In case you didn’t know, John Rawls’ concept of the “veil of ignorance” is the idea that society should be structured by people who have no idea of what role they will occupy in it — that a truly just society has to be defined by principles that are equitable and unbiased. So, for example, when Thomas Jefferson was working on the Declaration of Independence, he should be ignorant of where he’d end up in this new nation — there’s a chance he could end up as a wealthy landowner, and also a chance he could end up a black woman, slave to a wealthy landowner. We’d have a very different country if that had been the case for those founding fathers, who ended up creating a nation designed for their advantage, and black slaves…well, sucks to be you.
You’ve probably exercised something similar to this in the standard cake-cutting problem. If two people are splitting a cake, one person cuts, but the other person gets to choose which half they get — basically, the cutter is behind a veil of ignorance about which piece they get, so they’ll strive to divide the cake fairly.
Straightforward, right? Really hard to implement on a large scale, but I like the idea. Unfortunately, it can also be abused. Carl Bergstrom tweeted this example out.
I was going to write a thread about Rawls, Bostrom, counterfactuals, and observation selection effects—but you know what? I'm just going to go birding. pic.twitter.com/P9P7VFK5m4
— Carl T. Bergstrom (@CT_Bergstrom) August 6, 2022
Aaargh. I sympathize with Bergstrom preferring to go birding. It breaks my brain to try and see her warped point of view, and unfortunately, I felt compelled to try.
I just can’t get past “would you rather be conceived…”. Prior to my conception, I did not exist. I would not have even basic preferences, like whether “I” would like to live or die, until “I” had undergone significant biological development. Eggs and sperm do not have preferences. Neither do embryos. Fetuses probably (but not certainly) lack a conscious sense of self, which I suspect is going to emerge in the infant (you need awareness of others to do that). I don’t see how this is even a decent thought experiment.
This is a bit like imagining asking sperm to vote on state laws, or dipping into the gene pool to get their opinion on the equitable distribution of opportunity. Those aren’t conscious agents who can even conceive of a philosophy of personhood, and almost all of them are going to disappear, oblivious of everything, before the next generation which can think & reason & feel & make choices arises.
It’s a really weird premise, too. “You” are a being independent of your physical, biological self, and you’re floating around in the ether making decisions about where you will manifest? It’s like imagining that you had a prior existence wondering whether you’d poof into existence as either a person with a lawn mower or a blade of grass, and invoking Rawls to rationalize how individual blades of grass deserve full social and civic rights. It’s nonsense. It’s totally McArdled.
Screw it, Bergstrom is right. I’m going to go spidering.