May 16, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society

The previous post that dealt with Dominionist's negative views towards gays generated an interesting set of comments that frame nicely the kinds of problems we face when we try to arrive at rules for society that we can all live by and perceive as fair. (I will defer the planned posts on the religious opposition to Darwin to address this question first.)

In those comments, Joe's understanding of Christianity leads him to think of homosexual behavior as sinful although he is not hostile to gays as people, drawing a parallel between the way that we can view alcoholism as bad while not thinking of alcoholics as evil people. Katie's interpretation of Christianity, on the other hand, leads her to being a passionate supporter of gay rights. Aaron is an atheist, and Christianity-based arguments don't have much sway with him. And, of course, there is a huge range of beliefs that span these three particular viewpoints. So how does one arrive at public policies that can be accepted as fair by everyone, not just with regard to gay rights, but in all aspects of public life?

Joe quotes the Bible to support his position on the gay issue but such an argument has no persuasive power for those who do not accept the Bible as anything other than literature. For such people, quoting the Bible carries as much weight as quoting Shakespeare. Also, quoting the Bible gets one into dueling battles of scripture verses, because those Christians (like Katie and Ran) who are accepting of gays have their own Biblical justifications for their actions and can cite verses too. And I suspect that if members of some other religion (say Islam) quoted their religious text in support of some policy that Christians found unacceptable, the latter are not likely to find it persuasive. So how do we decide what to do?

The problem has an easy solution if you think you are right and everyone who disagrees with you is wrong. Then all you have to do is to find the means to enforce your ideas on everyone, using the apparatus of state power, comforted in the knowledge that you alone are the guardian of universal truths. This is the way that authoritarian governments function. Such governments may claim to base their actions on religion or morals, and feel that they are serving God and that everything they do is for the greater good. But those people who do not share the beliefs and values of those in power are unlikely to feel that they are being treated fairly, even if they are not being severely discriminated against or suffering outright persecution.

Leaving aside this option of imposing one's views on others by force (which I am assuming that we agree is a bad idea), the other usual solution is majoritarianism (not to be confused with democracy) where the views of the majority are allowed to prevail unchecked by any other considerations. Then the political struggle lies in how to persuade the majority to adopt the point of view that we prefer, and once persuaded, to codify those ideas into laws that can be enforced on the minority.

But majoritarianism is also unlikely to be perceived as fair by all except in those extremely rare instances where everyone has a fair chance at being in the majority or to persuade the majority to accept their point of view. So, for example, since Christians are the numerical majority in the US, believers in that religion have a chance of getting majority support for government laws and policies based on Christianity, assuming for the moment that they want to. But Muslims, Wiccans, Jews, Buddhists, etc. have little or no chance of getting their religion as the basis of policy in this country.

Christians might respond that that is just tough luck. They might argue that the US is a Christian country and all others will just have to live with the consequences of this. This is what members of groups like the Dominionist want to see happen and are working towards, and since Christians are in the majority, they have a chance of making this come to pass.

A lot of public policy advocacy involves this type of reasoning. We advocate and make rules and laws based on our own particular situation. So for example, people who think they personally are unlikely to commit particular acts can advocate harsh penalties for those acts while going easy on other acts that they can conceive being guilty of. So we have harsh penalties for smoking marijuana while cheating on taxes gets off easy. Petty thievery carries with it a good chance of prison but abusing and harassing workers does not. Those who never drink alcohol might be in favor of draconian penalties for drunk driving while people who do drink moderately may favor a system of warnings and graduated penalties, since there is always the chance that they might inadvertently do this. Of course, each side can rationalize their decisions.

It is hard to ignore the fact that self-interest and self-preservation play a role in creating those policies that we now take for granted. The problem is that basing policy preferences on our own personal situation is unlikely to lead to consensus on what is a fair policy, since each person's situation is different. It also means that those people who are not members of the rule-making majority class are unlikely to perceive the society as treating them fairly.

This is where John Rawls' policy of trying to achieve 'justice as fairness' by creating rules behind a 'veil of ignorance' comes in handy in trying to see how to work things out. (See here for a previous posting on this subject. Full disclosure: I haven't completed reading Rawls' book A Theory of Justice yet so I will probably not be portraying his ideas correctly in all its aspects. But his 'veil of ignorance' idea strikes me as a really powerful problem-solving heuristic for addressing social problem and I am going to start using it to analyze this problem, even if I get some things wrong. I know that some readers of this blog are more familiar with Rawls' ideas and I hope they will feel free to correct and elaborate as needed.)

The main idea of Rawls is that we decide on the rules of society without knowing in advance what our own specific situation in society is. So the challenge for all of us is to decide on the laws and policies under which we are all going to be governed, while acknowledging that there are going to be a whole range of possible personal situations in society, that we might occupy any one of them, and that we do not know in advance of making the rules what our specific situation is going to be.

This is not such a strange concept. In fact it is quite instinctive in some aspects of ordinary daily life. We do it all the time, for example, when designing and playing games. The rules of games are decided in advance of the game beginning so that all players, whether they eventually win or lose, will accept the outcome as fair. And these rules are not always based on assuming that each player has equal talents but presuppose that the players will have a range of abilities.

So if people organize a pickup game of softball and teams have to be selected, it is usually done in a manner (by picking randomly or taking turns in picking players or some such system) so that the two teams have roughly equal chances at success. The same is true for the NFL draft, where the rules are more elaborate. The order of selection is decided in ways that serve the goal of achieving some level of parity for the teams and so that all teams feel that the draft selection process is fair.

Even in a game like chess, where playing white gives you an immediate advantage, you can address fairness by tossing a coin to see who gets white or by playing multiple games and changing colors each time. In professional tennis, where having the service is important, you neutralize the effect of one side of the court bestowing an advantage (because of wind direction, playing surface, background, sunlight, shadows, officials, etc.) by requiring that a player win each set with at least a two-game lead, and having the service change after the first game of each set and after every two games thereafter.

All these things are decided in advance so that once the game starts, and you know your specific situation (that you are playing black in chess or you have to receive service in tennis) you still feel that the game is fair, even if you find yourself in a slightly disadvantaged position. If the rules were such that one side had an overwhelming advantage simply due to their initial situation, then no one would play the game. In golf, allowance is also made for unequal skill by means of the handicapping system.

If we can go to such elaborate lengths to ensure that games are perceived as fair by all concerned, why is it that we do not take the same trouble to ensure that the rules and laws which govern our lives have the same structures to ensure perceptions of fairness?

One might argue that this is not possible because in the case of society, the game (so to speak) has already started, the rules are already in place, and our positions in the game are known, so we do not have the luxury of predetermining the rules using the 'veil of ignorance.'

In future posts, I will see how we might use Rawls' ideas to address this problem.


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"people who think they personally are unlikely to commit particular acts can advocate harsh penalties for those acts while going easy on other acts that they can conceive being guilty of"

That is quite a lot of food for thought right there, especially when viewed in light of class, race and gender differences, and the way that they work in the current political climate of the US. I hadn't thought of it before, but it does explain a lot about the way in which our representative democracy works.

Do you think that any legislature could be convinced to make penalties proportional to, say, the amount of hardship that a crime would cause to the people that it affected?

Posted by melinda on May 16, 2005 02:33 PM


I am not sure. In the next two posts I will be exploring further how to possibly implement better policies using Ralws' ideas so we should perhaps defer this discussion until after I have worked on them.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 16, 2005 04:49 PM

I think it is helpful to think of the lives of our current or future children and grandchildren and imagine what rules we would like them to play by. Their "game playing" hasn't started yet, but we are making the rules for their game today.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on May 17, 2005 07:49 AM