The Thought Experiment

I would like to share my own second reaction to what happened in Charlottesville and then yesterday in New York. My first reaction was anger. My second reaction is not just a reaction but a prescription. I’d go so far as to say I’m going to offer words of wisdom. I can say they’re words of wisdom because they’re not based on any original idea of mine, but instead on an idea that I learned a long time ago. I’m not going to provide the pedigree of the idea or name-drop some of the authors whose books introduced me to it.

Here is the idea. When you are trying to make up your mind about a fundamental political question, do a thought experiment. You know that society is made up of the rich and the poor, adherents to different, and incompatible, religious creeds, members of different racial and ethnic groups, men and women, the able and the disabled. But you don’t know where you fit. You don’t know if you’re rich or poor, a member of a racial or ethnic minority, a man or a woman. Everyone else in this thought experiment is in the same boat. Now, when you sit down to discuss whatever issue you’re discussing, how does the discussion go?

This idea is not just a political idea. It’s an ethical idea. When you’re trying to decide an ethical question, don’t ask what is best for you, but what is best, as though you were looking at the situation from a distance. And it’s not just an ethical idea: I believe it’s the idea that is at the root of religious thought, and even at the root of much thinking about the physical world. While there are some smart criticisms of the idea, I find it hard to imagine the kind of person who does not see the attractiveness of the view.

I recommend this procedure—this thought experiment—to Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, rightists and leftists. I happen to think that if we had this habit of thought, it would lead, broadly, to traditional center-left political arrangements, though I like to think that I have center-left political views because I’ve tried to think about the world this way, and not that I suggest thinking about the world this way because I have center-left political views! But I don’t claim that performing this though experiment necessarily leads to any particular political conclusions. I’ll bet that folks on the center-right could make a strong argument that the thought experiment leads to their preferred politics. But my point is that the habit of thought, trying to take the “view from nowhere,” would lead to more compassion, more humane politics, more solidarity, and more tolerance for others.

I won’t give views on what conclusions you might draw from the past few days if you adopt this frame. You are more than capable of drawing your own conclusions.

2 responses to “The Thought Experiment”

  1. Jack

    In so many words, this sounds like John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.”

    1. Ding ding ding! Rawls is one of the folks I had in mind, of course. The other main author is Thomas Nagel. And note that neither of these authors, nor I, am saying that the only view worth taking is the objective view. Rawls has the idea of “reflective equilibrium,” and one of Nagel’s big projects is the integration of the subjective and the objective perspectives.

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