Equality of Opportunity and the Ethics of Discrimination


Almost everyone would agree that “equality of opportunity” is a good thing and that discrimination is a bad thing. Yet there remains huge disagreement amongst philosophers, politicians and the voting public about what these terms mean and what society should do about them.

Equality of opportunity means different things to different people. Some would argue that a limited “formal” equality of opportunity which outlaws direct discrimination does not go nearly far enough. They support a more “substantive” form of equality of opportunity that would more actively respond to the unequal outcomes that persist despite legal rules against employment discrimination.

Similarly, discrimination is usually considered a bad thing. However, isn’t discrimination an inevitable part of life; people support their own relatives. Alternatively, is discrimination a case of treating people according to stereotypes rather than their individuality? But we constantly use stereotypes to navigate our interactions with those we meet briefly. We don’t know everything about our closest family and friends, let alone about someone we meet during a brief interaction. We need to make quick assumptions about people. Can these assumptions and stereotypes sometimes wrong other people? In cases of outright racial prejudice, most would say yes, but what about other cases? Does discrimination arise due to the intentions or attitudes of the person involved? Or the outcome of their actions?

We might find discrimination in other settings too. There are statistical links between financial rewards and all sorts of traits and features. Is it a problem that the more intelligent earn more? What about those who are taller? More physically attractive? What about the fact that men earn more than women? Are these signs of discrimination? If so, what makes the discrimination wrong? Philosophers have struggled to develop theories that give us the answers we expect in all cases. In this course we will look at some of the attempts.

If we agree that discrimination is a problem, the next question is what to do about it. When should the law be involved? Many argue that the appropriate response is to have some positive discrimination to make up for the negative discrimination. Affirmative action programmes are intended to support the disadvantaged, but do they unfairly disadvantage others in turn? Can you fight discrimination with discrimination? And do such programmes violate other important principles and goals such as liberty and efficiency?

The course focuses on what moral and political philosophers (and legal thinkers) have had to say about these difficult topics. It will be of interest to those interested in hiring decisions and education policy such as University admissions as well as those interested in political philosophy and political debates. We consider examples and cases throughout and will end with a discussion of the controversial Northern Ireland ‘gay marriage cake’ bakery case.

Programme details

Courses starts: 17 April 2024

Week 0: Course Orientation

Week 1: Introduction: Outcomes and hierarchies

Week 2: Equality of opportunity and just outcomes

Week 3: Criticisms of Rawls’ equal opportunity principle

Week 4: Arguments against equality of opportunity

Week 5: What is discrimination? 

Week 6: What makes Discrimination wrong?

Week 7: Acceptable and unacceptable discrimination?

Week 8: Is positive discrimination (affirmative action) needed?

Week 9: Arguments against positive discrimination

Week 10: The gay marriage cake case

Digital Certification

To complete the course and receive a certificate, you will be required to attend and participate in at least 80% of the live sessions on the course and pass your final assignment. Upon successful completion, you will receive a link to download a University of Oxford digital certificate. Information on how to access this digital certificate will be emailed to you after the end of the course. The certificate will show your name, the course title and the dates of the course you attended. You will be able to download your certificate or share it on social media if you choose to do so.


Description Costs
Course Fee £257.00
Take this course for CATS points £10.00


If you are in receipt of a UK state benefit, you are a full-time student in the UK or a student on a low income, you may be eligible for a reduction of 50% of tuition fees. Please see the below link for full details:

Concessionary fees for short courses


Dr Doug Bamford

Doug Bamford teaches courses in philosophy and political economy at OUDCE. His main interest is in political philosophy and its application to public policy. He received his PhD in Political Philosophy at the University of Warwick in 2013. He is author of Rethinking Taxation (Searching Finance, 2014) and several papers (including articles in the Journal of Applied Philosophy and Moral Philosophy and Politics). He blogs at Doug Bamford's Tax Appeal.

Course aims

  • To introduce students to debates about equality of opportunity and the morality of discrimination.
  • To give students good knowledge and understanding of the prominent theories and arguments about discrimination.
  • To give students practice in the analysis and critical assessment of arguments.

Course Objectives:

  • Gain an understanding of the philosophical discussion and theories about equality of opportunity and the morality of discrimination.
  • The ability to critically engage with arguments about positive discrimination policy.
  • Present and defend their own views on these issues.

Teaching methods

Students will be provided with pre-recorded talks each week and will be asked to read one or two relevant selections each week before the weekly live session. Live sessions will provide an opportunity to ask questions and for class discussion on the topic.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course students will be expected to:

  • have a knowledge and understanding of the political philosophies and how they apply to policy;
  • have learnt how to offer arguments for and against the main positions introduced and have learnt skills in the analysis and critical assessment of arguments;
  • have gained confidence in expressing ideas in open debate.

Assessment methods

Coursework will consist of either one essay of 1,500 words or two or three smaller essays totalling this amount.

Students must submit a completed Declaration of Authorship form at the end of term when submitting your final piece of work. CATS points cannot be awarded without the aforementioned form - Declaration of Authorship form


We will close for enrolments 7 days prior to the start date to allow us to complete the course set up. We will email you at that time (7 days before the course begins) with further information and joining instructions. As always, students will want to check spam and junk folders during this period to ensure that these emails are received.

To earn credit (CATS points) for your course you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Please use the 'Book' or 'Apply' button on this page. Alternatively, please complete an enrolment form (Word) or enrolment form (Pdf).

Level and demands

Students who register for CATS points will receive a Record of CATS points on successful completion of their course assessment.

To earn credit (CATS points) you will need to register and pay an additional £10 fee per course. You can do this by ticking the relevant box at the bottom of the enrolment form or when enrolling online.

Coursework is an integral part of all weekly classes and everyone enrolled will be expected to do coursework in order to benefit fully from the course. Only those who have registered for credit will be awarded CATS points for completing work at the required standard.

Students who do not register for CATS points during the enrolment process can either register for CATS points prior to the start of their course or retrospectively from the January 1st after the current full academic year has been completed. If you are enrolled on the Certificate of Higher Education you need to indicate this on the enrolment form but there is no additional registration fee.

Most of the Department's weekly classes have 10 or 20 CATS points assigned to them. 10 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of ten 2-hour sessions. 20 CATS points at FHEQ Level 4 usually consist of twenty 2-hour sessions. It is expected that, for every 2 hours of tuition you are given, you will engage in eight hours of private study.

Credit Accumulation and Transfer Scheme (CATS)