Cavanaugh, Matt

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Born in Reading, England. Education: Oxford University, Ph.D.


Agent—c/o Author Mail, Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press, 198 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016.


St. Catherine's College, Oxford, lecturer in philosophy, 1996-2000; management consultant, 2000—.


Against Equality of Opportunity ("Oxford Philosophical Monographs" series), Clarendon Press (New York, NY), 2002.


Matt Cavanaugh left academia and the teaching of philosophy to become a management consultant. With Against Equality in Opportunity, an expansion of his postgraduate thesis on reverse discrimination, he also became the author of a controversial study of the concept of "equal opportunity."

Jeremy Waldron reviewed the volume in the London Review of Books, noting that "people who believe in equal opportunity veer between two incompatible propositions. The first is meritocracy: the proposition that jobs should be allocated to those who are most deserving. The second is a principle of equal chances: things should be arranged so that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding. These two propositions, he [Cavanaugh] says, are plainly in tension. If there is any ingredient of talent or natural ability in 'most deserving,' then chances of success can never be equal, at least for people as they are."

John Crace, who interviewed Cavanaugh for the London Guardian, commented that the author "argues that the position of most good liberals on equality of opportunity is a mixture of three principles—meritocracy, equality, and discrimination—but that if you put these under the microscope, then you discover there is little agreement over the details, leaving society with what amounts to an artificial consensus by default."

Cavanaugh does not feel it is the government's place to dictate how jobs should be allocated; it is the employer's right to make such decisions based on what benefits his or her business. An example would be a small business with a limited training budget discriminating against women of child-bearing age. Traditionally considered wrong, in Cavanaugh's view such bias is acceptable. He also feels that because individual people do not share equal traits and capabilities, the idea of affording everyone equal treatment with regard to opportunities that are scarce is unfair. With regard to an issue like the vote, which is not a scarce commodity, he is in favor of equality.

"Cavanaugh has less problem with positive discrimination," noted Crace, "arguing that it's not unfair to further desirable social needs by engineering a higher representation of some groupings in certain areas." Cavanaugh used the example of a situation that occurred in the United States. When equipment was limited, what equipment was available was used to help premature babies with greater birth weights because such babies were statistically more likely to survive. A group representing disabled children won a case preventing such decisions, and, consequently, more premature babies now die. In Against Equality of Opportunity Cavanaugh calls this "madness."

With regard to publicly funded education, Cavanaugh feels that making decisions based on which student is most deserving is anti-meritocratic. As to equality, he told Crace that "the government's statement that every child should have the best possible start in life is completely vacuous. With a limited amount of teachers' time, even if you were to throw twice as much money at education, it's not possible to divide things up fairly. All you can do is distribute what there is equally to a certain level, and then divide up the rest according to some other principle."

Cavanaugh questions whether it is fair that children whose parents have encouraged them to learn, and who do consequently achieve higher scores, should be discriminated against because other parents chose to busy their children by plopping them in front of a television. Cavanaugh feels that concentrating too heavily on attempting to grant equality to all is a negative idea because it creates unnecessary competition and because people question whether certain individuals are perceived to be better because they earned higher regard or if some other factor is figured into the equation.

Spectator contributor Nicholas Fearn wrote of Against Equality of Opportunity that "in the horse-trading of meritocracy versus equality, few have had the nerve and imagination to throw out both these ideals at once." Fearn noted that Cavanaugh feels that the idea of the government starting everyone out on an equal playing field "is a sham, for it merely seeks to give everyone an equal chance of becoming unequal, and this is a poor way of expressing the fact that we are all politically equal members of a collective enterprise." Instead, Cavanaugh feels that everyone should have enough opportunity that they can control their own lives, although the degree of that control might vary. People who need help should be helped, but there should be no master plan for distributing opportunities.



Guardian (London, England), March 26, 2002, John Crace, review of Against Equality of Opportunity and interview; April 19, 2003, Ben Rogers, review of Against Equality of Opportunity.

London Review of Books, September 19, 2002, Jeremy Waldron, review of Against Equality of Opportunity, p. 10.

Spectator, March 16, 2002, Nicholas Fearn, review of Against Equality of Opportunity, p. 48.*