Covid and the Veil of Ignorance

12 June 2020

I’ve struggled to find a film to write about these last two months. Theaters where I live are still closed, as the rates of Covid infection in Salt Lake City are still rising. Netflix doesn’t have too many new releases, either, at least any that I could figure out how to write any philosophy about. So I thought I’d write about a feature of Covid that I think is particularly philosophically relevant: that you can be infected with Covid but be asymptomatic.

No one knows, really, how many people have Covid but are fully asymptomatic. We do know that asymptomatic people are a source of community spread of Covid. Moreover, data indicate that people who eventually become symptomatic are contagious for several days before their initial symptoms appear. To put this point another way, you really can’t be sure, right now, whether you are a potential vector of disease to someone else. Nor can you be sure that you haven’t become a victim—unless of course you have stayed utterly without contact with anyone else for a significant time, likely ten to fourteen days. (With three of my colleagues, I wrote a book about this: The Patient as Victim and Vector: Ethics and Infectious Disease.)

So here’s the philosophical significance of this fact. You are in what decision theorists call decision making under uncertainty. You have no way of estimating probabilities that you are sick or contagious—victim or vector.

Theorist of justice John Rawls used this model of decision-making uncertainty as a thought experiment for reasoning about the principles of ideal justice. Rawls asked this question, in the original (and to my mind most interesting, because clearest) version of this thought experiment: what principles of justice would you accept if you lacked any knowledge about yourself that would enable you to tailor principles to your own advantage? He called this thought experiment “the veil of ignorance.” 

Covid is a natural version of the Rawlsian thought experiment. It puts you in a veil of ignorance about your infection status. After all, you don’t really know. And it asks you, what principles would you accept with respect to physical distancing, wearing masks, allowing businesses to reopen, or allowing crowds to gather, if you didn’t know your situation with respect to Covid infection? 

Of course, you do know some features of your situation, which enable you to answer these questions from a perspective of relative privilege or disadvantage. You know, for example, whether your job lets you telecommute, or your home has a garden in which to enjoy the outdoors in safety, or whether you work in a meat packing plant that has become a hot spot of infection. You know whether you are diabetic, obese, or elderly. And you know your race or ethnicity—as well as that people of color have been disproportionately affected by the Covid infection.

Rawls himself explicitly stated that this thought experiment could be used to develop an ideal theory of justice. Rawls also thought that ideal theory was both possible and needed in order to try to answer questions of justice for a non-ideal world, rife with structural injustice.

But in our current Covid situation, there are elements both of comparative uncertainty and of comparative certainty, which shows that Rawls was half right and half wrong about how we should think about injustice in the world. We do need to make decisions about justice in the recognition that our privilege is in some respects tenuous and uncertain. Yet we also need to recognize that we don’t make decisions about justice in isolation from the ways in which we are interconnected with one another in structures of relative advantage and disadvantage.

I live in a state—Utah—where I can see some of these failures of recognition in practice. There’s a strong libertarian streak, people who think that it’s just up to them whether or not they wear a mask. Some of them justify walking around unmasked, openly flouting signs at the entrance of stores that proclaim, “No entrance without covering your face,” by saying that they know that they are fine.  

There’s also a strong anti-government streak, especially when the government is at the state or federal level. These people say that government shouldn’t impose its view on communities, who know better than experts or bureaucrats what’s best for them. But some of them, as in this photo from the Salt Lake Tribune of a few of the thousand or so demonstrators who gathered to protest ongoing closures, appear to recognize too, that physical distancing and wearing masks just may have a point.  

So, if you’re unlucky enough to be close to someone who isn’t wearing a mask, as your area of the country opens up, remind them of what’s half right and what’s half wrong about the Rawlsian thought experiment.

We don’t really know, at any given point in time, whether we might be a victim of or a vector for Covid. But we do know our situations of relative privilege or disadvantage with respect to Covid. As we make social decisions about what’s just policy, and our individual decisions about what to do in light of government policies, we must constantly remind ourselves to correct our assumptions about privilege with the reality of the veil of ignorance behind which we stand with respect to infectious disease. Justice requires no less.

Image by Jeyaratnam Caniceus from Pixabay