In my freshman seminar last Friday, the students did a little class exercise designed to illustrate John Rawls' famous "veil of ignorance." The idea is that our notions of justice are inevitably colored by prior information we have about what benefits us, given our circumstances (age, race, gender, capacities, etc.). So anytime we try to construct just social institutions, we tend to discount requests for preference or consideration based on characteristics we don't share, and give undue weight to requests from those like us. We think, in other words, that justice for us comes first, and others should be happy with what crumbs that fall from the table.
The activity divides the students into groups, within which each student outlines a character. Within the small group, diversity of traits is enforced -- no more than one rich person, at least one person over sixty-five, etc. The character outlines are collected and then redistributed randomly at the end of the class.
So not knowing who they will turn out to "be," students are then asked to outline the principles of a society they think will be maximally just to all. I find this part of the activity fascinating. One student will usually pipe up with a common-sense slogan; last year it was "Equality for all," and this year it was "Everyone contributes." After we get agreement from the rest of the class that this is a good place to start, which usually comes quickly (because who doesn't disagree with at least the sentiment behind those phrases?), we get down to defining terms. Equality of what -- resources? status? opportunity? Everyone who -- children? the elderly? the disabled? Contribute what -- work? service? money? expertise?
As the nitty-gritty meaning of the shiny idea-surface begins to emerge, you see the students grappling with the reality that this isn't going to turn out like the utopia they would set up on their own little individual planets. But what intrigued me this go-around was that the founding principle, "everyone contributes," turned out to have a double meaning. Initially the student meant it as a mandate -- "no freeloaders." As we talked about the issue, though -- what counts as a contribution, what would justify delaying career in order to receive extra training, who will be exempted on the grounds of incapacity, whether extra rewards for extra contributions are in order, and on what basis the young and the old might be allowed to take more than they give -- another meaning to the phrase emerged: "We will help you become a contributor"; "we will help you find what you can give."
Students who might have been uncomfortable with the tone of the original mandate embraced the idea of moving people from worthlessness to worth, enriching their community with unrecognized talent or energy. Students who were on board with the original idea found that this new side to the principle clearly followed in its spirit, making a warning into a welcome. I tend to take whatever principle the class identifies for their imaginary society and actually carry it through into the projects the class undertakes, asking them to shape their activity accordingly. I can't wait to see how the service project we will be choosing in the next few weeks embodies the theme "everyone contributes."