Friday, May 3, 2013

Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance—Do rational agents come to the same conclusions?

**This is from guest blogger, Danny W.**

In Theory of Justice, John Rawls presents an argument outlining the most just forms of resource distribution. Rawls devised a methodology for arriving at governing principles that delineate how a just society ought to spread its resources to its constituents. Rawls describes a hypothetical position—the Original Position (OP)—from which any rational agent would arrive at the same common principles regarding how resources ought to be distributed. The rational agents would be under a “veil of ignorance” which effectively means that they would not yet be implanted into the future society—for which they were determining principles of resource distribution—and would not know their social or economic status in that future world. These agents would then, from this veil of ignorance, be required to choose which principles would bring about the society that would leave them best off (i.e., even if the agent turned out to be on a lower socioeconomic rung, they would not be too screwed). Rawls alleges that, given rational, self-interested agents, every person would choose the following principles for resource distribution (as seen on the handout):

First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic freedoms that are compatible with similar freedoms for others.

Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:
a.   They are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity;
b.   They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society (the difference principle).

However, I have questions about the relationships between these ideal, rational agents, the OP, and the veil of ignorance—okay, I also have questions regarding the principles that are unanimously reached by these ‘veiled’ agents. I like the principles that Rawls arrives at (because they seem to satisfy some brute intuitions that I have), however I’m curious how his argument holds up under greater scrutiny.

My biggest criticism is of Rawls’ supposition that all rational agents would converge on his 2nd principle naturally and necessarily. I keep hearing the word rational—and agents described as those working under rational thought processes—and for some reason wonder how exactly Rawls is using these terms. The world reason (and all of its derivatives) tends to get thrown around carelessly from time to time without much consideration for linguistic meaning. So what I assume Rawls is saying is that, given the chance to articulate a deductive argument in premise-conclusion form, someone using this structured style of ‘reasoning’ would arrive at a conclusion which mirrors his Principles.

I assume most rational agents would decide that the 1st principle is rational, in the sense that one could provide the following argument:

(1) We all want to have basic freedoms (life, liberty, happiness, yada yada), regardless of socioeconomic status.
(2) Since we are all humans (the same general entity), each person should have access—or the right—to basic freedoms.
(3) A right to basic freedoms is identical for all people; the right is either met or not met for whichever ‘freedoms’ are deemed ‘basic freedoms’.

(Co) Each person ought to have equal right to basic freedoms.

So, that was a rough sketch of an argument for equal rights to basic freedoms. A supporter of this conclusion would—for the sake of a strong rational argument—need to add supplementary premises about the connection between personhood and access to rights, either by appealing to happiness, the raw materials of a meaningful life, social order, etc. as intrinsic goods and necessary conditions to be met in the lives of human beings. Also, I realize the conclusion also leaves out another wrinkle in the principle—namely, regarding the rights to basic freedoms of others in equilibrium with our own—which could be accounted for with more premises and elbow grease. Someone else could probably do a better job fleshing that out, but the general argument takes shape, and I can understand why a ‘rational’ being would land on the conclusion—even this truncated version.

In contrast, I don’t see why someone, for example, would land on the Difference Principle (part b of 2nd Principle).  I’ve tried to think of rational arguments that would land on that conclusion, but I’m not really sure how to voice these. It seems intuitive that these rational agents in the OP would—not knowing which lot they would be cast—go for an Egalitarian set-up. If I have my thinking cap on in that OP, I might realize that, if the society I’m entering has resource constraints—and I think we’re being idealistic if we don’t consider that—then I will realize that a small fraction of the population will actually have sufficient resources. If I’m self-interested and rational, I might realize that there is a better shot at having the minimum to survive if I decide on a principle of resource distribution that emulates Egalitarianism—equality for all. That way, if I do draw the short straw in life (in terms of sheer quantity of resources allotted to me), and get born into a hut in a rural town in India, then I’ll feel better about being helped up to that equal standard. Even if I end up being a stud running back for the Green Bay Packers with boat-loads of ‘earned’ money, I would still have an equal cut of the pie after all of the resource confiscations take place—I’d be surviving! In retrospect as that Packer star, I would likely hate my decision, but from the OP I would be making the best choice given the knowledge of how resources naturally land in a society.

I’m not sure Rawls has an answer to this. Okay, I’m sure he does and I will go and look for it, but I’m curious to know what all of you think about these ramblings! Is it possible to say which principles a rational agent or agents in the OP would select? What about complications that arise when you start to realize the possible disconnect between real society demands and the idealized test that Rawls has carved out as a thought experiment? I’d love to hear any thoughts. 

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