Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Veil of Ignorance

Imagine 20 civilians being selected to go and live on Mars. There would be a number of goods on the planet, including accommodation, food, drink and luxury items. The people who were selected to live on Mars had to decide how the goods should be distributed amongst them. All of these people knew they were going to be living on Mars for an extended period of time and they had to do tasks that were part of the Mars colony (which is one of the main reasons for them being sent there). However none of these people knew what sort of tasks awaited them in Mars, and if they were equipped for them. All the work could be manual, or none of them. So the first suggestion was to equally divide the goods amongst everyone on the colony: from each according to their abilities to each according to their means. However there was an objection - what if there were some who neglected their work, failed at their work, or worse, refused to do their share? Wouldn't it be unfair to give them a share of the goods they didn't deserve? Isn't incentive a good way to make people contribute? As much sense as the objection made, it lead to more problems on resolving what fairness really meant. Is fairness different from giving everyone the same share? (Source: A Theory of Justice, by John Rawls)

This is quite a popular piece. I remember having read this is in one of my Ethics books in the context of Rawl's popular Social Contract Theory, but I don't remember if I ever had a discussion.

The Social Contract Theory emphasizes the need for a social contract amongst people coexisting within a country/colony/community, to ensure liberty and equality for all. In simpler terms, the contract is a set of duties and responsibilities that people need to abide by, and this brings forth the basic principle that freedom and responsibility go hand in hand. It also emphasizes reciprocity of 'good' deeds. The people being sent to Mars are in the process of figuring out their Social Contract, or so it seems to me. But here is their core problem - all of them are shrouded in a metaphorical veil of ignorance since none of them have any clue of how their talents and abilities will benefit them in Mars. For all they know, a person who is a scholar on Earth maybe reduced to a nobody on Mars, and a bus driver on Earth maybe the most sought after person on Mars, based on the needs and work conditions. With such bleak understanding of life on another planet it now is a challenge to come up with a Social Contract.

Rawl's philosophy is that, given such a situation, people's general tendency is to be cautious from the danger of ending up in the lower rungs of the new society. Hence everyone would try to come up with a contract that ensures maximum/equal benefit to the least advantaged (the maximin rule). This, in his view is a good experiment for determining democracy - the liberal form of democracy. Is this form of equality really fair? Or are there prejudices despite the veil of ignorance which get carried onto framing the new Social Contract?

I've been putting off writing about this for a while now, for all I know about political "science" are the meaning behind capitalism, socialism, communism, democracy, dictatorship, monarchy and anarchy... enough to have some opinions, but probably not deep and robust enough. I'm not a person who follows enough of the political arena or analyzes history to have opinions on what works when, how and what fails, when and how. Therefore, with this limited extent of knowledge I try to analyze this chapter.

In my view (political definitions apart), I think it is impossible to guarantee equality to all... it is inherently impossible with the way the world is structured. I say this by popping onto a higher level, if we are to assume ourselves to be ruled by God/Nature. Call it Karma, or any other term, I believe one is entitled to what he deserves through his actions/deeds, and not every person can receive the same form of equality. Not all of us can be rich, none of our lives can be "equal" in the truest sense. None of the guys who will land in Mars have the same type of "equal" opportunities awaiting, and therein equality starts to crack even before there can be a contract.

So, would being behind the veil of ignorance help in shaping better social contracts that at least mitigates the state of the lower rungs? Yes, it appears so. Isn't our existence the survival of the fittest? Why bother rescuing those who can't survive on their own, by compromising on what the winners truly deserve? Well, I think this question borders on the principles of Capitalism versus Communism... or probably Socialism to some extent.

My view is that each person should have all the basic rights and basic amenities available. But then, how much of the share he is entitled to is dependent on how much he contributes to society/community, for rights and duties do go hand in hand. Every person will/and should have some way to contribute to the community. If one cannot contribute due to severe disabilities then is he doomed? No that is unfair. So should he get the same share as a person who works and toils everyday. No that's not fair either. He should still be entitled to basic amenities (out of dignity and empathy to his life), but the person who works will be entitled to more than just the basic. Now what exactly is the definition of "basic"? What if there aren't enough resources to help the disabled? Should the rest pool in and compromise on their rewards to be shared with the rest? Is that the true meaning behind the maximin rule? Maybe.

It takes a humanitarian turn. So yes, being behind the veil does give us a sense of uncertainty, of the need to save ourselves if we become helpless, and that attempts to tug at our humanitarian conscience, which is necessary to be in place while framing Social Contracts.

Those with more political insight, I would love to hear your views! :)


Anonymous said...

Not much into politics..I see it from psychological view point..there are 2 things Equity & Equality..

One says everyone gets an equal share whatever their contribution may be. like in a team of equals.

the other means u get ur fair share.. i.e u get for what u contribute.

now both seems fair for different reasons. like in a home all members don't earn still all get equal shares of everything.
though they r not earning they do deserve it.

while in society or office when members of ur team are not working properly but the project gets done all get equal share of credit which is not right.

so it is difficult to say only 1 is right and other is wrong..

by shifting between these two according to the situations is the only way we humans can survive.

SecondSight said...

I see it as two distinct situations actually- The first is when a group of people is sent out on a mission behind the veil. So in this case, we assume they are of equal (or atleast completely randomized) ability or disability, and an equally random distribution of benefits is the safest. That would probably mean just dividing benefits equally amongst all the people- I'm guessing this would be a purely socialist viewpoint.

The second part of this situation- When some people are less able to work than others, or even more importantly- wilfully do not contribute to society- To me, that situation is no longer strictly an unknown one. Even though you still dont know the exact nature of the work, or which people will be unable to perform, you do know that some of them will not be able to contribute less than others. Even in this situation, a random distribution still makes the most sense.

The point at which one needs to re-think distribution of resources is when there is intent to take advantage of the randomness of the system. When an individual deliberately refuses to contribute, knowing that whether he contributes or not, he still gets the same benefits- That is when people tend to re-think social structure, and how benefits get distributed amongst people...

SUMI said...

This is a big topic, and as you rightly pointed out, brings out the contrasts between capitalism and socialism/communism.

If you've read any of Ayn Rand's works, you'd recall the entire vicious cycle that communism can espouse. Everyone reaps equal benefits regardless of the quantity or quality of result they bring to the table. Morale understandably drops. No one thinks any more that it's worth their time to invest in the job at hand. So the overall productivity or quality or both drops. This process of deterioration feeds into itself, because it starts slowly and spreads to the entire community. When a hardworking, conscientious person sees another one with a low work ethic still reaping the benefits of the work of all, he/she is affected too. And this is how it spreads and feeds on itself- certainly not healthy.

On the other hand, pure capitalism has its own set of viles. Pure capitalism could become jungle law. It would be ruthless society with no empathy for less able people. While one might say that nature herself works that way, eliminating those that are not able enough, that's not in line with the values we want to live by, since we automatically care for one another (to varying degrees). Moreover, a government is supposed to come up with principles that maximize benefits for the society. A government is supposed to care about the welfare of the people, which includes the able and the not so able. As you said, some basic necessities at least, should be provided to all. And yes, the definition of 'basic' is a tricky one. This is why the government decides these things. At times, it is part of the constitution. When these definitions and principles turn out to be unfair, a revolution starts.

So although in principle pure capitalism or pure communism can exist, I believe that in practice, they cannot, and we have seen that in history. The fall of the Soviet was an example of the fall of communism. The current depression we are in is an example of the bane of capitalism and greed. Some big fish trying to swallow more than they can from the common pool. And now the government needs to come up with plans to reinstate normalcy, by taking a socialist approach and offering tax cuts for the low income bracket or increasing tax cuts for the high income bracket or both. Of course, a lot of how well a society on an average does is dependant of empathy as you mentioned too. If there are some of us who are willing (and able) to forgo about 10 hours of work per week to create a job for someone else, for example, that would help the quality of life of that person.

With regard to the Mars situation, I think it's fundamentally wrong. It is true that there is no data initially, to make any bettern policy for how the rewards will be divided. But I would say that the right way to do it is to either 1. Put off the decision and say that the policy will be decided say, after 6 months after the people get to Mars, perhaps by a democratic process. For those 6 months, dividing rewards equally, as a tentative policy, is OK. or 2. The body that is arranging the whole deal, that came up with the equal division of rewards decides this and explains the system to the people and they are either in or out. Surely that body knows what kind of labour is required, I suppose?

I also think that if these people are willing to get into the whole deal without knowing what's in stake for them they are either very confident of themselves, that they will be able to perform as the situation demands, and are confident of each other, as a group, or they are so excited to got to Mars and be pioneers, that the rewards themselves don't matter very much and they are OK with any policy that the controlling body comes up with. Of course, a third option is that they just haven't given any deep thought to their future and their lives and what could potentially go wrong.

SUMI said...

I just re-read your post and realized there wasn't a "controlling body" and it was the people themselves who were deciding the policy, so a couple of things I said earlier may not be as relevant...

Neeraja said...

Thanks everyone for sharing your views and helping me reason better :)

Oorjas - welcome to my blog and thanks for your comment :).

Second Sight - I totally agree, it's the threat of deliberate slacking that makes us want to reconsider how to frame a social contract. Do you think the experiment of being behind the veil might help people solve the issue of equal distribution of resources?

SUMI - Thanks for wonderfully bringing out the contrasts of capitalism and communism. How could I've forgotten Ayn Rand?! I agree with you that both these principles cannot exist by themselves. But leaving aside the specifics of these people going to Mars, do you think such a thought-experiment (of being behind such a veil of ignorance) would help governing bodies in coming up with a more "impartial" form of democracy..i.e., via the maximin rule?

Anonymous said...

hi.. i read some of ur other posts too.. may i ask what course/subject u are studying?

it is so interesting i want to read more & more of it.. so many topics.. discussions.. makes me wanna enroll to it.

Neeraja said...

Thanks OOrja :). I think you're referring to the posts I write with Chapter numbers. They're not part of any course, it's a book I'm reading currently called "The Pig that Wants to be Eaten", which is a composition of 100 philosophical puzzles or thought experiments. I'm trying to discuss each situation/chapter in the book through the blog :)