Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Veil of Ignorance

Have you ever considered the burden upon a judge to make truly just, objective decisions, irrespective of feelings (positive or negative) for the litigants and their respective attorneys?

Or, much closer to most of us, the responsibility we bear as voters to fairly debate and decide what is most rational and sound,… right and just and fair, even though an alternative option may be in one’s most immediate personal interests (e.g., granting an “entitlement”, or a tax cut at the expense of good programs that are serving others well)?

In a certain sense, as participants in the body politic we are continually coming together to discuss the terms of the optimal social contract and decide many societal questions concerning:

-the vesting of power and privileges;
-the proper exercise of power (and appropriate limits);
-the distribution of limited resources;
-the boundaries between personal freedoms and prohibited behaviors;
-the level of care for the disabled, disadvantaged and needy;
and the list goes on and on.

We participate and decide such matters in various ways, many unrecognized. But how SHOULD we participate? By what approach and with what perspective?

John Rawls urges that we participate in such inescapable discussions and decisions behind a presumed “veil of ignorance”,… as if we do not know the circumstances into which we (or our children whom we so love) are born. Let us have the discussion and each take our respective stand as to what is most sound and just,… and only afterwards “turn the cards up” and “pull back the veil of ignorance”, and discover our lot in life,… whether we are female or male, brilliant or dull, black or white, handsome or homely, strong or frail, gay or straight, born into undeserved wealth or desperate poverty….

With the veil pulled back, we will discover that some of us are born in the Hamptons and named “Edmund”, with a high Roman numeral behind something like Rockefeller or Kennedy or Gates or Walton. Some of us are born “Tyrone”, HIV positive, in an unrecognizable neighborhood of what remains of New Orleans, to a single mother, and no Roman numeral or even a last name. Some of us are born “Hamid” in the Sudan, and some “Lightfoot” on a Federal Reservation in North Dakota. Some of us are born with the genetic makeup of Lance Armstrong or Michael Phelps; others are born with severe spina bifida or with the genetic makeup that will announce M.S. or terminal cancer at age 40. But this is the thing: We do not know who we are, or who are children are, until we first take a stand as to what is fair, what is right, and the kind of world in which we really want to live. [Something that is not part of Rawls’ theory, but must be noted here: As enormously “different” as we may appear to one another, we all appear very much the same to our Creator, at least in the sense that each is equally precious in His sight.]

When I discover that I am born to an HIV positive street beggar in Burkina Faso who will not live to my 5th birthday, I shall be glad and affirmed to have “voted” with charity and compassion on issues of global health and poverty alleviation (while I was still behind the veil of ignorance). That seems obvious.

But is it not just as obvious that I should be equally satisfied to have “voted” for a compassionate, charitable, and tolerant society when I discover that I have been born “Prince Charles, Heir to the Throne”? Or a N.Y. banker earning $1 million per year, or an Italian designer earning $200,000. Or a well funded Islamic, Christian, or Hindu fundamentalist? Is it not that commitment to community, charity, compassion, and tolerance (can we call it “love”?) that we desire to distinguish us from the beasts?

The “veil of ignorance” does not tell us what to think, but it points out a very good place to do our thinking. If we go to this higher ground, surely many of our positions will be affected.

All that having been said, and moving on:

(Two of the three beloved Princes of Hermosa Beach, who I have often observed to step behind the "veil of ignorance" as they seek what is good and right and fair.)