Contemporary American philosopher John Rawls and I don’t agree on much, but I do appreciate one tactic he takes in his philosophical method: the veil of ignorance.
The veil of ignorance is a thought experiment for determining how a society should be set up from a moral standpoint. In an attempt at impartiality, it asks people to temporarily forget who they are – their age, gender, race, social status, personal experiences and abilities, relationships and so on – while they contemplate moral issues.
As Rawls put it, within the veil “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like”. The idea is that if you don’t know where in society you will land once the veil is lifted, you are more likely to consider different viewpoints and not simply stack the deck in your favor when agreeing on rules of morality.
Picture a group of bodiless souls (I’m sure there’s a term for this, along the lines of gaggle, herd, or pride.) who are in life’s waiting room, waiting to be inserted into the bodies of brand new human babies. They have no idea what they themselves will be like nor what life has in store for them.
Rawls argues that this group would not, for instance, vote to be born into an aristocratic society because there’s a large chance that they will end up at the bottom of the social heap. Instead, the people-to-be will vote for something more equal and more fair. Equal and fair are, of course, subjective, and Rawls goes off from there in a direction I don’t really agree with, but the starting point is fun to consider.
However, I’d like to suggest that the veil is not quite opaque enough. As it is, when the veil drops, the souls are immediately born or brought back to their actual selves. This inadvertently creates a bias of chronological design.
Because the souls know that they’re going immediately into the world, they may not bother to consider long-term repercussions of their moral decisions. Instead, I argue that the veil should block out not only a person’s race, gender, and so on, but also the time in which they are born. If one knows that many generations may pass before he takes his corporeal form, he will not simply stack the deck in favor of the first.
When placing himself behind the veil of ignorance, Rawls takes a short-sighted approach. He argues for an extremely equalized society where no one really owns their own talents, achievements, or selves because each of those things is based on luck of the draw and situations beyond the individual’s control.
I can easily see a group of bodiless souls getting together and saying, “Well, let’s just play it safe and split everything absolutely evenly once we get to Earth. It will be fair, and we’ll all have reasonably good lives.” However, a society based on such principles will not thrive. It may work for a while, but we know that such greater-good, socialist systems fall apart when no one is allowed to excel and when no one suffers from their own laziness or ineptitude.
If those souls instead had to consider the distant future, they might realize that some amount of inequality is unavoidable and even necessary for the society as a whole to advance. Imagine if evolution were based on rules of fairness – we’d all still be single-celled organisms (though very equally so).
Though you may disagree with my views on equality and fairness, I think you’ll still appreciate my extension of the veil of ignorance to include chronological obfuscation. Even if you draw conclusions that are very different from my own, I still expect they will benefit from this small adjustment to the thought experiment.
And with that contribution, I proudly take my place alongside the likes of Rawls, Kant, Rousseau, and Locke. ;)