Friday, January 25, 2008

The Veil of Ignorance

As a philosophy major in college, I'm sometimes asked who my favorite philosopher is. As I'm usually asked this in casual conversation by people whose knowledge of philosophy is limited, I typically name a few famous philosophers whose ideas originally sparked my interest in the discipline (i.e. Descartes and Hume). However, my actual favorite philosopher isn't a titan of the 17th or 18th centuries, but a former professor at Harvard who passed away a little over 5 years ago, John Rawls.

In my judgment Rawls' most significant contribution to philosophy (and the evolution of modern thought) is a theory called "justice as fairness." He promulgated this theory originally in his book A Theory of Justice in 1971, and then again in several other works over the following 30 years. I couldn't begin to summarize the theory in its totality, as it involves many layers of justification (it took Rawls over 500 pages). However, it's not difficult for me to select my favorite components, one of which is the "veil of ignorance."

The veil of ignorance is part of a thought experiment designed to determine what you would consider a just distribution of society's resources were you able to decide that absent your biases. In other words, how would you organize our society's (arguably the theory is designed to apply to people living within a nation-state as opposed to the international community) social, political, and economic institutions if you had no idea where within our society you would wind up? Stated another way: suppose you didn't know if you were rich or poor, a medical doctor or a high-school dropout, a man or a woman, black or white, living in south-central Los Angeles or Beverly Hills, healthy or diseased, a single parent or a member of a nuclear family...what would you want our society to look like in terms of our systems of education, health care, criminal justice, employment, taxation, and so on?

Rawls answers his own question and then argues for why he answers it the way he does. However, for the purposes of this post, I'm more interested in exploring the power of the thought experiment using the veil of ignorance model. In my view, it is a highly useful evaluative tool when it comes to public policy. It can be applied as needed in a variety of decision situations. For example, in trying to formulate an opinion regarding a specific health policy proposal, you can ask who would be worst off if this policy were enacted? The model would then compel you to consider if you would be comfortable in that "worst off" position. If you would not be, then the policy is presumably at odds with your moral intuition and should be rejected.

I'm not sure if Rawls ever attempted to extrapolate justice as fairness to international institutions and policies. The reason it's problematic is that the theory seems to assume certain conceptions of the institutions that would exist to implement the conditions of society that would be chosen after the thought experiment is complete. Those institutions exist within a nation-state like the United States. They do not exist internationally. In other words, there are cultural, linguistic, geographical, and other impediments to implementing a global order of social, political, and economic institutions. Despite these theoretical inadequacies, the basic veil of ignorance model seems applicable to international, or at least foreign policy, decision situations. For example, who is worst off as a result of a military action or a trade agreement? Would you want to be in that worst off position?

There are countless practical considerations that I face as I attempt to determine what public policies I support. But as I consider the moral implications, I try to remember the veil of ignorance and ask myself, would I want to be in that worst off position?

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