“The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. This ensures that no one is advantaged or disadvantaged in the choice of principles by the outcome of natural chance or the contingency of social circumstances” (Rawls 11).
Rawls is getting into the specifics of social contract theory and what it would look like. He uses an “original position of equality” to determine which rules would be made and accepted (11). In this hypothetical scenario, he states that the individuals should not know what advantages or privileges they have, which would include social position, class, or “natural assets and abilities” like intelligence (11). In his opinion, this is the most fair way to go about setting up principles of justice because everyone is on the same page, at least in terms of awareness.
I’m currently in an ethics class, specifically for social work practice. This week, in light of the situation with COVID-19, we spoke about the idea of limited testing for individuals. We were given a list of five people, trying to decide who (if anyone) would be most deserving of the three tests available. The difficult thing was knowing that these were all vulnerable populations with different circumstances and levels of concern.
I have to wonder, based on this quote, if it’s truly better not knowing before making a big decision. The idea of a blind pick, a lottery as it were, might seem appealing for the reasons Rawls lays out. No one is being considered as better or more deserving than the others based on their assets. It also would take our own biases out of the equation, for as much as we like to pretend we were free of judgement there will always be subtle beliefs that dictate your decisions.
But there are problems with this as well. Sometimes history and background are very important to consider. I know Rawls’ theory depends on a considerable lack of a former society, and these imaginary people have been brought together to make decisions are not privy to knowing any other way of life. But in this scenario that I was presented with, I knew it wouldn’t feel right leaving things to chance because there were some in more critical states than others that I wouldn’t want to risk harming further if they didn’t get picked in this blind system.
For example, one woman was living in an abusive household, and so a test would either mean she is free to get away or that she would need to find resources to help her (two very important paths). Meanwhile, there was also a man who was homeless and with no place to quarantine, so if he tested positive you would want to know so that you could actually find a place for him and stop the spread of the virus. The others all had similar pressing matters. On the one hand, who am I-in my position in life which I am constantly aware of and cannot ignore-to decide the fate of these individuals? On the other hand, can I ignore that some are at higher risk of harm than others and therefore should be considered before anyone else?
I don’t have a clear answer for all of this, and I’m not sure if Rawls would either. I actually appreciated that one of my classmates bypassed the decision altogether to look for more tests. I can see both sides of the problem, which is what makes it harder. In a way I envy these people in the original position of equality, because they have the luxury of going in fresh. But I cannot, as my social work education has pushed me to never forget history and hidden privileges and oppressions. Of course, I don’t see this as a bad thing, but it certainly does make ethical decisions that much more difficult.
I turn this ethical dilemma to everyone else. What’s better: giving all people careful consideration and then deciding something for them, or letting fate and a veil of ignorance do the work for you?
Class Discussion and Impact:
My contributions: Other than sharing my QCQ from last class, I noted that I agreed with Nadia in that mistrust can be important to create social change, that it’s important to have a clarification on who a ‘rational’ person is, and I provided my opinion on why people should make decisions in that original agreement based on themselves (even if it wasn’t entirely on the mark).
Others’ contributions: Jill shared aspects of her QCQ from Tuesday (context of gender, 12 Angry Men connection), and Josh shared his QCQ for today as well as the idea that it’s human nature to want to better oneself.
I’m starting to notice a pattern in that we as a class will flag statements that we either agree with or are confused/conflicted about, and then we go over what Rawls’ intention was. It’s not necessarily declaring him as right every time, but it gives us more context and information to our arguments. I really enjoyed what everyone had to say regarding the issues of privilege and how not everyone should be assumed as altruistic at the outset. I’m interested to keep going with Rawls and learn even more from him.