«1 veiled disagreement VEILED DISAGREEMENT * H ow I should weigh my disagreement with you depends at least in part on how reliable I take you to be. ...»
For the Anna–Tommy case to cause trouble, then, we would have to imagine Anna’s world being such that she has access to the views of no one other than herself and Tommy, or else we would have to imagine Anna’s living in a world populated by a great many people who think like Tommy do, and share all the bizarre background beliefs required to make his method coherent. These worlds are so different from our own that it is hard to know what to say about them. But if we had to formulate a principle for reasoning under such circumstances, it is at least credible that an agent such as Anna should suspend belief in her answer to Problem #9, along with a great many other beliefs. In such a world, Anna might well not know what to think about much of anything. Even in such an otherworldly context, then, Impartiality arguably gives the correct answer.
Master Proof JOP 587 veiled disagreement
v. life versus truth Applying the veil of ignorance to the present context illuminates the very different ways in which disagreement gets handled in political theory and epistemology. I have argued that the veil helps us see how Impartiality yields the rational response to disagreement.
But of course Impartiality, in many cases, yields the conclusion that we should suspend belief. This is a curious result in the present context, since political theorists employ the veil of ignorance to achieve consensus over a particular political arrangement. Rawls, for instance, supposes that individuals behind the veil will agree on his two principles of justice; others have fashioned veils that promote utilitarianism, and so on. Such accounts obtain consensus because of what they do and do not allow behind the veil, and because of how they require parties behind the veil to reason. Rawls’s “thick” veil excludes not just the place of individuals in society, and their own moral and political views, but also excludes information about the character of the moral and political disagreement itself. Individuals behind the veil are supposed to make their decision based only on their rational self-interest, albeit from their veiled perspective. Under these tightly restricted conditions, it is plausible to suppose that rational agents would agree on a theory of justice.22 The epistemologist gets different results by conceiving of the situation in a fundamentally different way. In the context of peer disagreement, the goal is to proportion one’s credence in p to the probability of p given the evidence. The veil works as a heuristic device allowing us to set aside factors that are irrelevant and distracting to an accurate consideration of the evidence. Rawls, in contrast, does not seek any such thing. He begins by setting aside a great deal of information that clearly is evidentially relevant, and then requires individuals behind the veil to ask themselves not which theory the remaining evidence best supports but which theory will best serve their self-interest. There is no reason at all to think that conclusions produced under these conditions will be true, or even well-proportioned to the evidence.23 This sounds like John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard, 1971), chapter 3. For a useful summary, see Samuel Freeman, Rawls (New York: Routledge, 2007), chapter 4. For some recent reflections on how to cope with disagreement that persists even behind Rawls’s veil, see Ryan Muldoon et al., “Disagreement behind the Veil of Ignorance,” Philosophical Studies, clxx, 3 (September 2014): 377–94.
See Chandran Kukathas and Philip Pettit, Rawls: A Theory of Justice and its Critics (Stanford: University Press, 1990), p. 72: “The point of the contractarian enterprise is not to identify what justice requires….The point is to identify a way of organizing society…which fits with the constraints of the concept of right, in particular the
Master Proof JOP 58722 the journal of philosophy
a damning criticism, but it is not so intended. Rawls’s aims are practical, not theoretical, in the sense that he seeks a decision procedure for organizing society. His later writings frankly concede that he does not aim at a true theory but only at one that is workable.24 In contrast, the literature on disagreement assumes from the start that our only concern is with fidelity to the truth. It is these strict conditions of epistemic rationality that yield the Impartiality thesis and its accompanying demand to suspend belief in cases of peer disagreement.
Can these two approaches be melded? Epistemology might aspire toward a general theory of disagreement, treating political disagreement simply as a special case and wielding the veil of ignorance as a general tool applied across all domains. In fact, however, as things presently stand, such an aspiration would be in vain, because both the political theorist and the epistemologist pursue narrow, non-overlapping agendas. Political theorists, on the one hand, pursue a workable political consensus. Although this is no doubt a fine thing, comparison with the aims of epistemology reveals its limitations: the veil of ignorance, however it is spelled out, cannot yield a consensus that is both substantive and epistemically rational. Full and impartial rational reflection on the evidence, aimed at maximizing true belief and minimizing false belief, would yield only the consensus that we should suspend belief. Epistemologists, by comparison, are equally limited in their perspective. Their debates takes for granted that the only goal is epistemic rationality: proportioning beliefs to the evidence.
This is fine as a theoretical question for philosophers in their armchairs, but in the real world more is at stake than simply achieving the highest possible ratio of true to false beliefs.25 Whether or not we should suspend belief from the perspective of ideal epistemic theory, it is necessary as a practical matter that we act.
publicity constraint.” More harshly, see the characterization in Derek Parfit, On What Matters (New York: Oxford, 2011), vol. I, p. 357: “Though Rawls’s veil of ignorance ensures impartiality, it does that crudely, like frontal lobotomy. The disagreements between different people are not resolved, but suppressed.” See John Rawls, “Justice as Fairness: Political not Metaphysical,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, xiv, 3 (Summer 1985): 223–51, at p. 230: “the aim of justice as fairness as a political conception is practical, and not metaphysical or epistemological. That is, it presents itself not as a conception of justice that is true, but one that can serve as a basis of informed and willing political agreement between citizens viewed as free and equal persons….Philosophy as the search for truth about an independent metaphysical and moral order cannot, I believe, provide a workable and shared basis for a political conception of justice in a democratic society.” For further thoughts in this same vein, see Robert Pasnau, “Disagreement and the Value of Self-Trust,” Philosophical Studies (forthcoming).
Moreover, the point is not just that we each individually need to decide how we will act in the world; we also need to seek consensus, so that we can build institutions together for the common good. So even if abstract theoretical inquiry leads to an impasse, and even if the veil of ignorance itself underwrites that conclusion, there is still a need for some other method of handling disagreement in the real world. The political domain is just one arena where we cannot afford to let our beliefs be governed by the strict demands of epistemic rationality. We may count on the epistemologists, then, to tell us what is most likely to be true. But we need to turn elsewhere for the sorts of conclusions we can actually live with.
robert pasnau University of Colorado, Boulder