Opposing election opinions cry out for the Golden Rule

  • William Raspberry / Washington Post columnist
  • Monday, November 27, 2000 9:00pm
  • Opinion

WASHINGTON — Maybe John Rawls had it right in his 1971 book, "A Theory of Justice." Maybe we can’t really think straight about justice without thinking about how things would play out for us.

I’ve been thinking about Rawls as I consider both the public arguments and my private e-mail regarding what to do about Florida and the presidential election. What strikes me in particular is how seldom supporters of Al Gore can see justice in a straightforward application of law that would toss aside ballots improperly or incompletely executed, and how seldom supporters of George W. Bush can give any weight to the intention of the voter who cast one of these flawed ballots.

I’m not talking about the lawyers and professional "spinners" on either side of the controversy. I’m talking about people who see themselves as thoughtful, fair-minded Americans who want only to do the right thing. Yet nearly always, the right thing turns out to be the approach that tilts things in the direction of their political predisposition.

It’s not merely that they think they have reached an obviously correct conclusion; they also are convinced that those on the other side are driven entirely by the desire for a certain outcome, that their seemingly thoughtful analysis is nothing more than propaganda. Even when that seemingly thoughtful analysis appears under my byline.

I was shocked, for instance, at the number of Bush supporters who thought my recent call for some sort of shared governance during the next presidential term was just a die-hard Democrat’s desperate refusal to face up to electoral loss. They were certain that if Gore had been slightly ahead when I wrote that column, power sharing would have been far from my mind.

I’m no longer shocked. I’m starting to think that it is a natural imperative of human beings to ascribe good motives to themselves and more sinister ones to their opponents.

The burden of Rawls’ book was the problem of trying to establish principles and rules for a just society, given the divergent interests of those who make up that society. His conclusion is that we can think rationally about such principles only if we do not know how they would, in practice, affect our individual and group interests. We would have to consider each proposed rule as from behind a "veil of ignorance" as to our own position in the society.

It’s a little more complicated than the cake-sharing solution in which one child divides the treat but the other gets first choice. A quick illustration: You would certainly not support the idea of human slavery if you could not know whether your group would be slaves or masters. But what would be your position on pure test-determined "merit" for selecting police officers or judges if you couldn’t know whether your group would tend to have more such "merit" — if you could not know, for instance whether your child would be rich or poor, smart or average, or black, white or Puerto Rican?

To put the matter in electoral terms: What sort of election rules would you advocate — and what solution to the present controversy would you support — if a "veil of ignorance" kept you from knowing whether your proposals would benefit your candidate or his opponent?

The question, since we cannot impose such ignorance on ourselves, is whether we should simply admit that we’re all guided by selfish interest and do the best we can.

But even the question of self-interest varies from one person or circumstance to another. Is it in your self-interest for your group to amass all the political power and to pass laws to solidify that power? Or is it more in your self-interest to see that there is at least some power sharing — if only to promote civic tranquility and clear your conscience?

Is it merely naive to hope that we can arrive at a sense of justice that is largely independent of our own political, economic or social status? Is the cultivation of such a sense something we should strive for, or try to inculcate in others?

Soon, my "Race &amp Equity" students at Duke University will each submit two major papers — one a well-supported defense of affirmative action, the other an intellectually solid attempt to demolish it.

The point is not just to confuse these young minds, but to open them — to get them to consider the possibility of justice that is not utterly self-referential.

Maybe all I’m doing is overcomplicating a lesson first taught two millennia ago: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

Talk to us

More in Opinion

File - A teenager holds her phone as she sits for a portrait near her home in Illinois, on Friday, March 24, 2023. The U.S. Surgeon General is warning there is not enough evidence to show that social media is safe for young people — and is calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take "immediate action to protect kids now." (AP Photo Erin Hooley, File)
Editorial: Warning label on social media not enough for kids

The U.S. surgeon general has outlined tasks for parents, officials and social media companies.

Editorial cartoons for Sunday, May 28

A sketchy look at the news of the day.… Continue reading

Forum: Especially at time of peace, U.S. must honor its fallen

As diplomacy takes precedence over military action, Memorial Day reminds us of our duty to history.

Comment: Federal student loan repayments need reforms

With repayments resuming soon, borrowers and the government need to prepare income-based plans.

Comment: Veterans struggling with addiction need our support

Connect veterans with the services they need through encouragement, understanding and advocacy.

President Joe Biden meets with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of Calif., to discuss the debt limit in the Oval Office of the White House, Monday, May 22, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Comment: A brief history of risks and outcomes of debt crises

Past debt ceiling and budget crises in 1995, 2011 and 2013 offer perspective on the current situation.

Comment: Hospice care isn’t giving up; it’s a gift of time, love

End-of-life care offers patients and families comfort, better quality of life and time to say goodbye.

Comment: State, local libraries rebuilding lives after prison

For those leaving prison, a library card is key to starting again. A new program offers that key.

Most Read