“Let us keep this notion of split reference in mind, as well as the wonderful ‘It was and it was not,’ which contains in nuce all that can be said about metaphorical truth.” P. Ricoeur, The Rule of Metaphor, Routledge Classics, 2003, p. 265.
Being a logical kind of guy, I don’t particularly like fairy tales. Still, I think the law of non-contradiction is worse than a fairy tale. It is a hoax. Proven useful to open cans, it wound up opening one full of worms. Its next of kin are identity and the excluded middle. It’s the triumvirate of a logical tyranny that suffocates us to a point of becoming a prejudice against every prejudice.
I believe can-openers are useful tools, certainly if the can they open is critical thought. It is however not the case that critical thought has merit in and of itself. Critical thought is to the good life as food is to a healthy body, not less but at the same time not more. What it allows if taken in good measure is to find the middle; overconsumption though leads to becoming bloated and – full of it – using it as a stick to beat the life out of every argument.
The nice thing about stories is that, as Ricoeur rightly has it, they keep us in suspense and thereby create something new. They’re alive and as such infinitely closer to the good life than any artificial construct could ever be. I will believe in Artificial Intelligence if it can weave or listen to a good story, create a telling metaphor or be insulted by being likened to artifice. Call that the Bervoets-test.
Anyway, let’s make this political.
You and me, we’re ordinary human beings; of good will but error-prone and, let’s admit it, biased. Over here in the West we are specifically biased towards the belief that we, in the West, are – at least relatively speaking – unbiased. I say this under the fold because we are not allowed to say this. It weakens our position which is, after all, the only position of non-extremism. Either we’re biased or we are not, such is the (there’s-no-middle-ground) demand of our secularism
Well, we are and we are not.
Any either/or digs trenches so deep, we don’t even realize there are human beings on the other side. Before you know it we are, with Kierkegaard, locked up in our own existence in the company of a self-made Thing he was still traditional enough to call God. The value of political liberalism per Rawls is that it unveils our bias to one another by putting a veil of ignorance over our heads. The traditional existential charge that this is an intellectual, abstract exercise in impartiality only is deeply mistaken. The transformation obviously is metaphorical in that your reference is split. You are the other, whilst you are at the same time yourself (the self that will pay the taxes to the other you might have been). The veil of ignorance is – at the very least – a real exercise in hermeneutical understanding that, if done, can lead to a real Gadamerian fusing of horizons (this incidentally is why it’s easier for wealthy liberals to see it only as a figure instead of also taking the exercise literally).
The problem with the Rawlsian veil of ignorance isn’t that it abstractly asks to transform, but that it might lead to forgetting that prejudices can’t be forgotten. The consensus that’s so achieved is then no longer overlapping but a matter of logical superiority of impartial partitioning of points of view in admissible and non-secular. It makes the veil into purely ornamental metaphor, a rhetorical ploy without the existential consequences of taking a different point of view seriously from the own point of view. It no longer tells a story that has the capacity to transform. It becomes politics without ethics, justice without fairness. Taken this way it’s no surprise that neo-liberals can eat the difference principle and keep the principle of liberty at the same time.
If you take the other’s point of view you’re compelled to take her biases too, including the biases she would tend to detect in your point of view. The result of this is not a resolution of biases into some kind of scientific unbiasedness as that would deny the liberty of (the forming of a) conscience. The positive result is the realization that liberty is a matter of a process of forming a conscience in trying to understand the other’s point of view. You are the other and you are not; in seeing this you become the other as she becomes you whilst neither evaporates into a sameness subsumed under some impartiality.
The veil is not an original (or ultimate) position but an exercise of the principle of charity in seeing identity while respecting difference. With Davidson we can say that this is what we all do all of the time in trying to understand others. As such the difference principle is (existentially, hermeneutically and linguistically) part and parcel of the transformational way of seeing the veil of ignorance. This much Rawls did get wrong: too much deduction, not enough transformation. If you put yourself in his feet that’s understandable: his bias was one of having to argue conclusively as his courage was to avoid simple conclusions. I can only salute him for linking of ethics to politics, justice to fairness.