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Against Equality of Opportunity (Oxford Philosophical Monographs) Paperback – 1 Oct 2003

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Product details

  • Paperback: 232 pages
  • Publisher: OUP Oxford (1 Oct. 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199265488
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199265480
  • Product Dimensions: 21.3 x 1.5 x 13.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,381,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Matt Cavanagh is an Associate Director at the Institute for Public Policy Research, a consultant and writer.

Before joining IPPR, Matt worked as a special adviser for the Labour government between 2003 and 2010, in the Home Office, the Treasury, the Ministry of Defence, and finally in Downing Street from 2007 to 2010.

Prior to that, Matt worked for the Boston Consulting Group, and before that as a lecturer in Philosophy at St Catherine's College, Oxford - where he wrote "Against Equality of Opportunity".

He has a BA in PPE, BPhil in Philosophy, and DPhil in Philosophy from the University of Oxford.

He writes for Prospect and Spectator magazines, and also blogs for both, as well as for the New Statesman, Leftfootforward, Labour Uncut, Commentisfree, and a range of other sites. He writes mainly about public policy and politics, from a centre-left perspective.

Product Description


This book is an ambitious and provocative challenge to meritocracy and equality, two foundations of equality theory. In questioning and opposing the prevailing account of what constitutes appropriate employment opportunity, Matt Cavanagh provides a refreshing, and at times disquieting critique of broader anti-discrimination jurisprudence. (The Cambridge Law Journal)

The book fully lives up to its provocative title. In the horse-trading of meritocracy versus equality, few have had the nerve and imagination to throw out both these ideals at once. (Nicholas Fearn, The Spectator)

About the Author

Matt Cavanagh was Lecturer in Philosophy at St Catherine's College, Oxford, 1996-2000.

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Format: Paperback
Matt Cavanagh's book "Against Equality of Opportunity" is a very well written and thorough philosophical treatment of one of the key ideals of modern political discourse and is accessible to a general audience.

This book's primary aim is to tease apart a number of distinctive ideals that are typically described by the term "Equality of Opportunity". The book succeeds in identifying, clarifying and, where necessary, advancing considerations for rejecting a number of such ideals including equality and meritocracy. The book is a fine example of the importance of a philosophical analysis of everyday concepts and ideas. All too often our politicians appeal to woolly notions of fairness and equality (of opportunity) and do not specify what they mean by it. This should trouble us as academics or members of the general public for at least two reasons. First, without specifying the ideal more exactly we cannot have confidence that they are using the term in the same way that we do, thus we cannot be confident that they are on our side. Second, and more worryingly, without specifying the ideal more clearly, we cannot deliberate about their proposed values, we cannot attack the target because we do not know what it is. The term "Equality of Opportunity" is used no less frequently now than it was nearly 10 years ago, when the book was first published, and so the book retains great importance as a work on that topic.

It is now fairly common in contemporary political philosophy for egalitarians to reject the importance of securing equal shares of something as a moral ideal and, as someone working in the field, I believe that this book has made an important contribution to that process.
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10 of 20 people found the following review helpful By J. Mann VINE VOICE on 6 Aug. 2002
Format: Hardcover
Cavanagh argues against giving everyone an equal chance and instead argues that "so long as people have enough control over their lives, that will encourage and enable them to live in the right way - to see their lives as stories they help construct, stories whose evolving shape reflects the good and bad choices they make along the way" (p. 133), the important thing is that "people are in a good enough position, never mind whether equal" (p.205). Cavanagh distinguishes between "top down" and "bottom up" approaches to discrimination, the former being objective discrimination that can be measured statistically and the latter being subjective discrimination that can be understood as deliberate, intentional bias. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 is a typical "top down" approach where it requires schools to monitor the race equality impact of a school policy through keeping statistics of ethnic groups. If for example it could be shown that a smaller proportion of ethnic minority pupils went on school trips than white pupils the school would be required to address this imbalance, regardless of the subjective reason it was occurring. Cavanagh does not believe "top down" discrimination to be real discrimination because no intolerance or favouritism has been established, "I happen to think that the bottom-up approach must be the right one" (p. 199).
So far this may sound as if in practise Cavanagh's differences are fairly mild. He does not object to providing special help to disadvantaged groups and he believes discrimination exists - provided we can identify someone doing the discriminating. However the key argument of the book concerns giving people the right to discriminate except in the very extreme circumstance of "unwarranted contempt" (p. 207).
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 1 review
5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
equally relevant for left and right? 26 Dec. 2003
By A Customer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I selected the middle section of this book (a critique of arguments for equality as a principle in deciding job allocation) for a reading group of left-leaning university lecturers - it certainly roused some tempers! It seems to me however, that Cavanagh's conclusion, such as it is, leaves equal room for thinking weighted toward employers' interests and for thinking weighted toward helping the disadvantaged. Perhaps Michael Howard should take a look...
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