Off-Centre | Society

From behind the veil: John Rawls and COVID-19

‘The Spirit of Justice’ (1850) by Daniel Maclise.   | Photo Credit: Wiki Commons

The COVID-19 pandemic has unveiled a hideously dark side of the neoliberal capitalist model, throwing into stark relief the increasing inequality that has become the hallmark of our societies.

Oxfam reported last year that 26 billionaires own as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.

The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, the owner of Amazon, has grown his fortune by a further $24 bn so far during the pandemic, a roughly 20% increase over the last four months. He could reportedly become the world’s first trillionaire soon. And the combined wealth of America’s billionaires increased nearly 10%.

As the world’s poor suffer from these obscene levels of inequality, it remains to be seen to what extent the forces of global capitalism will prevail to maintain the status quo. Meanwhile, there are some fundamental questions we have to reckon with in the wake of this crisis: How and why has this enormous inequality and glaring socio-economic disparity become the mainstay of our lives? Why has ‘justice’ eluded human societies? How have we drifted, in the words of one prominent thinker, from having a ‘market economy’ to becoming a ‘market society’ — a society where everything is up for sale? Is there a way out of this?

One political philosopher who thought long and hard about these and other allied questions in his monumental book, A Theory of Justice (1971), was John Rawls. Without going into the intricacies of what he calls a ‘well-ordered society’, I would like to appropriate here one of his theoretical devices — ‘the veil of ignorance’ — to bring home a certain point in the context of this crisis.

Seminal questions

It is a device of thought experiment designed to conceal some facts from you while you are asked to create the foundational institutions of a social order. Rawls deploys it to explore, from an ‘original position’ of fairness, what kind of social contract people will settle for, if given a chance to choose. In other words, what would they consider fair terms of cooperation among themselves to govern their society with? What principles of justice would they rationally choose to underpin the basic institutions of their collective political life?

The pandemic has pushed us to a point where we are forced to ask these seminal questions about our systems of governance. We stand at a precipice, whether we acknowledge it or not, where we need to reconsider the terms of our social contract and see how far they have drifted from our considered convictions about justice.

So, in the vein of the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance, imagine this: You know a few months in advance that a deadly pandemic is about to strike and you are asked, beforehand, to design a political system for your society to deal with this disaster. You are, however, deprived of certain specific information about yourself: you don’t know whether — after the veil is lifted — you will turn out to be rich or poor, old or young, healthy or sick, male, female or other gender, migrant labourer or landlord, and so on. You know only a few general facts about life and have a capacity for reasoning.

The information is withheld in order to rein in your biases. For example, if you know in advance you will be a man once the veil is lifted, you might want to adopt a system that gives more benefits to men.

Or if you know you will end up a rich industrialist, you could be swayed to fashion institutions that shield your own social class from the pandemic. To preclude such prejudices from influencing your choice, the veil of ignorance is brought in. It serves the purpose of ensuring the fairness of both the process and the resultant principles and institutions.

The rationality of fairness

So, how would you design social and political institutions or, in other words, the ‘basic structure’ of your society under such circumstances?

Would you want a society where only a few rich people can access healthcare or one where everyone can afford it? Would you wish to have a political system that protects only the young from this virus and leaves the old to their fate? Would you prefer a society that ensures fair wages to those whom economist Guy Standing called “the precariat” (named so owing to the precarious nature of their work and their lives)? Or would you rather leave them to scramble for a living, making them vulnerable both to the virus and to destitution?

Or would you prefer to bring into being a system that takes care of everyone and their vulnerabilities? Because anybody could turn out to be the less fortunate person on the wrong side of the line, you might feel compelled to reason from the standpoint of that disadvantaged person. Of course, some would ask, as many have in the case of Rawls, what if some people just want to take the risk?

But that is missing the point. The point, rather, of this thought experiment is to bring out the normative force of the value of fairness, the need to keep our biases in check, and the importance of thinking of the other when determining the distribution of the benefits and burdens of social cooperation. It is, undoubtedly, one of the most basic questions of morality that we are called to deliberate upon: what we owe to each other — not just in such blighted circumstances as these but, by extension, in normal conditions as well.

Kept behind the veil of ignorance but capable of reasoning, we might perhaps think that the most rational thing to do is opt for a system that has free healthcare for all and where the most vulnerable are protected. We might pick a system that has universally affordable education, which instructs people in the value of democratic rights and how we are inescapably bound up with each other — as this pandemic has laid bare for us — and how until we all are healthy and protected, including the animals with whom we share this planet, none of us is safe.

A time to rethink

Divested of our biases, chances are we would think it rational to have a just system in place which, besides ensuring that the most basic rights and liberties are guaranteed to all, doesn’t allow for egregious inequalities to persist; a political system where the well-being and dignity of everyone is ensured. This isn’t a perfect utopia that exists purely in the realm of the imagination, impossible to be fully put in practice, but a fairly reasonable political arrangement to ask for. It is, simply, a system that is undergirded by fair principles of justice. This is probably the kind of social covenant we would choose and trust.

This thought experiment can also serve as a moment of reflection about how we have ended up here, with a system of such patent injustices where the needs of just a few are prioritised, and where leaders like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and our own can show such extreme callousness towards the life and health of people and not be held to account for it.

As the pandemic rips through the globe, it is time to rethink how we want to live as collective political communities, and what values and norms should govern our socio-economic and political institutions. It is certainly time to ask bigger questions about how we want to live together. Although Kant warned, “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made,” it doesn’t and shouldn’t mean that we settle for whatever shabby and unscrupulous system is thrust upon us without making an effort to better our condition. As we struggle, Rawls’ ideas can serve both during this crisis and in its aftermath as, if not the end point, at least the beginning of a search for a more just and humane society.

The Kashmir-based writer has a Ph.D. in Political Science and is working on a book tentatively titled Morality and Political Violence: Understanding the Kashmir Conflict.

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Printable version | May 19, 2021 12:49:58 AM |

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