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Against the Odds?Social Class and Social Justice in Industrial Societies$

Gordon Marshall, Adam Swift, and Stephen Roberts

Print publication date: 1997

Print ISBN-13: 9780198292401

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: October 2011

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198292401.001.0001

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(p.219) Appendix E: Social Justice and Non-vertical Social Mobility

(p.219) Appendix E: Social Justice and Non-vertical Social Mobility

Source:
Against the Odds?
Publisher:
Oxford University Press

In Chapter 3 we noted that the Goldthorpe class scheme is not strictly hierarchical. This would seem to raise the question of why somebody concerned specifically with the relation between social mobility and social justice should be interested in movements between class positions that are neither better nor worse than one another. Although our analyses in this book use collapses of the Goldthorpe scheme that do license claims about the vertical nature of the mobility that we identify—and hence our focus is indeed on issues of access to positions characterized by unequal levels of advantage—we think it worth pointing out that non-vertical mobility may itself be relevant to issues of social justice.

To see why, it will be necessary to recall our earlier discussion (in Chapter 2) of the different conceptions of social justice identified by political theorists. On that occasion, we considered an argument for equality of opportunity and meritocracy that appealed to notions of societal efficiency, rather than those of individual desert. The reasoning was that justice implies a concern for the well-being of the least advantaged members of society. This well-being is maximized when a society is allocating its resources, human and non-human, efficiently. What matters about access and opportunity on this account is not that it enables individuals to get what they deserve but rather that it indicates an absence of barriers to the efficient allocation of individuals to occupational roles. Nothing in this line of reasoning presupposes or implies anything about those occupational roles forming a hierarchy or being in any way unequally rewarded. It is true, as we have seen, that functional considerations may serve to justify inequality. But it is also true that we could have functional reasons for valuing equality of opportunity to achieve positions that were not unequal. We would care, on functional grounds, if it were harder for people from some backgrounds to get certain kinds of job even if we did not regard those jobs and backgrounds as better or worse than one another.

This is one reason for thinking that non-vertical mobility might be relevant to considerations of social justice: that the least advantaged in any society will tend to benefit where there is equality of opportunity, in the (p.220) sense that there are no obstacles getting in the way of people finding the kinds of jobs to which their abilities are most appropriately suited. Another reason for thinking that movement between positions that are not unequal could matter to social justice appeals not to considerations of efficiency but to the value of individual self-realization. Here, equality of opportunity is valued neither on desert—based nor on functional grounds, but because it is implied by the idea that each member of society should have the same chances for self-fulfilment.

Again, the work of John Rawls may be helpful at this point. We have already seen that Rawls rejects conventional desert claims, and that he believes inequalities are justified only if they serve the advantage of the worst-off group in society. However, he also argues that all members of society should enjoy fair equality of opportunity, and on grounds quite independent of both these considerations (Rawls 1971: 84). His argument for equality of opportunity (or ‘open positions’) is rooted neither in desert nor in efficiency but in the value of self-realization, which he calls ‘one of the main forms of human good’. This justification for valuing equality of opportunity does not presuppose that the positions that people should have equal opportunity to achieve are themselves unequal in the sense that their possessors enjoy different amounts of advantage. If there were barriers to my becoming a doctor, yet doctoring is that activity the pursuit of which would realize my self most fully, this would be objectionable irrespective of the distributive advantage accruing to the position of doctor. Imagine a society in which those born into certain kinds of background were prevented (perhaps for reasons of caste, for example) from taking up certain kinds of job. We could judge that this violated the value of equal opportunity for self-realization even if we knew nothing about the rewards attached to the jobs in question.

We can, then, distinguish three distinct grounds for valuing equality of opportunity. One involves claims about individuals deserving a fair chance to achieve the rewards that their abilities merit. The second points to the functional value in having an efficient allocation of people to jobs. The third derives from a quite distinct interest in people having equal chances of self-realization. All of these can sensibly be regarded as relevant to considerations of social justice, although, as we have seen, they of course appeal to different conceptions of that idea. Only the first presupposes that the positions between which people should have equal opportunity to move are themselves unequal. A popular version of the second does involve claims about inequality, in so far as it argues that people need incentives, in the form of unequal rewards, to exercise their abilities optimally. While this is undoubtedly the version that is politically most relevant, we have seen that it is perfectly possible to value the efficient allocation of individuals to occupations without presupposing that those positions are unequally rewarded. (p.221) Like the second, the third also does not necessarily assume a context of inequality. While part of the value of equality of opportunity for self-realization might involve the idea that people should have a fair chance of achieving positions that are better than others, there are kinds of self-realization that do not involve any such claim.

In short, and to the (as we have seen) limited extent that movement between particular Goldthorpe classes is not clearly advantageous or disadvantageous (in terms of the rewards and privileges accruing to particular class positions), it is entirely reasonable to defend even non-vertical mobility as being relevant to considerations of social justice. None the less, as we have said, our concersn in this book is solely with movement as between classes that can be regarded as hierarchically ordered. Our discussion of the justice of the patterns of movement that we identify is accordingly concerned specifically with the principles that might legitimate the distributive phenomena—inequalities of access to positions of unequal advantage—that those movements indicate.