The probabilistic nature of our most noted characteristics and the veil of ignorance

Starting with an FYI – I moved to Boston, USA

Some of my readers will know that I relocated to Boston on August 21st to start an MBA at Harvard Business School. Thus your blogger’s location is now Boston. And your blogger is intrigued to find out more about American culture up close and personal.

A personal prelude

At school, we’ve been discussing equality a lot, mainly in terms of gender, sexuality, race. And we’ve been reflecting on our own experiences. Personally, it’s something I’m aware of a lot as a petite Indian woman. I do get treated differently in many situations, and I notice it. I’m not claiming overt discrimination here. I’m observing that if I was a white man, things I say would be received differently.  I would get noticed a lot more. I’d probably be more popular. That I’m still vaguely ‘successful’ and that other women like me are still ‘successful’ is a testament to our perseverance, and to the fact that the world has made some effort to decouple performance from identity perceptions. Though it is still frustrating because sometimes I think what life would be like if I were a white man. Would I get further? Would I have more contacts? Would I be challenged less on what I say? Or would things just be easier? Require less energy and effort and less conscious effort to speak up, be animated, be memorable, be heard? It would require less energy to constantly disassociate myself from the stereotype that generations of soft-spoken and homely Indian women have set up for us. No, world, all Indian women do not adore our men and just want to be supporting characters in their stories. Some of us want to be the hero in our own stories whilst supporting our friends and our partners to be heroes in their own.

The ‘chosen characteristics’ trap

We’re judged on a host of characteristics we don’t choose, as if we chose them: looks, name, intelligence, even personality traits which can run genetically or be set environmentally by parenting. People constantly forget that no one was handed a checklist pre-birth and no one would check negative features on it if they were. Our bodies and, to a large degree, our intellectual capabilities are not canvases that we have painted. They are canvases painted for us based on the roll of die. Anyone could have been anyone else. I sometimes do the more interesting thought experiment of imagining what some of my friends would look like if they had chosen themselves. It’s a hard exercise. Though easy in some respects: most are now tall, white supermodels and some of my girlfriends have become guys.

Anyways, these equality discussions beg the question: what should govern our behavior and what would an ‘ideal’ world look like? And my answer is let the principle of the ‘veil of ignorance’ be your north star. This is one of the most beautiful concepts I was introduced to in my undergrad degree. I also like to think more broadly than homo sapiens and think about equality amongst species. And I actually got thinking about the veil of ignorance recently in the context of vegetarianism so bear that in mind.

The veil of ignorance

In an ideal society, your views are not based on who you are, but on who you could be. In philosophy, Rawls has this wonderful concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’. The moral decision-maker should put themselves behind the veil of ignorance before making a decision. So it goes like this: imagine you are an entity waiting to be born. But you are a form-less entity. You could end up as anything on earth: a pig, a butterfly, a cat, an African woman, a Chinese man, a White man, able, disabled, gay, straight. You could be anything. Now decide: what kind of earth do you want to be born into? Do you want equal opportunities? Do you want industrial farming? Do you want charities and NGOs? That’s the right time to make the decision, not when you’ve been assigned your entity and your incentives have changed. I challenge myself and us all to be behind that veil of ignorance more often.