Ethics in a Computing Culture

News, assignments, and cases for use with the book

A simple exercise for teaching the veil of ignorance

leave a comment »

Here is a simple in-class exercise I use to illustrate how Rawls’s veil of ignorance can help us evaluate whether or not a set of rules are “fair.”

Get a deck of cards. Shuffle and pass them around. Have the students each take a card, but NOT look at it.

Propose the following game (note that you will not ACTUALLY take bets from the students!):

  • Everyone puts in 1 dollar
  • The person with the high card gets all the money
  • Everyone must play the game

Then ask: Raise your hand if you think this game is fair. Most students will raise their hands, or object to the “everyone must play” rule. (You can point out that this is a metaphor for real life, and in real life everyone has to play.)

This version of the game shows how we evaluate the rules when our role in life (as indicated by the randomly drawn card) is hidden by the veil of ignorance. There isn’t much at risk, and everyone seems to have a fair shot at winning.

Now propose a new game:

  • Everyone puts in 1 dollar
  • The person with the highest current salary gets all the money
  • Everyone must play the game

And ask again: Is this game fair?

In this version of the game, most students would not accept this set of rules because the professor (almost) always wins. But this is because they now know which role they would have in the game (one of the losing ones). The rules seem unfair because there is really only one person that can win (me), and I set this up in advance.

The key idea is this: Would I accept the proposed social contract, if my role in society were picked uniformly at random? If not, the rules are not “fair.”

License: The contents of this post are CC-BY-3.0 licensed. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

About these ads

Written by brinkmwj

September 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: