Thought For The Day – The Veil of Ignorance – 25th Aug 2020

Schools are all over the news just now, not just about mask-wearing, and how to be fair to students after this year’s disruption; but arguments over the recent exam results have got more of us thinking about the algorithms that influence our lives.

For some people, algorithms are by definition unfair, because they’re sets of rules which computers have to follow to the letter. Of course many religions and philosophies use rules-logic, like Thou Shalt Not Kill, or The Greatest Good for the Greatest Number. But rules-based morality begs big questions about the biases of those writing the rules, and aren’t flexible enough to deal with exceptions, as we saw with the anomalies produced in exam grading.

In the heat of Covid, when it became clear that NHS triage rules might lead to the de-prioritising of the elderly and most vulnerable, there was outrage, not because we don’t understand the rules, but because there’s something offensive about them. Somehow we rail against one-size-fits all morality, because it ignores our particularity as persons, individually created in the image of God. I think it’s reassuring, this felt sense of the dignity of every human life, but it’s a nightmare for those charged with public decision-making. It’s so much easier to implement a clear policy than it is to negotiate the individual circumstances of every single case.

The American philosopher John Rawls had a solution to this kind of dilemma, called the Veil of Ignorance. He reckoned that those making decisions should imagine they might come off worst as well as best, so when deciding on exams or triage, they would have to be content for the algorithm to award their own child a fail, or refuse oxygen to their own parent. He’d recommend that we ask our elderly to decide on triage, and our children to design the exam algorithms.

Whenever we make rules about anything, we need transparency about the thinking behind them, both for those making them, and for those subject to them: we’re all fallible human beings, and we need to make sure it’s not the vulnerable who lose out.

Other Thoughts

I have been delivering “Thought For The Day” pieces on BBC Radio Scotland since November 2016. By kind permission these pieces are reproduced in blog posts here on my website. To find my other pieces click here go to my Thought For The Day index page.

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