Post No.: 0458
Let’s now look at what John Rawls – a social or egalitarian liberal – thought…
John Rawls was against utilitarianism and extended on Immanuel Kant’s thoughts by believing that if the principles of justice are properly understood, they can be derived from a hypothetical social contract rather than an actual one. Rawls argued that society should always work to maximise the welfare of its worst-off members.
The ‘original position’ behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ is a thought experiment that lets us temporarily assume that we’re all in a position of equality – a position that covers up (hence the ‘veil’) knowledge about who in particular we each are (hence the ‘ignorance’), such as any knowledge about our social status and natural talents. He argued that the way to think about justice is to ask what principles we’d agree to if we didn’t know our place in society, such as our class, ethnicity, gender or religion. So imagine you’re not born yet and you don’t know whether in the life ahead of you you’ll be rich or poor, healthy or with a disability, or whatever – from this position, we should consider the principles of justice that we’d like to see in the world we’ll be born into.
Like Kant, Rawls therefore assumes humans have the capacity for rationality, and can consider principles of justice when individuals are left with little except their own reasonableness in this ‘original position’ behind the veil. (You can read more about Immanuel Kant and the ‘categorical imperative’ in Post No.: 0366.)
We could possibly employ this ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment when trying to answer all kinds of moral decisions that concern deciding what’s fair. It attempts to put us all in a position of thinking about policies from an anticipatory rather than retroactive perspective. At least one area where we normally only biasedly apply retrospection is when it concerns the particular privileges we’ve been individually born with i.e. we are normally all being asked to think about justice in a fair manner even though we know what sort of privileges we were born with or without in our real lives. Hence a person who was born into wealth will likely be biased to justify keeping his/her initial advantages, and a person who was born into poverty will likely be biased to justify some kind of distributive justice, for instance.
Although not perfect because it’s hard to free ourselves from our own biases, this ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment tries its best to negate the biases we all hold for opting for things that benefit us as the people we know we became in this life. Behind the veil, we’re trying to decide on the rules of a game before we know the result, as it were.
The moral force of actual contracts is that they are consent based (you voluntarily or autonomously agree to them) and benefit based (based on reciprocity) – two independent and distinguishable aspects of a contract. But a moral limit of actual contracts is that the fact of an agreement is not sufficient to establish the fairness of that agreement. Another, more controversial, limit is that consent is not necessary for there to be a de facto contract if there is implied reciprocity (a benefit has been gained by one party and therefore they owe the other party. However, how does one define what is a ‘benefit’ to someone without a prior agreement i.e. consent? And is silence to objection equivalent to consent?)
Thus real world contracts may fall short of these two aspects. The ideal of autonomy may be violated if there is an asymmetry between the bargaining powers of the parties, or the ideal of reciprocity may be violated if there is a knowledge asymmetry between the parties and therefore one or both parties could misidentify what is an equivalent and fair-value exchange.
That’s why Rawls suggests imagining a kind of hypothetical contract between parties who are equal in power and knowledge, and thus not tainted by asymmetries in bargaining power or knowledge – and this would be where the principles of justice should be founded upon, hence the ‘veil of ignorance’. Since everyone will be similarly situated and no one should be able to design principles to favour his/her particular condition (because no one will know whether they’ll be rich or poor, athletic or frail, etc.), the principles of justice, when decided from behind a ‘veil of ignorance’, will be the result of a fair agreement or bargain.
And if we thought about justice from behind this veil – so without knowing whether we’d be a male, female or other, working as a banker, barber or busker, or whatever – he argued that we’d adopt a system of equal basic liberties for all citizens, and accept only those inequalities in income and wealth that would work to the greatest benefit of the least well-off members of society.
This isn’t a bad idea or conclusion in principle. According to solving fair division problems in game theory – if one were to divide a pizza up between two people, and one wields the knife yet doesn’t know which piece one will be ultimately receiving (because, in this case, the other person will choose who gets which piece), then one should rationally maximise the minimum gains (‘maximin’), or size of the slice one is going to receive i.e. divide the pizza into two equal portions. (Therefore if you have two children and they need to share something like a pizza – ask one to cut it into two and the other to choose their piece first. Use mathematics for stress-free parenting!) Since you don’t know whether you’re going to be born lucky or unlucky, you’re going to rationally want to design a fluffy world that is as equal for everyone as possible, at least in opportunities if not also outcomes.
Rawls believed that inequalities in the distribution of social or economic goods are permissible only if the least well-off or most disadvantaged members of society would be better off under such a distribution than they would under any other distribution consistent with the principle that each person has an equal (and non-tradable) right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible, whilst affording a similar liberty for others. This is the ‘difference principle’ – the rich must not get richer at the expense of the poor but must only get richer whilst actively raising the lives of the poor. There’ll still be inequality but this should hopefully constrain the level of inequality in society and compensate for any naturally occurring inequalities.
Since you won’t know whether you’ll be born lucky or unlucky, you should want the unluckiest to have as good an outcome as possible. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean an equal outcome with everyone else – just the best outcome possible in absolute terms for the worst-off group in society. And this isn’t quite ‘trickle-down’ economics either but a system where wealth ‘diffuses up’ as it were. You should want the worst-off in society to be as fortunate as they can be. This also matches with the human psychology of loss aversion – people should aim to minimise how bad the worst could be for them when they don’t know what they’re going to get (‘minimax’ is when trying to minimise the maximum losses of something).
In practice, Rawls believes that, in the name of justice, the government must therefore provide basic necessities to those unable to procure them. A libertarian would likely reject this idea however because this would arguably violate liberty.
That’s his answer, but what kind of world would you create and how would you divide and structure society if you were about to be born but you knew nothing about whether you’ll be born into wealth or poverty, what gender or ethnicity you’ll be, which country you’ll be born in, which religious beliefs you’ll be exposed to, whether you’ll be born with a disability or not, with great innate abilities or not, with a strong work ethic or not, to famous or not-famous parents, and not knowing what genes you’ll possess, and perhaps not even knowing what state the planet you’ll be born into will be like, and so on and on? (Maybe this wasn’t the original intention of the thought experiment – but what if you didn’t even know what sort of animal you’ll be? Woof!) What sort of political system, economic system and class structure (if any) would you design?
You do know, however, that not everyone wants the same things, that all humans generally want more things but things aren’t in infinite supply, you know some general facts about human social life, ‘common sense’ and some general uncontroversial scientific conclusions, including related to psychology and economics – hence it’s not a fantasy world we’re imagining per se, where everyone will just magically get along because no one will be greedy or selfish. You can perhaps imagine everybody alive in the real world right now is about to swap lives with a random person, along with their bodies and even personalities too (i.e. you’ll basically become them) – now think about the kind of justice you’d want before you know whom you’ll swap lives with?
You do also understand that it’s worth cooperating in society because we tend to become greater than the mere sum of our parts when working together, but the question is how the burdens of cooperation should be divided amongst everyone in a fair and just manner? And you must act with rational self-interest and not directly think about others – you are supposed to think of your own best interests. There are other stipulations such as the stability of such a world too.
The ‘original position’ behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment is very clever in my furry opinion because lots of philosophical ideas sound great in principle but can be hard to transfer into practice – but this thought experiment, this process of thinking hard from a more neutral position, can potentially lead to real-world decisions and action if there’s the political will to do so, and allow us to put our ideas into concrete practice.
It’s not without criticism though (albeit what philosophical idea escapes criticism?!) There’ll still be disagreements between people so how should we aggregate everyone’s visions of their worlds into one world? Will a democratic solution work here? There won’t be universal agreement about what this world ought to be like because we cannot avoid at least some biases that shape our thinking in this thought experiment because of, for instance, our own actual levels of education, histories, personal experiences and culture, and in turn what we believe, value and find concerning. In practical reality, no single person knows everything about the world – about everything related to all the different cultures, opportunities, injustices, etc. that exist or are possible (e.g. too many people might be under-educated about developmental disorders and so mightn’t consider how their lives would be like if they were born with a learning disability; or they might believe that sleeping on the streets is easy, that all asylum seekers are just scroungers, or phobias are a choice, etc.).
So even though we’re all meant to imagine being a ‘neutral’ person, everyone will be unavoidably biased to some extent because of what we personally know or desire, and don’t know or don’t desire, before we even partake in the thought experiment to structure the principles of justice. Hence although many people find this idea attractive, we may not find it realistic and realisable after all. (We could perhaps test it with a Second Life-type virtual world though?)
…I’ve got more to share on the ‘veil of ignorance’ and the thoughts of John Rawls, but I’ll save these for another post or two.
Woof! In the meantime, what sort of world would you design from behind the ‘veil of ignorance’? Please share what you think via the Twitter comment button below.