As noted in previous essays, competition over opportunities is almost certainly unavoidable and can even be desirable. However, this competition can do more harm than good. One example of this is opportunity hoarding. Opportunity hoarding occurs when parents try to seek advantages for their children in ways that are harmful to others. As would be suspected, opportunity hoarding typically occurs when parents use morally problematic methods to secure advantages for their children at the expense of other children. An excellent example of this is the 2019 college admissions scandal and I will use this to set the stage for the discussion.
As many writing about the scandal pointed out, the rich have many legal means of tipping the admission scales in favor of their children. These include methods that have nothing to do with the merit of the applicant, such as the use of legacy admissions and making financial contributions to the institutions. Other methods aim at improving the quality of the applicant (or at least the application). These methods include paid test preparation courses, paid counselors, paid tutors, and paid essay coaches. Because the rich have so many advantages already, the admission scandal seemed especially egregious and somewhat perplexing. From a philosophical perspective, the scandal raises an interesting general moral question about what methods are acceptable in the competition over opportunities and which are not.
While some might consider a state of nature approach to this competition (a war against all with no limit on the means), this would be clear violation of our moral intuitions. After all, while we might disagree on specific limits, we almost certainly agree that there are limits. To illustrate, the murder of competing children would seem to be obviously unacceptable as would other horrible things like blinding or maiming to weaken the competition. But once the obviously horrific is out of the way, there remains a very large area of possible dispute.
One approach favored by manner is to use the law as the guide. On this view, parents may use any legal means to restrict opportunities in favor of their children. While this might have some appeal, it suffers from an obvious defect: the law is whatever those in power make it, so evil (or at least unfair) things can become a matter of law. The usual extreme, but legitimate, example is the legality of slavery. As such, while it is often right to obey the law, it does not follow that what is legal is ethical. So, if a parent justifies their actions by pointing to their legality, they merely prove they acted legally—they have not shown they have acted rightly. So, something is needed beyond mere legality to determine what the limits of the competition should be.
Since this is a question of ethics on a national scale, an appeal to utilitarianism seems sensible: the limits should be set in terms of what will be most likely to create the greatest benefit and least harm. This leads to the stock problem of sorting out what it means to create the greatest positive value and least negative value. It also requires sorting out the measure of worth. For example, a set of limits might result in the children of the wealthy becoming even wealthier while the less wealthy were worse off than their parents might create more total wealth than a more equitable system in which everyone was reasonably well off. If what matters, as it does to some, is the overall wealth then these would be the right limits. However, if maximizing value is more about the impact on each person, then the more equitable division would be the moral choice: it would create more positive value for more people but would fail to create the most total positive value.
Since a utilitarian approach recognizes only the utilitarian calculation of value, some might find this approach problematic. Instead, they might favor a rights-based approach, or one based on a principle of fair competition. To illustrate, Americans profess to value competition, merit and fairness: the best competitors are supposed to win in a fair competition. This, obviously enough, just returns to the problem of fairness: what means are fair to use in the competition for opportunity?
One possible approach is to use a principle of relevance: a fair competition is one in which victory depends on the skills and abilities that are relevant to the nature of the competition. For example, if the competition is based on academic ability, then that should be the deciding factor—donating money should not influence the outcome of competition. This will, of course, lead to a debate about what should be considered relevant. For example, if it is argued that donating money is not relevant to determining college admissions because it is not relevant to academic ability, one might then argue that race or sex are also not relevant and thus should not be used. So, if relevance is used, it must be properly and consistently defined and applied.
While relevance, in general, seems like a reasonable consideration, there are also concerns about the preparation for the competitions. To illustrate, the children of the wealthy get a competitive edge because their parents can get them into good K-12 schools, pay for tutoring, pay for test preparation, pay for counseling, pay for help on essays and so on. That is, they can buy advantages that are relevant to the competition for college admissions and careers. On the one hand, these do seem to be unfair advantages because they are not available to the children of the poor simply because they are poor. On the other hand, they are relevant to the competition because they do improve the skills and abilities of the children. One possible solution, for those who value fair competition, would be balancing things out by providing the same support to all children—thus making the competition fair. This leads into the question of how far the quest for fairness should go.
At this point, some might be wondering if I will advocate forcing parents to only parent as well as the worst parents, so as to even things out. After all, a parent who can spend time engaging in activities with their kids, such as reading to them and helping with homework, confers an advantage. Since making parents do a worse job would obviously make things worse, this would be wrong to do. As such, I do not oppose (rather I fully support) parents being good parents. However, in many cases parents face the challenges of lacking time, resources and education to be better parents and these could be addressed. As such, I would advocate lifting parents up and utterly reject any notion to bring them down (something only those deranged by ideology would suggest).
The above is only a faint sketch of the matter—much more needs to be said about what the rules of competition for opportunity should be in our society. This is, obviously enough, a matter of values: are we just mouthing words like “fairness” , “opportunity for all” and “merit-based competition” while embracing the practice of unfairly buying success? Or do we really believe these things?