One more week, one more caught-on-video incident of a policeman shooting an unarmed Black man who was not posing an imminent threat, this one in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Honestly, my first thought on seeing this particular episode after all of this ugly summer’s “repeats” was “How stupid a policeman are you?”
The “veil of ignorance” may have been lifted for you when you saw the video of George Floyd being summarily executed on a Minneapolis street for the crime of (maybe/maybe not) passing a bad $20 bill. It may have taken the subsequent callous, almost casual, cruelty of a policeman injuring a 75-year-old white Catholic lay worker during a Minneapolis protest demonstration because you are an old white guy like me, and we can “relate” better to that cruelty. Or perhaps you quietly supported the kneeling by Colin Kaepernick before a football game back in 2016. Most of us, including me, can be conveniently blind to particular social injustices until they hit closer to “someone like me” or get inconveniently shoved into our faces.
The moral and political philosopher John Rawls (1921–2002) saw all of this as part of the always-messy process of working out a society in his classic work, A Theory of Justice (1971). In this text, Rawls laid out both the ethical justification and the practical politics of an alternative to the rule-based morality of religious conservatives or the goal-based ethics of political utilitarians.
The veil of ignorance
John Rawls famously laid out the mental exercise of putting on what he called an imaginary veil of ignorance when considering how things ought to be in the realm of public justice. He suggested that we first imagine that we ourselves do not know, when coming out of the “birth chute,” whether we would be born rich or poor, male or female, privileged or not. We, by wearing this imaginary “veil,” would not know in advance how we ourselves will rank in the world’s hierarchies after our birth.
In other words, if you were born with physical disabilities, or in a minority demographic, or unable to pursue a livelihood, how would you want society to treat you “fairly”? This should not be hard for you to imagine, but you need to be honest with yourself. The inevitable answer to this frank self-questioning, according to Rawls, can lead us toward understanding justice. When you then honestly “lift the veil” and acknowledge the reality in which a big part of the populace lives daily, the contrasts of well-entrenched social inequities become much more apparent and impossible to ignore.
But this mental exercise is difficult to pull off meaningfully. I have a very hard time imagining myself in someone else’s skin. Sometimes we seem to need a swift kick in the teeth in order to shatter our own comfortable bubble.
The Rawls’ doctrine of public reason
John Rawls posited that most of us, if we did not know what lay “on the other side of the chute,” would assign to each person an equal right to the most basic liberties compatible with similar liberty for all persons. That would give us, no matter where we wound up, a “level playing field” on which to start our life’s journey. But you need something more. Each person, he said, should also have an equal opportunity to enjoy these rights and privileges.
But we don’t have in this country either an equal share of basic liberties nor an equal opportunity to enjoy them. I recognize that a large part of the populace insists, even in this past week’s political convention, that everybody in the U.S. does have “equal opportunity.” If you really believe that way, I suspect I won’t get you to read Rawls.
In order to achieve that equality of opportunity in a willing society, Rawls revived a concept called public reason, which was first articulated by the moral philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1874. Public reason is the practical implementation of the broadest possible political participation, a level most likely to include ourselves when we emerge randomly from the “birth chute.” Under such a government, Rawls suggests, most of us would voluntarily consent to live under the societal rules of that broadly-participative, justice-focused government. But sometimes I am not so sure of that.
A lot of conservative whites in the United States, from both North and South, have long feared political participation by minorities because they are convinced that it would lead to societal anarchy. Rawls contended that, instead, politically-participating minorities and others disadvantaged by society will invariably place on themselves rules for common decency and security, and be willing to enforce those rules. In Rawls’ contention, a “socially conservative” class will naturally rise from all communities who have a stake in society’s mutually security. But they need to be “at the table” for the writing of those rules, and the rules truly need to be equally enforced.
For Rawls, the “reason” part is somewhat tautological. “Reasonable persons,” by his definition, offer fair terms of social cooperation between equals, and are willing to abide by such terms as long as others do. These same people are willing to reasonably accept the “burdens of judgment,” in a civil society, which also include a reasonable toleration of people who are “not like me.” There’s the rub. Tolerance of views and lifestyles not our own seems to be in short supply these days. Rawls didn’t live to see a Trumpian world. Perhaps he was naive, or overly hopeful.
While we debate in our society over the definition of what is “moral” and what is not, “public reason” gets very practical and says that “morality” in a free and diverse society is “whatever the public reasonably and equitably consents to” if the playing field of political discussion is indeed level.  That definition makes many religious moralists squirm. But then, many of those same “moralists” (cough, cough, Jerry Falwell, Jr.) insist on fealty to Donald Trump.
Back to George Floyd and Jacob Blake
The Floyd public execution was a “whop on the side of the head” for many comfortable folks who came to see that millions of people live daily in a “different reality of justice” than the one in which they live. In effect, the public reason was shifted in a sudden jolt for many of us, and the protectors of those injustices are pushed back a bit on their heels by the weight of society’s movement.
That process of change to public reason often gets ugly in real life. The rise of peaceful street protests, protected by Article I of the U.S. Constitution, is marred by the opportunists of all stripes to challenge the public order by looting and other violence. The entrenched opposition, on the other hand, tries to tag all of the opposition, including the press and hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors, as “enemies of the people.” Which, in turn, provokes violence back on those peaceful protestors by armed right-wing goons, “warrior police,” and gullible Facebook readers.
But it is important for all of us to recognize that not everything is a conspiracy, even looting. Former FBI assistant director Frank Figliuzzi commented that “Sometimes a guy with a brick is just a guy with a brick.” Elevating the intentions of opportunistic troublemakers into political conspiracy is just plain ignorant, not to mention frequently racist. It is also not constructive in addressing the issues at hand.
Religious opposition to “Justice Ethics”
John Rawls noted that religious groups can be an important part of this participative rule-making system, but they cannot be allowed, in a free “small-d” democratic society, to enforce their particular sect’s views of government in place of the broader public reason. The United States is home to a broad diversity of religious affiliations. However, as I have noted in the past, the media now often uses the generic term “Christian” to refer only to evangelical or fundamentalist denominations, while Mormons, Catholics, Episcopalians and others get their own label.
The danger here is that many of these evangelical groups have adopted a central theology of dominionism, which asserts their religious right to dominate government and secular law-setting. Rawls saw this type of religious dominance as antithetical to broader societal justice.
‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?’ … ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Something went horribly wrong in America’s churches.
- My long-standing gripe against Chief Justice John Roberts bragging about “just calling balls and strikes” has been, as I have written here, that the ballgame Roberts has long umpired is too often between the Boston Red Sox and your local Little League team. And Roberts still seems clueless about this reality.