Veil of Ignorance

I’m not the only one who thinks that the world is structured unfairly. The rich seem to find it easier to keep making money, and those who are living in poverty are the most vulnerable to life shocks which push them further into poverty.

How would you re-design things if you could? Who would have the wealth? Who would have the power? How would you shape society so that it served all who were a part of it?

John Rawls came up with the concept of the Veil of Ignorance. It’s a way to test ideas for fairness, whether it’s a new tax law to re-creating society as we know it. All you have to do is to imagine that you have no idea what position you would end up in on the other side of that decision. You could have your taxes cut, stay the same, or even increased. You could end up with all the power or none of the power. With that in mind, would you still be comfortable making the decision?

It’s a theoretical experiment of course, but the exercise is important to help create the kind of communities that all members want to be part of.

If you were to create a place where you would be happy in any role that you were given; any gender, any race, any social status, any level of education, any physical ability, what kind of place would you create?

Thinking of your life now, if you were born a different gender or race, or differently abled, or in a different country or social class, would you still be comfortable with the social inequalities of our world? I know I wouldn’t be.

I don’t think a utopia is possible, but I do think there are simple things we can do to begin to shift those social inequalities towards fairness. It starts with generosity.

How you treat those that have less power than you will shape the world we live in.

Equality…and cake.

Have you ever been given the responsibility of cutting a birthday cake for children?

The need to get each piece the exact same size has never been so great, and when you can’t do that, each child knows who has the biggest piece and who’s piece is smallest. Of course, in that situation the easiest thing to do is to take some from the biggest piece and give it to the child with the smallest piece, so things are equal.

But you know that things are not that simple. It doesn’t matter how much you explain it with logic, and even though each child gets the same amount, the saddest child in the room is always the one who has had something taken from them. They are unable to focus on anything else except for their cake – even if it ended up being distributed with equality, they can only see what they lost.

We know what inequality is; when people are oppressed, there is injustice, parts of the community are unable to reach their full potential, and society is at odds with itself. We notice it acutely when we feel it ourselves. When, for us as individuals, life is not fair, we are not getting what we deserve, what we have worked so hard for. Somebody has taken our cake.

But there is another side to inequality and that is privilege. If there was no privilege, then inequality would not exist. From a place of privilege, it is a little difficult to notice when someone else is oppressed. It requires a courageous ability to empathise with those who are different from us; different in the way they think and approach life – it is an act of generosity to assist those who are living in the oppressed side of inequality to bring about equality. It sounds great, but the difficulty when part of our community begins to move from inequality towards equality is it usually creates a disturbance. The power that those in privilege are used to experiencing, begins to shift. When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression so moves towards equality are hindered by those in privilege, even if they want equality in theory.

We live in a world of inequality. More often than not in Australia, our experience of inequality is through privilege. We’ve been handed a very big piece of cake*. There is no one to take it off us and redistribute it to others who are oppressed so it is up to us to do that individually. But it is going to cost us. It will disrupt the power that we have.

The good news is that it doesn’t take much to get started – a gift of $100 is enough to create a small loan for a mother living in poverty in Asia so she can start a business and begin the journey out of the poverty cycle. A small, but important step in the journey of equality – giving up some of our financial power to empower someone else.

*Metaphorical cake.