Friday, November 29, 2013

Philosophy and Dr Who

In the 50th anniversary special of Dr Who, The Day of the Doctor, there was a very intriguing philosophical moment that I thought might be interesting to unpack here. It occurred during a negotiation between shape shifting aliens and humans: the aliens had assumed human form and the negotiations between the two parties were going nowhere. The Doctor arrived and wiped their memories with his magic wand (er, sonic screwdriver) so neither party knew whether they were human or alien and they had to negotiate with one another from a position of ignorance. Thus the treaty that would be hammered out between humans and aliens would have to be scrupulously fair, because when your memory came back you wouldn't know which side you'd be on. 
Rawls
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Anyone who has studied political philosophy over the last 35 years will immediately recognize this scenario. It is the so called Original Position from John Rawls's book A Theory of Justice. Much of contemporary political philosophy has been a critique of Rawls from either a communitarian, liberal or libertarian standpoint. What Rawls says is this: imagine you had a bunch of people who were a designing a brand new society - now what if these people didn't know if they were going to be rich or poor, man or woman, black or white, disabled or abled, gay or straight, etc. - what would that society actually look like? Rawls's thought experiment allows a "veil of ignorance" to descend over the negotiators (rather like the Doctor's memory wipe) so that they would end up designing the most "just" society that they could possibly come up with. Rawls's Just Society that comes out of this Original Position has universal healthcare, laws against discrimination, equality for women, enhanced social mobility, protections for minorities etc. - To me it looks a lot like Canada or Denmark. And although what Rawls produced was only a thought experiment he says its a useful one. (Other political and ethical philosophers dispute both the idea of the veil of ignorance and what the laws of the just society would look like.) Rawls claims that we can use this conception of the Just Society to criticize cultures that are very far from his model - societies where there are great disparities of wealth, where minorities and women are not treated well etc. 
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You can get A Theory Of Justice at all good university bookshops or online. My favourite critiques of Rawls are by the philosophers Michael Sandel, Alasdair MacIntyre, Robert Nozick and Ronald Dworkin. 

18 comments:

Alan said...

Adrian,Sometimes even a"Veil Of Ignorance" is not necessary to produce acts that rise to levels of splendid civic virtue.I did not see Dr.Who and his eraser tool but surely some magic produced the acts of people leaping onto New York Subway tracks to rescue fallen people or the woman bus driver in Londondery who did not deliver the IRA bomb last week?Happy Thanksgiving ! Best Alan

Peter Rozovsky said...

I had not heard of the veil of ignorance, but I recently suggested that the U.S. might be a better country if everyone were compelled to declare him or herself a Hamiltonian or a Jefferson, and then to read the life and works of the man for whom he or she had not declared.

John McFetridge said...

My wife says she didn't mention Rawls while we were watching because it was too obvious.

(of course, neither of us has ever heard of John Rawls ;).

But I like what you say here. It fits with my feelings that the more homogenous a society (like Iceland) the less we have to learn from it. Sure, a lot of like-minded people with the same history can get along fine.

That's what's always seemed wrong with libertarianism or communism or any of these kinds of extremes where everyone has to be almost exactly the same for it to work.

And it's funny you mention Canada because there's a huge thing going on Quebec now about a proposed 'charter of secular values' that's bringing this conversation out into the open a lot more.

Even more than Quebec's talk about "reasonable accommodation" a couple of years ago.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

Well yes people are motivated to ethical or moral heights in all societies but what I think Rawls was trying to do was design the best human society that we could possibly have.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

I'm definitely a Hamiltonian. Jefferson is too morally compromised for me.

adrian mckinty said...

John

Homogeneous societies have a lot less of a challenge but the really interesting places are the ones with big fissures: N Ireland, Fiji, Canada, Belgium etc. but somehow still manage to stay together.

Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor, Michael Ignatieff are some of the Canadian philosophers who have basically spent their career pivoting off Rawls.

Alan said...

Adrian,I read a very abbreviated version of John Rawls conceptual framework (quite a life and quite a scholar) and unless I am way off base he seems to be negating the emotional romanticism of (the 19th Century's political philosophy and returning albeit with abstract reason (A Veil Of Ignorance) to the Enlightenment and "The Age Of Reason").I despair at the possibility of designing such a society given the aggressive emotionalism and factionalism rampant today. In Northern Ireland,The Balkans,Ruanda and the Middle East social cohesion is at best fragile and is cemented with hate of the other. In the U.S. although without full force tribalism and violence, the captivation and sway of wealth and religious fundamentalism seems to prohibit reasoned debate on issues of political and social justice.Best Alan

John McFetridge said...

Or there's Ronald Reagan's, "I'd rather get 80% of what I want than go over the cliff waving the flag." So, yeah, Reagan would get kicked out of the GOP these days.

adrian mckinty said...

Alan

On Wikipedia it says he the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century and I reckon thats pretty close to the truth. Also a WW2 veteran who was an infantryman in New Guinea.

He was very shy about giving public lectures but I had the great honour attending one of the rare ones in 1993.

adrian mckinty said...

John

Reagan would be kicked out for being friends with Tip O'Neill.

seana graham said...

I like the way Rawls thinks because he's not appealing to our higher instincts but our most enlightened self-interest. Unfortunately, the one thing lacking is the way to put the veil of ignorance over all of us for long enough to hammer it out. I suppose it could be done as some sort of lottery, but everyone would have to play.

By the way, since there was good weather out here, it turns out that traveling on the day before Thanksgiving was actually rather tame.

Peter Rozovsky said...

Hmm, may be time to dig that pre-revision copy of A Theory of Justice out of the dusty heap.

adrian mckinty said...

Seana

Yes thats exactly it. He designs what he calls the Minimax state: one that minimizes the maximum calamity that could occur if we ended up as a minority, disabled etc.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Its not an easy read. Some of the criticisms of Rawls are a MUCH more accessible read.

http://www.amazon.com/Rawls-Routledge-Philosophers-Samuel-Freeman/dp/0415301092/ref=pd_sim_b_3

Peter Rozovsky said...

Is Rawls clear about what his aims are--about what kind of a society would be achieved by such thinking? And does he make suggestions for how policymakers might make use of his thought? Is he practical, in other words?

Anne said...

Adrian, your philosophical insight is an amazing piece of serendipity for me. I am just re-reading The Philosopher at the End of the Universe, by Mark Rowlands, which is 'philosophy explained through science fiction films.' He covers topics such as the mind-body problem (via Terminator)' the problem of personal identity (Total Recall and The Sixth Day) and the problem of free will (Minority Report). He calls it Sci-Phi and explains that most great science fiction stories revolve around something that is essentially alien to us. Confronting this otherness is like having a mirror held up in front of our faces so that we can see and understand ourselves all the more clearly.

adrian mckinty said...

Peter

Yup he explains what he's after and in exhaustive detail how we get there.

adrian mckinty said...

Anne

Gotta say that book sounds right up my alley though I hadnt heard of it before. I'll definitely check it out.