Making moral philosophy relevant again: the rent across the ‘veil of ignorance’

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by Sanjay Perera

Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom. – Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead revisited

Something rarely asked in our time of economic austerity, cynicism about those holding power or anyone trying to assert authority, escalating socio-political problems and environmental challenges is: Whither moral philosophy? This is only an attempt to see how moral thinking is still relevant to our time despite some of us being disillusioned by the promises not delivered around the world but particularly those based on slogans of ‘Hope,’ ‘Change,’ and ‘Yes, we can.’ And when grounds may be prepared to impeach a president for his healthcare reforms but who would have received accolades if he rode roughshod over everyone by intensifying domestic social aggression, war and planetary genocide: for these are seen as representative of ‘truth, justice and the American way.’

And so, one way to gain some insight into the idea of moral thinking applicable to our time is to venture in media res so to speak and to move surgically into an idea at the heart of philosopher John Rawls, that is, the ‘veil of ignorance’ (VOI). While Rawls maintains assiduously that his VOI is thick it can be re-interpreted as being thin in adapting his ideas to develop moral thinking in our time. However, this idea of Rawls’ has been controversial from the start and subject to criticism but worth re-considering again.[1]

Rawls’ philosophical enterprise as developed in A theory of justice uses a thick VOI predicated also on a thick veil apparently in operation in the moral thought of Immanuel Kant (so Rawls believes). Some of the central ideas of A theory of justice are influenced and sometimes apparently derived through analogy, from Rawls’ reading of Kant. This essay is but a brief sketch on why Rawls uses a thick VOI, and why he attributes it to Kant too. But the limitation of both thinkers in this regard is due to their use of linearity in thought bounded by three-dimensional (3D) thinking. We believe it is this limitation of linearity in thinking that may account for much criticism that has been leveled at some of their key ideas: admittedly, however, this statement in itself may be controversial as may be the brief critique that accompanies it.[2]

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Rawls’ thick VOI

To Rawls, the VOI is used in the original position to set parameters which allow for free and equal morally grounded individuals to choose a fair state of affairs for society. This choice is a collective one in that what each chooses is in the best interests of all, and vice versa. This is meant to be the set-up for a well-ordered democratic society that has a just distribution of primary goods. It is a contractual arrangement.

This arrangement of the original position and VOI would generate Rawls’ principles of justice. And this in turn is supplemented by the difference principle. Rawls makes many qualifications along the way not only in A theory of justice, but throughout his work, as to why the VOI blocks out certain things and what it allows to be considered; for instance, general ideas and facts about the world are known to those behind the veil including ideas concerning economic theory (Rawls Theory 118-123). What is blocked out of consideration includes social status, family wealth, race, gender and other personal attributes that a person may acquire when they enter (or are born in) a well-ordered society. So matters of prejudice in our time are not considered under the thick veil (they are addressed by the nature of the primary goods).[3]

An important reason Rawls is against a thin veil is that he believes having an idea of the effect of class, race, sexuality etc. in a society may have a detrimental effect in that the issues determining a society (the status quo) would be the guiding influence to those entering that society rather than a sense of what is right; that would in turn scuttle an objective basis for coming up with what is best for all under the VOI. This is so as he thinks self-interest would sway people in the direction of making judgments based on race, sexual or class prejudice that would allow them to benefit from the inequality engendered in that society. So there is the possibility that some would prefer to opt for belonging to the group that holds or imposes superiority over others.

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An example that reflects some aspects of Rawls’ claim (and raises issues beyond that as touched on below), may be President John F. Kennedy’s remarks surrounding the debacle over allowing two African American students into the University of Alabama. After much pressure Kennedy made a landmark televised speech in which he defined the issue of race as a moral one. A memorable passage in it states (my italics):

We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.

The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and equal opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated. If an American, because his skin is dark, cannot eat lunch in a restaurant open to the public, if he cannot send his children to the best public school available, if he cannot vote for the public officials who will represent him, if, in short, he cannot enjoy the full and free life which all of us want, then who among us would be content to have the color of his skin changed and stand in his place? Who among us would then be content with the counsels of patience and delay?

In any event, two points must be raised in connection to Rawls’ insistence on a thick veil. First, the reason why Rawls thinks self-interestedness may urge people away from enunciating just conditions due to a thin VOI is that he is using the idea of risk as a fundamental aspect of making decisions behind the VOI. He believes utilitarianism is bypassed via people making decisions on what type of society they should be in by utilizing the Maximin rule: this allows people behind the veil to consider a scenario of maximizing benefits and minimizing the negative so as to avoid being in a situation that could be disadvantageous to them.

Second, Rawls is thinking through the VOI and associated aspects of it (e.g. factoring in risk and the possibility of self-interest seeping through a thin veil) using a linear mode of reasoning. This is termed a 3D way of thought that despite bringing in the moral dimension limits possibilities to humans in conducting analysis via a logic that tends toward a binary mode of clarification. It must be noted that Rawls’ ‘moral dimension’ is 3D and not as strong and clear as Kant’s which we consider extra-dimensional (please see end note [2]). And though Rawls claims his ideas have no metaphysical basis he uses the Kantian idea of a noumenal self to ground those behind the VOI in making autonomous decisions. But he does so by using the noumenal via analogy and then claims that his idea of the original position helps clarify Kant’s idea on making choices in a socio-political context. This is a most peculiar view and Rawls’ attempts to support this are not convincing.

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Attribution of a thick VOI to Kant

This brings us to Rawls’ statements that he uses the VOI based on (similar to) a Kantian VOI. But there is no VOI in Kant. Perhaps Rawls’ peculiar reading of a thick VOI in Kant is due to the a priori notion of moral thinking in Kant. Generally, Kant’s idea of morality is that we can access moral ideas without relying on external influence nor have to make moral decisions based on empirical results as such (though we may be influenced by them at a certain level); this not only reflects our autonomy but does not involve dependence on external conditions as such. Moreover, the tendency to do things primarily to maximize what we believe brings happiness relies principally on satisfying the senses: and this is a quintessential instance of being motivated by something beyond moral reasoning alone, that is, something external as such rather than internal conviction.

For Kant, we express our moral selves when acting in a manner that makes us worthy of happiness but not focused specifically on making ourselves happy as that would allow self-interest etc. to creep in. Kant elaborates this view in his work and it cannot be expanded on here.

So for Kant, acting in a moral manner means acting rationally without calculating the outcome of options; we act in a manner that does not centre upon serving our personal interests alone (self-interestedness) for it implies we are not free (from fear, anxiety, graspingness etc.) nor are we thereby autonomous: we must use our choices (or freedom to choose) in a way that authenticates ourselves as moral beings and not be dependent on final ends, goals or specific outcomes. Kant is so strict in his sense of moral action that his idea of the categorical imperative is such that the moral law we promulgate for ourselves is unconditionally binding on us which in turn has produced even more controversy and criticism than any ideas by Rawls. While Kant’s ideas are indeed complex and challenging, we believe he does not, at least in his key works on morality, make them as complicated as Rawls does his own with his many qualifiers in trying to make the VOI work with and justify his principles of justice and all that follows.

Interestingly, Rawls even insists that his principles of justice are analogous to Kant’s categorical imperative but again this is not accurate as Rawls’ ideas are nowhere close to the stringent and binding nature of moral imperatives we give ourselves which is reflective of autonomy in Kant.

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In fact, Rawls correctly says that he does not use several (yet quite important) aspects of Kant’s moral ideas but only that which serves his purpose.[4] However, Rawls does take liberties with Kant even in what he attributes as an accurate reading of him to justify his own ideas. Rawls’ claims that his ideas somehow can find an analogy or support from Kant in some form regarding his Maximin rule, the notion of primary goods, basic structure of society and principles of justice only show that he is using a 20th century template of concerns imposed on someone from a different time and place: whose universality and strength in ideas go beyond the many qualifications Rawls uses to justify his own.

However, this does not mean neither man can be read in the context of our own time (as discussed below) but we must be careful when reading our perception of specific notions of political structures and concerns into a thinking that had different ideas of what constitutes political frameworks influenced by the social concerns of the day from the 18th to 19th centuries – as in the case of Kant.[5]

It is almost perverse to think that Kant can be selectively applied to justice as fairness when his motivation and power of his ideas for the most are to not only work past dogmatism and skepticism but to show how we can still accept ideas of God, freedom and immortality of the soul. The categorical imperative is ultimately based on spiritual ideas which are the bedrock of the Kantian project: this does not seem to be the case for Rawls’ basic ideas, or at least it is not explicitly stated as such.

The tendency for those who take Kant out of context is to forgo serious consideration of the spiritual domain just as they use his ideas to build their own — and simultaneously take things into another direction. It is our view that Rawls is fundamentally mistaken in thinking his ideas analogous/similar to Kant’s in the way he selectively rationalizes Kant’s to reflect his own. Rawls may have thought he was re-interpreting aspects of Kant for the 20th century, and perhaps at some level he was, but the willful re-interpretation of some aspects of Kant (or so it appears) goes beyond extrapolating the ideas and then formulating one’s own based on that.

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Thinning of the veil

Even if as Rawls believes there is a thick VOI for Kant, it is our contention that both he and Rawls are better served by adopting a thinner veil. This works through a broad reading of their works in our context so as to make them relevant to our moment, affairs of state and societies.[6] We can read Kant and Rawls as what their works represent in themselves as works of philosophy, as well as the statement they are making socially and philosophically in the context of their time. Yet, when we look at both thinkers’ works in the context of our time it must be clear that while this may work around problems of a thick VOI via a thin veil for them, it is certainly not ascribing to either one that he is using — consciously or otherwise — a thin veil.

Both Kant and Rawls seem to think in a linear fashion; but Kant in bringing in the idea of morality and the noumenon and the spiritual aspects of his thinking, is extra-dimensional (stretches beyond 3D constraints). The linear mode of thinking is also apparent in Kant’s attempts to keep his ideas within the bounds of rationality and philosophical discourse even as he enunciates his ground-breaking transcendental thought. Recent scholarship has shown that some of Kant’s thinking concerning his transcendental philosophy and moral ideas have been misinterpreted but have been given convincing and insightful analyses that make his thought far more complex, nuanced and path-breaking than many have been accustomed to think.[7]

Rawls was much influenced in writing his A theory of justice by the pressing events of his time such as the cold war, socio-political inequality, ‘wars of liberation,’ the American civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. Kant was not only a man of his time but was also influenced by the ideas of his era in formulating his moral thinking and seeing how it may work with the politics of his time; and as he was conversant with matters military and aware of the effects of war and conflict, produced writings that touched on the idea of international peace.

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In the context of our time, facing issues of class, race, sexuality (gender and orientation), greater acceptance and understanding of those who are disabled and seriously ill, and a world that is more populated than before and facing environmental crises: it becomes almost quaint to think of making moral decisions to create a just socio-political economic system without a thinning of the veil. This does not, even by the norms of linear thinking, contaminate the ‘purity’ of moral drives and thereby hamper the autonomous nature of free and equal individuals. Nor does it contradict Kant’s notion of all rational beings per se to look at specific aspects of humanity in considering how his ideas are relevant to us (his notions of a priori and pure a priori would be consistent with this, please see end note [4]).

By taking a multidimensional approach we are able to see better the feasibility and relevance of Kant and Rawls as giving us a base to move forward in our moral thinking. We live in a world of heightened security surveillance, near paranoia over terrorism and political gridlock in various forms that would make anyone still interested in moral thinking wonder whether veils of any sort, thick or thin, are worth anyone’s attention. We need to develop a thinking that goes beyond the conventional logical forms; we need the ability to go beyond linearity without sacrificing coherence: surely, that is possible.

We can see better through a translucent VOI to realize that what was blocked out by Rawls is very much the general knowledge and facts of the world today: those facts and general knowledge he thought are critical to formulating his original position and VOI. The fact is class, status, gender, sexuality, race, media manipulation and the use of terror as a form control are defining characteristics of our time. Even by Rawls’ standards they would be necessary to conceptualize his VOI as used today. To put it another way: we would argue that it is crucial to have this translucency for Kant’s relevance and application to our time (if a veil is considered for him), and a fortiori it would be so for Rawls.

Indeed, if this is so then it becomes apparent that there can be no thick VOI for us that would make much sense. The VOI of Rawls is valuable from an academic point of view and not much more. From a serious view of ideas and their value for humans and other beings as we move on in time, a thin veil seems to be a minimum at best. To insist otherwise could even be irrational. But how does this obviate the self-interestedness that a thin veil supposedly entails? This is where the multidimensionality comes in.

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Surely, it is a limitation of thinking (and imagination) to regard clarity of thought as possible only by binary logic. It is quite possible, and we do this in many ways unconsciously, of factoring in much of what is considered behind a thin veil to make decisions as best we can for humanity and specific groups of people who are on the receiving end of prejudice and thereby injustice. It is no longer that we would prefer to be born a certain type to maximize the inequality on our side, but rather there is so much inequality and injustice (which explains the success and resonance that Piketty’s Capital in the twenty-first century seems to have) that it is arguably not even in one’s interest to choose the side wherein you may be relegated to a scurrilous minority (the so-called 1% or top centile à la Piketty) since the general idea is brewing and increasingly taking shape with younger generations that egalitarian principles, diversity and openness are what we need most.

So with a thin veil and factoring all this in it is clearer what is the right thing to do, and it should not contravene the authentication of our autonomy as moral beings — and does not promote dependence on what only makes us comfortable (that is, heteronomous – as Kant would say). In other words, it is easier to resonate with standing up for what is right regardless of the cost of facing up to various apparatus of violence and control; and staying firm against socially reactionary attitudes that ensure the status quo of comfort for the wielders of influence and others who believe doing what is right means suppressing empathy and denying (and being intolerant) to differences and diversity (which is akin to denying the biodiversity of life itself across the planet exemplified by environmental destruction).

This is not to say that anyone who takes a stand against the top centile and/or reactionary forces of society in any form whatsoever that may breed hostility across the board and create disharmony such that the highest interests of all are violated is thus acting automatically in the name of justice. The acts should still be, as Kant insisted, disinterested enough in avoiding the calculation of risk in doing what is right. But it also means that there must be some form of tolerance and empathy to a greater degree than Rawls’ thick VOI or perhaps Kant’s categorical imperative may imply or suggest. There is a higher order perspective needed to allow for this multidimensional attitude to take root.

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The point is that we can keep the force of the Kantian imperative and action based on moral reasoning but are now better equipped to factor in empathy to bring an even-handedness in tempering the stringency of the moral drive (which lends itself to extremes). To do otherwise, and act intolerantly devoid of empathy (or set oneself up on a path of self-immolation) means not only going beyond doing right for its own sake, but doing so for the sake of being right above all else (tantamount to self-righteousness): extremity of thought and action do not incline us to serve the highest interests of all, nor make us worthy of happiness.

The point of multidimensionality implies a heart-centredness that affects reason (this will be developed subsequently), and if it means re-envisioning Kant and/or Rawls into something that may seem quite different, then it is about time to do so. For at least in the case of Kant, a man who did want to make reason, rationality and spirituality cohere, a man who led his life strictly according to at least his moral principles, he would not object to the time when no veils are needed anymore (not that he was proposing they be used). Similarly, Rawls would probably not regret a time when the veil across the temple is finally rent in two. We hazard the guess that he would celebrate it.

This would also be seen as taking-off with the ideas from Kant and Rawls into the 21st century.

But rather than wait for an act of divinity to rent the veil, we may have to do so ourselves collectively while inspired by the ever thinning nature of it as we begin to see clearer what it is that needs to be factored in to create greater opportunities for justice, genuine empathy and compassion.

And so, these words of Kennedy are relevant as a clarion call more than ever: “knowing that here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”

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End notes:

[1] On a smaller note, I had recently written a letter to the press to clarify comments by others on Rawls’ VOI in which it was stated the veil could be re-interpreted as thin. Of course, it could not be explained fully what that entailed as such. The present piece is also meant to provide some background for a subsequent essay that may intensify focus on Kant and economic theory.

[2] The idea of the limitation of a 3D mode of (linear) thinking is discussed in “A theory of economic violence.” But to clarify, the term ‘extra-dimensional’ is (3D + 1), or an extra dimension to the limitations of our physical world, e.g. the moral dimension; the multidimensional is (3D + n) wherein n > 1. So, 3D is used to denote the limitation and caution in the mode of thinking within philosophy when discussing that which may be cast aside as metaphysical – but has less restriction in terms of imagination and scope (and greater freedom from a strait-jacketed form of logical thought), and regarded as being valid when discussed by scientists (e.g. multiple space-time dimensions, time travel etc.).

[3] Due to numerous criticisms that have arisen relating to the VOI, Rawls had to defend it regularly. But the result is a complicated set of qualifications to his ideas, and while interesting and of value, they become weighted and peculiarly conditioned to suit exactly the outcomes that he wants to justify his principles of justice. While this is understandable it does enhance the artificiality of the VOI to an unprecedented degree.

But as pointed out over the years, the VOI is biased against considering other species beyond humans and is geared towards those who are able bodied (but they could be less well-off socio-economically). As some critics, e.g. Martha Nussbaum, point out: the disabled are not exactly factored into Rawls’ equation as that notion is blocked by the VOI.

Moreover, though Rawls relies on Kant quite a bit, he veers-off from the latter’s trajectory (while acknowledging it) as Kant based his moral thinking on the idea of all rational beings as such though he does, naturally, discuss morality in relation to humans (as rational agents). Rawls is specific in addressing humanity only and the rationality of his thick veil would consider matters of prejudice as something irrational and automatically adjusted for (that is, prejudice is not to be tolerated) though his ideas seem to only suggest that empathy is needed (to insist otherwise would also be irrational to him). So Rawls thinks he obviates the problem of prejudice via logical thinking and his notion of rationality (which may yet be insufficient to convince people, rational or otherwise, of this). This view of Rawls’ is typical of 3D (linear) thought which is reflected in binary logic.

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[4] As Rawls says, “Of course, I have departed from Kant’s views in several respects…the Kantian interpretation is not intended as an interpretation of Kant’s actual doctrine but rather of justice as fairness” (Rawls Theory 226). All of section 40 termed “The Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness” in A theory of justice is worth reading for those interested. Rawls gives the impression that any idea of dualism in Kant is prevented by his idea of the original position: we believe Rawls not only mistaken but of misreading Kant in a number of ways that cannot be developed fully here.

Also worth looking at is Rawls’ piece: “Kantian constructivism in moral theory” (Rawls Papers 336, for instance). There again Rawls subsumes and co-opts Kant’s ideas as reflective of and rationalized by his own in terms of the original position and VOI.

Rawls tries to argue for his VOI by specifying ((Rawls Theory 118n) that Kant proposes something similar in The critique of practical reason, Academy Edition, vol. 5, p68-72. However, Kant in those pages emphasizes the a priori nature of the moral law which is protected via the mediating role of practical judgement against the empirical and mystical content of practical reason. Ultimately, to ascribe a VOI to Kant presents a circularity that does not strengthen what is subsequently called the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness; instead we get a Rawlsian reading of Kant recycled back as Rawls drawing an analogy from Kant: and that is a key objection we make against Rawls’ willful adaptation of Kant that seems contrived.

To give a further sense of the complexity of Kant’s ideas in this regard which does not lend itself to smooth adaptation to Rawls, we need only look at the pages cited by Rawls in relation to Henry E. Allison’s comments (Allison Kant’s Groundwork 20-22). Allison’s explanation on Kant’s notion of a priori and pure a priori may have relevance. For instance, the universally binding supreme principle of morality is pure a priori as it concerns all rational beings, but in relation to humans it is then a priori simpliciter. The latter has an applicative aspect and some empirical content which is not so for pure a priori ideas — from which the a priori idea is abstracted.

These comments give a sense of how Kant tries to explain and rationalize his system of thought and the operation of the moral law. Rather than a VOI, his sifting of inputs, cognition and moral action operate through his idea of pure and practical reason, judgement and a priori nature of ideas which are meant to work in tandem with autonomy. He does not presuppose nor posit any VOI. For his project to have force and applicability, he does not need to.

[5] Rawls is writing about a pluralist system from a 20th century conception of liberal democracy — the idea of a social contract notwithstanding. While using the original position and the VOI as a basis for his ideas it is odd to see them supposedly derived and analogous to not only Kant’s moral ideas but in effect to Kant’s notion of politics and government. We say this not only because Rawls understandably insists that Kant’s ethical ideas should be viewed as a whole (Rawls Theory 222), but that Kant develops his idea of morality in relation to his politics and political ideas of his time in his later work (wherein he extends his view of duty to its rationalistic extreme and can be quite controversial).

The extremity of Kant’s view in regard to some of his political thought results from merging the need to abide by the law of the state whatever the cost with the unconditionally binding nature of his moral law. In that respect it is inexplicable that he could be seen as stating much that is related to liberal democracy. Reading Kant into our context may be how we learn about his universality but to read our context into Kant, as it seems Rawls tends to do, despite claiming he is drawing only an analogy, is not helpful. If we use Kant’s ideas as a platform for our own and go in our own direction, we should say so and take it from there without reading our ideas into Kant and then building legitimacy from it.

[6] Mention of the value of a contextual reading can be found in “Meritocracy, repression and Piketty’s apocalyptic asymptotes.”

[7] Much of what Henry E. Allison says in his important work on Kant is instructive and, it appears, on target. In his crucial work on Kant’s moral philosophy Allison points out that the categorical imperative, for instance, is not presented and examined as having several versions of one one law or principle; instead, Kant presents us with several stages in the formulation of the concept of the categorical imperative. This renders greater consistency to Kant’s thought. Allison’s claims that the imperative is a meta-ethical discussion rather than one specifying procedural methods in creating specific moral instructions give flexibility, viability and feasibility to the still strict and binding nature of the moral law. His work in Kant’s Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals: A commentary, for instance, is exemplary.

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References:

1. Allison, Henry E. Essays on Kant. Oxford University Press (UK): 2012.

2. ____. Kant’s Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals: A commentary. Oxford University Press (UK): 2012.

3. Kant, Immanuel. Groundwork for the metaphysics of morals; The critique of practical reason; On the old saw: That may be right in theory, but it won’t work in practice; et al.

4. Rawls, John. A theory of justice (revised edition). Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts): 2003.

5. ____. Collected papers. Ed. Samuel Freeman. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts): 2001.

6. ____. Justice as fairness: A restatement. Ed. Erin Kelly. Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts): 2003.

7. ____. Political liberalism (expanded edition). Columbia University Press (New York): 2005.

8. ____. The law of peoples (with “The idea of public reason revisited”). Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts): 2002.

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The writer is the editor of Philosophers for Change.

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