The Greatest Virtue, Part 3: Empathy, the Veil of Ignorance, and Justice

In my opinion, every church member should hear about John Rawls and his Justice as Fairness formulation. I've been wanting to write about Rawls for some time.

John Rawls is considered to be one of the most influential political and moral philosophers of the last 50 years. Most of his reputation rests on his magnum opus published in 1971, A Theory of Justice. For the purposes of this post I'm going to be simplifying greatly, aiming to simply introduce you to Rawls's ideas.

The core of Rawls's theory of justice is that what is just is what is fair. Thus, to create a just society we should strive to create a fair society.

So far, so good. But how are we to define and operationalize fairness? Rawls's answer is in the form of a thought experiment. Imagine, he says, a group of people facing the prospect of creating a new society. In this pre-decision moment the people are in what Rawls calls the original position. In the original position the people are to negotiate amongst themselves what kind of society they should create. We can further imagine that the people are self-interested actors.

Now, the next facet of Rawls's original position negotiations is that these deliberations take place behind a veil of ignorance. The veil is Rawls's most powerful idea. Specifically, we are asked to imagine the negotiators in the original position as disembodied souls. That is, as they discuss the creation of their new society they don't yet know where they will end up in that society. For example, the soul of Person A might, after the negotiations, be assigned to the body of a poor black women with an IQ of 85. Person B might be assigned to the body of an upper-class, white, male with an IQ of 140 who has rock-star good looks. Person C might be assigned to the body of an illegal immigrant from Mexico with an IQ of 90 and congenital health problems. Person D might be assigned to the body of a person with Down's Syndrome.

The point of the veil of ignorance is this: As the people create a society they do not know where they will emerge in that society. They could end up black or white, rich or poor, high IQ or low IQ, beautiful or ugly, healthy or ill, and on and on.

To get a feel for this, imagine the following. You are in the original position and you've just created a society that looks just like modern America. Now, would you be willing to be born into the body of a poor, low IQ, black woman? Probably not. (Note that I'm not trying to be rude about my example here. I picked three demographic factors--IQ, socioeconomic status, and gender--that are associated with being in a compromised versus advantaged position in modern America.)

The point is, if you don't know where you'll end up in society it behooves you to negotiate behind the veil to configure society so that if you WERE to be born into a position that is compromised safeguards are in place that would help you achieve happiness in the life you were to lead. For example, if you were born into a low IQ body there is little chance you'll end up being a doctor or lawyer. You'll be working blue collar jobs most likely. If so, you'd want to make sure that if you were born into that situation you would have a good wage, job security, health benefits for you and your family, good schools for your kids, and the ability to have time off work to pursue creative and leisure activities.

Thus we see the power of the veil of ignorance: The people in the original position will make sure that EVERYONE in society is guaranteed to have an equal chance at having a fulfilling life. Why do they do this? Their self-interest demands it. Since I don't know where I'll end up in society I must have all the safeguards in place before I'd be willing to roll the dice and get born into that society.

This, then, is Rawls's operationalization of fairness: A fair society is the one created by the participants in the original position behind the veil of ignorance. Or, more concretely, a fair society is the one the participants agree to be born into if they didn't know where they would end up.

Obviously, when we look around American with the glasses fashioned by Rawls we see a lot of unfairness/injustice. Too many of us start off in this life in deeply compromised situations. Too many are swimming upstream. Fighting too hard for the basics of the good life: Good schools, health care, good pay, job security, time for leisure. By contrast, I get to be a college professor and I'm typing at a computer in a nice air-conditioned house. Why? Because I got lucky. I have a decent IQ. I was born in America. I happened to have college educated parents. And I'm male and I'm white. Yet, I chose none of these things. But I benefit from them all. Any one of those things change and it's a good bet I'm not where I am today.

So, should I benefit from my luck while others suffer in this life? No. That wouldn't be fair. Consequently, through my actions as a Christian and my vote as an American I try to push my society be more fair and just.

What does all this have to do with empathy? Well, although Rawls's veil of ignorance helps us define fairness it is impossible to start from scratch and stand in the original position. The game has already started and we can't start over.

But if we can't ever truly stand in the original position how can we begin to "see" justice from that vantage? What looks fair from that perspective? If we don't have the veil how can we begin discussions of fairness?

The veil is a theoretical paradigm, but in practice we will need to start from what we have: Empathy. Without a true veil of ignorance to guide notions of justice empathy is the best replacement we have.

Why do I say this? Because, if I can't ever stand in the original position to negotiate what life should look like if I were to be born into the body of an illegal immigrant, I must do the next best thing. Specifically, I should stand where I currently am--a white male college professor--and try to IMAGINE, as best I can, what life is like for the illegal immigrant. I must try to empathize, to the utmost of my ability. And as I do this, and the better I do it, I begin to approximate the view from the original position behind the veil. The view of fairness and justice.

The point is, the only way to create a just and fair society is to imagine what it is like to be other people. What is it like to be poor with kids who need flu shoots? Or a single mother? Or an inner city family who wants to have their child learn the violin but the band program was cut at their school? What is it like to be born with a mental illness? Or less than beautiful? Or prone to addiction? The list goes on and on. So in the end our ability to create a just and fair society is directly tied to how fully we empathize with others. If we can't empathize with the poor or the mentally ill how could we possibly begin to know what they fairly and justly need and require to thrive and flourish?

To conclude, I've been calling empathy the Greatest Virtue. We now have another reason in hand for this designation. Specifically, via the connection with Rawls's veil of ignorance, we see empathy as the prime mover in defining justice and fairness in society at large.

And as empathy goes, so goes this nation and any who claim "justice for all."

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9 thoughts on “The Greatest Virtue, Part 3: Empathy, the Veil of Ignorance, and Justice”

  1. I dunno- It just seems to me that if our ability to empathize is predicated by our imagination the concept is already flawed. Relationships, on the other hand, with those who are in different circumstances might generate a more genuine empathy than mere imagination after having gone from guessing, to educated guessing, to, perhaps, understanding. Just a thought...

  2. As I was reading your wonderful post, I thought of comments one often reads concerning how the money we earn is ours and taxation is a method of stealing from us, as if what we have comes solely by the work of our own two hands without the help of anyone else and without a nurturing, compliant, resilient economic network of support. Rawl's method may be seen as another way of expressing that every person who is not me, regardless of their gender, race, economic class, or intelligence level is, as in Matt 25, Jesus.

  3. Richard,

    With over 6,000,000,000 individuals on earth, empathy must be directed well or a person will just be overwhelmed.

    And as testimony to how intricate the considerations are that come into play, Rawl's marvelous book is 538 pages (the Revised Edition).

    So how does one cut through the huge complexity of intelligently implementing empathy in a world with over 6,000,000,000 individual human beings? Two suggestions:

    1. Look to persons who are good examples of intelligient, effective, empathic engagement with the world. My dentist spends 6 weeks every year fixing toothaches for free in Central America. My brother has worked as an underpaid civil servant for years because he is doing important work as an environmental lawyer. Probably everyone knows a few persons whose example cuts through the complex abstract questions associated with intelligently implimenting empathy. And that brings up the second point.

    2. To intelligently impliment empathy a person needs an accurate vision of how best to use their life to do so. The old fashioned Christian word "calling" deserves to be brought back into use. It is a calling--not a career--that a Christian college student ought to be contemplating...

    But that brings up a complicating point: Neither of my examples could be intelligently empathic with their lives if they had not pursued a difficult career path, but a career path that makes them much better at delivering practical help to the world--and I'm sure that they might have appeared to be "selfish" while pursuing an end that required single-minded discipline...

    Does ACU do a good job of putting intelligently empathetic models in front of its students?


  4. Richard,
    I love the topic of the series. The focus is a bit different from the way I was raised. It was about belief and faith, the rapture and being blessed for faithful service. For some reason though I was inclined to think that justice and fairness were getting ignored. I'm glad that you are speaking about this.
    I agree with Tracy that a life of service is a noble one but I find it less and less mentioned. I heard of a study of the reasons why people became doctors. Was it for empathic reasons or some other more selfish reason? It was suprising to me that the secular group had a higher percentage of doctors who were motivated by epathic reasons than the religios group. l don't know the reason for this but I can speculate that epathy and service has not recieved the attention they deserve in our churches.
    I think we as Americans can push for justice and fairness in a society that values divisive issues some of which are taught from the pulpits. We need to vote justice and fairness back into office. At this point I think that this may be the most important and critical thing we can do.

    Rick T.

  5. Val,
    I agree and when I write about empathy I'm always assuming a relational backdrop. The use of the word imagination is not to conjure up some kind of detached, armchair speculation but just the recognition that even intimate relational work is affecting my internal imaginative sensibilities.

    As I was writing the post I was thinking along just those lines. I was also wondering about God's empathy for us via the Incarnation. Did God need Jesus to fully understand us to be able to judge us justly? Hmm...

    You raise a very good point. You can't just blandly say "empathy" without some pragmatic considerations about how to implement it on a practical scale. I like you idea of finding a calling, a "niche of empathy," where the world is narrowed to a sphere of influence I interact with daily or regularly.

    I think ACU does place good models in front of students. Some of the faculty are amazing in this regard.

    Rawls's theory does have fairly clear political implications. The most important is his "difference principle" which demands a more egalitarian society.

  6. For some reason, your posts got me interested in the capacity of other animals for empathy. Is this something that separates man from beast? I doubt it. Does it bother you that the "greatest virtue" may not be unique to man?

  7. This notion of empathy as a staring point for a just society has been worked out in a fairly detailed way in Martha Nussbaum's Cultivating Humanity. Definitely worth a read.

  8. The Veil of Ignorance was used as a theoretical paradigm by John Rawls. To me, this paradigm undergirds my entire theological framework. To me, the Veil of Ignorance is not a "thought experiment" but a reality.  My radical "Christian" theology is based on a trans-temporal and trans-personal view of my "SELF" which views its SELF as possessing a Meta-Identity. I also freely choose to believe that I am a captive participant in the "Sacred Continnum" which means that upon death, I will forever reawaken as a new, de novo person, fully conscious again. No, this is absolutely not a belief in reincarnation as I do not hold any belief in a "Transmigrating Soul" or " Psychic Pellet". I believe this naturalistic paradigm undergirds Jesus' Second Commandment and reveals his understanding of God's impersonal nature (as distinguished from the Personal God we have all come to know)  which ensures God's distributive justice by ensuring that every de nove human being has an "equal statistical chance" of  entering life in strict accordance with our  global demographic matix. Brief example: If a man dies, a new being has a 50/50 chance of being borne a woman. If I am raised a Muslim and then die, I stand a 33%+ of being born a Christian and, yes,  possibly a Jew.When the child of a Billionaire dies, he/she stands a 99% chance of being borne in extreme poverty. etc etc.  I'm in the process of understanding the full ramifications of this iterative understanding of the Second Commandment as well as the "Impersonal Nature" of GOD which ensures statistical distributive justice in this world. I grew up eagerly learning about the Good News Gospel. I am now  awakening to the esoteric meaning of the reversal  and similar parables. I fear that I am now slowly becoming the discoverer of the Bad News Gospel.

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