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The Veil of Ignorance Has Been Lifted: Do You Like the Country You Live In?

The Veil of Ignorance Has Been Lifted: Do You Like the Country You Live In?

 

by Daniel Honan at Big Think

In his classic work of political philosophy, A Theory of JusticeJohn Rawls challenged the utilitarian notion of justice in which society might violate the rights of an individual in order to help the many. That is not a just society, according to Rawls.

Moreover, how should “the benefits and burdens of living together in a community be distributed so as to best realize what justice requires?” This question is posed by Yale professor Tamar Gendler in her Great Big Ideas lecture entitled “Of the People, by the People, for the People…The Rawls-Nozick Debates as an Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics and Economics.”

The Veil of Ignorance

The just way to divide up a cake, in Rawls’ famous formulation, is to divide it without knowing which piece you’re going to get. Without personal bias, you will divide it in a fair way. This is called the “veil of ignorance.” When a group of Americans put this veil on during a 2005 study, it was revealed that 92 percent of them favored the wealth distribution model of Sweden.

That study would have made Rawls very happy. Robert Nozick, not so much. Nozick wrote a rebuttal to Rawls’ Theory of Justice in 1974 called Anarchy, State and Utopia, which argued Rawls’ conception of justice had placed the “wrong fundamental notion at the center of his theory.” As Gendler describes in this section of her lecture, Nozick valued radical individual liberty above all.

What’s the Big Idea?

Robert Nozick began his rebuttal to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice as follows:

Individuals have rights and there are things that no person or group may do to them without violating those rights.  The minimal state limited to narrow functions of protection against force, theft and fraud, enforcement of contracts and so on is the most extensive state that can be justified.

As Gendler points out, in Nozick’s system of limited government, unequal wealth distribution is just, so long as property was acquired legitimately. Furthermore, no one has the right to take legitimately owned property away.

What’s the Significance?

Does the Rawls-Nozick debate sound familiar? This very debate is raging in Washington right now. Consider, for instance, President Obama’s tax plan — the so-called “Buffett Rule” — which would raise taxes on individuals earning over $1 million. This progressive tax has been labelled “class warfare” by Paul Ryan and others in the GOP, who along with the anti-government Tea Party movement favor limited taxes, and limited government.

Which side do you support? It all goes back to the fundamental question of justice. Which state you would choose to live in? One that is governed by Rawls’ Theory of Justice or Nozick’s Anarchy, State and Utopia?

Daniel Honan is Managing Editor of Big Think where this post first appeared.

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95 comments

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8:09PM PDT on Sep 27, 2011

I would choose to live where everyone contributed as he could and recieved as he needed. I believe it will be called HEAVEN . The cake slicing explanation worked for MY kids.We did one slices, the other chooses first.WE had some VERY CAREFUL slicing!

7:18PM PDT on Sep 27, 2011

i want to live in sweden

9:55AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

Dyed in the wool liberal. I get my sense of justice, egalitarianism from my faith.

As all the great religious leaders professed,. we need social and economic equality. We must leave economic barbarism behind. The beliefs of those like Ayn Rand and Thomas Friedman are beliefs that have created this world of haves and havenots. A steadily decreasing world where we produce more than enough food to feed everyone well but millions upon millions go hungry and starve.
I love my country but things must change. Our course is one of increased barbarism and militarism. Not until we change our news media and election systems away from the corruption and sickness that brings us Fox news and the Citizens United vs FEC decision.
Not until we reform our economic systems that have brought us to worldwide recession that can only go deeper.
Rights cannot extend into protecting the right to harm others. This is what we have in America.

9:10AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

There will be no economic justice in the United States until enough people take to the streets and start marching. We need a Day of National Protest against the economic crimes that the wealthy elites have committed against the rest of the people.

2:49AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

australia's not perfect, and i nonetheless count myself fortunate to live here.

1:06AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

"Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration."~Abraham Lincoln

Used to be "a good days work for a good days pay" but that was before the 80s when Greed stopped being one of the Seven Deadly sins for certain segments of our society. That was back in the Good Old Days when America thrived and was vibrant and people got filthy rich without robbing our treasury, without putting millions of people out of work and out on the streets. Now they have bought and paid for enough politicians to get the rules and regulations gutted that were put in place to keep another great depression from happening and did its purpose very well for over 75 years. The Great Depression did not happen overnight and this recession is still taking it's toll on the economy with job loss and people still losing their houses. It would be a lot better if Corporate America and the political right were doing their parts to help the economy recover and create jobs, That would be good for all Americans but Corporate America has bought our Congress to do their will and not the will of the people. We cannot wait nore than a year to effect political change, we have to change the way Congress thinks and get all politicians to do what is right... So that this nation and our government are once more for the People, by the People and of the Peo

12:17AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

Excuse me. I think I hiccupped when sending that last post....

12:07AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

Stanley B
I missed your post, you are quite welcome my friend. I have been fighting this since Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers to break their union. That was the first overt action of the Rights' war on America's middle class and unions. I was in the Marine Corps and as such was (and still am) sworn "to defend America and her Constitution from all enemies both foreign and domestic". As far as I can see these people are attacking 21st Centruy America to bring us back to a time when Plutocrats ruled an oligarchy that controlled all levels of Government and every facet of workers lives. I for one do not want my children or grandchildren working in unsafe factories where they are treated like slaves with the employers able to beat or treat them anyway they want because they have the power and own both the private and public police departments. I cannot sit idly by while they tear down 80 years of advancements for all the people and hand America over to the chosen few...

12:06AM PDT on Sep 26, 2011

Stanley B
I missed your post, you are quite welcome my friend. I have been fighting this since Reagan fired the Air Traffic Controllers to break their union. That was the first overt action of the Rights' war on America's middle class and unions. I was in the Marine Corps and as such was (and still am) sworn "to defend America and her Constitution from all enemies both foreign and domestic". As far as I can see these people are attacking 21st Centruy America to bring us back to a time when Plutocrats ruled an oligarchy that controlled all levels of Government and every facet of workers lives. I for one do not want my children or grandchildren working in unsafe factories where they are treated like slaves with the employers able to beat or treat them anyway they want because they have the power and own both the private and public police departments. I cannot sit idly by while they tear down 80 years of advancements for all the people and hand America over to the chosen few...

11:37PM PDT on Sep 25, 2011

Stanley B
We have to go to Washington en masse in numbers big enough so we cannot be ignored by the politicians, the Wall St lobbyists or the main stream media. There is a big march planned for October 29 in DC. I would love to see the unions, the people who are or will be hurt by the theives from Wall St and their too big to fail banks. Right now there are people camping out on Wall St But there numbers are not high enough to be heard and police are stating to get heavy handed with the people. Anyone in the area could show support by calling Bloomberg to demand the brutality by the cops is stopped. We all have to do something or it will be like Nazi Germany leading up to World War II:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me

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