The philosopher John Rawls created the “veil of ignorance” as a morality check.
When contemplating ethics and justice, he suggests that we place said veil on our minds to imagine we don’t know what position in society we possess. From this veiled position Rawls argues that thinkers are then in a better frame of perspective to assess the reasonableness of moral proposals with less reference to our own current circumstances, and instead, in theory, we will aim for a moral infrastructure that will be fair no matter where we end up.
This idea can be illustrated in the classic example of the cutting of the cake. If two kids, say, Seth and Zaff, are dividing up a piece of cake between the two of them, and they both want as large a piece as possible, we would ask one of them—let’s say, Seth—to cut the cake, and then Zaff would get first choice of which piece he wanted. In that situation, Seth would try to cut as close to the middle of the dessert as possible, because he’s in the veiled position of not knowing which piece he would eventually get.
While such veiled thinking is not foolproof, I think it can be a useful exercise for building and critiquing one’s values.
Consider the case of free speech vs. protecting us from hate speech. You may believe that it is appropriate to restrict certain kinds of speech that you think are racist, sexist, or otherwise deplorable. However, before you jump to that happy conclusion, I request that you step back under Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and consider that the definition of what is hateful is always changing and subject to the assessment of humans who are occasionally fallible.
Take, for instance, the ever-changing Overton window, the theoretical concept of the current values that are morally acceptable in polite society. While you may happen to agree with where that polite moral consensus is currently located, are you comfortable with the possibility that the Overton window may be constricting, while its cousin—the Overshun window—may be expanding? With the veil of ignorance fogging up your vision of the future, are you satisfied that these two judgmental windows will always fit you and those you care about?
Again, maybe you are content to live with the judgments of those holding the steering wheel of our public morality. Maybe you think that hateful speech is so terrible that it must be legally limited. My only request is that, before you advocate for censorship, that you sneak back under the veil of ignorance to make sure you can live with where such restrictions may plausibly take us.
So, with that idea of looking at moral issues from an ignorant veiled position, I would like to examine the concept of “Cancel Culture.” A friend of mine suggested that we can do better than the now set expression “Cancel Culture” so, for this essay, I offer the alternative term, “Socially Demanded Extrajudicial Role Eviction,” or SDERE.
While I’m not sure if SDERE captures the phenomenon formerly known as Cancel Culture as crisply as the latter did, the exercise of trying to re-name it was useful to me in identifying exactly what I think we mean by SDERE.
As I see it, SDERE comes about when there is a call to steer a person out of a role because of perceived moral failings of that person.
SDERE is not related to someone being fired from their job for workplace-related failings. For instance, if someone showed up late to work every day, and they were disciplined for it by their employer, that person has not been a victim of SDERE. Instead, they have lost standing in their job because of a possible defect in their actual performance at work.
Nor is SDERE criticism of a person in society for perceived wrongdoing. SDERE only occurs when there is a society-based call for a person to be removed from a role because they are perceived to be morally unfit for it.
Let’s say, for instance, that an employee is suspected of cheating on their spouse. Now it is not illegal to be unfaithful, but it is certainly morally questionable, so based on an extrajudicial assessment, some members of society might call for such a person to be evicted from their job.
In assessing whether such a firing is justified, I ask that you re-apply the veil of ignorance.
Do we want our employers to be assessing our outside-of-work conduct, at the behest of the public, and then potentially disciplining or even firing us on those grounds?
Before you land on your answer, please consider that both the public and employers have throughout history used the morality of their times to make decisions that most of us now register as unethical (and sometimes evil). You may think that we’ve evolved to produce a superior morality now that has no reason to provoke such retroactive cringe, but look at how rapidly public mores are changing. Are you certain you’re comfortable that you would pass every test of tomorrow’s leading popular moralists?
Pierre Trudeau famously said the government has no business in the bedrooms of our nation. This was to protect gay and lesbian Canadians from being prosecuted for their sexuality. Do you want our employers in those same bedrooms?
I’m not arguing that, because mores change, that there should never be consequences for doing something bad. But I do contend that the punishment should stay in its jurisdiction. If someone cheats on their spouse, that is a private matter between the people involved. If someone is accused of a crime, then it is up to the justice system to look into it. But personally, I don’t want our employers deciding what we can do or say outside of work, do you?
Perhaps you think I’m creating a moral panic about a moral panic, and that in reality SDERE only ever goes after the most extreme of bad behaviour. But, again, I ask you to go back to your veiled position. Even if you think a particular behaviour or idea is wrong, do you want a society in which people who allegedly have the wrong values, but haven’t committed a crime, are sentenced to the margins of society?
Recall McCarthyism. I happen to believe that, in practice, communism is a terrible idea, and I think we should criticize the concept whenever it pops up. However, I also think that Senator McCarthy and his allies were wrong to punish people for allegedly believing in a flawed ideology. McCarthyism created an environment of fear and suspicion, and an inability to freely associate and freely discuss ideas. Therefore, from my veiled position, I propose that we would be better off criticizing ideas and even people we don’t like, without exiling them for their alleged sins.
Again, you may be satisfied with where the Overton window is right now, but when you apply your veil of ignorance, are you sure you’ll agree with society’s future judgments?