Veil of ignorance


In 1971, philosopher John Rawls proposed a thought experiment to identify rules of a just society:

Imagine you are a god. But you’re about to reincarnated as a mortal in a new city. You do not know if you will be rich or poor, healthy or sick, talented or mediocre. You also have no control over your race, gender, or class.

What laws will you give the city before you’re born into it?

When people think about moral dilemmas from behind this veil of ignorance, they usually make decisions for the greater good.

For example, should an autonomous car swerve into a wall to avoid killing 9 pedestrians if it means killing the passenger? Researchers found that veil-of-ignorance reasoning increased pedestrian avoidance from 58% to 83%.

Is it just for me, or for others?

For the benefit of the few, or the many?

For now, or for the future?

-Dalai Lama

The odds were 50-to-1 against me being born in the United States in 1930. I won the lottery the day I emerged from the womb by being in the United States instead of in some other country where my chances would have been way different. Imagine there are two identical twins in the womb, both equally bright and energetic. And the genie says to them, “One of you is going to be born in the United States, and one of you is going to be born in Bangladesh…” That’s the Ovarian Lottery.

-Warren Buffett


References


Huang K, Greene JD, Bazerman M. (2019). Veil-of-ignorance reasoning favors the greater good. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 116(48): 23989–23995.

  • 7 studies with 6,261 participants found that veil-of-ignorance (VOI) reasoning led to decision-making that was more impartial and socially beneficial

  • For example, 83% of VOI participants decided that autonomous vehicles should swerve into a wall to save 9 pedestrians (at the cost of killing the passenger) vs. 58% of non-VOI participants


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