Such has been the case in this most recent bit of weltschmertz/walkabout-ing. And one of the things I've been mulling over is a phrase Abraham Lincoln used in his first inaugural address to the nation. On the whole, the speech does not seem to me to be his finest (#canyousaywordy #Ishouldtalk), but there was a fetching tagline at the end of this particularly eye-crossing, last paragraph*:
I'll put the speech in context: Secession was already a reality by the time of the address, and civil war--the unthinkable!--was almost a certainty. The whole of Lincoln's speech was saying, in effect, "Lookit. Everyone's acting a little crazy right now. There's no need for it, so settle down."
And as you might have guessed, a call for reason and sanity had no effect.
I love that last 'graph, though, particularly the closing reference to "the better angels of our nature." I think Lincoln, in his brilliance, was anticipating the Rawlsian "veil of ignorance." OK, not really, but I'm thinking about both ideas right now, so naturally, in my own flash of brilliance, I thought it would be a good idea to combine the two in a post on a gardening/cycling blog. (#whosaidnonsequitur?)
Walu is a political philosopher, with a particular interest in global and social justice. From time to time he tries--usually in vain, and usually when my mind is on other, more pressing matters**--to teach me something about philosophy. Most recently, he's been trying to help me wrap my head around a concept attributed to the great philosopher John Rawls, called "the veil of ignorance."
It goes something like this: Suppose a group of us were assigned the task of determining the justice/morality of a particular societal issue--let's say in this case, whether to provide shelter for the homeless. The fairest way of determining what is just is if none of us knows what our own societal position/role is when determining the course of action. We have no prior knowledge of our own race, gender, wealth/poverty, level of education, state of mental health, and so on. In other words, when the veil is lifted after we've made our decisions, we are as likely to be one of the homeless as one of the privileged.
Put another way, behind the veil of ignorance, we want the best and fairest for all concerned, because when the veil is lifted, we might just be the ones on the short end of the stick.
So what does all this have to do with the better angels of our nature? Well, nothing, really. And everything.
You see, in the case of the veil of ignorance (as I understand it--and there is no guarantee that I do), people are still acting in their own self-interest. Not that there's anything functionally wrong with this. After all, look what it can accomplish:
- Want inexpensive education? Well, I'd better pay my taxes, since I might need to go to a public school.
- Want to ensure that we will have water for the future? I should garden more sustainably.
- Want to have energy resources for the future? Then I need to get on that bike for my trips to the grocery store.
But though I think Lincoln was calling for action that was in the nation's self-interest (namely, quit agitating for secession and war, because none of us are going to especially happy with the results), I think the better angels of which he spoke were something else. I mean, look at that last line again:
*Say what you like about her politics, Peggy Noonan could have cleaned that up. She could have cleaned this post up a bit, too.
**Such as what my life might have been like had I gone with my original career plan of being a cowgirl.
Update: Edited to make it a little less rambly. If you can believe it.