The quest for equality of opportunity is now pitted against free speech in the marketplace of ideas. Some think that curbs on freedom of speech are acceptable in order to promote equality of opportunity, while others argue that curbs on free speech are never acceptable. These newly drawn battle lines are testament to the ascendency of liberalism in the west, since both equality of opportunity and free speech are solidly liberal concepts. The tension between these two values may have come to a head in the last decade, but the dispute began in the mid-nineteenth century.
This 1850 passage by John Stuart Mill remains an important way of thinking about equal opportunity:
As well might it be said, that of two trees, sprung from the same stock, one cannot be taller than another but from greater vigour in the original seedling. Is nothing to be attributed to soil, nothing to climate, nothing to difference of exposure—has no storm swept over the one and not the other, no lightning scathed it, no beast browsed on it, no insects preyed on it, no passing stranger stript off its leaves or its bark? If the trees grew near together, may not the one which, by whatever accident, grew up first, have retarded the other’s development by its shade? Human beings are subject to an infinitely greater variety of accidents and external influences than trees, and have infinitely more operation in impairing the growth of one another; since those who begin by being strongest, have almost always hitherto used their strength to keep the others weak.
The last sentence of this might resonate particularly strongly with those who favor identity politics. The idea that structural inequality is underpinned by racist, sexist and classist discourse is a keystone of their thought. The desire to police language in order to prevent the strong from impairing the growth of the weak naturally follows from this premise.
If free speech, then, demonstrably curbs an individual’s opportunities for growth, it violates the harm principle. It must, in other words, be permitted to curb such speech, according to J. S. Mill, on the basis that it does evident harm. But J. S. Mill could not have predicted the current proliferation of arguments that statements that reveal even an implicit bias may perpetuate a structure that undermines equality of opportunity. This could potentially exclude many utterances from free speech protections—including some whose intent may be to promote the good. In the debates surrounding the revelations of the Chinese government’s influence on Australian politics, for example, there have been accusations that the whistle blowers have racist motivations. Perhaps it is almost impossible to reduce Chinese Communist Party influence on Australian politics without perpetuating a culture that unfairly impedes the career prospects of Asian Australians. This example reveals a conflict between two deeply cherished liberal values: the right to hold power to account through public criticism and the right to equal opportunity. This is a serious dilemma of which J. S. Mill does not seem to have been aware.
But why can’t we achieve a reasonable balance between the two values? For Isaiah Berlin, both values are important and reconciling the tension between them is a question of judgement. The existence of non-reducible and incommensurate values means that nothing is ever definitively settled by such judgements. By “incommensurate,” Berlin means that disputes cannot be permanently resolved by ranking values in order of their importance. It is therefore prudent to allow most speech acts to take place, so that all the relevant information is on the table. Moreover, the implicit acknowledgment that competing values exist is itself a feature of free societies. Governments that claim to have resolved the clash between competing values are often viciously repressive regimes. Berlin was a lifelong critic of what he regarded as “monistic” systems of thought—based on a single value, such as material equality in Soviet communism. The existence of competing values implies the possibility that each person can freely choose between those values. No one who values that freedom should surrender it to the whims of government.
John Rawls places far more emphasis on fairness. For Rawls, equality of opportunity trumps free speech in many instances. Indeed, Rawls viewed free speech as a virtue only because it encourages the kind of debate that increases the fairness of society. Outside of this consideration, Rawls’ support for free speech is far less enthusiastic. There are problems with viewing free speech as a means to achieving social fairness, rather than as an end in itself. The biggest problem is temporal—how does one know if a speech act will increase fairness, before one has heard or read it? How do we know that we have gathered all the information required to determine whether a society is fair, if some of the pertinent information is denied to us? Delegating access to the offending information is a particularly bad idea. Who can we trust to determine what information has a bearing on deciding what is fair? In practical terms, defining which speech acts should be allowed and which prohibited is enormously time consuming. The debates over cancel culture are often presented as a necessary preamble to debates about increasing fairness—but in fact they are mainly a distraction from that aim.
Rawls’ vision of equality of opportunity requires that, if one were to walk around a hospital ward full of newborn babies, one would not be able to determine the babies’ future prospects on the basis of their race, gender, class or any factor other than their innate individual talents and determination. For communists, this principle does not go nearly far enough. Worse still, communists often contend that the mantra of equality of opportunity justifies a flawed system by entrenching the assumption that the poor had their chance and blew it. This critique is not particularly trenchant, however, since we can work on increasing both the aggregate number of opportunities in society and the fairness of access to those opportunities. The one does not preclude the other.
While communists might regard equality of opportunity as a weak substitute for complete material equality, some libertarian and conservative writers view Rawls’ vision as a terrifying infringement on personal and familial liberties respectively. James Fishkin (1983) observes that the demands of equality of opportunity seem to require frankly unnatural behavior on the part of parents. It is natural for parents to nurture the talents of their offspring. If this gives children from supportive backgrounds an unfair advantage, how do we correct for that? Should parents refrain from encouraging their own children? Or should the beneficiaries of a childhood rich in encouragement be discriminated against at some later stage to rectify this unfair advantage? These are not easy questions for Rawlsians to answer.
Another relevant factor here is the proximity principle. Originally formulated by J. S. Mill and later adopted by Rawls, it holds that the geographical or temporal proximity of a speech act to the alleged harm it causes is relevant in determining whether that speech act should be punished. According to Mill’s famous example, it would be more harmful to utter the phrase all property is theft to an angry gathering of striking workers than to a classroom of university sophomores, since the workers are more likely to seek violent retribution. For our purposes, we might argue that it would be worse for a Cambridge University admissions board member to use a racial slur on Twitter than a Starbucks barista. The admissions board member is a gatekeeper of opportunity and therefore has the potential to do much more harm if she harbors racist attitudes. Sadly, this principle is of limited use in this controversy, however. The thing about discriminatory discursive structures is that they have a trickle down effect. The stimulus is not always proximate to the harm it causes.
There really is no middle way. Either you value freedom of speech more than equality of opportunity or the reverse. But, as Isaiah Berlin would have it, we should celebrate this incommensurability rather than lament it. It is the people who tell us that they have an ironclad solution of whom we should really be wary.