The title of this post is also the title of a famous treatise by the moral philosopher John Rawls, in which he continues the centuries old tradition of work involving the concept of ”the social contract,” and applies to it a version of “The Golden Rule” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Theory_of_Justice). The central concept is “the veil of ignorance,” an imaginary construct in which one does not know what position they occupy in the social firmament, what socio-economic status, race, or location they are born into, and what natural endowments or infirmities they are born with or acquire by chance. From behind this assumed veil of ignorance, we should each evaluate social policies and institutions, asking ourselves what policies and institutions we would prefer under this condition of not knowing what lot we will draw (or, in reality, have drawn) in life.
Rawls argues that by diligently assuming the “veil of ignorance” when debating issues of public policy, we identify policies that are most fair to all. Consider how important a step this is in discussions such as those that occur on blogs like this: The “veil of ignorance” unveils the disguised biases of competing positions, for to argue against it, one must argue in favor of intentional unfairness. The only way to defend policies that do not pass the “veil of ignorance” test is to admit to a commitment to injustice.
Rawls posits his thesis as an alternative to both utilitarianism and libertarianism. It embraces and transcends the precepts of both, since choices that would be made from behind the “veil of ignorance” are choices that include the values that inform and motivate each. Those who argue for their particular notion of “liberty” that is indifferent to the distribution of wealth and opportunity must argue why that is what one would choose if they could be born into any condition in life. Similarly, those who argue for “the greatest good for the greatest number” must defend that position within the same framework of evaluation.
The greatest difficulty, of course, is the degree to which people with existing biases and ideological certainties can suspend them enough to subject them to this test honestly. It is hard to imagine people who have already argued vehemently on behalf of one ideology or another revising their views in the light of this lens. It is easier to imagine that they would revise or distort the lens to accommodate what they have already concluded. The bigger challenge than identifying a lens through which the justice of social institutions and policies can be judged is convincing people to suspend their biases long enough to look through it.
A considerable number of people read this blog, but very few participate on it. This would be an ideal opportunity to change that. Here’s my question for those (if any) who are willing to participate in an experiment: What do you see differently than you have seen before when you look at the world through Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”? Please, everyone, try to refrain from simply making the same arguments you would have made in any other context, and instead try to discover something new, some change in perspective, that thinking about the world in this way bestows. Any takers?