Saturday, December 29, 2012

Behind the Veil of Ignorance (... a good place to reflect)

Whether you are a red Republican or a blue Democrat;
a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist;
living off entitlements or pulling in $1,000,000+;
straight or gay;
parent of a 6 year-old who attended Sandy Hook; 
or a grandfather whose greatest delight is to take his granddaughter deer and pheasant hunting;… this blog's for you. It offers no good answers, but it suggests where good answers might be found.

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

Or, much closer to each of us, the responsibility we bear as participants in the body politic (e.g., as voters) to fairly discuss and decide what is our most rational and sound way forward,… just and fair, even though an alternative option may be in one’s most immediate personal interests (e.g., granting or eliminating an “entitlement” or a tax increase or a tax cut)?

In a sense, as participants in the body politic we are continually coming together to discuss the terms of the optimal social contract and we 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 and disadvantaged;
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 (1921 - 2002) urged 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) 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 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 “the projects” to a single mother, and no Roman numeral nor 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 “Michael” … Jordan, Phelps or Tyson; 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 our 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.
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 a well funded Islamic, Christian, or Hindu fundamentalist? Is it not that commitment to community, charity, compassion, and tolerance 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 better reasoned and better decided. And let us be appropriately concerned about those who are incapable of even the effort, who think this is a trick and that sound, objective reasoning cannot be trusted,... those who may fear that community, compassion and tolerance are dangerous traps.