The Coca Cola problem

“The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance”

‘A Theory of Justice’; John Rawls (1971)

I was asked recently to fill two hours with wise words to an audience of prospective head teachers. Naturally, I knew that I couldn’t hold their attention for this time without plenty of discussion activities. To start,  I presented this problem…

On the rare occasion that I allow my two children to share a can of Coca Cola I am presented with a dilemma. If I pour the drink in to two separate glasses there will entail an argument about which has more in it and who gets to choose first. There is a strong sense of injustice as one or other of them will think they have been conned out of precious sips of this rare nectar. How do I avoid this perceived injustice?

To their credit, the audience came up with some very creative solutions, but in true teacher fashion I held out until someone told me the answer I wanted to hear.

The solution is this; one child pours and the other chooses. The pourer has an absolute incentive to ensure that the glasses contain equal amounts of Coke as they know that the chooser will choose, if it exists, the fuller glass. Interestingly, in my experience, the child who gets to choose which to drink hardly examines the amounts at all as they know that their sibling will have gone to great lengths to ensure they are equal. Why didn’t they trust me that much? It is because they know that I have nothing to lose if they are not equal (I get my own can – Dad’s privilege).

This dilemma illustrates well the concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’, a term coined by John Rawls but which appears in the work of many political philosophers. The drink is poured in ignorance of which glass the pourer will be allowed to drink from. Justice is served as the decision maker could be subject to the worst effects of their decision.

In politics, it is rarely the case that policy makers will be at the receiving end of their decisions. Therefore, to achieve social justice, a thought experiment is required.

Imagine that tomorrow morning you will wake up inhabiting the body and life of anyone in society other than yourself. In other words, the policy you make today will affect you tomorrow in whatever strata of society you end up inhabiting.

The ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment simply encourages policy makers to put themselves in the shoes of all those the policy will affect. In short, it introduces empathy as a means by which those in charge can seek to avoid vested interests and the trappings of power.

The point I was trying to get across to my aspiring head teachers was that the veil of ignorance is an important concept to hold on to as a senior leader. The justice of any proposed policy may be assessed through the thought experiment described; imagining that tomorrow you wake up as any member of the school community – the NQT, a cleaner, a student with special educational needs.

This sounds simple, but even the most empathetic people will struggle to truly imagine how it would feel to be at the receiving end of a policy from so many different perspectives. Indeed it is perhaps arrogant to assume that we can second guess how others will feel.

To overcome the failings of our empathy we must devise ways to understand what it is to be subject to the whims of school leaders. I would suggest four approaches;

  1. Build a relationship with staff whereby they know their views will be heard. This is easier said than done. It is all too easy to become defensive in the face of endless critics. It is also difficult for staff to trust that you really do welcome their feedback and won’t just see them as trouble makers. However, we must find ways to keep in touch with feelings on the ground.
  2. Consultation over the proposed change.
  3. Engaging those who will be affected by the policy in its development.
  4. Marry a teacher – you can be sure to get a full critique of any management decision.

Applying the veil of ignorance will make for better policy. That is not to say that leaders should avoid making decisions which are unpopular or impact unequally, bringing advantage to some and disadvantage to others. What it does mean is that decisions are taken with empathy, and perhaps policies may therefore be adjusted to promote justice and protect those most vulnerable to the ill effects of a well meaning initiative.

Leaders who are just are leaders we will trust. We should create our policies imagining that we might actually have to be subject to them.

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