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  • Jack H. Bender

The Veil of Ignorance

How NOT KNOWING is the solution to equality...

Can you recall the iconic drawing of our forefathers drafting the Constitution? I recently saw one version with red dots covering the faces of slave owners. There were very few faces left uncovered. Twelve years after its founding, slaves arrived in Jamestown in 1619. Their arrival initiated two and a half centuries of slavery in what would become the United States. We mustn’t forget the subjugation of Native Americans, as well, who were cheated, driven from their land and died from diseases for which they had no immunity.

This from Jim Wallis’ book on racism titled America’s Original Sin: “The most controversial sentence I ever wrote was.... ‘The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another.’” [p. 33] Wallis knows that talking about oppression goes against our strongly held, but biased narrative about the founding of our country, but we may finally be waking up to the fact that black lives matter. All people of color matter.

We have been groomed to believe that all men are created equal, but reality says otherwise. Women, the LGBTQ community, people of color and those with disabilities experience humiliation, inconvenience, hatred, poor health, oppression and death because of “the system.” The white men gathered in Independence Hall looked at each other and agreed that they should have equal treatment under the law. The gathering was exclusive and fatally biased, and we are still living with the imbalance/injustice that wreak havoc on millions of American lives. Those drafting the Constitution agreed to a social contract, but the agreement didn’t ensure that it was fair for everyone. The founders were in a superior bargaining position and wrote the rules for themselves (women and slaves be damned). What about the present? What is the current health of our nation? “White supremacy is the pre-existing condition of our nation.” [Chuck Collins,]

The most inspiring concept on equality that I’ve ever come across is the “veil of ignorance” offered by political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002). Rawls offers that all members of society must be equal and present (not weak, not missing) when creating the blueprint for a more perfect union.

What is the “veil of ignorance?” This from Michael J. Sandel’s book, Justice: “Suppose that when we gather to choose the principles [of society], we don’t know where we will wind up in society. Imagine that we choose behind a “veil of ignorance” that temporarily prevents us from knowing anything about who in particular we are. We don’t know our class or gender, our race or ethnicity, our political opinions or religious convictions. Nor do we know our advantages and disadvantages—whether we are healthy or frail, highly educated or a high-school dropout, born to a supportive family or a broken one.” [p. 141] The situation Rawls describes is the opposite of what took place in Independence Hall.

Rawls suggests that imagining you might walk from behind the veil of ignorance only to discover that you are homeless or have a disability, possibly both, would create a contract that supported the weakest in society. Such a bias would be more just compared to a bias that supports the rich and powerful. The homeless need financial support as do those with disabilities. If there is going to be economic inequality, those inequalities are permitted that work to the benefit of the least advantaged members of society, not the wealthy. We can easily see if our society is relatively just by asking one question. Is there an economic imbalance weighted toward the least advantaged (color, gender, stable housing, medical and psychiatric care, etc.)? Hardly. The system is indeed rigged by the wealthy and powerful for themselves.

There are many tools government can use to encourage more social and economic equality but the “I’ll cut your taxes if you donate huge sums to my campaign” is not one of them.

If we want to build a more just society, we must use our imagination. Imagine you are black. Imagine you are homeless. Imagine you have serious mental and/or medical issues. If we come from a perspective of vulnerability, we have a chance of creating a just society.


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