Glad to see Rawls getting dragged up into The New York Times again, even if it took the announcement of monomaniac Paul Ryan joining the republican ticket. (The Guardian recently referred to Ryan as “Ayn Rand in Christian drag;” an apt description, though I think it does a great disservice to drag queens everywhere.)
In particular, I like to see this sort of sustained focus on conceptual clarification in a piece of popular scholarship. In this instance, the concept “fairness” gets the extended treatment, and the author approaches it from both Rawlsian and whatever-it-is-you-call-the-Romney-and-Ryan-take varieties. He illustrates both by reference to different types of loose thought experiments: the veil of opulence and the veil of ignorance.
In the Romney and Ryan take, referred to as the “veil of opulence,” Hale asks you to place over your eyes a veil that puts you in the shoes of someone else - anyone you’d like to be (presumably, according the article, someone stinkin’ rich) - and ask, “what sort of world would I want to live in if I were this person?” Naturally, you might be inclined to favor a system that favors you. From the limited vantage point afforded by your throne of stock options and other assets, a system that taxes you at a higher rate than it taxes someone else looks, well…unfair. On this view, fairness demands a very specific sort of equality - namely, that all people be treated equal in the eyes of the tax code in very explicit terms (something like, I don’t know, all of our incomes are taxed at the exact same percentage rate regardless of their size). At this point, Romney and Ryan nod, but some of you start raise an eyebrow. “Hey,” you think, “that type of explicitly delineated equality doesn’t sound very fair.” But, behind the individual perspective of the veil of opulence, as interpreted by Hale, being treated differently in the eyes of the tax code simply because you make more money doesn’t seem very fair either. “Sure,” you think, “but I still don’t think it sounds fair.” Well, fair enough.
In the Rawlsian version, Hale describes Rawls’ veil of ignorance more or less as Rawls himself does, as a veil that blocks out all information that should not be considered morally relevant when making decisions about how to arrange a society (“morally arbitrary” information, in Rawls’ term). Some of the information blocked out - such as no one is allowed to know their particular race or gender, for instance - is not foreign to our public discourse. Thanks to the work of rights advocates in previous centuries, it isn’t particularly controversial to claim that one should not have their political, social, and economic prospects restricted on the basis of being, say, a woman. Or African-American (regardless of how frequently or, as the case may be, infrequently this ideal is realized). Thanks in part to the recent and varied Occupy movements, the idea that socioeconomic standing shouldn’t unduly restrict one’s life prospects is also increasingly less controversial - something Rawls recognized when he also placed this type of information behind his veil. Also included are natural talents and abilities and particular goals or desires (even if you didn’t know your race, gender or class, but you knew you wanted to be in a particular profession, you might be tempted to game the system in favor of that profession), among other things.
So, Hale implores us to consider what kind of system we’d want to live under if we didn’t know who we would be once the veil is lifted. Instead of imagining what would be fair to you-as-rich-person, you are forced to imagine - through being deprived of certain types of information - what system would be fair to all. After all, you probably wouldn’t want to gamble with the entirety of your life, given that you don’t know who you will be during the course of it. At this point, Romney and Ryan have left the room, probably to go re-read Atlas Shrugged on a gold toilet somewhere. In the meantime, some of you are saying “hey, now that sounds more fair!”
On these depictions, fairness is treated as a matter of perspective, and it is implied that the perspective of Romney and Ryan is the wrong one, and that Rawls is the right one (or at least a better one). It certainly is an effective experiment, and as Hale says, adopting the Rawlsian perspective “force[s] us to think outside of our parochial personal concerns in order that we consider others.”
There is, however, a problem when things are framed this way: if fairness is a matter of perspective, how do we know which perspective to choose? What is the justification for choosing one perspective over the other?
Further, there are certainly a number of perspectives to consider between the view from Romney’s yacht and a restricted view from seemingly nowhere. Why not put yourself behind a veil that requires you to imagine you are someone worse off than yourself? Or someone who is a different gender than you? Or a different race? Why not some combination of a whole bunch of positions? Actually, this last suggestion - assessing a situation from a variety of perspectives and weighing each accordingly - resembles a different thought experiment, that of the “impartial spectator” in Adam Smith’s moral philosophy (a piece of Smith’s work that goes curiously overlooked by free-market fundamentalists more interested in his invisible hand than his thoughts on morality). If choosing a concept of fairness comes down to a choice between perspectives, how do we make that choice?
Fortunately, there is more to the Rawlsian side of the story than a mere argument over appropriate perspective. See, in the above characterization, it seems as if the veil of ignorance is something you should employ often and for a lot of decisions. But, while that might not be a bad idea in some cases, that’s not how Rawls is employing it in his theoretical framework. For Rawls, the veil is one part of larger device - that of the original position (which Hale does mention). Another important part of the device is a very specific picture of the sorts of people behind the veil of ignorance, those people deciding what kind of society they want to live in. Curiously enough, the people Rawls depicts wouldn’t be all that foreign to Romney and Ryan. In the original position, Rawls paints individuals as rational and self-interested; they have aims, aspirations, and goals that they want to pursue and they are willing to do what it takes to see their goals achieved. (I could be writing a campaign speech for Paul Ryan at this very moment! America!)
The problem for Romney and, in particular, for Ryan’s libertarian-in-Christian-drag, is that - for them - this is where things stop. This rational self-interest, on their view, is the only relevant aspect of human nature. Individuals are single engine planes (perhaps a private Cessna) driven solely by rational self-interest (and a healthy dose of startup capital).
For Rawls and other like-minded liberals, this is only part of the picture. Yes, we have individual aims and aspirations. Of course, we are motivated to pursue our individual goals. But we are also capable of benevolence. We can be, in many ways and in many different situations, empathetic and compassionate. Instead of one engine, we are twin-engine aircraft, propelled to flight by both self-interest and altruism. By employing in the original position a vision of individuals that are self-interested but constrained by conditions that model benevolence (i.e., placed behind the veil of ignorance), Rawls is able to paint a more complete, more highly sophisticated picture of people’s motivations in real life, outside of the thought experiment. Consequently, fairness for Rawls doesn’t boil down to picking a perspective; rather, it mandates that we make fundamental decisions about how to arrange our society - about how to distribute its rights and responsibilities, its privileges and burdens - under conditions that are fair.
Romney and Ryan, on the other hand, are asking you to cut one of your engines - the one that, morally speaking, would let them off the hook, validate their limited viewpoints and allow them to push a political agenda that is unfair under any condition.
Hey, I wrote a longer thing over at my profeshy-fresh blog. Maybe it’s too long, but maybe you want to read it? I don’t know! I’m not the boss of you!
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