2007 - 2021

The Veil of Ignorance

“The Veil of Ignorance” might be a useful thing to think about as we plan to lift the lockdown. The idea, associated most with American thinker John Rawls, is that you set about designing a social system with NO foreknowledge of your own position in it.
Given that “normal,” for a lot of people (as in the phrase “back to normal”) was and is pretty crappy, the idea is to imagine a just economy (in terms of housing, health, cultural activity etc etc) where you and your ethnic or social group have NO guarantee of being at the top.

Most people who get to design societies, from Solon to Solomon or Jefferson to Lenin, (let alone UK civil servants) have imagined themselves to be IN CHARGE…because they WERE. But we live in a democracy, and in a democracy, we theoretically get to debate and AGREE on how we want to live.
In same ways we are in the the “Vale of the Veil of Ignorance right now … in that we know everything is going to change, but none of us has the first idea HOW? Or to what?
We ARE getting to debate and agree on some of this stuff right now…from the explosion of food distribution charities, to care for the carers to the health service…and as we come out of lockdown, we have a limited window of choosing what we actually WANT from the New Normal , of speaking aloud the unspoken consensus we are actually already using to make decisions
To illustrate the uncertainty personally, playwrights and others have been asking Arts councils and government ministers for YEARS to consciously and openly decide whether they really WANT a professional theatre sector in Scotland or not, and to act on that choice. Guess what? Something like that decision is actually GOING TO HAPPEN in the next year or so!
Best be careful what you wish for!
Less myopically, lifting lockdown on a whole society brings, I think, an obligation to at least partially articulate the principles on which we can agree to its functioning. And that we MAKE those choices without knowing where in the new hierarchy we ourselves will end up!
It may well be that this is already happening. Maybe we should talk about it.

Comments (13)

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  1. Wul says:

    One thing this crisis has shown is that people who care for others are a hell of a lot more useful to society than those who don’t.

    The people currently working in my local Co-op, who are exposing themselves daily to the risk of infection and dealing with anxious, up-tight customers are putting a lot more into society than they are currently taking out.
    Compare this to, for example, a family friend with four buy-to-let properties (“it’s my pension”) whom I would suggest is taking more out than she is putting back in to society.

    It does seem funny that we revere those who extract the most ( we even make special tax laws to help them) and look down on those who give the most. Some of the folk who give the most will go to an early grave; ill, exhausted and financially poor. That doesn’t seem right or fair and should be up for review.

    1. Paul McMillan says:

      What is right and fair has excercised humanity throughout our existence. Still no nearer to a conclusion and I doubt we ever will.

      1. Kevin Hattie says:

        Have you any thoughts on what is ‘right’ or ‘fair’ yourself, Paul?

        1. Paul McMillan says:

          After several decades of thought on the matter…….i have no idea, just muddle on through and hope for the best
          I long for a politician to stand on that platform, they’d get my vote.
          Keep safe!

  2. SleepingDog says:

    OK, so while I think the Veil of Ignorance is a useful thought experiment, there are a few reasons that I think if it was applied to current UK society, the result may not be a fair and just one.

    1) many British people seem to behave as if their alignment was lawful evil. Importantly, such people do not typically regard themselves as evil. One summary goes:
    “A lawful evil villain methodically takes what he wants within the limits of his code of conduct without regard for whom it hurts. He cares about tradition, loyalty, and order but not about freedom, dignity, or life. He plays by the rules but without mercy or compassion. He is comfortable in a hierarchy and would like to rule, but is willing to serve. He condemns others not according to their actions but according to race, religion, homeland, or social rank. He is loath to break laws or promises.”
    Being willing to serve in a hierarchy (of evil) is of course stereotypically an attribute of officious, lower-ranking authoritarians well-represented in British culture.

    2) social mobility: if anyone still believes in the Blairite view of British society, they may figure that their destiny is to rise and rise (and hobnob with, or join the ranks of, celebrities). Again, the point is rather to gain followers without having any actual virtues, so still back to unjust hierarchies.

    3) feeling lucky: consider how many people gamble, even if they regularly lose money, the impression is that many Brits would be happen to take a punt on coming out top doggish in the new society (the chance to reign in Hell may be worth the risk of serving in Heaven). See also 4)

    4) poor financial literacy/numeracy: something of a British curse, apparently. If you can’t do the sums, maybe you can’t do the projections needed.

    5) feeling chosen: it has been remarked that many Brits act as if there were something special about them, as if they were entitled to something above the average lot of humanity; this may apply even here.

    6) corruption: consider that logically many Brits behave as if they could bribe their way into heaven, they may (however irrationally) believe that they can still get their kids into the best schools by gaming a thought experiment.

    Of course, we can only speculate how many Brits would really choose to be a plucky underdog, given the chance.

    So, perhaps the Veil of Ignorance only really works on the knowledgeable? You can’t expect much by blindfolding the blind.

  3. James Mills says:

    Veil of Ignorance = know your place !

    Lots of comments on sites like this indicate a desperate desire from many for no return to ” normal ” after this crisis has passed . But in our heart of hearts we know that the chances of a better society being created from this shambles will be largely down to those who created the shambles in the first place – so no hope of a better world from that quarter!
    Short of a revolution ( who can honestly see that happening in toe-the -line Britain ? ) we will stagger on as before with a few cosmetic changes to pacify /fool the masses into thinking things have got ”better”- as our ”Betters” settle in to a post-Brexit world which increases their hold on the wealth of the ‘nation’ . Plus ca change …..

    1. Possibly James, although given that these are ‘unprecedented times’ as the cliche goes – we may see an unprecedented response.

      The virus is revealing and uncovering relations and how systems work in a way that is really useful. I also think there is a shared collective experience that is binding in the same way as the war was.

    2. Paul McMillan says:

      What type of ‘revolution’ do you envisage?

  4. Wul says:

    Well, if I were that blindfolded, ignorant being, about to randomly sprout somewhere in UK society, I would sure as hell want a piece of land. With land anything is possible and slavery a less likely outcome.

    I have some attraction to the idea of “Jubilee” as well; the regular cancellation of all debt. That would help to prevent an imbalance and keep society more “real”, rather than the current ponzy scheme of ever increasing debt that powers our economy.

  5. Kevin Hattie says:

    I’m pretty sure Rawls adds a condition to his thought experiment: everyone is a rational chooser, and as such, desires what he calls ‘primary goods’: liberty, wealth, income, opportunity, and the social bases of self respect. These goods are supposed to be ‘all-purpose means’.

    This is quite an important part of Rawls’s theory, and a major point of contention.

  6. Stroller says:

    The face mask over the eyes?
    I like it, it’s counter-intuitive, but it’s a perky enough idea…
    “Things to do with your face mask at home”…
    “Make the most out of your mask when not coughing and spluttering”.. etc etc.
    Other options would include turning your mask into a sling for firing small, blunt objects at neighbours who sing from their balconies…
    Or a in more extreme scenario, as a device for strangling Michael Gove…
    Alas, the idea that everything is going to change after lockdown, I find unlikely. I know, I know, call me a cynic….
    At the most, cars might be banned in city centers given we have now breathed fresh, sweet air in our city streets for the first time ever, and most of us quite like it.
    Some of us have been feeling a wee bit woozy on so much oxygen. Who needs gin when there’s fresh spring air?
    Plus, no matter how hard they try, the Tories can’t privatize fresh air…
    Banning cars from city centers nationwide would already be a big step forward.
    Also, and this needs saying, see how little we actually needed celebrities after all ?
    That so many “national treasures” are locked up at home is one of the few upsides of this crisis…
    If only they were to stay there after this all over, though who knows if it ever will be?

    1. Tim Hoy says:

      Thank you. That just cheered me up. Our cynicism has been hard earned.

  7. Tim Hoy says:

    A good piece and cause for debate. The cartoon sadly exposed the mindset (sadly accurate in most people’s perception) that a car is of a higher status than a bicycle, assisting in the propagation of car=good. One of the many lessons easily learned from this lockdown is that the environment suffers from our previous “normal” and will undoubtedly do so again if significant changes of mindset and human behaviour aren’t adopted.

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