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Post date: Jul 19, 2014 4:57:27 PM

Putting on ‘veil of ignorance’ for a just society


JULY 18, 2014

We live in a diverse world — one that always has been, and always will be diverse. Today, communities are made up of people with different cultural backgrounds, religious beliefs and value systems.

How do we negotiate our differences so that everyone can live with respect and equality, and is valued as individuals free to make informed and responsible choices about their lives?

Going with the majority is not always a wise approach. In ancient Rome, some Christians were executed as common criminals — some were fed to the lions in the Colosseum to much delight and amusement of the crowd — for refusing to revere the Roman gods.

If we were to live during ancient Roman times, no doubt we would want to be able to practise a faith different from the majority, should we choose to, without being persecuted.

Minorities in all shapes and forms exists in our society, be they ethnic or religious minorities, people who are physically or mentally challenged, homes with single or divorced parents, sexual minorities.

Whether it is through circumstance or by choice, in a fair and inclusive society that Singapore aspires to be, those who find themselves being the minority should not be made to feel marginalised, discriminated against, or oppressed.

According everyone the right to live with respect and equality is not only the just and moral thing to do, it is also a good thing to do because it increases the well-being of the entire community. Nobody is better off in “a feuding, fragmented society soaked in tension”, in the words of Magdelene Sim, in her letter “Preserve common space or regress to a feuding society” to TODAY on July 12.

Numerous studies have shown that if a society is oppressive, or if there is a big discrepancy between incomes, the people are on the whole less happy than those living in an open, relaxed and equitable society.

One such study is by Dr Ed Diener, professor emeritus of psychology, and his colleagues at the University of Illinois. Among other things, they found that “people have higher life evaluations when others in society also have their needs fulfilled”. This indicates that happiness is not only an individual affair, but depends on the quality of life in our community.


How then do we ensure that we have an open, relaxed and equitable society? American philosopher John Rawls proposed this moral framework. To ensure justice for all, the social contract that governs our collective life should be arrived at under a “veil of ignorance”.

It is a mental exercise that requires us to come up with a social contract on the assumption that we do not know our class or gender, our race or ethnicity or our religious convictions. Neither do we know their advantages or disadvantages in life — whether we are frail or healthy, young or old, highly educated or a school drop-out, born to a supportive family or to a broken family.

Under those conditions, as rational, self-interested persons, what kind of social contract would we come up with?

We definitely would not choose to go with the majority rules, because we may end up as a minority and get fed to the lions. We may not want to have a purely laissez-faire system where there is no social welfare because we may be born with disability to a poor family.

Rawls believes two principles of justice would emerge from this exercise. The first provides equal basic liberties for all, such as freedom to religion, freedom of thought, freedom to make informed and responsible choices, freedom to love etc.

The second principle concerns social and economic equality, where inequality is permitted only if it works to the advantage of the least-well-off members of the society. One example is, we can pay doctors more than plumbers, if by doing so we attract more people to become doctors so more poor people can get access to affordable healthcare.

Harvard law professor Michael Sandel, who presented this idea in his book, Justice: What is the Right Thing To Do?, thinks Rawl’s proposal “represents the most compelling case for a more equal society that American political philosophy has yet to produce”.

That, I think, would be an ideal approach to negotiate differences in all civilised societies, Singapore included. After all, human beings aspire to happiness and shun suffering. We do not want to be oppressed, neither do we want to see others oppressed. There is evidence to suggest that one clear path towards happiness is through pro-social behaviours, for example, voluntary behaviour to help ease the suffering of others and to bring happiness to them. This ties in with the research mentioned above that says we are happier when others in our community are happy.

As one of the greatest minds, Albert Einstein, puts it: “But without deeper reflection, one knows from daily life that one exists for other people — first of all for those upon whose smiles and well-being our own happiness is wholly dependent, and then for the many, unknown to us, to whose destinies we are bound by the ties of sympathy.”


Teh Hooi Ling, a partner in a Singapore-based boutique fund management company, was an award-winning investment columnist with The Business Times.