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Friends, I have so enjoyed writing for you these last three years. Next quarter I will write for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston; in my last quarter here, I’d like to discuss political philosophy.
Why? Why not just continue to comment on the political happenings of the day? Because at the end of the day, a few of my readers agree with me, a few don’t, and most stop reading at the third paragraph and turn the page to read my hilarious colleague, Kenji.
Now, by all means read Kenji’s column. But stay with me here. We’re going to leave behind partisan commentary and enter into a less comfortable but more consequential discussion. We’re going to talk as friends of America – hence the title “Amicus America” – about how we can and must build a political and philosophical framework that simultaneously supports the three central American values: freedom, equality, and justice.
We need to have this discussion. We too often assume twenty-first century American greatness; in fact, it is not assured. Issues from national security to immigration to environmental protection to economic development defy political progress and divide us into paralyzed and partisan communities of political sameness. Politically, America more and more resembles a Tower of Babel. We need a renewed sense of national unity and an agreement – or, at least, parameters for a discussion – on our national values and priorities.
Political philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke have long discussed the social contract – that is, the agreement of individuals to consent to be governed in order to maintain social order. American political philosopher John Rawls made an important contribution to the discussion of the social contract in his 1971 magnum opus, A Theory of Justice. He argues, in short, that we are born unequal and therefore create unequal and unjust social contracts. To create a truly just social contract, Rawls argues, we must agree to it from a situation of equality.
Who would disagree that we are born into unequal lives? We have different social classes, races, genders, religions, and politics, and we also have certain advantages and disadvantages in areas such as health, education, and family support. We do not choose these advantages and disadvantages. I did not choose to be born in the United States and not Mexico, nor did I choose a supportive family over a dysfunctional one. Who would choose before birth to be born in a developing country and not the United States?
In a sense, then, achievements resulting from my relative advantages do not entirely belong to me. Instead, they belong first to my circumstance and my fortune, and then to my effort and work. Does a car mechanic in Dallas, Texas deserve a greater paycheck, standard of living, and life prospects than a car mechanic in Guadalajara, Mexico, who works as hard with the same skills?
Rawls argues that because we are born unequal and we design social contracts from our various unequal positions, we often make our social contracts less than just. A contract is not intrinsically moral, and I know this from personal experience. When I was younger, I traded Magic cards with my younger neighbor. I frequently offered him bad deals that he took because he didn’t know better (three crummy, cool-looking cards for a great but boring card, for example). We both agreed to the contract of the trade, but the deal wasn’t fair or moral. I was taking advantage of my neighbor’s naiveté. At one point my neighbor’s dad stepped in and stopped the trading.
This goes to show that yes, sometimes people agree to unfair contracts. Maybe, like my neighbor, they don’t have complete information. Or maybe they have little choice in the matter. Remember The Godfather? “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.” Contracts resulting from ignorance or coercion are not fair or moral just because they have been agreed to.
Rawls argues that to jointly create a truly fair and just social contract, we must equalize ourselves and somehow divorce ourselves from our advantages and disadvantages. To achieve this, Rawls proposes the “veil of ignorance” theory. It goes like this:
Before you are born, you have no idea how or where you will enter the world. You don’t know if you’ll be born into a wealthy family or a poor family. You don’t know if your parents will support your education or if they themselves won’t know the value of it. You don’t know your race, gender, sexual orientation, health, or politics. Now, from inside this “veil of ignorance” – in which you know nothing about your situation in the world – design the laws and the social systems of the world you will enter.
Rawls argues a social contract created behind the veil of ignorance is the only social contract that can be considered fully moral, because the individuals making the contract begin from a position of equality and complete agency.
Next issue we’ll consider what sort of social contract the veil of ignorance produces, and we’ll meet Harrison Bergeron.