The late Harvard University moral and political philosopher John Rawls is most famously associated with the idea that to be just, society's rules should be created as if those making them are behind a "veil of ignorance." According to Rawls, "Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. ... 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. Since all are similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain." (from A Theory of Justice) In practice, though, we have very few opportunities to develop policy behind a veil of ignorance. But what if we did? How well might it work?
Perhaps not very well -- not because there's necessarily anything wrong with the idea, but because our willingness to abide by the principles developed behind the veil of ignorance may be quick to break down once we understand our true positions.
This spring we had a rare opportunity to put Rawls's theory to the test. When the coronavirus pandemic began, compliance with measures designed to protect public health, including closures and stay-at-home orders, was high in the U.S. This is borne out by considerable data showing how quickly and widely people began limiting their non-essential travel in April. In other words, when we all believed ourselves to be equally vulnerable to harm -- as if behind a veil of ignorance -- we supported protective measures even though those protective measures were restrictive. Over time, though, as more data became available that hinted at our personal vulnerability (e.g., young vs. old, affluent vs. poor, urban vs. rural, white vs. African American or Hispanic, healthy vs. having underlying health conditions, able to work remotely vs. not), support for protective measures unraveled. Just a few short months later, those who no longer see themselves at risk are not willing to abide by the original contract.
This is actually one of the findings I have observed repeatedly when playing a game to demonstrate the veil of ignorance with my "Philosophically Speaking" students: the temptation to change the rules once one's position is known is nearly irresistible because for many, justice -- defined as adhering to the rules we came up with together and agreed to at the outset -- takes a backseat to "winning."
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