CATHOLIC HERALD ‘TRUE OR FALSE’ QUIZ WILL BE PUBLISHED ABOVE THIS POST ON 23 DECEMBER
How do we achieve a just and fair society? Throughout our lifetimes we have witnessed a political pendulum – swinging backwards and forwards between left and right. And almost every week we see proposals from the Government and the Opposition which we want to assess in terms of social justice. A recent example was the removal of tax credits before the benefits of higher minimum wages. Another was denying tax relief on mortgages being used for buy-to-let houses. Is there a way of assessing such judgments?
The philosopher, John Rawls (1921- 2002), described a methodology called the ‘veil of ignorance’. Rawls was an Episcopalian, and he is regarded as one of the great moral philosophers of our time. He proposed a theoretical group of law makers who were given the task of reviewing social laws. The common characteristic of the group members is that, at the time they make their decisions, they are ignorant of the position they themselves will be taking up in the revised society. A successful entrepreneur might favour lower top rates of taxation, while those in the poorest circumstances might judge that they would benefit from higher rates made available to relieve their poverty. To avoid such partialities, the lawmakers do not know what in fact their social status, their wealth, their intelligence, their health, their religious belief etc will turn out to be. Thus, they will have a direct motivation to legislate for justice and fairness for all.
So our first consideration of Rawls might lead us to legislating for a society of radical equality. But would that lead to the Marxist cry: from each one according to his ability, to each one according to his need? Or would it take into account the general benefits of a competitive society, albeit nuanced to protect the vulnerable classes? Perhaps the legislation would focus on the greatest good for the greatest number, thus following the utilitarian theory of moral philosophy.
Of course the group behind the ‘veil of ignorance’ is hypothetical. Rawls is not proposing that the group should actually be set up, let alone expecting its members to be placed in a random position in their revised society – by way, presumably, of drawing lots. But we should consider it as a gauge to check whether we judge the proposal to be fair. What would such a group, should it exist, say about accepting refugee immigrants – if it is possible that refugee status is the short straw they may personally pick?
There is another point which we might want to consider. We are quite good at forming opinions about different conditions in society from outside. But this I see as a two-dimensional approach. The three-dimensional approach requires us to use our imagination to look at a situation from the point of view of those we consider. Thus, if I am to be a Syrian refugee, I must imagine what it is to have escaped from a terrible situation, travelled with my young children over several borders, coped with cold, heat, hunger and thirst over many weeks, and am now attempting to cross the last border which would open a new life to all of us. Would that exercise help us to make a fairer decision? But we would also have to imagine being a resident in the destination country who cannot get a child into a good school because places are taken up by immigrants. For we might turn out to be refugee or existent resident.
But Rawls’s ‘veil of ignorance’ requires us to do that exercise. Our decisions cannot be restricted to bleak logic, they must incorporate the richness of subjective feelings. And here, of course, we link with the Christian requirement to love our neighbour as ourselves. This does not asks us to provide the kind of charity we ourselves need or would like to have. But it does ask us to look at the unique needs and wishes of our neighbours, and to respond in love to those. To do that, we must put ourselves emotionally in the place of our neighbour. It might seem strange to take from a dry philosopher a deeper understanding of Christian charity. But I am happy to do that.
Tell us whether you think that Rawls’s ideas are valuable, or, perhaps, you can think of better ways to provide social justice. May be he has missed an important counter argument. Test your ideas with examples. Are his ideas really related to the Christian imperative, or is that just a conceit of mine? What changes in our own society might be introduced as a result of Rawlsian thinking?