On Philosophy

August 5, 2007

Random Inequalities

Filed under: Society — Peter @ 12:00 am

Consider a society in which half of the population leads happy lives and half leads unhappy lives, and that which half of the population a person will belong to is determined at birth. Compare this society to one in which the same distribution of happy and unhappy people exists (who are just as happy and unhappy as their counterparts in the first society), but this time which half a person will belong to is determined at random when they reach a certain age. (For simplicity assume that everyone’s life is of neutral quality before this age in both societies.) Is one society better than the other? Is one fairer?

There are two popular positions about how to evaluate different ways of organizing society that would lead us to believe that these two possible societies are the same; utilitarianism and Rawls’ theory about social justice based on the view of ignorance. Utilitarianism sees these two societies as equal simply because there is an equal amount of happiness in each, and since happiness is all that matters in utilitarianism then they are equal. These two societies are also seen as equal when thinking about them from the viewpoint of the veil of ignorance. According to that way of thinking one society is better than another if we would prefer to live in it given that we don’t know in what role we will find ourselves in when we make that choice. From behind the view of ignorance the additional bit of randomness that exists in the second society doesn’t make a difference. From behind the veil of ignorance I judge my odds of being one of the happy people as being .5 in both cases, and so both societies are equal.

Before I turn to my analysis of these two societies let me first point out a flaw with the veil of ignorance revealed by this situation (which will be important in my analysis). The veil of ignorance proceeds from the assumption that it is meaningful to consider the possibility of finding ourselves in different roles within society. But this ignores the fact that the position we find ourselves within society has a profound impact on who we are. Were “I” have to been born in a different country that person would not be me, they probably wouldn’t even be much like me. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the veil of ignorance as a method for judging societies, but it does mean that our thinking about finding ourselves in different roles may cloud our judgment. Suppose that we are judging a society in which there is a sharp divide between the rich and poor, and in which no one is happy, all the rich hate being rich, and the poor hate being poor. A society in which everyone is rich and happy about it is better right? But take a rich person from the first society thinking about the two from behind the veil of ignorance. They might very well prefer their own society, reasoning that at least there they have a chance at not being rich. For the veil of ignorance to work we have to ask people not to choose a society based on how much they might like finding themselves in it, but based on how much they might like being one of the people composing it. And that is a question that doesn’t make sense. So we can use the veil of ignorance as a tool to reason about societies, but only if we don’t think too closely about exactly how we are choosing from behind the veil, and sometimes those details matter.

Now as I see our original two societies the second, in which everyone’s destiny is chosen randomly later in life, is more just than the first, and that this makes it preferable. The first would be less just because those who are born with the destiny to be unhappy would have grounds to complain, and hence it would be less harmonious than the society in which this fate was decided randomly later (in my five components analysis of society remember justice is identified with that which promotes harmony). Their complaint is that they have been unfairly denied a chance at being happy for no good reason. It doesn’t matter how these destinies are chosen at birth, telling someone in this situation that they had the same chance to be born into one of these destinies is like telling someone that they can’t complain about their situation because they had the same chance as everyone else to be someone else. (Basically it doesn’t make sense.) And certainly this response is unlikely to satisfy their complaints, as likely as the defenders of a hereditary aristocracy are likely to satisfy the peasants by pointing out that they all had an equal chance to be born into the aristocracy. In contrast if these destinies are decided later in life then we can point out that the random decision could equally as well have favored them, without asking them to be someone else in order to have a shot at happiness. (Detail: the earlier this random choice is made, the less just it is, because more of who the person is develops after the choice has been made, and hence being someone who was destined for happiness involves a greater and greater degree of being someone else, with birth being the limiting case.)

Now if the second society is indeed less harmonious than the first it is possible that the verdicts of the utilitarian and veil of ignorance analyses will change, reasoning that long term happiness is better promoted by harmony. But whether they do or don’t change their verdicts in light of this analysis they are flawed. If they don’t then they are ignoring the value of harmony (justice) and hence they aren’t properly deciding which society is best (I would claim). On the other hand if they do change their verdicts then they are revealed as flawed by themselves, since it took a completely different kind of analysis to reveal that one was in fact better than the other. And what good is utilitarian or veil or ignorance thinking if we have to use some other method to decide which society is really better?

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