participate and who doesn’t.
There are two schools of thought about how to achieve this ideal. The first school believes that laws ought to be framed that give everyone equal opportunity. The second school tends to reject the idea of laws as solutions to problems, arguing that they don’t help people but rather hinder them from achieving their goals. In addition, there are some who believe that equal opportunity should mean treating all with equal moral and ethical standards. Still, other people believe that a just society needs to recognize and guarantee rights for certain groups, such as women, disabled individuals, and ethnic groups, and that the only way these groups can enjoy equal opportunities is through governmental action.
The debate over equal opportunity has also been fueled by various technological advances. It was the progress in communications and information systems that led to major changes in how society viewed justice. While earlier systems simply dealt with whether or not someone could get an education or could work, with the advent of computerization, the expansion of higher education has led to claims of a “post-industrial” era where people are now capable of doing much better than even past generations. When these new systems and technologies are applied in daily life, however, it can cause significant discrepancies in how society sees justice, which is one reason why there is often widespread support for policies that would codify rules regarding what are considered opportunities and what are considered hindrances to success.
The need for clear laws governing equal opportunity has prompted various commentators to coin terms like “structured litigation,” “disability” and “additional benefits,” which broadly define the range of practices that have been used in the legal system for decades. Proponents of such legislation argue that such laws help ensure that people are given equal opportunities in employment, housing, health care, education, criminal law, and so on. Opponents argue that such laws do not provide equal protection under the law because they give preferences to some groups over others, and they can thus deny opportunities to some people that might otherwise be open to them. They also argue that such legislation is frequently manipulated by powerful interests who wish to benefit from their actions, thereby undermining the true intent of such legislation. In addition, some opponents of equal opportunity laws have challenged the idea that some groups face greater hardships than other groups and thus deserve a greater level of attention and protection.
Advocates of equal opportunity laws generally point out that such laws help to level the playing field for some individuals who might otherwise be discouraged or unable to achieve the same opportunities held by others. For example, those who are considered physically handicapped can gain access to better educational facilities, as well as opportunities for employment. Likewise, people who experience the unfortunate circumstances of rape or other sexual assault can receive fairer representation in the criminal justice system and, in some cases, have their attackers spared the stigma of incarceration. Those who suffer from serious mental illness can receive treatment and even have their civil rights restored, according to some advocates. And those who suffer from poverty or other hardships may be able to enjoy greater access to fair trials and other remedies. Such a scenario would seem to suggest that equal opportunity does indeed exist, although some opponents of such legislation might dispute this contention on the grounds that such laws create unfair advantaged positions for some groups and disadvantage others.
Proponents of equal opportunity often point out that such laws only address the issues of equal opportunity for those within a protected class. Thus, those within a protected class are not afforded equal opportunity to achieve certain goals or to be successful in certain activities. For instance, someone who belongs to a minority group may face greater barriers to success in the workplace than someone who belongs to a majority group, despite the fact that the two groups have nearly identical characteristics and experiences.