Too often when considering social inequality we focus on outcome, not opportunity, and our solutions to inequal outcomes do not solve any of the problems of inequal opportunities that we should really be focussing on.
Gerald Cohen in his book Why Not Socialism makes a distinct between equality of opportunity and of outcome. Following in his example of using simple clear analogies to illustrate important points, I'd like to suggest that we think about three children: Aaron, Brendan and Carl. We want to give these children a selection of fruit for lunch, and we want to do so in the most fair way possible. We have three apples and three oranges to divide up, and so the obvious way to split them is to give each child one of each.
However while this appears to be a situation of complete equality between the three children, the three may not necessarily be equally satisfied with this outcome. Let us suppose that Aaron is allergic to apples, while Brendan intensely dislikes oranges. Though all the children have an equal share of the fruit, this distribution is not the best: it is far more reasonable to instead give Aaron two oranges, Brendan two apples and Carl one of each. Each child is then more or less reasonably happy with their share of the fruit, and each has a equal quantity of fruit. It would not be unreasonable to say then that this distribution of fruit is better than the first (in which each child had one of each).
The point I am trying to make here is that a situation of perfect equality between individuals does not require that all individuals have exactly the same outcome. Aaron has two oranges, and Brendan has two apples, yet we would still consider this to be a fair, reasonable, and equal distribution of fruit: far more so than the first model, in which only Carl would actually be able to enjoy both of his allocated share.
Equality cannot always be measured directly by outcome. It is not important to equality that all children receive exactly the same fruit, but rather that they all have the same opportunity to enjoy that fruit. To use a more direct example, let us consider the potential careers of those same three children. Aaron desperately wants to attend medical school, while Brendan is looking at becoming a lawyer and Carl wants to study liberal arts. Which is the more equal scenario: one in which all three have an equal outcome (all three go to medical school and become doctors, for instance) or one in which all three have equal opportunity to study their own passions? Which would we prefer?
My point (and Cohen's) is that we cannot judge our standards of equality by outcome alone. We have to look at equality of opportunity. To use a case very relevant to New Zealand, we can look at statistics of lawyers in New Zealand and see that Maori are very under-represented in proportion to their population. This is obviously a situation of inequality. If we focus on equality of outcome alone, then our line of reasoning is fairly straightforward: "Maori are under-represented in the legal profession. To correct this and thereby make a situation of equality we must increase the number of Maori in the legal profession until it is more representative of the population." Focussing solely on outcome as a measure of equality, and then seeking to alter that outcome, is a fairly obvious way to address inequality.
However we should not be treating inequal outcomes as a problem in themselves but rather as a symptom of inequal opportunity. If we convince ourselves that remedying outcome alone creates equality then we are committing the same error as when we make the calculation 1+2=3 but then decide that we would rather the answer be 4 and so change the equation to 1+2=4. While the end result may be more to our liking, our calculation is now incorrect. Likewise with Maori in the legal profession: while simply attempting to increase the number of Maori in the legal profession (through means such as the Maori Admissions Process at Victoria Law School) may result in a more equal outcome, we have not addressed the actual causes of the inequality.
How did we arrive at an unequal outcome in the first place? Why are Maori under-represented in the legal profession? Assuming as we can in this enlightened age that there is no inherent quality of Maori ethnicity that imposes an obstacle to studying law, we must accept that there is some limiting factor that is causing Maori to be under-represented in law. Altering the inequal outcome without addressing this inequality of opportunity is not creating a situation of equality, it is merely reducing the symptoms of a disease and then pronouncing it cured.
Treating inequality of outcome is not enough to create an equal society. We end up with two small children holding fruit that they cannot eat or enjoy, while we congratulate ourselves on our perfectly equal distribution of apples and oranges. When we see an inequal outcome (such as the proportionately low number of Maori lawyers) we must not ask ourselves how we can fix the statistics but what causes them. Saying that 1+2=4, no matter how much we like the answer 4, does not mean that we have actually solved the equation. We must be striving for equality of opportunity, and trusting that as a result of this an equal outcome will naturally follow. Even though Aaron, Brendan and Carl ended up all holding different fruit, the result of this was that each child on average was holding the same. Equality of outcome naturally results from equality of opportunity, and never the other way around.