Ethics in a Computing Culture

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A simple exercise for teaching the veil of ignorance

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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.

Written by drbobrinkman

September 4, 2011 at 5:51 pm

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