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Veils, Ignorant and Otherwise

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For those of you who don’t know, the “veil of ignorance” Cathy is talking about is the principle by which a man named John Rawls thought it would be possible to construct the morally and politically ideal state.

Okay, that sounds enormously heavy

Rawls is sort of a bast from the past.  He was the head of the Harvard Philosophy department back in the late seventies or early eighties, and his most important book, called A Theory of Justice, is probably the most influential work of political philosophy to have been written in the second half of the twentieth century.

It’s influential for two ideas, one of which is that veil of ignorance, and the other of which is something that is called “distributive justice.”  Distributive justice is the idea that significant inequality in the resources available to citizens is by definition unjust. 

And if you don’t believe that that’s an idea held by lots of people now serving in our legislatures and law courts, I’d suggest you look again.

The “veil of ignorance” is a method of determining what would be the most just set of social arrangements.  What Rawls wanted each of us to do was to imagine that we were not yet born, and had no way of knowing what we would be born into–rich and talented, for instance, or mentally retarded or otherwise handicapped.

Rawls thought that in such a situation, each of us would choose to live in the most fully functioning welfare state possible, because we would automatically choose to protect ourselves against possible poverty and degradation before all else.

We can talk about the merits of both of these ideas in a minute, but I’d like to point out that neither one of them is a foundational moral concept.

With distributive justice, Rawls proclaims that signifcant material inequality between human beings is wrong–but why is it wrong?  Certainly there are significant inequalities in both inborn talent and behavior between human beings.  Michael Jordan can play basketball, and I cannot–but he can also play basketball a lot better than other people who might have started out as talented as he did but who did not put in the work required to realize the talent.

Even if we assume that all the inequalities between people are inborn–that some of us are born smarter or prettier or with better singing or acting or math skills than others, and that that is absolute fate–it doesn’t automatically follow that “justice” would reside in smoothing out the inequalities in outcomes such inborn traits would necessarily have.

Aristotle, to name only one philospher, declared that in such a case–and he assumed such a case to be true–“justice” would reside in giving each man his due, the most to the most talented, the least to the least talented.

I know why Aristotle believed this–it’s inherent in his concept of human nature; and when Aquinas took that over and Christianized it, he took that over took.  Justice, Aristotle said, consists in treating like persons alike, and unlike persons differently.  And since it is a fact that people are born unlike, rather than equal, then inequality is the only justice.

What Rawls needs for a foundational principle is some explanation of why we should redistribute material wealth in favor of those persons who fall further down the scale of human achievement and endowment. 

But Rawls never provides this.  He simply assumes that all of us will automatically feel that we should take care of such people, and that inequality is wrong.

The veil of ignorance has bigger problems, because on that score, Rawls was simply wrong about people.  He assumed that anybody who met with his hypothetical would reason as would a middle-aged academic–that he would put security above liberty, for one thing, and that he would assume that a fully functional welfare state would be run in such a way to actually benefit the poor and the disabled.

But most people aren’t middle aged academics.  They live in situations and work in situations without anything like the security of a tenured academic job, and that means that they have a much higher tolerance of risk.  The first time I read A Theory of Justice, the first thing I thought was that I’d take my chances–I’d bet that I’d come out well enough to do for myself, and that felt better to me that giving a large centralized power lots of tentacles to reach into my private decisions.

But, you know, by this time, most of you know that I’m an anarchic libertatian nutcase, at least on social issues.

There’s another thing going wrong here, though, and that is the fact that lots of people do not see the welfare state as necessarily benevolent.  Rawls wrote before the present mania for “assisted suicide” and “death with dignity,” but there are enough people in this country who are scared to death that the government will pull the plug on granny (thank you, Mr. President) to save a few bucks to feel that they’d much rather take their chances with family resources and private charity.

The veil of ignorance is, I think, just a bad description of the way people think.  It works for a certain subset of the population, but not for other subsets.  The response to the hypothetical is nowhere near as automatic as Rawls thinks it is.

And, like distributive justice, it doesn’t provide a foundational principle.  Religious people will say that things are right or wrong because God says they are.  The early Humanist said that things were right or wrong judged on whether or not they maximized the happiness of every single human being, because each of us was born onl once and lived only once and could be only ourselves.

But I have no answer to why John Rawls thought “distributive justice” was a moral principle of any kind, any more than I have any idea why Paul Kurtz thinks any of the things he wants are moral principles.  In each case, the philosopher involved seems to have picked things he already thinks are good ideas, and then gone looking for reasons to support them.  

The problem with people like Peter Singer is something similar, although Singer is at least more consistent than a lot of these guys.  Asked why we should take special care of the interests of human beings–he replies that there is no such reason, so we shouldn’t.  Both Rawls and Kurtz give variants of the “conscious mind, autonomy, self-aware” mantra that does not really distinguish most human beings from intelligent dogs, and does make some human beings not really human.

What confuses me about all this is the fact that moral philosophy these days seems to have abandoned the search for foundational principles–it’s ALL about finding reasons to support what you’ve already decided is good, and as for why your idea of “good” is the correct one, well…pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I wonder how much of this has to do with the peculiarities of the way philosophy is now practiced.  Aristotle was not attached in any way to a university, and although some philosophers in the Middle Ages were, those attachments were nothing like the sinecures they have become. 

University professors live in a highly unusual world and a small and enclosed one.  Too many of them know very few people who live significantly differently than they do, and their reputations and salaries are both dependent on the good will of a suffocatingly small group of people. 

I wonder, sometimes, what somebody like Liebnitz would have made of professor-philosophers–Liebnitz sitting at his workbench grinding lenses, Thomas More walking the halls of power, Aristotle playing tutor to the son of a king and scraping a living where he could when that wasn’t available.  

Maybe the first thing philosophers really need is to live real life among real people.

Written by janeh

January 6th, 2010 at 2:58 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Veils, Ignorant and Otherwise'

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  1. Robert Heinlein–I think in GLORY ROAD–quoted the Rotarian who explained “Friends, I’ve been to Chicago. I’ve been to St Louis. I’ve even been to Kansas City. And I’m here to tell you, people are pretty much the same all over the world.” The formal name is sampling error, and there’s a lot of it going around.

    But that only accounts for some rather strange “of course” or “everyone knows” assumptions. It doesn’t explain attempting to prescribe ethics or justice without a foundational principle. But then I never have understood that.


    6 Jan 10 at 5:10 pm

  2. Rawls also comes up with what he called “The maxi-min” rule. Choose the society which guarantees the highest standard of living (the mximum) to those on the bottom level of the society (The minimum).

    So if society A has a standard of living ranging from 5 to 20 in arbitrary units, and B has a range of 4 to 100, he thinks everyone will choose A. But plenty of people choose to buy lottery tickets even though they know they will almost certainly loose. The maxi-min principle only works if people are adverse to gambling.


    6 Jan 10 at 11:43 pm

  3. I confess I had never heard of John Rawls before. I can’t say that I think much of his ideas now that I have heard at lease a summary of them. I suppose it’s some consolation that I now have a source of some of the popular ideas in our cultures.


    7 Jan 10 at 12:43 pm

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