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The Coronavirus Crisis: The Cloud of Unknowing and the Veil of Ignorance

Hardeep Matharu explores how the uncertainty around the Covid-19 pandemic has reanimated forgotten philosophies of social justice and mutual aid.

The Cloud of Unknowing
& the Veil of Ignorance

Hardeep Matharu explores how the uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic has reanimated forgotten philosophies of social justice and mutual aid.

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It’s 1 November 2019. Imagine you don’t know anything about who you are. You are behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ and don’t have a clue about your circumstances. You do know that COVID-19 is about to infect a human for the first time and will go on to cause havoc across the whole world. The virus will not discriminate about who it finds a home in. Many people will die. What type of society would you decide you would like to live in when it strikes?

The ‘veil of ignorance’ is a notion explored by the late American moral and political philosopher John Rawls in his seminal work A Theory of Justice. As the Coronavirus has fundamentally changed our lives these past weeks, it has come to mind.

A philosophical tool also used by a number of other thinkers over the years, the ‘veil of ignorance’ was employed by Rawls in his exploration of the creation of a just society. It is a thought experiment to determine the type of social contract people would devise if they knew nothing about who they would be or where they would end up in that society.

“Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like,” as Rawls puts it. “The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.”

Even though it is a philosophical device, I believe – in moments such as these – that it can also have a practical purpose because it forces us to consider society from the perspective of all its members, who are all, in our particular current case, affected by a highly contagious global disease. It can help us to reflect on how we choose to behave in this crisis and what sort of future we really want to be living in – on an individual and collective level, personally and politically.

Put to the Test

The Coronavirus doesn’t much seem to care for class position, social status, natural assets and abilities, intelligence or strength. It is a pandemic indiscriminate.

Behind the veil of ignorance, you have no idea whether you will be young and healthy or elderly and vulnerable, have underlying health conditions, be a carer, a doctor or a nurse, a small businesswoman, a parent, a prisoner, a scientist, a film star or celebrity, a journalist, a headteacher, the chief executive of a charity, suffering from mental ill health, a cleaner, a person sleeping rough, someone who lives in an isolated area away from any others, rich or poor when the Coronavirus comes. 

Perhaps then you would opt for a universal and properly-funded and equipped healthcare system, and a society in which a loneliness epidemic is averted through strong community networks of support for the elderly. Maybe a system of food rationing to ensure everyone can get their fair share would be equitable, as well as support for company employees and people on zero-hour contracts, those paying mortgages as well as renters. Perhaps you would think it a good idea to want a transparent form of governance, with truthful leaders who can be trusted to take the needs of everyone into consideration and provide reasoned and clear messages which all feel they can follow. Maybe an economy more diverse and less dependent on consumerism, and a media committed to finding and telling the truth. 

In short, perhaps behind the veil of ignorance you would choose a society that can care for and prioritise the most vulnerable and do everything it can to ensure that people do not unavoidably die or end up destitute – because you would have no way of knowing whether that could be you.

For me, the Coronavirus outbreak and the UK Government’s deeply flawed handling of it thus far is exposing all the ways in which our society has broken down. And it is a big learning moment.

In the weeks and months ahead, as we all isolate and distance, we should use it as a time to reflect on the society around us and whether it measures up to the future we want for ourselves, now that something random has arrived to test this. Does it stand up? If not, what could we be doing better? Thinking about these things matters. Because at some point they will be put to the test – as COVID-19 is now forcing us to confront. 

Up in the Air

Part of this reflection must include the type of politics we have arrived at.

With Donald Trump telling the US public that the country will be fine once it gets rid of this “virus problem” and Boris Johnson speaking of the need to “flatten the curve, squash the sombrero”, we must think about how we have ended up with such leaders and whether – behind the veil of ignorance – we ever would have chosen them and risked them being in power knowing that a crisis such as the Coronavirus is bound, at some stage, to call.

Some have already suggested that the outbreak will be used to make the case for nation states and borders stronger, while others believe COVID-19 – which is indifferent to identity politics and wall-building – may eventually result in something much more positive.

As has been explored in these pages, mutual aid organisations are already forming all over the country to help those most in need. “It’s just a shame it’s taken something like this for us to start acting in this way,” one lady who benefited from such help observed.

Similarly, I heard from a friend who I’ve not spoken to for a while this week who believes we’ve “needed to go through this horrible experience in order to really understand the importance of a decent socio-economic safety net and the great deal of fragility of a culture dominated solely by individualism”. He thinks “we will be a better society at the end of it”. 

No one can know now whether my friend is right. But nothing is inevitable. And sometimes, just sometimes, something completely random throws everything up in the air – and we are all left, in the terror of uncertainty and a new reality without a horizon we can glimpse, to watch and wait and wonder where it will all land.

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