Under the Veil of Ignorance, Perhaps I’m a Cow


Bob and Doug want some beer. Luckily they notice Jane, who is sitting nearby with a full case of nice cold Kozel, which she is about to enjoy by herself. Bob and Doug come up with a plan that will make everyone better off. Bob distracts Jane while Doug grabs her beer, they then run off and enjoy her beer in the park. Great! They have made a move which is Pareto improving, we can show this here in Figure 1.


Figure 1 – Bob and Doug’s Utility Possibility Frontier

Here, point A represents both Bob and Doug’s initial position without beer, and point B represents their position after they’ve stolen the beer. This shows that because both Bob and Doug share the stolen beer, they are both better off and no one is made worse off.


Anyone who has read through this initial example should see a large problem with it. Regardless of how fancy and formal I make this, the problem remains that this move is only Pareto improving if Jane is left out of the calculus. Once we include Jane, the Pareto condition no longer holds. Poor Jane had her beer taken from her, she is therefore left much worse off by the actions of Bob and Doug.

But is there any good reason to omit Jane? Well, Jane is presumably a woman, and we can further imagine her skin is a different colour than Bob and Doug’s. But while these reasons have unfortunately been sufficient in the past, we have long since realized that sex and race are insufficient reasons to not take someone’s preferences into account. There are many reasons why this is so, but perhaps the most important is that we know that sex and race do not affect one’s ability to feel pain or pleasure. There are many variables we could play around with Jane, but regardless of her gender, whether she’s Chinese or Indian, or if she is over or under two meters tall, having her beer taken will always make her worse off – there is no good reason to omit Jane.

From this we can draw out a more general rule: everyone who is affected by a given action should be considered when analyzing that action. This point should seem obvious enough, however it’s a rule often broken within the social sciences. Due to a deep-seated bias, there are those affected by many actions, which are almost always left out of our social calculus. I’m talking about leaving out animals, because of the human bias, or by another name, anthropocentrism. The argument I want to make is that neglecting animals in our social welfare functions is, in many ways, equivalent to neglecting Jane.


The Problem of the Human Bias

Adam Smith wrote about how it is human nature to care about oneself and their immediate family over others. He noted that you would be more likely to lose sleep thinking about having a finger removed than about thousands of tragic deaths on the other side of the world (Smith p.74). This is likely an evolutionary trait, which evolved over millions of years of our ancestors surviving in small bands or groups. In modern society therefore – with massive populations and global connectedness – how can we possibly think of rules and institutions that will benefit everyone on average? And how can we do it without defecting to our human nature, favouring rules that will selfishly only benefit ourselves? In other words, how do we make sure the welfare of Jane, and others like her, are included?

John Rawls said the answer had to involve removing self interest from the process of creating social rules. This is the purpose of his now famous veil of ignorance thought experiment. In “A Theory of Justice” (1973) Rawls proposes that the following ought to happen to the organizers of society when they pass under the veil:


… no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of his psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism… As far as possible, then, the only particular facts which the parties know is that their society is subject to the circumstances of justice and whatever this implies. (Rawls p.137)


The purpose of this thought experiment is to show that if you don’t know your role or position with a society, then you’ll truly think of rules that should best benefit everyone. It is the ultimate concept of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, so to speak. However, when I read the above quote I see a glaring omission. Why do I still know I’m a human when I walk under the veil? Why isn’t it possible that when I leave I’m a cow or a polar bear?

Rawls claims that while under the veil I am unlikely to lobby for further disadvantages for the poor and weak of society, because that may be my lot in life when I exit from under the veil. But, I would also be less likely to lobby for laxed animal rights and barbaric farming practices if I could be a cow when I leave Rawls’ original position. If we argue that being a member of the group “humans” gives us special status, then we are opening the door to discrimination merely due to group membership such as racism or sexism, which we already saw in the opening example are not good reasons to omit someone’s suffering.


A Slippery Slope?

You could argue that this leads to absurd conclusions however, for if I might be a cow when I leave the original position then why not a head of lettuce or a brick? Must we craft laws under the veil that ensure masons treat bricks in an appropriate way? The answer is no. In reality, the slope is not so slippery. Peter Singer sums up why:


If a being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration… If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. (Singer 1989; p.151)


In other words, if utility functions are derived from the ordering of preferences, then agents actually having preferences is most certainly a prerequisite. Bricks and lettuce don’t have brains and therefore aren’t conscious; they have no nervous systems and so they can’t feel pain or pleasure. They cannot therefore prefer one state of being to another, they lack preferences. On the other hand, cows and polar bears, being mammal, have a very similar biology to humans. Perhaps their relative mental simplicity won’t allow them to enjoy the movie Dr. Strangelove or to mourn for a dead relative, but we can infer that they feel pain when physically abused, hunger when not fed properly, and content when relaxing in the sun. As Charles Darwin noted “…the difference in mind between man and the higher animals, great as it is, is certainly one of degree and not of kind” (Darwin p.105). In short, animals suffer, bricks don’t. And therefore we need not be concerned about bricks when formulating a just society under the veil, but we ought to be concerned about animals.

Since Rawls however, more modern economic textbooks have come no further in incorporating the welfare of non-human animals into their models. The following passages can be used to further highlight the backwardness of this position:


In order for society to incorporate the welfare of blacks, we assume a decision-making population of whites who derive utility from the care and preservation of the black race (while not actually including the black people’s utility functions themselves).

A society which is “woman-centric” is a society of men who believe women have intrinsic worth, and therefore cannot be mere means to ends (without actually including women’s utility functions in the calculus).


This clearly sounds like something from the eighteenth or nineteenth century – as mentioned with my initial example, a viewpoint modern civilizations left behind. Would we say Jane was actually included in Figure 1 merely because Bob was thinking about Jane? And yet these passages were strung together from quotes which are nearly word for word from Charles Kolstad’s 2011 textbook “Environmental Economics”, except that I’ve replaced “animals” and “environment” with “blacks” and “women”. Like our initial example, this type of textbook draws graphs and uses all kinds of formalism, but they nonetheless omit beings who are affected by social choice. Preferences are preferences; if we feel it unjust to exclude a group of utility generators because of the color of their skin, their IQ level, their height, or their gender, then it must be equally unjust to exclude a group based on what species they belong to.


The Real Life Effects of the Human Bias

Leaving out a subset of the population whose utility derivation is affected by the social choices being made, obviously alters what choices should be made, because some “voices” will not be heard. This will have impacts in all political and economic realms. One major example however, is social choice regarding climate changing pollution. This can be already problematic if the people affected by the externalities of global warming are not involved in the social choice of how much pollution to create. It becomes even more problematic when we fail to include non-human animals.

As a quick example of this, Canada is a cold country with a very dispersed population. Petroleum is therefore quite popular due to its ability to heat homes and power vehicles. If only Canadian citizens choose how much pollution is optimum, then the peoples of the Sunderban Islands – who have been displaced and whose homes have been lost to rising sea levels caused by global warming (Singer 2011; p.217) – do not have a say. This despite the fact they are perhaps more affected by Canadian petroleum use than any Canadian. Likewise, even though polar bears do not contribute much to carbon emissions, Canadian petroleum use contributes to the bears being displaced and losing their homes (Thornes p.84). Canadians omitting these bears and the populations of the Sunderbans in choosing their optimum level of pollution is no different than Bob and Doug omitting Jane in our initial example.

Evolution is a gradual process taking millennia to create change, meanwhile global warming is happening on the scale of centuries or even decades (Thornes p.83). While humans may adapt (although this may be painful and costly, like for the natives of the Sunderbans), it is very likely other species will not. As Tobias Thornes sums up:


Global climate change is unique in its ability to cause such a large variety of animals to suffer… right across the planet. There can be no escaping it on land, in the skies, or in the seas. (Thornes p.82)


Once this animal suffering is considered into a social welfare function, our “optimal” outcomes I suspect will look quite different. Animals do not benefit from heated homes and cars like Canadians, therefore including them in the global welfare function will significantly increase the deadweight loss of the pollution externality.

If the normative social sciences – including welfare economics – are going to continue to move forward and continue to make claims on what would increase “the good” or “justice” in society, then it must look to all beings which can feel pain and pleasure, and whose lives would be impacted by the rules society lays out for itself. Any move can appear to be Pareto improving, provided the right agents are excluded from the calculus. But social welfare functions can never capture what would truly be a Pareto optimal outcome if not all of society is included. There is no compelling reason to leave out the preferences of a subsection of utility generating agents if they are affected by social choice, be it with regards to climate change or anything else. With this I am still waiting for social scientists to heed the words of Jeremy Bentham, which he put forth over 200 years ago:


Perhaps it will someday be recognized that the number of legs, the hairiness of the skin, or the possession of a tail, are equally insufficient reasons for abandoning to the same fate a creature that can feel? What else could be used to draw the line? Is it the faculty of reason or the possession of language? But a full-grown horse or dog is incomparably more rational and conversable than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month old. Even if that were not so, what difference would that make? The question is not Can they reason? or Can they talk? but Can they suffer? (Bentham p.143-144)



Works Cited:


Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Ed.
Jonathan Bennett. N.p.: n.p., 1789. Early Modern Texts. July 2008. Web. 11 June 2017. <http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/bentham1780.pdf>.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. First ed. Ed.
John Murray. London. 1871. Darwin Online. April 2006. Web. 11 June 2017. <http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?pageseq=1&itemID=F937.1&viewtype=text>

Kolstad, Charles D. Environmental Economics. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Original ed. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1971.

Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal.” Animal Rights and Human Obligations. Ed.
Tom Regan and Peter Singer. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1989. 148-62.

Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics. Third ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2011. PDF.

Smith, Adam. Theory of Moral Sentiments. Ed. Jonathan Bennett. N.p.: n.p., 1759.
Early Modern Texts. July 2008. Web. 11 June 2017. <http://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/smith1759.pdf>.

Thornes, Tobias. “Animals and Climate Change.” Journal of Animal Ethics 6.1 (2016):
81-88. Jstor. Web. 23 Mar. 2017.

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