Ernie the Attorney : Searching for Truth & Justice (in an unjust world)


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The Veil of Ignorance

The Veil of Ignorance (sometimes ignorance is good)  - Contemporary philosopher John Rawls wrote a classic work called Toward a Theory of Justice, and in that work he discussed the "Veil of Ignorance."  As one commentator describes Rawls' concept of the veil of ignorance:

"Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance . Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the "real world", however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other."

Thus, the key is that people make decisions based on what is good for their community as a whole, and without regard to their own self-interest (since they operate behind a veil of ignorance and don't know enough about what would benefit them). 

I often think about the veil of ignorance when I observe the intense lobbying for or against some legislation that gets proposed.  I think that increasingly the veil of ignorance is being lifted, and special interest groups are able to rapidly assess legislative impact and to detour or shape the legislation for their benefit.  This situation will only get worse as information becomes more freely available.  The good news, I suppose, is that the wider dissemination of news about potential legislation will pass increasingly to ordinary citizens as well.  But, ordinary citizens aren't well-organized and ready with sizable campaign contributions so there is a clear mismatch in capability between them and the special interest groups represented by lobbyists.

Oh, don't get me wrong.  I'm not naive enough to think that legislators weren't always to some degree influenced by how they perceived that legislation would help those "in their camp."  But, somehow I get the feeling that in the early days of the Republic more laws were passed primarily because a majority of the lawmakers truly were trying to solve a social problem.  The laws that are passed today by Congress are analyzed to the Nth degree, and yet somehow I don't get a warm feeling about the effectiveness of these laws.  Many of them are incomprehensible to a normal person, and many others simply make no sense.  Unless, of course, you are one of the beneficiaries of such laws.

© Copyright 2002 Ernest Svenson.
Last update: 7/18/2002; 10:01:51 AM.

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