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.

When it doesn’t feel good…

I recently ran in a 10km community run. I am fairly new to this process of waking up early on a Sunday morning and running around with total strangers, this was my second time. Having done it before and surviving I thought I had it nailed, so I was very relaxed before the event started.

After the starting gun (horn) sounded I was off, running strongly, overtaking people left and right but soon I began to struggle. I couldn’t get into a rhythm and I barely felt comfortable the whole time. As you could imagine, people began to overtake me – which did not feel good at all. I thought I would have the strength and stamina to catch up to them again; I did not. My focus shifted from the people who had already overtaken me, and I concentrated on not letting anyone else past. That did not work either. People kept coming from nowhere and running past like I was standing still.

Finally, I shifted my focus to just finishing the race. Not stopping. Just put one foot in front of another. This I did achieve, and I enjoyed crossing the finish line, but it didn’t feel like a good run. I felt defeated and embarrassed that so many people overtook me. Clearly I was out of my league.

It turns out, though, I ran a personal best time. The first few km’s I ran out of my skin, faster than I have ever run before, which is why I slowed towards the end – and why I never felt comfortable. I was out of my comfort zone the whole time. If this was the best I have ever run, then why didn’t it feel good?

This was me smiling. Everything hurt. Hooray for participation medals.

I think it has something to do with how we perceive progress. It is important to feel like we are getting somewhere. Progress, even if it is a tiny thing, is incredibly motivating.

However, progress, when based on comparison to other people’s success is incredibly demotivating because we see all the people in front of us (or overtaking us) in the journey. Plus, outside of an actual race, we don’t know where other people have started or where they will finish – they are most likely running a completely different race to you.  

The best way to create progress in our lives is to focus purely on ourselves. Not on the other runners. If we continue to put one foot in front of another, concentrate on the race we are running, looking to be better than we were last time/yesterday then we will see progress much clearer than if we are looking left or right. That way, even if it doesn’t feel comfortable, it will still feel good.