My Love for the Veil of Ignorance

This post is part of a series of everyday posts for Blaugust. If you’d like to know more, click here.

Picture a younger me in the earliest days of pursuing a degree in philosophy. I was hungrier then. Growing up in the Deep South, religion’s hold always slipped off my like a greased pig. When I finally “escaped” to the first university I attended, I thought I was going to find more like minded friends or that I would finally get out of my shell to show the world who I was on the inside. Instead, I found more of the same and with that realization my first exposure to honest depression. It was a chance elective that exposed me to philosophy when none of my education before had even tried. In that chance, I began to find my way out.

Introduction to why I followed philosophy complete, let’s move on to one of my favorite philosophical ideas that I frequently reference when I make decisions: American philosopher John Rawl’s Veil of Ignorance.

Per the Wikipedia entry:

It is based upon the following thought experiment: people making political decisions imagine that they know nothing about the particular talents, abilities, tastes, social class, and positions they will have within a social order. When such parties are selecting the principles for distribution of rights, positions, and resources in the society in which they will live, this “veil of ignorance” prevents them from knowing who will receive a given distribution of rights, positions, and resources in that society. For example, for a proposed society in which 50% of the population is kept in slavery, it follows that on entering the new society there is a 50% likelihood that the participant would be a slave. The idea is that parties subject to the veil of ignorance will make choices based upon moral considerations, since they will not be able to make choices based on their own self- or class-interest.

We can argue practicality for society another day. I love this idea for its practical value in my every day decision-making as a leader and manager at my job. I often have to make policy and procedure decisions, either by crafting new ones, rewriting old ones, or enforcing what is in place. Too often the debates regarding changes become bogged down in catering to every individual in our employ on an individual needs basis and we lose sight of establishing a baseline.

The idea and language behind the veil of ignorance helps me better convey that we need to make decisions based on the most neutral of employees if we want to write rules or make team-wide decisions. As an example, just because two of our workers are always late does not mean we need to redefine what “being late” means.

This doesn’t mean that I am the hard-headed type who doesn’t allow for exceptions. Using the same example, maybe they are always late because of issues getting their children to school/babysitter/daycare, etc. I am more than happy to work out ways to accommodate these situations, whenever possible, as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of hours worked, coverage, or productivity. Also, as long as I cannot make the same accommodations for others.

The veil of ignorance thought experiment also helps inform me with equality/feminist concerns. Rather than use the tired “I also have a mother/daughter/sister/female relative” trope when it comes to relating to issues specific to women in our society, I do the far simpler and more human thing of imagining myself in the same situation.

Would I want less pay? Would I want to be sexually harassed? Would I want no time to recover my body or tend to a new child after giving birth? Obviously the answer to all of these questions is no.  Taking things a step further, if I were to attempt to answer the same questions from an original position behind a veil of ignorance where I have a 50/50 chance of being a female member of the society I am helping to design, then the answer is “HELL NO”. Fairness and equality are pretty simple, everyone.

Of course, where most thought experiments breakdown is when you apply them too broadly or to a society already too far out of balance. The /r/fantasy board has had a recent community-wide debate about inclusiveness and the author (whom I agreed with) unfortunately used bad statistics in an ignorant way to muddy his own points and their validity.

When it comes to my fantasy reading list, which is absolutely dominated by white male authors, if I were try to apply the more politically-oriented veil of ignorance thought experiment, I would likely read only those books of merit. However, since finding books of merit is always through the lens of “you will see books by white male authors first and foremost because they are most plentiful and popular”, then it falls on me to find ways to look beyond what I only see for its lowest common denominator popularity. That way I am not missing any really good books by authors who just don’t get the same traction because of difficulties marketing their name, face, or because their version of fantasy is not in the exact mold that publishers expect their audiences to purchase.

That doesn’t mean I think white male authors are inherently worse or that human beings are not capable of writing characters unlike themselves, it just means that I value originality and fresh perspectives and that both are hard to find in the nth book by someone who really, really, really loved Tolkien.

Don’t take this post as a: you should know/use the veil of ignorance. The great thing about humans is our diversity of thinking. You may also think philosophy is a crock of shit, to which I most humbly disagree. For me, this is exactly what I needed back in my early 20’s: a way to see the world fairly, humanely, and how I ought work toward it being. More broadly speaking, that’s what brought me to philosophy, why I still read about philosophy, and why I never shy away anymore from talking about it even as I see the other party’s eyes roll.