May 17, 2005

Creating the conditions for a just society - 2

In the previous posting we saw how people tend to advocate policies based on their own particular background, situation, or preferences, and this necessarily results in perceptions of unfairness over the decisions made.

The key to understanding Rawls' idea of 'justice as fairness' is that people perceive fairness in terms of the process by which results are achieved, not in terms of the actual outcomes of the process. When children play a game and at the end, one child complains that it was not fair, it usually means that the child feels that the rules of operation were either violated or exploited unethically, not that the child should not have lost (unless we are talking about a really spoiled child who feels entitled to always win).

So what Rawls is saying in his A Theory of Justice is that we need to collectively determine the rules by which decisions affecting all of society are arrived at, so that whatever results from that decision making process, everyone will accept that it is fair, although we may not agree with any given decision.

Rawls argues that the essential ingredient to achieving this fairness in process is the 'veil of ignorance' under which everyone who is involved in creating the rules (known as the 'persons in the original position') operates. What he means by this is:

First of all, 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. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism. More than this, I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its particular economic or political situation, or the level of civilization and culture it has been able to achieve. The persons in the original position have no information as to which generation they belong. (p. 118)

The veil of ignorance only excludes particular knowledge about the state of individuals or societies. It allows for the kind of general information needed to make meaningful decisions.

It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice. (p. 119)

The rules which are arrived at cannot involve identifiable persons or groups or create special exemptions for such groups. For example, if one is making rules about religion, one cannot create rules that apply to a named religious group. You cannot say, for example, that a particular rule will be applied only if the majority of the population (once the veil of ignorance is lifted) turns out to be Christian (or Hindu or whatever.) You cannot also make rules dependent on what the particular situation of a named individual turns out to be. So you cannot say, for example, that the rule of free health care being available to all only kicks in if person X turns out to be sickly.

How would this work in practice? I will see in the next posting by applying it to special cases, including that involving the rights of gays.


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I find Rawls' theory interesting (or what I know of it, anyway). I'm not sure I agree with it, because I think our tendency to use probabilistic information means the outcome wouldn't be the one he expected. I think the hope of the "veil of ignorance" is that people who are behind it will choose a system under which they are guaranteed not to have a terrible outcome - that is, they will maximize the minimum quality of life they can expect. I don't think this is true generally. Suppose one of the candidate systems was one where x out of y people were wealthy and had every need met, at the expense of the remainder of the people, who spent their lives miserable. I think that there are probably some values of x and y such that many veiled people would think this a pretty good deal, in the end, because they'd be pretty confident that they'd be in the former group.

As to whether this procedure for choosing a system would make the small fraction of the population who got the shaft feel they had been treated more fairly... it's also a good question, and I'm not sure what I'd expect.

John Harsanyi wrote a (short) philosophical critique of Rawls that I read in a class this past semester. I kind of agreed with him, although I think I was the only person in the class who did, whatever that says ;). I can dig up the reference if you're interested.

Posted by Erin on May 17, 2005 11:53 AM

The veil of ignorance is a very useful tool to use when working towards the concept of the just society. But given some of the discussion in the last few posts, I wonder if our issue is not only agreeing on what makes a society just, but agreeing that a just society is our end goal.

I believe it is, but that isn't the goal of the Dominionists. I think the rules of justice and morality are like the rules of the road. If we all drive on the right (at least here in Cleveland) then we are less likely to drive into one another, than if we could drive in any direction in any lane. Man's laws should allow society to function smoothly.

But religious laws don't serve the same purpose. While some do (thou shalt not kill) others are not meant to make society function smoothly but to instead show one's obeisance and dedication to god. (Thou shalt not worship others before me)

I think our founding fathers understood that quite clearly when crafting our constitution, but now the distinction is becoming blurred with legislation being passed that not only isn't written to support justice but in fact denies justice, in favor of the laws of a particular interpretation of a particular god.

Is there a way that we can reconcile these two agendas?

Posted by Heidi Cool on May 17, 2005 02:01 PM

Regarding Erin's point that some people may be willing to take a risk that they will not fall into the disadvantaged category, Rawls seems to have that covered I think. He says that we cannot factor into the decision making process individual inclinations. He says:

For this reason the veil of ignorance also rules out knowledge of these inclinations: the parties do not know whether or not they have an unusual aversion to taking chances. As far as possible the choice of a conception of justice should depend on a rational assessment of accepting risks unaffected by peculiar individual preferences for taking chances one way or another. (p. 149)

Posted by Mano Singham on May 18, 2005 09:55 AM


I think that (and maybe I am an optimist) the desire for justice is very intuitive and desirable for most people. It is an essential lubricant in our everyday life. So I think that the appeal to justice as a social organizing principle can be very pwoerful.

I agree with you that on the surface that does not seem to be the way we are going. I think that this is because the very word justice has been hijackedby those who see it as serving very narrow goals based on a specific orthodoxy. I would like to reclaim the concept.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 18, 2005 09:59 AM

Thanks for the reply, Mano! :)

Unfortunately, I don't find Rawls' response all that compelling, because a lot hinges on the word "rational." Does he define this term? I would argue that there are some choices in that situation that would be quite rational and not at all just - e.g., a system that guarantees happiness to everyone but one person, who is totally miserable. Given a large enough population, the risk of personal unhappiness would be slight. At some point, it is more rational to accept a small risk in return for a high-probability, high-value payoff than it is to reject that risk - and so I think it's fair to expect that self-interested, rational people behind the veil would take the gamble. I'm not comfortable with the notion that this makes it just.

Posted by Erin on May 18, 2005 11:14 AM


Yes Rawls does spend some considerable time on the issue of rationality. Pages 123-125 starts it off but he goes into more depth later. There does not seem to be an easy excerpt to quote, though. Do you have access to the book?

But your point goes even beyond that, I think, and I hope that someone who has studied Rawls in depth can answer it

But here is my attempt. Assuming that it is possible to arrive at a system that deprives just a very few people, and everyone agrees that it is just and the system is accepted, then perhaps those people have no choice but to accept that the result is just. But it may not happen for other reasons.

As a concrete example, suppose that we say that slavery for a small fraction is something we can live with, provided people are assigned to the slave position at random. (We will leave out the moral issues involved because under the 'veil of ignorance' we do not know the moral values of people either.) Most rational people may not accept even this system because having just a few slaves to serve a large population will not benefit those people by any measurable amount. It only benefits you if you happen to be one of the few members of the advantaged set who has access to slaves. But this probability is also small. But if by some chance, you end up as a slave, you are in big trouble.

So I think that a rational person would reject the "slavery of a few" as an option because, even theough the risk of being a slave is small, the compensating benefit is not great enough to risk it.

The benefits of becoming advantaged by having slaves become substantial only if a large fraction is made disadvantaged. But then the risk of becoming disdavantaged becomes greater, so that plan may be rejected also.

This is why, in the current society, a few people have comfortable lives. It is because there are a huge number of people working at very poorly paid jobs. If almost everyone in the work force was paid a good wage, imagine what the cost of a hamburger would be?

So while I see the merits of the probability argument you are raising, I think Rawls' system still works ok. But I know my point is not all that convincing and needs developing.

Posted by Mano Singham on May 18, 2005 11:41 AM

Mano, thanks for your reply. I do not have immediate access to the book (an undergrad seems to have forgotten to return it to our library!). It's something I have an interest in reading anyway, so I will keep looking.

Your defense of Rawls' theory largely accounts for the kinds of rich-poor tradeoffs we see in real life, it's true, because it's hard to think of a realistic system where the misery of just one person leads to total paradise for everybody else. (Though, on a smaller scale, perhaps middle-school social behavior would count? People choose to torment one nerd; everybody else enjoys greater social cohesion and elevated status; almost everyone wins.) I intended it more as a thought experiment than anything, to demonstrate that the theory doesn't really work in the limit.

Posted by Erin on May 18, 2005 12:33 PM