Waylaid Dialectic

March 28, 2021

Real people and the Veil of Ignorance

Filed under: Random Musings — terence @ 10:44 am

At least up until the point I stopped listening, this was a pretty frustrating discussion of John Rawls. But as I mulled over the arguments, I had one brief lucid moment of my own. I’m not claiming this is original, or necessarily true to Rawls’s thought. But it’s useful for me to type it up.

If you’re taught only the basics of Rawls, like I was at university, you’re told that his famed Veil of Ignorance works as follows.

Imagine you are behind a Veil of Ignorance; you’re yet to be born; you have no idea what your future economic circumstances will be. You cannot influence your own individual circumstances in the world you will one day be born into. But you can, in this magical yet unknowable place, decide how resources will be distributed once you are actually alive. What would you choose the distribution to be?

Rawls’s is answer is that you would choose a distribution that maximised the well-being of the least well off person (or something analogous, like the wellbeing of the lowest quintile). You would do this — you are told in the pocket summary version you get in first year — because you’re somewhat risk averse, and you know there’s a risk you might end up in this position in society. It’s quite possible. (You are only a hypothetical you, with no idea what nature or nurture will gift you. So it is a greater risk than might seem to be the case from your comfortable position in an undergraduate lecture theatre.)

This is a very helpful way to think about a just income distribution. It’s seems fairer than the let them eat cake approach that has dominated most of human history. Yet it also avoids a major flaw in the equality at all costs approach of utopians: it’s not willing to bear all costs in the name of equality. If a desire for perfect equality causes the economy to collapse, or even just grow very slowly, the lives of the least well off would be less well off than they would be if we tolerated some inequality. The distributional vision that emerges from behind the Veil of Ignorance is a practical one.

The objection you hear though, almost inevitably from one of your affluent undergraduate colleagues, is one to do with empirics: but how do you know that’s what people would choose behind the Veil of Ignorance? Maybe they’d be willing to tolerate a risk of being worse off at the bottom if they knew that, were they to end up at the top, they’d be very well off indeed? And surely we need to know something about probabilities? If the risk I’ll end up at the bottom is high, no doubt I’d feel different from if it was actually quite low? And so on.

My moment of clarity today (my personal one, tapping into previous less clear thoughts, and merely something others will have understood this long ago, no doubt) was that it is a mistake to think of the Veil of Ignorance as in any way akin to an empirical matter, that we can debate with arguments about the actual risk tolerance of members of our species. It’s not the sort of thought experiment that could be turned into a real psychological experiment if we could just magic a suitably sized sample of real human beings behind the Veil of Ignorance.

Rather the Veil of Ignorance is (at least it seems to me it is) simply a tool for illustrating something akin to the Golden Rule (do unto others, as you would have them…) or Kant’s Categorical Imperative (this part at least). It is an attempt to illustrate what reason and logical consistency should lead us to choose, even if we end up fortunate. Do unto the less fortunate as you would have them do unto you, if they were more fortunate, and you less so. If you choose anything else you are not being logically consistent.

If you were guaranteed to be at the bottom of the distributional heap you would want your poverty eased as much as possible. You’d want that to be the guiding rule. And if you’re being logically consistent — rather than simply creating rules to suit yourself, which is not a just basis for rules — you should want that to be the guiding rule even if though turns out that you’re actually quite well off.

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