Tuesday, 27 May 2008

informed consent, social contracts, and the veil of ignorance

(I've scheduled a few posts to magically appear here while I'm away over the next few weeks. What follows is one.)

Massimo Pigliucci concisely describes the basics of ethical theory: there's contractualism, where
no contractualist really maintains that there ever was a non-social state of nature for human beings (if they did, they would be contradicted by evolutionary biologists), nor that the so-called social contract was an historical event (historians would go crazy with that one), nor that it is actually entered into voluntarily by most people (you are usually born into a society with a given contract, meaning a set of laws and customs
and there's the Rawls variation, which introduces a device he calls the "veil of ignorance," where you
assume that you arrive at the bargaining table with no knowledge whatsoever of your social status, economic power, ethnicity, religion or gender. Then, asks Rawls, what kind of society would you want to set up? The answer, he argued, is a society that would guarantee maximum liberty equally distributed among its members, as well as an equal distribution of wealth and power.
Contemporary America does nothing of the sort (that position is far to the left of any Democrat in office; Libertarians and Republicans need not apply).

There's a funny sort of dichotomy at work here: in the original contractualism, we are all bonded against our will to contracts that no one ever explicitly approved (but which we all purportedly would approve if we were in an imaginary situation disarmingly called a state of "nature"). In Rawls' version, we are asked what contract we would set up if we didn't know anything about our own particular qualities and abilities (his answer is a meritocracy).

One of the great principles of fairness under the rule of law is informed consent. We insist on seeing all the available information (certified by experts!) before making a medical, legal, or financial decision. Why, then, are ethics to be based on ignorance?

Is it truly impossible to reach similar ethical conclusions from a more realistic starting point--a situation in which some ethical system is in place and individuals have partial knowledge of their own status?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well my sense is that the point of the veil of ignorance is to generate some motivation for certain egalitarian principles (within the meritocracy proposed) and avoid the tyranny of the majority.

If people made the laws knowing their current (or future state) then it is easy to imagine that for example 60% could rig the rules to their benefit at the expense of the 40%. You can even imagine a situation where a minority rigs things this way for its benefit by exploiting the disorganization of the other groups. So fully informed consent would not prevent a social contract but it would prevent one that was fare in the sense of seeking to maximize everyone's interests equally.

Presumably Rawls does things this way rather than just appealing to some kind of universal concern for the wellbeing of others (or some other repudiation of basic egoism), because it is just such universal benevolence that he perceives as most in need of justification. However, I think your point is well taken and says that at some level the principle that everyone's welfare must be taken as important is just a basic presupposition. Then again all the veil may be doing is showing you a way to think in a non-egoist way, so that you do value all people equally and treat them all the same because you may well be any of them.

Personally I think the whole return to the state of nature or veil of ignorance is an attempt to take everyday life to an extreme for illustrative purposes. We are constantly renegotiating the laws, customs and norms of our society with our every action, even those of us not lucky enough to live in a democracy. We chose to obey laws or not and enforce laws or not as we take actions in the world, and we also endorse and argue for or reject and argue against such things. However there are practical impediments to our renegotiating in this way from the threat of death (from a despotic government say) to the problem that everyone wants different things (I think of this of the problem of ordering the pizza that everyone wants). So the imagined state of nature is just the radicalization of every day life.

Note that we are ignorant of our own future state and this has often been one way to appeal for compassion or mercy, the "One day you will be in my place and will anyone help you then..." line.

Personally looking around I would say that are current social contract is pretty far from consensus on many issues and that in some cases it seems as though well organized (and supplied) minorities have indeed entrenched certain benefits at the expense of others, but it is hard to say.