In his classic 1971 treatise, A Theory of Justice, American philosopher John Rawls attempts to answer a question that has preoccupied political philosophers, clergymen, social scientists and legal scholars ever since Plato first hung out his shingle. The question: What is justice?
To answer it, Rawls assigns us the hypothetical task of establishing a collection of rules and principles guaranteed to be as fair and equitable as humanly possible. Admittedly, that’s a tall order. To assist in this endeavor, Rawls employs what he calls a “veil of ignorance,” an ingenious device that prevents us from knowing who we are, what we stand for, or what will personally benefit us.
In establishing these rules and principles, none of us know in advance if we were born a man or woman, black or white, gay or straight, able-bodied or handicapped, smart or average, etc. It’s Rawls’ belief that the resulting schematic—unencumbered by self-identity or self-interest—would represent what could properly be called “principles of fairness.” A theory of justice. It’s a deceptively simple, yet brilliant methodology.
He explains the hypothetical “veil” thusly:
“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”
For example, if none of us knew in advance whether we’d be able-bodied or confined to wheelchairs, we would insist that every building and intersection be handicapped-accessible. And if we didn’t know whether we’d be born a man or woman, we clearly wouldn’t invent a world where women earned roughly 78-cents for every dollar a man earned, or where women couldn’t vote or voluntarily terminate a pregnancy.
Similarly, no one is going to invent a system of rules and principles that permits slavery or racial discrimination if they themselves could be born as African Americans, just as no one is going to willingly restrict the rights of gays if there was a chance they themselves could grow up to be homosexuals.
Which brings us to organized labor. Arguably, Rawls’ veil of ignorance would also yield the establishment of labor unions. Why? Because unions are intrinsically fair. If we didn’t know in advance what job we would have—corporate CEO or NASA rocket scientist….or teacher, airline pilot, nurse, retail clerk, electrician or dishwasher—we would inevitably seek protection for the nominal “working class.”
After all, what potential working person would reject the right to join a workers collective dedicated to procuring good wages and benefits along with the assurance of working with dignity? Even the Koch brothers—if they were nimble-minded enough to imagine what their lives would be like as Mexican dishwashers—would recognize the virtues of such an arrangement.
Thus, a philosophical examination of labor unions shows them to be not only ethically superior but socially and economically essential. Unions provide the kind of protection American citizens would have invented on their own, had they started from scratch—instead of being forced to invent it on the fly and in self-defense, within the oppressive confines of the Industrial Revolution.
A theological examination yields the same thing. Given what we know of human nature and the rapaciousness of the profit motive, unions provide the kind of balanced, resistance-based economic justice that God had in mind when He said, “Let there be balanced, resistance-based economic justice.” And on the seventh day He rested (as stipulated by the union contract).
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright, is the author of “It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”. He served 9 terms as president of AWPPW Local 672. He can be reached at email@example.com