What basic principles would you negotiate toward

What basic principles would you negotiate toward

What basic principles would you negotiate toward? And who, which segment of our new
society, will receive the thinnest slice of cake?


Bargaining behind the veil of ignorance: A Thought-Experiment

Imagine that the president has asked you to join a United
Nations commission that is attempting to negotiate a
new social order for the free world.
You feel honored to have been asked to participate in
such an important project, and accept the job with a deep sense of patriotism.
And you may well feel that your president has chosen well. You have some experience as a
strategic negotiator, and know how to drive a hard bargain.
At the same time, you pride yourself on your fundamental sense of fairness, and believe that
you can help make life better for all concerned.
When you arrive, the negotiation room has already been
prepared. The room has an inner and an outer chamber.
A guide informs you that it is customary to enter the
inner chamber only after having passed through the
ceremonial veil of justice, a symbol left over from a
golden age when ambassadors negotiated while blindfolded. The guide wishes you well, and
you pass through the veil.
This is no ordinary veil. Once behind it, you remember nothing about yourself and your
natural abilities, or your position in society. You forget your sex, race, nationality, religious
creed, financial situation, mental and physical wellness, education and social station. Suddenly
you find yourself “blindfolded,” in a sense, to your own identity, and your own self-interest.
As you begin negotiations, you are certain only of this:
Wherever you find yourself once the veil is lifted, you will
still have goals in life. And you will not want those
ambitions to be blocked by a social arrangement which is
prejudiced against you. When you return to the real
world, you will want to know that the playing field is level – that the new rules you have created
will provide you with a fair chance to achieve your ambitions. You will want to be rewarded on
the basis of your talents and your diligence, regardless of your sex, color, gender, political
orientation, religious creed, nationality, health, education, and the like. Negotiating a new
social order under this veil of ignorance, you are sure to come up with rules that would
encourage equal opportunity for all.

The Moral of the Story: Two Principles of Fairness
What would constitute a perfectly fair bargaining agreement? Although we could never
actually eliminate all of our personal prejudices, and our advantages and disadvantages, what
steps would we need to take to minimize them? What constitutes a level playing field, or fair
play or competition etiquette, in business?
Behind the veil of ignorance, the only safe principles to endorse would be fair principles, ones
that would give you an equal chance in society, regardless of your life circumstances. Indeed
the safest thing to do would be to provide for the highest standards of fairness for everyone in
your society.
According to John Rawls, the author who developed this thought-experiment, a reasonable
person would choose to establish a society that followed two basic rules.
The first rule he calls the Liberty Principle. Each person, Rawls says, must have an
equal right to as much freedom as possible, as long as that freedom does not interfere
with the free choices of others. The Liberty Principle provides every member of a
society with a basic level of dignity and respect.
BUT, while all persons may be morally equal in this way, we also know that in the “real
world” there will always be significant differences between individuals. These
differences inevitably lead to social and economic inequalities. Faced with this
problem, Rawls adds a second basic rule, which he calls the Difference Principle. We
should allow inequalities, Rawls says, when we can prove that everyone benefits from
them. Ideally, he says, the least advantaged in society would benefit most. If we can all
agree that certain inequalities make life better for everyone, especially the most
needy, then they are not only fair, but desirable.
For Rawls, a society based on these two principles of justice, a basic liberty for all and the
acceptance of inequalities that benefit everyone, would be perfectly fair. This would be the
closest thing to a “level playing field” which would allow us all an equal opportunity to pursue

[For a philosophical aside to the moral of this thought-experiment, one which suggests one
major criticism of Rawls, go to 5c.]

A Philosophical Aside
To use a more mundane example, imagine that you had to divide a cake fairly among a group of
individuals. What method would be most fair? A common approach would be to let the person
who does the cutting receive the last piece. This would encourage that person to cut all pieces
as equally as possible in order to receive the best remaining share. (If the pieces were cut
unequally, someone would get the larger share; but if you are the one who cuts the cake, you
can hardly complain if the largest piece has already been taken when it is your turn to choose.)
Often real life decisions are more complicated, and we can not know for sure what the actual
outcome of our actions will be. When this is the case, Rawls suggests that the prudent thing to
do is to choose the option with the least-worst possible outcome. He calls this a “maximin”
decision rule, one that maximizes the minimum.
According to some of Rawls’s critics, this is where the thought-experiment ends and the
politics begins. They claim that no real-world society could ever eliminate inequality the way
Rawls suggests we should. To even try, they argue, would stifle individual freedom, and
undermine authority. Robert Bork, author of The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction
of the Law, is representative:
“What reason is there to believe that people behind a veil of ignorance would adopt so
Draconian an egalitarian stricture? What reason is there to think that justice requires that
there be no social or economic inequality unless the least advantaged in the society receive the
greatest benefit from that inequality? There are no good reasons, of course, and the tendency
of the condition is pernicious. It condemns all actual societies, including that of the United
States, by setting a requirement that can never be satisfied. This legitimates, from a leftliberal perspective, a ground for perpetual attacks upon and hostility toward the hierarchies
and lines of authority of this society as it is, or even as it may become.”

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What basic principles would you negotiate toward


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