In case you don’t know, John Rawls’ concept of the “veil of ignorance” is the idea that society should be structured by people who have no idea what role they will occupy in it – that ‘a truly just society must be defined by fair and impartial principles. So, for example, when Thomas Jefferson was working on the Declaration of Independence, he shouldn’t know where he would end up in this new nation – there’s a chance he’ll end up a wealthy landowner, and also a chance that he could end up a black woman, slave of a wealthy landowner. We would have a very different country if it had been for those founding fathers, who ended up creating a nation designed for their benefit, and black slaves… well, that sucks to be you.
You’ve probably done something similar in the standard cake cutting problem. If two people split a cake, one person cuts, but the other person chooses which half they get – basically the cutter is behind a veil of ignorance about the piece they get, so they will strive to divide the cake evenly.
Simple, right? Really difficult to implement on a large scale, but I like the idea. Unfortunately, it can also be abused. Carl Bergstrom tweeted this example.
I was going to write a thread about Rawls, Bostrom, counterfactuals and observation selection effects – but you know what? I’m just going to watch the birds. pic.twitter.com/P9P7VFK5m4
— Carl T. Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom) August 6, 2022
Aaargh. I sympathize with Bergstrom who prefers to go bird watching. It breaks my brains trying to see his distorted point of view, and unfortunately I felt compelled to try.
I can’t get past the “would you rather be designed…”. Before my conception, I did not exist. I wouldn’t even have basic preferences, like whether “I” would like to live or die, until “I” had undergone significant biological development. Eggs and sperm have no preferences. Neither do embryos. Fetuses probably (but not certainly) lack a sense of self-awareness, which I think will emerge in the infant (you need the awareness of others to do that). I don’t see how that’s even a decent thought experiment.
It’s a bit like imagining asking sperm to vote on state laws, or tapping into the gene pool to get their opinion on the fair distribution of opportunity. They are not conscious agents who can even conceive a philosophy of the person, and almost all of them will disappear, unaware of everything, before the next generation who box thinking & reasoning & feeling & making choices arises.
It’s also a really weird premise. “You” are a being independent of your physical and biological self, and you float in the ether making decisions about where you will manifest? It’s like imagining you had a previous existence wondering if you could exist as someone with a lawnmower or a blade of grass, and invoking Rawls to rationalize how individual blades of grass deserve all social and civic rights. It makes no sense. It’s totally McArdled.
Shit, Bergstrom is right. I’m going to spider.