Kurt Vonnegut’s prescient short story Harrison Bergeron begins:
THE YEAR WAS 2081, and everybody was finally equal. They weren’t only equal before God and the law. They were equal every which way. Nobody was smarter than anybody else. Nobody was better looking than anybody else. Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.
Back in 1961, Vonnegut was lampooning the idea of “equality of outcome.” The most prominent critic of equality of outcome today is, undoubtedly, Jordan Peterson, who argues instead for “equality of opportunity.” Both Vonnegut and Peterson recognize that equality of outcome requires a tyrranical, interventionist State.
I’m sympathetic, however, to Peterson’s critics who point out that opportunity will never be equal as long as outcomes are unequal. As my sister, an adoption worker, once put it, the children of her wealthy, educated friends already enjoy opportunities denied to the children of the poor. Even in the womb, one group of children tends to get a higher level of nutrition, and in the critical early years of life, the children of the wealthy enjoy social and health benefits magnitudes better than what their impoverished peers are afforded.
In observing this, I by no means am advocating for equality of outcome.
It’s a false dichotomy. The acceptance of these as the only two options hides from us that what we are accepting is an immanentist, liberal, modern “Kingdom of this World,” and not the eschatological Kingdom of God.
These two efforts at equality reflect the two sides of liberal modernity, what Patrick Deneen calls the “classical liberal” side (which favors opportunity and accepts inequality of outcome) and the “progressive” side (which believes that liberalism will not have triumphed until everyone feels that they’ve gotten their fair share).
The big question for me regarding the bare notion of opportunity is, “Opportunity for what?” The assumptions behind the whole notion of opportunity are utilitarian. Individuals should have the opportunities necessary to maximize their own happiness, which is largely reduced to pleasure. The fact that opportunities for, say, growth in virtue, are perennially open to virtually anyone, doesn’t come up. Why? In part, this is because genuine virtue opposes individualized notions of economic advancement, social mobility, unbridled acquisition, and the like.
As for outcome, the fact that ultimate outcomes are at the heart of the preaching of Jesus Christ also never comes up. The fact that, in the end, the poor in spirit will obtain the Kingdom of Heaven and the meek will inherit the earth is, frankly, off our radar when we accept the debate between outcome and opportunity. The notion that we might need to attempt something manifestly unpleasurable, like pluck out an eye, in order to merit a good outcome doesn’t arise as a serious question when we wade into the debate as is it presented.
One of the most hopeful aspects of our Lord’s Incarnation is the light that it sheds on the spiritual world behind what we see in this age. Jesus Christ calls us to imagine and live in a vastly grander notion of existence than that on offer from liberal modernity. All of us have the opportunity to be called “children of God” and to live forever. Now those are worthwhile opportunities and outcomes!
The flip side of this eschatological viewpoint is the strong relativization of the world that is passing away. This vindicates the place of fortuna in the older worldview, the idea that the haves and have-nots will emerge without any obviously permanent pattern. One of liberal modernity’s goals is the elimination of fortuna and the replacement of this goddess with a more-or-less permanent meritocracy.
My last observation in this meandering reflection is that this is another place where we see Dr. Peterson attempting to rescue liberalism from within. I take it that Deneen has proven that this can’t work. What interests me greatly in Peterson’s work is that his instinct keeps pushing him toward a recognition that liberal modernity isn’t rescuable. The drama of his intellectual arc is whether this recognition will push him to a full-tilt pagan Nietzscheanism or toward Christianity.