After the verbal bitch slapping many of us witnessed last night, now seems like an (in)opportune time to discuss ethics in political society. In thinking about what is just, what is right, and all of the other abstract, hard questions, it’s very hard to find a mindset which allows us to consider things objectively. When Obama and Romney are discussing their ideal governments (and, by extension, social structure), how are we left to evaluate their ideas? To what extent and at what cost ought we pursue equality? In which instances should governments intervene when the free market is feeding some and not others?
It seems like our lot in life is integral to our political beliefs (I would even argue that the link between the two is indissoluble), particularly as they pertain to ethics. Studies on political socialization are innumerable. Race, socioeconomic status, gender, location, family upbringing, and many other factors influence our political preferences. If only there were a tool to mentally separate ourselves from these constraints that we often aren’t (and arguably sometimes can’t be) aware of.
Look no further, ladies and gentlemen. The Veil of Ignorance is a thought experiment commonly attributed to philosopher John Rawls (though it seems to have originated with John Harsanyi, Adam Smith, David Hume, et. al.) which enables us to do just that. Suppose there was one moment before life and you’re congregated with everyone in the world. You don’t know what social system you’ll be in. Neither do they. You don’t know in which part of the world you’ll be born. You don’t know if you’re gay or female or African-American or ginger or intelligent or strong or rich or anything. All you know is that you’re human and that everyone else is human. And that’s all they know, too. In that moment, under this veil of ignorance, your charge is to create society. What kind of ground rules regarding compassion, helping those less fortunate, and foreign policy might you implement? What personal considerations might you deem moot in forming your political structure? Would your current convictions change when the thick veil separates you from everything other than free and equal moral, social, and political agents?
To qualify, this isn’t meant to be actual situation. Even when considering this thought experiment, I don’t believe that I’m able to separate my moral agency from the fact that I’m a 22 year-old white, college-educated female from rural Virginia. However, the veil of ignorance is helpful to determine which reasons and facts can be justly considered in a decision-making process. I hope to do this myself and I challenge you to do the same: when watching the next debate or reading a candidate’s stance on an issue, consider which considerations might be just. How does this influence your thoughts on welfare, minimum wage standards*, and religious liberties?
Currently listening to: Kap Slap — Paper Towels
*Fun (but actually terrifying) fact: In high school, I wrote a short article for the local newspaper in which I advocated abolishing the minimum wage. Thank you, rural Virginia. I was actually the devil. This is why I can never run for [democratic] political office.