The week of February 28 to March 6 had this topic for our discussion assignment:
John Rawls claims that justice comes down to a notion of fairness. He proposed a thought experiment wherein he proffers an ideal “original position.” The idea is that representatives of the people operate behind a “veil of ignorance” when determining what policies are in the best interests of all of the citizens. In brief, representatives are ignorant of their “The race, ethnicity, gender, age, income, wealth, natural endowments, comprehensive doctrine, etc. of any of the citizens in society, or to which generation in the history of the society these citizens belong” and “The political system of the society, its class structure, economic system, or level of economic development” (Wenar 4.6). They do understand different people have different life plans, that even if resources are scarce, “there is enough to go around,” and have good common sense.
Discussion task: Imagine you are a representative behind this veil. Discuss and defend several measures you would take to ensure a fair and equitable redistribution of resources.
Wenar, Leif, "John Rawls", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Edited by Edward N. Zalta 9 January 2017. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/
And my response:
If I were on this "original position" committee, and if I were tasked with the development and structure of a society that would ensure the fair and equitable distribution of resources, I think I would break it down into a couple of macro steps.
First - we do not live in a totally unconstrained world no matter who states this assumption. It is fundamentally sound to assume that humans cannot live beyond the laws of physics and constraints of this world, else we might as well assume the original position is one where we are all immortal gods and with unlimited constraints. Therefore, the first task would have two parts, to determine absolute needs and what the world's resources can support.
Part one - determine the fundamental necessities of the individual human. This would comprise a summary and list of all the things a person needs to live and have a basic, common life. The list would include daily food and water intake to sustain a healthy life, without scarcity and without indulgence. This list also ought to be comprised of a variety of foods so as to not place undue torture on the individual. The list would also include a common variety of clothes, shelter, transportation needs, personal hygiene, medical care, education requirements, a stipend for some travel and entertainment and multiple ways the person could work to support the common good. In a sense, part one would be the sum total an individual would consume from and produce for society.
Part two - determine what this world can support in terms of raw resources (excluding human capital). Determining the sum total of raw resources in the world, and then dividing by the requirements list from part one; this should yield some number of individuals the world can support (i.e. 10 billion people).
Second - for this equation to remain in balance, the variable of individual human desires would need to be kept constant. Once the list of necessities is set, it is crucially dependent on the desires of individuals to remain constant over a lifetime. Alternatively, the equation could assume a set number of years for an individual and this set number of years multiplied by the yearly consumption of a lifetime of needs of an individual would yield a 'lifetime consumption number.' The individual, in theory, could draw down from this number at an even pace, or a slower pace or a quicker pace. Depending on the rate of drawdown, the person's expiration date (the day they die), could come sooner or later than the average. The same type of analysis would have to be done for the person's output number. The consumption and production numbers for the individual would need to be kept in balance.
Society would have to strictly adhere to the 'lifetime consumption number' expiration as well as ensure the individual meets their output number. As soon as a person has consumed her number and met her output number, she must submit to exiting mortality, else society risks the equation falling out of balance and injustice ensues. In the situation where a person who dies 'too early' and therefore does not use up all their consumption number and does not meet their production number, the governing body would need to determine how it impacts the overall balance of the system, which could potentially cause a ripple effect of injustice for those people who remain living.
To facilitate the individual's knowledge of their draw-down rate, each person in the world would have to go through some sort of mandatory philosophy class to constrain the human's unlimited drive for desires. As we see in the real world, some individuals possess an uncanny drive and knack to acquire fame, money and power (i.e. political leaders, entrepreneurs, tyrants, entertainment people, mobsters, thieves and murderers). A cultural shift away from the desire to pursue boundless wealth, power, money and fame, would have to be inculcated in people to ensure the on-going, fair distribution of the world's finite resources. Many freedoms and trade would have to be restricted, or a strong educational program would have to be instilled in people from a young age to prevent the need of restricted freedoms and trade.
As not all individuals are born with the same inherent qualities and talents and natural inclinations, this system would have to figure out a way to determine the total lifetime consumption needs of an individual, as well as what this person is capable of producing. For example, a 6'5, 300 lb. man, born as the last child of seven kids would require more food and clothes and possible produce less than a 4'5 110 lb. woman who was born as the oldest child in a family of 12. Regardless, each individual's consumption and output would need to be accounted for. In the long run, perhaps society would genetically drift toward an average build, and the unique calculation of consumption and output would no longer be needed.
As not all regions on the world are the same, there may need to be differences in the consumption and production of individuals between differing regions. A region near the equator would potentially have few needs in clothing, compared to a region near one of the poles. Similarly, the requirement for food consumption might differ, as well as the type of food needed to survive and live in the various regions.
The leaders of the society must absolutely live in the same fashion as individuals and citizens. Any variance between leaders and citizens would cause an unbalancing effect and destroy the entire system. No special treatment can be given to any one individual no matter the circumstances or justification.
In sum, the major policies I would put in place, in support of justice and fairness for all citizens would be:
- Education for people to learn what their common needs and talents are; how they draw down and support the common good.
- As part of that education, a strong emphasis in philosophy and the management of desires would need to take a significant portion. This education would need to dissuade people from pursuing fame, wealth and power.
- Science programs would be tasked with understanding what the world can support and what people need to exist.
- Government administrators and leaders would live exactly like citizens, with no special treatment, access or favors afforded to them.