Of each ethical principle we have discussed thus far, I see the least value in using John Rawls’ “Veil of Ignorance.”
The idea itself is actually quite attractive: a society where “each individual is rational” yet also “ignorant about their own personal characteristics, skills, talents, status, abilities, and disabilities” (Plaisance, 2009). Rawls’ ultimate concept of justice, then, is fairness.
Rawls’ theory would seem to be the answer to racial, economic and gender inequality, among other societal problems. Level the playing field, and the game is fair for everyone. However, his theory is not realistic, as overcoming certain types of privilege and applying his theory today would be nearly impossible.
For example, let’s look at the theory of fairness applied economically.
Russell Okung, an Oklahoma State alumnus and current Seattle Seahawks lineman, wrote about the perception of fairness in a capitalist economy in a recent op-ed piece for GeekWire. Okung penned the article in response to venture capitalist Paul Graham’s essay, which asserted that economic inequality — a hot-button topic in this year’s Presidential election — can actually be a good thing.
Okung compared economic inequality to the Seahawks’ wild-card win against the Vikings:
“Just a few days ago, a kick that landed wide left in the final moments of a hard-fought game against an admirable opponent sent us, the Seahawks, into the next round of the playoffs. Two teams equal in athletic ability and access, one winner.
“Now, imagine if the National Football League only gave the Seahawks access to helmets and pads, for instance, and not the Vikings. Two teams equal in athletic ability no longer equal in access. I can’t help but draw parallels as I sit and reflect on this fleeting game, and how it relates to life off the field.” (Okung, 2016)
Rawls’ theory recognizes the first part of what Okung is asserting — that some people who are “equal in ability” are not “equal in access” and therefore cannot experience true fairness or justice. However, his “veil of ignorance” would be virtually impossible to implement practically.
Okung offered a more practical, albeit difficult, option for overcoming inequality: mentorship.
“The common notion is to give handouts, but we need to give a hand up. … America needs more Silicon Valley, scattered as opposed to centralized in one place. We need to build people up.” (Okung, 2016)
Okung co-founded a non-profit organization called GREATER, a leadership development program for young people, especially in the inner city. Rather than trying to ignore or eliminate the unfair nature of society, he has created a tangible way to try to overcome it.
While Rawls’ vision of true justice is certainly more desirable — a world without inequality would be ideal — it can be difficult to discuss as more than just a theory. Other ethical principles have pros, cons and consequences; the Veil of Ignorance is limited to a utopian social contract that would be nearly impossible to negotiate in today’s society.
Plaisance, P. (2009). Media Ethics: Key Principles For Responsible Practice (pp. 10-11). Los Angeles: SAGE.
Okung, R. (2016, January 14). Seahawks lineman Russell Okung responds to Paul Graham’s essay on economic inequality and startups. GeekWire. Retrieved January 20, 2016, from http://www.geekwire.com/2016/seahawks-lineman-russell-okung-responds-paul-grahams-essay-inequality-startups/