I was introduced to the music of Les Miserables as a child, maybe around 10 years of age. I’ve been privileged enough to see the musical twice in New York and several (4 to 6?) times at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta.
For years and years, I’ve been wanting to be able to watch Les Mis in all its glory at home, but the closest I’ve found was the anniversary concert shown on PBS which did not include any of the acting or sets. Now, however, someone is bringing the story and music to the big screen (and eventually to my home). And it appears they’re going to do it justice.
Needless to say, I’m a wee bit excited.
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. ;)
I’ve become very interested in philosophy lately with the help of iTunes U. There are two great classes that I’d like to recommend:
- Political Philosophy – Yale – Steven B. Smith – This is a straight-forward lecture series starting with Plato and moving chronologically through to Tocqueville. This is a great introduction for someone who’s somewhat serious about the topic, but it’s dense and somewhat dry. I’ll admit that I took some breaks from it, but I still enjoyed it quite a bit.
- Justice – Harvard – Michael Sandel – I’m less than halfway through this series but am really loving it. This course is a perfect introduction for anyone as it is accessible, funny, and very thought-provoking. The course is very well produced, and I would pay to go see this professor in person.
As I’ve been listening to these, a lot of thoughts have been roiling around in my head. I’ve been wanting to write down my thoughts and responses to the questions these courses pose but have been intimidated by how much writing that would be and how it could open me to the critism of my readers. But then I realized that no one reads this so I have nothing to worry about!
So, my goal is to get some of these thoughts and ideas down on this blog as I continue this journey of learning. Feel free to comment or argue but please keep it friendly.
Who said the following to whom?
Why can’t I love you without you licking me?
Karen and I went to Lowes the other day to pick up a leaf blower. I didn’t know anything about leaf blowers and neither did the first Lowes employee I asked. I chose one based on price and features and picked it up to leave.
Right then, another customer showed up with a more knowledgeable employee. I overheard the employee recommend against the leaf blower I’d picked up and thankfully joined the conversation.
The employee recommended a more expensive blower with fewer features. I pointed out that it did not have the vacuum and mulch features that my previous choice did. He acknowledged that. But then the other customer asked, honestly, why that mattered? Did I know something about those features that made them desirable?
I had to pause and think. Would vacuuming or mulching leaves with a little hand-held leaf blower even make sense? After a few seconds, I admitted that I just assumed more features were better. I hadn’t even thought about whether the features really made sense.
We all smiled at that, and the two of us walked away with the higher priced but lower featured blowers.
I take two things from this experience. First, as a consumer I need to be more aware of why I’m buying a product and how I’ll use it. I should not let extra features sway me unless they’re actually beneficial.
Second, as a marketer I need to realize that people often don’t think when making purchases. Adding some silly features may sound like a bad idea but could be just what’s needed to get those people’s attention.
The two reactions that always pop up after a tragic incident like the recent theater shooting in Colorado are very interesting in how divergent they are. Some people say, “This is exactly why guns should be banned. If people couldn’t get guns, this kind of thing would never happen.” The other crowd says, “This is exactly why more people should be allowed to carry guns. If more people were armed, it would be a deterrent to lunatics like this, and victims could defend themselves and save lives by ending the incident quicker.”
And, as always, the one group rolls their eyes at the other’s proclamation and cringes at the feeble-mindedness of the argument, the person setting it forth, and the entire political philosophy of that stupid, stupid person.
In other words, incidents like this do nothing but drive us further apart.
Instead of coming together to grieve over a tragic incident, we argue about how to ensure it never happens again. This is the exact argument I found myself in last night. The discussion started with grief and sickness over what happened, but it quickly turned to anger and frustration over how to solve the problem.
The truth is, we cannot do anything to stop incidents like these. We live in a world where guns and lunatics exist. Short of chaining every human to a wall for the duration of their lives – or just killing them all, – people will find ways to acquire and use weapons. Tragedies will happen from time to time. And that really sucks.
In fact, it sucks so much that people will not accept it. I fully expect politicians to jump in (or citizens to pull politicians in) to “fix” the problem.
Legislation will be passed saying that costumes cannot be worn in public, at which point the government will have the final say in what constitutes a costume and, therefore, what people can and cannot wear. Or perhaps going to a movie will become more like getting on an airplane. Think of all the new jobs that will open up when the MTSA (Movie Theater Security Administration) sets up metal detectors and scanning machines in theaters across the nation. “I’m sorry, sir, you can only bring 3 ounces of soda into the theater.”
We’re in a catch 22 here. As decent Americans, we have to do something. We can’t just look at the families of the victims and say, “Dude, that sucks, but shit happens.” And yet, the “doing something” will do nothing but further divide us, take away freedoms and conveniences, and leave us more scared than ever.
And you know what, shit will still happen. At some point, we have to just deal with it as it comes up and then move on with our lives.
As predicted, this blog isn’t getting too much use. I guess I just don’t have that much to say.
Still, my intention was for this to be a bit of a time capsule that I can look back on when I’m older. Something to remind my senile self of all the fun things I did and interesting things I learned (and since forgot).
The problem with that is there are too many such time capsules already. I post bits of my life on Facebook and SmugMug. I keep interesting writings on Google Docs, Simple Note, or just on my computer. I backed up my old blogs on my computer as well.
And, even scarier, none of these things are future-proof. In fact, quite the opposite: they’re very likely to become inaccessible at some not-too-distant point.
I know the only real solution is to not try to document and remember everything, but that’s just not me. I hate to let the past go, and I long for some way to capture each moment and store it for future enjoyment. I love memories and want to be able to relive them whenever I please.
Right now, I don’t know what the solution is for me. But I suppose I should at least start writing more on this blog. We’ll see how that goes…