In this blog post I want to share a few thoughts about justice, the Veil of Ignorance, and Black Swans. Let me introduce them one by one.
How to define justice
How can we know what is just in a secular society without evoking external reference frames such as religious documents? Is stealing unjust? Is leveraging lies for your own self-interest an unjust move? One way to address this question is to invoke the Golden Rule, i.e. to treat ‘others as one would wish to be treated oneself’. This rule seems to be a bit problematic though, as it elevates one’s own preferences to a universal law. If you do not mind being lied to or cheated on, these seeming aberrations become acceptable behaviour. One way to escape this issue might be to assume that the one who is to be treated justly is not necessarily yourself, but this person could be anyone. However, including everyone as the subject in the Golden Rule does not tell you whom’s opinion we should favour. One person thinks cheating in a card game is good sports, the other finds it unjustifiable. Are we supposed to go with the one who does not prefer cheating? But what if this is a Robin Hood-like game of robbing from the rich and handing it to the poor? Is cheating o.k. then?
The Veil of Ignorance
One way to escape this conundrum is to invoke Kant’s categorical imperative, according to which you should act ‘only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’. A concept Kant tacitly invokes here is the so-called Veil of Ignorance. Invoking the Veil of Ignorance is synonymous to asking the members of a group (family, tribe, nations state) to assume that they do not know where in society they could end up and with what functionings. For instance, although you are not a victim of human trafficking and ‘modern’ slavery, the Veil of Ignorance asks you to forego this knowledge. Given then the risk that you actually could become the victim of human trafficking, you might be more prone to lobby more against it than if it ‘only’ afflicted ‘the other’.
Note that the Veil of Ignorance does not absolutely bias decisions about just behaviour toward the ‘victim’. Think, for example, about taxing the rich. Let’s assume you end up poor. In that case, you want a safety net so that you can pursue a life in dignity. Let’s now assume that you end up rich. In that case you might tolerate some of your profits to be directed toward the greater good of society, i.e. also the poor, but not all of your profits. So, according to one of the proponents of the Veil of Ignorance, John Rawls, a law allowing asymmetric wealth distribution is just as long as the poor are better off than without the law, i.e. the rich not paying any taxes.
Justifying the use of the Veil of Ignorance
While the Veil of Ignorance seems to mitigate the issue of the Golden Rule identified above, the veil comes across as VERY hypothetical and outright artificial. Imagining one would like to be treated (Golden Rule) is quite different from imagining how one would like to be treated when ones is not the person one actually is. This sounds almost silly, for we are who are. I am I, and you are you.
But maybe the basic assumption of the Veil of Ignorance is not so artificial at all, maybe one can base it—at least partially—on sound empirical reasoning. Nicholas Taleb made the observation in his book The Black Swan that we systematically overestimate our ability to predict future events. Events of dire consequences, whose likelihood we underestimate, are so-called Black Swan events. History is riddled with such events. Just one example: what could go possibly wrong when introducing rabbits to Australia? A more personal example are financial crises, the likelihood of which are systematically underestimated in classical economic theory. Imagine you are a well-off middle class house owner in the U.S. in 2007. What could go wrong, you might ask? Well, things will go south pretty badly pretty soon.
The existence of Black Swan events demonstrates that we are ignorant of the future, and this includes events that might change who we are, or standing in society, etc. In other words, circumstances might change your personal situation quite rapidly, and consequently of what you would perceive as a just world. This is exactly what the Veil of Ignorance wants us to consider.
So, instead of introducing the slightly crazy proposition out of the blue that we should assume to be someone we are not to offer a proper foundation for our understanding of what is just, Black Swan events provide a better justification for why we should do. Instead of asking us to imagine to be someone we are not to arrive at the right decision about justice, Black Swan events tell us that who we are and how we live is much more fragile than we think, and that it well could be that we end up as ‘someone else’ during our lifetime. In other words, instead of justification the means by their end, Black Swan events provide at least some naturalistic justification for the soundness of the Veil of Ignorance.
That’s all I wanted to say this time.
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