Maximinimax
December 3, 2018 2:07 PM   Subscribe

What kind of world would people prefer? "We asked people to imagine that they had responsibility for the well-being of a child. However, they didn’t know anything about the specific child: nothing about the child’s health, or its intelligence, or talents. Moreover, they had to imagine they were not taking care of the child themselves, and that they had no control over the kind of family the child would grow up in. However, they had one important decision to make: Which world will the child be born into?"
posted by clew (38 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
 
The article (and the tags on this FPP) only reference it without explaining directly: the experiment is based on philosopher John Rawls's "veil of ignorance" thought experiment.

Basically, imagine that before any humans were born, you and everyone else got to decide how to structure human society, but without knowing who you would be born as (e.g. all the ways one can be privileged). Thus this construction of society occurs from behind a "veil of ignorance."

The theory is that people would tend to choose to structure society pretty fairly, so as to maximize their chance of a decent life, or at least a not-terrible one, rather than gamble on winning the privilege lottery in a highly unequal society. Put another way: the argument is that people won't adopt a "fuck you, got mine" attitude if they don't yet know whether or not they will, in fact, get theirs.

In real life, the argument is often not very persuasive to privileged people, since we cannot actually step behind a veil of ignorance and people only live once, so there is no direct incentive to make society more equal if you have already won the privilege lottery. Even the indirect incentive of wanting to improve the expected value of one's children's lives is limited because so many sources of privilege can be passed on to one's children.
posted by jedicus at 2:30 PM on December 3 [34 favorites]


Interesting so many folks chose the in-between world. To me, that just sounds like inequality world. In-between inequality world seems like a failure to me, not something I'd want to seek out. However, it does seem like the likeliest world given that in our decidedly unequal world, the inequality is largely driven by capitalists who have too much money and would kill any quantity of people as long as it got them even more too-much-money, so I can see how it might be tempting or hard to think outside of that paradigm.
posted by GoblinHoney at 2:32 PM on December 3 [7 favorites]


Just off the top of my head I’d vote for a mix between the equal world and the in-between world—A world where if you were so inclined you could pursue maximum wealth, or be rewarded financially for doing good work. But there would be a bottom floor of wealth, where no one would live in poverty, go homeless, or have to run a GoFundMe to get medical care.

Please feel free to point out how naive I am and how this world is structurally impossible.
posted by ejs at 2:37 PM on December 3 [6 favorites]


I think of this chart, under Out Of Balance, referenceing this paper, when I read this post.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:53 PM on December 3 [2 favorites]


When I was a kid I enjoyed these sorts of ideal philosophical exercises,. These days, though, I've come to realize that coming to an agreement on the structure of our preferred counterfactuals is much less valuable than analyzing the oppressive structures that keep our actual existing factuals in place, with an eye toward building material counterstructures that can effectively resist those extant oppressive structures .
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:56 PM on December 3 [15 favorites]


note: that said, if any of the lurkers out there are looking for a username you could do worse than GSV The Structure of Our Preferred Counterfactuals.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 2:59 PM on December 3 [24 favorites]


Imagine a world where an autonomous vehicle is functionally incapable of making moral judgments. Suddenly, John Rawls steps out into the middle of the road to propose it a thought experiment. He gets distributed across the pavement.
posted by cichlid ceilidh at 2:59 PM on December 3 [10 favorites]


I think the experiment falls apart if you're just kind of an asshole parent.
posted by FJT at 3:05 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


First, count me for "equal."

Second I'd love to know the age and education level of the 300 people who participated in this survey. I'll bet if you asked the majority of people on the planet "you get enough to eat and your kids get a halfway decent education but also everyone else gets enough to eat and their kids get a halfway decent education" the numbers would be quite different.

He said over rare earth metals.
posted by East14thTaco at 4:17 PM on December 3 [11 favorites]


I would simply choose a world without conflict, at any level. The rest will then turn out fine...
posted by jim in austin at 4:25 PM on December 3 [2 favorites]


I think a problem with a lot of these is that without something actually at stake it's easy to fall back on answering not according to a real considered evaluation of the question but instead according to a more superficial evaluation of how the question fits in with your current worldview: e.g., people prefer the in-between option mainly because they think of themselves as centrists and that's the center option.

To combat this I think it might be worth using more concrete, and less overtly political, hypotheticals. For example, suppose that on a certain airline everyone on the same flight pays the same fare, and all seats are assigned at random at boarding: would you prefer the airplane layout to be like it currently is (lots of room for a small number of seats, very little room in the majority of seats), for the available space to be evenly distributed, or something in-between?
posted by Pyry at 4:26 PM on December 3 [8 favorites]


There is so much left to the imagination in anything but the most absurdly detailed hypothetical that it's difficult to make a choice that really means anything. What does a lifestyle look like in the equal world? Schools are neither particularly good nor particularly bad, healthcare is mostly preventative, and income is guaranteed, but that doesn't tell people anything about what their life would be like. So do you either assume it's terrible/horrible based on your hopes/fears of socialism, or you assume it's like living on a median income in median country x?
posted by skewed at 4:50 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


combat this I think it might be worth using more concrete, and less overtly political, hypotheticals. For example, suppose that on a certain airline everyone on the same flight pays the same fare, and all seats are assigned at random at boarding: would you prefer the airplane layout to be like it currently is (lots of room for a small number of seats, very little room in the majority of seats), for the available space to be evenly distributed, or something in-between?

Let's leave aside your analogy of airline flights for class differences aside for a minute.

You seem to be getting at the idea that resources are finite. Indeed they are. The question is how to allocate those resources fairly and" would you be willing to give some of those resources up to make other people's lives slightly more comfortable at the expense of your own comfort?"

The answer is, of course," no."
posted by East14thTaco at 4:54 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


Well, the big point of "veil of ignorance" hypotheticals is that the "you" who answers the hypothetical doesn't know what their place in the world will be, so there isn't any notion of personally "giving up" resources, because "you" don't exist yet when answering the hypothetical. The airline hypothetical gets at the same risk-tolerance question: if you didn't know what seat you were going to get, would you prefer an uneven (riskier, with a better best-case and worse worst-case) or an even distribution of seat space?
posted by Pyry at 5:05 PM on December 3 [8 favorites]


> I would simply choose a world without conflict, at any level. The rest will then turn out fine...

Every person who has covered up for their child molesting relatives believed that if they avoided conflict, everything would turn out fine.

Like, generally I’m not here to dispute the structure of other peoples’ preferred counterfactuals, but nonetheless I find myself compelled to point out that your preferred counterfactual seems bad. Mainly because I have historically been a conflict-avoidant person, and have realized, upon encountering a situation isomorphic to the one in the previous paragraph, that my preexisting “avoid conflict and everything will turn out fine” heuristic was, when push came to shove, garbagey trash rubbish.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:50 PM on December 3 [9 favorites]


Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon: No, not avoiding conflict. I chose a hypothetical scenario with no conflict, period. Therefore there could be none to avoid. Conflict amongst humans would simply cease to exist. No one said I had to make a practical choice...
posted by jim in austin at 6:10 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


I would simply choose a world without conflict, at any level

No, no. I’ve seen that episode. It’s a trick. All the humans disappear.

On second thought...
posted by greermahoney at 6:14 PM on December 3 [5 favorites]


> No, no. I’ve seen that episode. It’s a trick. All the humans disappear.

Alternately, we are all assigned entirely disjoint universes across which we cannot interact. Alternately alternately, a pre-existing harmony mind-controls us into never interacting with each other in any disagreeable way, like we're a buncha conflictless monads. In this scenario, it may appear as if we interact, but really we have no contact with each other. The pre-existing harmony simply gives the mere appearance of interaction.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 7:23 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


So basically everyone would be shadowbanned from real life.
posted by jcreigh at 7:46 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


yes but it’s called the pre-existing harmony and god did it and it’s good.

also god is shadowbanned too.

</leibniz>
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 8:22 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


I would be very interested to know if the artwork influenced anybody's vote, or indeed, if anyone was able to make heads or tails of it.
posted by darksasami at 8:30 PM on December 3 [6 favorites]


I want the world where 'hypothetical' is still an adjective

the Veil of Prescriptiveness
posted by thelonius at 8:31 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


Airplane version redux: for our society, 10 people have 60 meters to spread out in. The other 290 share 5 meters of plane length.
posted by idiopath at 8:51 PM on December 3 [4 favorites]


I don’t understand why it should be assumed that healthcare in an equal world would be mainly preventative; that seems a separate issue.

Even in a completely equal world you could neglect sanitation and public health campaigns and spend all your money on treatment; even in the most unequal world you could let the rich spend huge sums on healthy living, gyms and superfoods, but never develop chemotherapy.
posted by Segundus at 9:23 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


Interesting so many folks chose the in-between world. To me, that just sounds like inequality world.

The way they're describing the equal and in-between worlds in the link, which might differ from what they did in the actual study, makes me think that the major difference between the equality world and the in-between is that some number of people are worse off in the equality world, and that's it.

It doesn't sound like anyone is worse off in the in-between than they would be in the equality world, but some people are better off.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:27 PM on December 3 [1 favorite]


Are they assuming that if society is truly equal, then you must all get the same health spending whether you’re ill or not? So that in equal world chemotherapy and heart bypass surgery are just off the menu altogether? You get the same bottle of aspirin that's given to people who never had a headache?
posted by Segundus at 9:35 PM on December 3


You know what? Sure. Why the hell not.

At least I get to say I was named by Thomas Pynchon, if anyone ever asks.

Which reminds me, I should probably get around to actually reading something written by Pynchon. Other than, you know, the part where I got named.
posted by GSV The Structure of Our Preferred Counterfactuals at 11:57 PM on December 3 [13 favorites]


I don’t understand why it should be assumed that healthcare in an equal world would be mainly preventative; that seems a separate issue.

Right - does congenital/chronic illness not exist in this world?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:58 PM on December 3


it's kind of cute but i'm not sure how useful an analogy it is. assuming future societies are in any way like past and current ones, maybe the three levels should more accurately be:

(1) a mostly economically equal society which prides itself on sharing and hospitality and has very little emphasis on wealth creation and hoarding, but which tends to be ethnically and religiously homogeneous. family and community structures, as well as responsibility to traditions, are central. individuality and human rights are largely disregarded if contrary to tradition; transition to authoritarian theocracy possible if priestly class gets too powerful.

(2) a slightly more secular society with somewhat more diversity and more emphasis on individual rights, liberty, and wealth creation, but with power still strongly centered in a favored group and possibly a nominal state religion or figurehead. opportunities for individual growth and expression exist for some, but so does the chance of poverty getting out of control. as individual rights expand, the favored group may also lash back politically, and identity conflicts based around race or culture are likely. possible transition to illiberal mercantile oligopoly/cartel economy/aristocracy if narrow business interests get too powerful.

(3) a fundamentally individualistic, mostly secular society with strong emphasis on diversity and individual expression, centered around democratic ideals of civic institutions, human rights, elections, and the peaceful transfer of political power. in practice, however, shifting political coalitions and numerous veto points in government may cause difficulty in marshaling political action, meaning disfavored groups may experience extreme poverty at times. civil rights may devolve given unequal economic realities. government also may become paralyzed by unsettled cultural resentments or by a subset of population with enough wealth to manipulate politics. possible transition into totalitarian dictatorship if demagogue takes advantage of political sclerosis; also watch for declining mental health of citizens lacking community structures.
posted by wibari at 1:05 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]


makes me think that the major difference between the equality world and the in-between is that some number of people are worse off in the equality world,

Didn't the article directly say that in the inbetween world, some more expensive medical conditions are not treated unless you're rich? Anyone who chooses the inbetween is fine with people dying unnecessarily. It's morally repugnant.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 1:06 AM on December 4


For rarer diseases people need more expensive insurance, not available to all, but the basics are covered. There is assurance against loss of income due to illness for a limited amount of time. Schools and Universities are partially state funded and of decent quality, but there are market-based elite schools for those who can afford it.

The trick is that the inbetween world deteriorates into the unequal one, because apparently you're still allowing the rich to accumulate capital and advantage their kids.
posted by AnhydrousLove at 1:11 AM on December 4 [4 favorites]


This is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors.
posted by Segundus at 1:15 AM on December 4 [13 favorites]


Didn't the article directly say that in the inbetween world, some more expensive medical conditions are not treated unless you're rich?

Because they said that medical care in equality world is preventative as opposed to curative, I understood them as saying in equality world nobody gets that expensive treatment, but your read is also compatible with the couple of sentences they gave. Dunno if they were more specific in the actual descriptions in the study.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 4:53 AM on December 4 [1 favorite]


I know how this ends - with a guy in a hut with a cat deciding the fate of the galaxy on a case by case basis.
posted by Mocata at 5:07 AM on December 4 [6 favorites]


The idea that everything can be reduced to wealth isn't a bad approximation for the real world, but it's a pretty limited take on all possible worlds. There are a lot of dimensions to this problem.

I'm not entirely sure a world where everyone has similar income and great healthcare, but there are also elite universities who admit students from equally funded childhood schools based on merit and their graduates have an advantage at getting jobs that are more fun is better than the equal option. But, it's not an unreasonable possibility. (I will never have kids. But, if I did, I'd much rather they enjoy their work then that they be rich.)

Watching university faculty implicitly assume income is the only thing motivating workers, despite the evidence of their own lives, always makes me smile.
posted by eotvos at 8:11 AM on December 4 [3 favorites]


Are we workshopping the season finale of The Good Place?
posted by Mogur at 9:11 AM on December 4 [2 favorites]


Remember in gym class how two kids would be selected to pick teams, and some of us always got picked last? Well, just once, back in those days, I remember a day when the gym teacher chose two kids to pick the teams, but instead of the daily humiliation of getting picked last, he had them do it this way: One kid got to divide us into two teams, and then then other kid got to choose which team he wanted for his own.

If you are the kid deciding who will be on which team, but you know you will get the worst team for your own, then your incentive is to make the teams equal.

This is a lot like that.

Of course, since many people believe bullying is the incentive that will make kids work harder at athletics, that instructor did not stick with this less-cruel method. He only did it for one day. But yes, anyone will pick the most equal solution they can think of, if they know that in the end they will get the short end of the stick.

I wish there was a way to make all congresspeople live like the working poor...
posted by elizilla at 1:49 PM on December 4 [2 favorites]


Just off the top of my head I’d vote for a mix between the equal world and the in-between world—A world where if you were so inclined you could pursue maximum wealth, or be rewarded financially for doing good work. But there would be a bottom floor of wealth, where no one would live in poverty, go homeless, or have to run a GoFundMe to get medical care.

Seems to me that once the basics - clean air, clean water, nutritious food, secure shelter, education, healthcare, efficient public transport - are all available to everybody regardless of circumstances, then rules that allow people to gain direct personal reward for acquiring and applying valuable skills are fair and reasonable.

But it also seems to me that the effects of the unhindered concentration of wealth are every bit as corrosive to social wellbeing as those of the unhindered spread of poverty. Wealth is power, and power that concentrates in the hands of a decreasing proportion of the populace over time will inevitably result in the return of something resembling the feudal system. So the same rules that create a floor for personal wealth ought to create a ceiling for it as well.
posted by flabdablet at 6:55 PM on December 4 [1 favorite]


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