Gedankenspiel

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.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Gedankenspiel

  1. st.joseph says:

    Quentin, I am not too sure about your characters.
    I am looking athe first, and I see it as not being a case of black and white,I know our Lord said something about saying yes if you mean yes, no if you mean no, it is better to be hot or cold than luke warm.
    Neverthless-
    Character 1 That depends on the circumstances and if it is going to be an improvement to parish life.
    Character 2. I would not think it to be a move to push back Vatican 2 reforms .People have felt they have
    lost something when Mass was celebrated in English. I personally found that Mass celebrated in English was not the problem of liberalism, but the way it was celebreated with less reverance.
    Issue 2.Catholic are able to apply for an annulment.
    Character 1.Under certain circumstances without an annulment I personally would receive Holy Communion. Is there something like the Pauline Privilege?
    Character 2. The Sacramental bond, well we in marriage adminster the Sacrament on each other,where

    as I dont believe Holy Mother Church ought to teach that we should take it lightly,neverthless I believe proper instruction is not always made available as to the real meaning of Marriage.Couples are using abortificants ,to me is a greater disrespect to the Blessed Sacrament.Are they being refused Holy Communion??
    Issue 3. Abortion is always wrong as any taking of life.
    Character 1.Downs Syndrome should not be considered a disability.All babies are Gifts from God That takes in Character 2 as well..
    I am not sure if this is what your questions wanted, but the best I can do.

  2. John Nolan says:

    It seems a bit like practical criticism in Eng. Lit. where you have to comment on a poem while pretending you don’t know who wrote it. I never quite saw the point. However, I have tried to approach your three issues without prejudice.

    Issue 1. This must be a good thing. Although we can never fully understand the mystery of the Eucharist, most people are more comfortable worshipping in their native language. At the same time the use of Latin is encouraged by the Church as a way of expressing her universality in space and time. We should be given the choice.

    Issue 2. The Church’s teaching is clear on this point and individuals must take this into account, and thus informed will be able to follow their consciences.

    Issue 3. To abort a child because it will be born with Down’s syndrome can never be condoned, regardless of circumstances.

  3. Quentin says:

    I wonder, st.joseph and John Nolan, whether I made my question clear. Take issue 2 as an example. I lean towards the view of Character 1 (which John favours, as it happens). My next step is to imagine being Character 1 and seeing how the situation might look to him. I could even mentally role play him.

    I might come out with: “I feel really bad because I am in an irregular situation. But then it really wasn’t my fault, or hers for that matter, it just worked out badly however hard we tried. And I can’t undo things because I have new responsibilities now, and anyhow she wouldn’t have be back because she’s sorted herself out. And now I’m being punished for that. Holy Communion has always been important for me, and I am sure it would bring me closer to God. As it is, when I go to a Mass I feel a kind leper. Yet I can’t believe Jesus wants me to feel that.”

    Now, back in my own character, I haven’t changed my mind, but I feel that I understand character 1 better. I am much less likely to blame him for personal guilt, and possibly my willingness to understand him will enable me to help him in some way.

    I am indirectly suggesting that if we want to love our neighbour as ourselves we have to be ready to put ourselves into his mental and emotional shoes so that we have increased our understanding of how that particular person feels and thinks. We have, so to speak, to be that person before we can love him as ourselves.

    In a similar way if we disagree on, say, a doctrine, I need to understand how it all looks and feels to you before I can get much further. When I do I am at least more likely to be sympathetic to your point of view.
    For instance, when st.joseph started blogging I disagreed with many of the ideas proposed. I don’t agree with them all even now. But, by Jove I have learnt a lot that only st.joseph could have taught me.

  4. John Nolan says:

    In my undergraduate debating days I would sometimes speak against a motion I agreed with and vice versa. It helps you realize that there are two sides to an argument and people are less likely to stereotype you as ‘right’ or ‘left’. It’s a shame the Vatican no longer employs an ‘advocatus diaboli’ when investigating causes for canonization.

    • Quentin says:

      A couple or three years ago I was talking to the Vatican bishop who was looking after the Romero cause. I mentioned my regret at the loss of the advocatus diaboli. He said “Don’t worry. The title may have gone but that doesn’t mean that the function is no longer there.” Mind you, espousing Romero’s cause must have given him plenty of experience.

  5. st.joseph says:

    Thank you Quentin for your compliments, I will return it by saying I have learnt a great deal from you and from others comments,especially how to tackle and use the computer.
    I have a special Celebration tomorrow so I wont be blogging as I have visitors from Ireland staying till Thurs. But I will come back to this, I am not sure as I said about the characters., but maybe get the idea now I think!

  6. Horace says:

    To start with I have some difficulty with the sentence :- ” . . we have – at least – two ways of judging: one that we use for other people, and one that we use for ourselves.”
    These ‘two ways of judging’ reflect an essentially emotional view of ‘judgement’.
    [The use of the word ‘judging’ is also perhaps unfortunate – remember “Judge not, that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1, or similarly Luke 6:37).]

    The idea that a proper evaluation of moral questions, viewed from a secular and purely logical standpoint, can be made by shutting out personal emotions and circumstances – the ‘veil of ignorance’ – is a well known philosophical concept.

    Rawls’ Gedankenspiel is clearly very useful to help with the understanding of various different viewpoints and also as a salutary way of recognising one’s own prejudices.

    The issue outlined informally in the first paragraph of Quentin’s post is essentially one of ‘policy’ or ‘balance’ and this is also true with regard to “Issue 1:” .
    In these cases I can see the point of the ‘veil of ignorance’, difficult though it may be to implement.

    “Issue 2:” and “Issue 3:” however are different. They both reflect a principle of established law and hence use of the ‘veil of ignorance’ to determine morality is inappropriate – to quote an old maxim, “ignorance of the law is no excuse”!
    Nevertheless to try and understand, without condoning, the mindset underlying immoral behaviour the assumption of ignorance may be helpful.

  7. Quentin says:

    Horace, I don’t think that matters of law are really different. When I worked as a marriage counsellor I found that it was necessary to accept my clients as they were – warts and all. It was only when I was able to see their situation from inside that I was (sometimes) able to midwife change. In fact most of us are rather good at letting our emotions influence our reason. I even dare to suggest that some contributions to this blog could provide examples.

    • Horace says:

      Quentin, I really am impressed with your example of how Character 1: Issue 2 might feel, which clearly reflects your experience as a marriage counsellor.
      I did say “to try and understand, without condoning, the mindset underlying immoral behaviour the assumption of ignorance may be helpful” and I would unreservedly agree that to try to understand another person’s point of view, even if you believe it is wrong, is of the first importance in such case.

      Where the decision is already determined by natural/divine law (de jure) or human law (sub poena) then although Gedankenspiel is useful to help understand different viewpoints this is not the same as when it is used to determine a course of action :- “you must decide the issue”. This, I think, is what is confusing st,joseph and John Nolan. [Not to mention me!].

  8. claret says:

    Life has taught me that there are two sides to any arguement but that does not mean they are of equal merit.
    A majority of Germans in the 1930’s and 40’s seem to have been convinced that the jews were responsible for the war and that they were therefore the enemy and deserved to be annhiliated. Indeed their destruction was seen as being for the greater good of humanity and Europe.
    In the years that followed the war and the horrors of the extermination camps became all too evident such voices were not heard any more but at one time their proponents had no problem in going public with their firmly held racist opinions, and many of them actually took it literally and had no qualms in the mass slaughter of an entire race of people. (Many catholic church leaders apparently went along with it. as did many others of high political persuasion and guardians of morality.)
    The German arguements of the time for its justification are lost on me but if I was a German man and lived in the 1930’s what would I believe then ? I dread to put myself in that position because deep inside me, while I would like to think i would not condone such action, would i have gone along with it? Even if I did not condone it would I have had the courage to actively protest? I fear not.

    • Quentin says:

      Horace, let me try to put one more span into the bridge. Suppose that I have a friend who is so unhappy with the vernacular Mass that he will only attend a Latin Mass. If none is available he will simply give Mass a miss. As it happens I thoroughly disagree with his position, and I understand the Pope to agree with me on this question.
      If, through conversation, I become able to understand his point of view, then let’s say I discover that he was a convert in the 1950s – and that the universality of the Church, as expressed through the Tridentine Latin, was a major factor in this. Furthermore he lives in a country parish whose enthusiastic priest has encouraged a “happy clappy” form of English Mass which he finds not only acutely uncomfortable but which he believes to be insulting to the dignity of the Mass.
      Now I am still not going to agree with him but I can better see how it feels from his perspective. If he is willing to entertain the discussion, my acknowledgement and understanding of his viewpoint would be a first step to him opening his mind to other views. And, by the same token, my hostility to his position will be reduced by my understanding of his experience.
      That sounds to me like loving my neighbour as myself. And I hope that God adopts the same approach when he judges me – because it seems more than likely that I fall short of him in many matters.

      • Horace says:

        I am, i fear, an ignoramus on the subject of philosophy.
        As I understand, Rawls proposed thought-experiments (Gedankenspiel) based on the ‘veil of ignorance’ to derive his ideas of the “Principles of Justice”.
        My reservations are simply concerned with those cases in which principles of justice derived in this way may conflict with established moral principles.

    • John Candido says:

      That was an excellent post from Claret. Very humble of him to acknowledge his and our collective human frailty; anybody can get caught up in a mass movement, even if it is as moronic and despicable as Hitler’s.

  9. John Nolan says:

    Actually, Quentin, attending a Mass where liturgical abuses take place could be described as an occasion of sin (if the attendee is moved to anger at how the liturgy is being mistreated.) In such a case, and if attendance at a non-abusive Mass is not practicable, it might be better to stay away. My late father continued to attend Mass in his local parish although he found it depressing – “it’s an obligation” he used to say. I was brought up to love the Mass and could never see it as an opportunity to mortify the flesh.

  10. claret says:

    Hard cases do not make good law and that is what we are in danger of discussing here. To get bogged down in
    a debate about the forms of the Mass is not, I would suggest, what Gedankspiel is about. We are entering the realms of fantasy with ever more convoluted examples of what a person may or may not feel when sat in the pews.
    A debate worth having perhaps, but it is not Gedankspeil.

    • Quentin says:

      Claret, it’s really only a small point but your response here once again tells me that I haven’t got my thought across. The Gedankenspiel to which I refer is the exercise of discovering whether or not a deliberate attempt to understand the feelings and approach of someone who expresses views to which we are opposed helps us to be more empathetic to that person. I have had to use theoretial examples in order to provide opportunities to try this out. The actual examples themselves are incidental to this exercise (or Gedankenspiel).

  11. John Candido says:

    That was an excellent post from Claret. Very humble of him to acknowledge his and our collective human frailty; anybody can get caught up in a mass movement, even if it is as moronic and despicable as Hitler’s.

  12. claret says:

    Quentin, Thank you for the additional explanation. Perhaps it is because the word ‘Gedankenspiel’ is a rather long one that I have attributed a deeper meaning to it ! On the other hand I cannot help but feel that it is above the mere realm of what might be considered little more that a difference of opinion where the two sides may come to appreciate the others view , or just agree to differ, without any radical change of opinion or impact on their lives. I would feel that it is much bigger than that.
    Inevitably if you use examples of it then you are going to get comments about the examples used.

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