Behind a veil of ignorance

It’s funny how many things come to your mind when you are driving. While waiting at one of those corner turnings with a pedestrian crossing, I was quite amazed by how people can walk slowly and text on their phones while crossing the road — even when there are like 26 vehicles coming at them from all four directions. So as a driver, I must say I was slightly peeved, but more bemused than peeved. Then I recall that when I am not driving and I, in turn, am a pedestrian, I get peeved when cars get impatient when I am crossing the road at a pedestrian crossing. It’s funny how emotions change when you experience the same situation albeit from different perspectives: as a driver, you get annoyed at slow-walking pedestrians; as a pedestrian, you get irritated by impatient-honking drivers.

Crossing in style

That got me thinking about John Rawls, that eminent American scholar of moral and political philosophy. In his magnum opus, A Theory of Justice, he famously introduced the concept of a ‘veil of ignorance’. By this, he postulates that before forming a moral position, we need to imagine a world where all societal roles are completely refashioned and redistributed. And subsequently, that from behind a veil of ignorance, one does not know what role one would be assigned. Only then can one truly appreciate the morality of an issue from all angles. Hence, in this imaginary society, one might or might not be intelligent; might or might not be rich; might or might not be born into a preferred class. Since one may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, this theory encourages thinking about society from the perspective of all members. As Rawls himself puts it, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.” So let’s say you are a Minister in Singapore, and if we apply the ‘veil of ignorance principle’, we have to consider that you might not be a Minister in this new imaginary society, but perhaps just a factory worker, a hawker, or even perhaps…just an ordinary Singaporean. Through this, I believe that the morality and ‘rightness’ of many issues such as salaries, elitism, groupthink would be thrown into sharp relief.

Who will you be?


~ by irwin on May 23, 2011.

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