About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Tuesday, May 20, 2008
The veil of ignorance
Of course, no contractualist really maintains that there ever was a non-social state of nature for human beings (if they did, they would be contradicted by evolutionary biologists), nor that the so-called social contract was an historical event (historians would go crazy with that one), nor that it is actually entered into voluntarily by most people (you are usually born into a society with a given contract, meaning a set of laws and customs -- unless you are an immigrant such as myself, in which case you are the only one truly entitled to say that you are “proud to be an American” and other such nonsense -- but I digress).
Arguably one of the most interesting contractualists in recent times has been John Rawls (1921-2002), whose work is well described by Palmer. Rawls started out with the idea that justice can be conceived as fairness, and that therefore a just society has to set up its governing rules (its social contract) to be as fair as possible. Of course, the problem even with rational people (let alone slightly irrational ones, as is far more common) trying to arrive at an agreement is that usually the negotiating table is imbalanced. For all the nice talk in the US about opportunity for everyone, anyone who is not totally in the throws of nationalistic propaganda can easily see that the playing field is anything but level. So, how do we go about setting up a rational just society given the (rather rational, if not just) propensity of human beings to take advantage of whatever their current position happens to offer?
Rawls’ solution was what he called the veil of ignorance. Assume that you arrive at the bargaining table with no knowledge whatsoever of your social status, economic power, ethnicity, religion or gender. Then, asks Rawls, what kind of society would you want to set up? The answer, he argued, is a society that would guarantee maximum liberty equally distributed among its members, as well as an equal distribution of wealth and power, unless there are situations where some sort of unequal distribution would favor everyone and if everyone had an equal opportunity of being so favored. In other words, you’d be a far-left liberal Democrat, and most certainly not a Republican (and not even a Libertarian, because of the as-equal-as-possible distribution clause).
Rawls’ argument may seem either trivial or absurd, but it is neither, and it grows on you if you give it some time and think about it. For instance, contrary to what it may appear to be at first, Rawls envisions a meritocracy, not a socialist or communist society, because people do have a chance of acquiring more resources than others; but this is made possible only under the strict double condition that such inequality is in fact to the benefit of all, and that all do have a really equal shot at it. Needless to say, American society is not (yet?) even approaching that ideal status, largely because of the incredibly weak social net, its huge imbalance between the richest and the poorest, its lack of truly equal opportunity, and its still widespread racism and sexism. Oh well, one has to have some goal to work toward...