Decision-making behind the veil of ignorance

What does the veil of ignorance fail to cover up?

What does the veil of ignorance fail to cover up?

“At the group level, a concern for justice is the indispensable compass in collective decision making, because it is the only means by which unity of thought and action can be achieved. Far from encouraging the punitive spirit that has often masqueraded under its name in past ages, justice is the practical expression of awareness that, in the achievement of human progress, the interests of the individual and those of society are inextricably linked. To the extent that justice becomes a guiding concern of human interaction, a consultative climate is encouraged that permits options to be examined dispassionately and appropriate courses of action selected. In such a climate the perennial tendencies toward manipulation and partisanship are far less likely to deflect the decision-making process.” Passage from The Prosperity of Humankind.

My observations of the essentiality of justice in decision-making processes have been gathered through experiences with both mutualistic relationships that seek to build unity and adversarial relationships that seek to impose a set of ideas by one group on others through contentious negotiation. Interestingly, however, both processes exist in an interconnected world.

Take, for example, two different approaches to electing governing bodies, both in which I have participated. One is an electoral process for an administrative council in which all adult members of the community are eligible, and everyone refrains from self-promotion and attacks on others. The result of this truly democratic, secret balloting is a collective decision based on the votes of the majority of the community without coercion or influence. In such a process, the administrative council does not represent the special interests of disparate groups, but the interests of the entire community, thus the electorate body is able to wholly support the choices of the council and work towards the successes of these pursuits, knowing that no one group was subordinated to another. Rather the “constituents” believe that the members of the council, free from unjustified influences, are able to consult on all sides of an issue and to make a dispassionate examination of the options before it. On the other hand, a partisan election decided on the competitive campaigning by candidates—it is, afterall, called a “race”—is not one that is geared toward consensus building, so it should be no surprise at all that rarely is either unity of thought or action the outcome.

Examining the failures of this second category is helpful in understanding the fundamental value of this unity of purpose and exertion. That we are so inextricably linked means that without mutual support, our endeavours are doomed to fail. Simply look at how easily an opposition party is able to block or sabotage the ruling powers agenda. This is a quality of humanity moving through its adolescent stage: “If I can’t have my way, then no one can.” And it’s true. No one wins. Nothing gets accomplished. The government is paralyzed and society is frozen in a cycle of reversing the laws created by the defeated party during its reign, while fighting to overcome obstacles to pass its own laws.

Breaking out of this cycle is not as easy as promoting bi-partisanship, outlawing attack ads or getting rid of lobbyists. Not until it becomes fundamentally unacceptable to be satisfied serving only a small portion of the population that one has been chosen to lead will politics begin to change. When we have reached this stage of maturity, then individuals and communities will no longer be afraid that their needs and wants will not be met without lobbying and campaigning, and society will cease to be so polarized. It is justice that can curb tendencies towards manipulation and partisanship in the processes of elections and governance.

If we accept that justice is an innate faculty of the human soul, that it is the unerring balance with which to measure equality and equity, and that its purpose is the very appearance of oneness in the world, then we may conclude that the role of justice in decision making is one of quieting our inner biases and clearing away the pollution of external biases.

This brings me to the quote from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá related to eliminating biases:

“The second attribute of perfection is justice and impartiality. This means to have no regard for one’s personal benefits and selfish advantages, and to carry out the laws of God without the slightest concern for anything else. It means to see one’s self as only one of the servants of God, the All-possessing, and except for aspiring to spiritual distinction, never attempting to be singled out from the others. It means to consider the welfare of the community as one’s own. It means, in brief, to regard humanity as a single individual, and one’s own self as a member of that corporeal form, and to know of a certainty that if pain or injury afflicts any members of that body, it must inevitably result in suffering for all the rest.

Imagine two groups of people, both working behind John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance of one’s initial conditions”, or some variation thereof, to determine a set of principles of justice. However, one group is trying to apply the above guidance and the other is approaching the task from the angle of personal interest. It is fair to say that the groups would come up with very different results.

The distinguishing feature between these two approaches would be the sincerity of the desire of the groups to agree on principles that are in the best interest of all. While the first group following the quote above would shun giving any consideration to the possible advantages, the second group would, even in the spirit of “fair chances”, tailor their principles to the greatest common denominator of as many possible initial conditions as possible. Given the crash course in investment banking terminology that we’ve received thanks to the current financial crises, I don’t hesitate to use this explanation: It seems to me that self-interested individuals or groups would approach a set of principles of justice by hedging their bets on the advantages and disadvantages one could be born with.

With either approach it is, of course, tricky to discuss this hypothetical situation, and much easier to understand with practice. Try it! I am: (insert here) a young adult white woman, middle-class, a college graduate, career-driven, a journalist, living in California, renting a home, married, a believer and less attached to material things than what society tells me I should be. Now, were I deciding on how justice will be applied in the world,—basically, what set of principles I want to govern the society I live in—without any prior knowledge about myself, what compass would I want guiding such decisions as affirmative action, benefits for stay-at-home parents, tax breaks for single people/home owners, immigration, sex education in schools, science research, free market economies, health care, free speech, etc.

Also try imagining if you were someone with completely different characteristics and circumstances who was aware of your initial condition. What choices would you make? This exercise forces you to let go of deep-seeded biases.

Sadly, one of the phenomena I have observed (which demonstrates that some have trouble choosing just principles even when it is in their own interest) is the oddity that many poor people will actually support legislation that benefits the rich and spurn the poor! I imagine this has to do with the widely popular belief that one day soon those riches will be ours and once they are, we don’t want anyone else taking what we’ve earned. This is the most telling sign to me of what set of principles we can expect self-interested groups to choose.


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