A Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance for the Middle East
|March 14, 2014||Filled under Featured Article|
To consider a society’s fairness and morality, philosophers sometimes employ a device called the “Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance.” American philosopher John Rawls offered a hypothetical scenario for this thought process, which he called the “original positions:” A group of people must plan their own future society, but without knowing what their position or identity in the society will be. In this mental exercise, “No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”
Under such circumstances, rational people would promote the most just and equitable society they can conceive of. The concept is similar to when children want to divide the portions of their desert between them – they must be told that the one who slices the cake will choose his or her portion last. When someone does not know if they will be rich, privileged, powerful, skilled, physically strong, educated or part of the majority, as opposed to poor, denied, powerless, unskilled, weak, uneducated or part of the minority, they may find it easier to recognize ethics and justice. From the original position behind the Veil of Ignorance, Rawles develops a theory of justice, the first principle of which is that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.”
Rather than lose all my readers by going into more extensive details about Rawles’ theory of justice, let us just rely on common sense to think for a moment about the Veil of Ignorance and the Middle East. Would anyone in the “original position,” not knowing if they would be a Turk, an Arab, a Persian or a Kurd, design a post-World War One political order that left the Kurds without a seat at any table? Would anyone accept the risk of being born into a denied, repressed and often butchered minority? Would they accept that the majority’s language, history, culture and identity be glorified and forced onto others? If someone did not know whether they would be born male or a female, would they support a patriarchal system, “honor” killings, genital mutilation and societal rules that left half the population with so much less autonomy and freedom than the other half? Would they support persecution of Bahai, Jews, Yezidis, Alevis, Christians or any group because of their identity?
If one could accept the possibility of being an Arab citizen of Israel, a Turkmen living in the Kurdistan Autonomous Region, a woman in Lebanon or a manual laborer in Turkey, then these societies offer at least a measure of opportunity and justice to some of their less powerful members. If, on the other hand, the possibility of being a Palestinian of the Gaza Strip, a poor person with no political connections in Iraqi Kurdistan, a refugee in Lebanon or an Armenian political dissident in Turkey seems like a complete nightmare, then we have a sense of where certain societies fall short.
The Rawlsian Veil of Ignorance offers an interesting mental exercise to judge specific issues as well. If one did not know who or what they would be in Iraq, would they support an interpretation of the Constitution that gives the Maliki government monopoly control over oil and gas? Or would they feel that regions and governorates should get to manage new resources they develop, provided they share the revenues with the entire country? Would anyone unsure of whose shoes they would be wearing support secret courts and summary executions in Iran?
Some questions remain very tricky, of course. When it comes to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, for instance, one certainly would not want to be a resident of Falujah, Baghdad or anywhere else hit by a lot of American ordinance. If the Americans had not overthrown Saddam, on the other hand, would anyone want to be a Kurd, a Shiite or a political dissident of any kind under the Ba’athists? Sometimes even a theoretically acceptable policy under the Veil of Ignorance appears elusive.
As a general rule, however, democratic political systems in particular would benefit from the Rawlsian mental exercise (we can just assume that authoritarian leaders can’t even engage in this kind of mental empathy exercise). Governments in power today, you see, may not be in power tomorrow. People such as Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan or Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki might want to think about that as they steadily chip away at the independence of their countries’ judiciary, police, media, business and military institutions. The weaker they leave the rule of law and the principles of fairness, power-sharing, tolerance and liberty, the less likely they will be to find any succor when they finally fall from power.
Related Iraqi Articles-