In our relatively free and democratic society we live in a tension between those who believe that we should ensure that the maximum support is given to the disadvantaged, and those believe that to do so is to remove motivation for people to succeed, and to create a cushioned atmosphere which reduces any chance of increase in general prosperity.
While we might discuss the right balance in a theoretical and Christian way, it is hard to avoid a bias in the direction of our own circumstances. The bias may be unconscious but it seems to be a fact that in general we have – at least – two ways of judging: one that we use for other people, and one that we use for ourselves.
One approach to solving this problem of justice turns out to be ignorance.
Early on in the life of this Blog someone introduced the splendid word Gedankenspiel. I was so impressed that I vowed that I would find an opportunity to use it. Now I have. It is literally translated as “thought game”. And, in this context, a thought experiment.
The Harvard philosopher, John Rawls, proposed a Gedankenspiel in which we decided social questions behind a “veil of ignorance”. For example, in deciding on rates and forms of taxation, we would be more likely to be just if we did not know whether we were going to be a high earner or a low earner. If we were to be considering whether or not to ban the burka it would be better if we did not know whether we would turn out to be a conservative Muslim or not. If we were deciding whether to continue a special bus service for Catholics to get to a faith school, it might be better if we did not know whether we were going to be a Catholic parent or an agnostic ratepayer who is meeting the bill and not getting any benefit.
I have a picture in my mind’s eye of arriving at a decision followed by a moment of alarm when I have to take a random card which will decide which of the categories I will actually be in.
Of course that thought experiment would be difficult to reproduce in real life but I find it very useful as a way of reducing my natural prejudices, with the help of my imagination. You might like to try it, too. I pick a few possible issues at random – each issue has two characters and, to play the game, you must decide the issue without knowing which character you are going to be. Perhaps the most important part of the exercise is to see how well and how willing you are to understand what it is to be the character with whom you most disagree. And what effect, if any, does your understanding have on your view of the issue.
Issue 1: To replace one of the two vernacular Masses in the parish on Sundays with a Latin Mass.
Character 1: You are a strongly traditional Catholic and believe that much damage is done to the Church by giving in to liberal change.
Character 2: You suspect that there is a move in the air to push back Vatican II reforms. You believe that the Church still has a long way to go to develop proper modern community with its lay members.
Issue 2: Should Catholics be refused the sacraments after divorce and remarriage?
Character 1: Your Catholic marriage broke down some years ago. You have now been civilly remarried for six years and have two young children. Your greatest sadness is that you can no longer receive the Eucharist. You know that your second marriage is a good one, and your former spouse is happily settled without you.
Character 2: You believe so strongly in the sacramental marriage bond that you feel it would do considerable long term damage if the Church allowed people in second marriages to be in full communion.
Issue 3: As a result of an amniocentesis, a pregnant woman has discovered that the baby she is carrying is suffering from Down’s Syndrome.
Character 1: You believe first that it is always wrong to have an abortion and, second, that we must be ready to accept and be blessed with whatever God sends us.
Character 2: You are quite old for a first baby, and terrified that you will not be able to cope. And you feel it would be very unfair to the baby to be born with such a disability.
And you may well be able to think of other instances in which this sort of Gedankenspiel would be valuable.