Last revision: November 1, 2002
This fable has been inspired by the political philosophy of John Rawls of Harvard University. For more about the views of John Rawls, see
Rawls' Mature Theory of Social Justice: An Introduction for Students
One day in eternity the archangel Gabriel called all the angels together and addressed them as follows: “The Big One has asked me to request volunteers for an assignment that will be of utmost importance to human beings. I promise you that you'll find it interesting.”
Not surprisingly, nobody wandered off and everyone paid attention.
“In outline,” Gabriel said, “the assignment is this. Each of you will be imbued with love for one human being. You will want to do everything in your power to permit him or her to achieve a good life.
“You will be given a great deal of general knowledge about this kind of creature and its natural environment. You will be given ample opportunity to learn general scientific truths about the planet on which this creature lives. You will learn the laws of human psychology. You will be able to learn about social arrangements that are possible on this planet among this kind of creature. You will learn about the diversity of experience that human beings could have, including relationships characterized by cooperation, mutual understanding, competition, domination, oppression, discrimination, exclusion, conflict, and war. You will learn about the full range of experience that is possible for human beings, from the greatest degree of well-being to the greatest misery.
“Since you are already imbued with great intelligence, for you are after all angels, you will not need to have rational powers added. You will approach your task with complete rationality.
“Your task will be to design general rules of conduct to govern the basic social order in which human beings will live.”
He paused to see if there were any questions.
Angel Alpha spoke up, “How will we find out about our particular humans? How will I know which human being is my responsibility?”
“That's the special feature of this assignment,” Gabriel replied. “You won't be given that information. In other words, your minds will be veiled by ignorance regarding the specific features of the human being who is your responsibility.”
“Won't we be very strange angels,” Angel Alpha asked, “not knowing anything specific about the person whose happiness we're supposed to promote?”
“I know it seems strange,” said Gabriel, “but have a little faith that this experiment is for the best. You can present your recommendations to the Big Fellow only when you're sure you've got something worth implementing.”
Since the Big Fellow and Gabriel had never misled them before, the angels agreed to have faith that the experiment would be worthwhile and consented to the conditions for participating in it.
In the first phase of the experiment they were shown the natural environment of earth and its surrounding regions of space, until each angel knew the general laws of nature as well as any human being ever would without being a specially trained expert.
Then the angels were shown glimpses of various human societies. Some were sparsely populated hunting and gathering societies. Some were peaceful horticultural societies. Some were societies in which an agricultural surplus permitted a leisure class to develop that was devoted to religious practices and contemplation of the gods. Some were warlike societies that occasionally swept into fertile river valleys from less hospitable surrounding areas, establishing a dominating class that exacted tribute from the labor of peasant producers.
In some societies people groaned under the yoke of the conquerors who established themselves as hereditary nobility and looked down with increasing contempt on the toilers. The angels saw that in some societies men and women were roughly equal partners in social life, but in others male domination made its appearance.
In some societies people contributed to and drew from a common storage and occasionally engaged in barter. But in others gold and silver were exchanged for other things according to specific measurements and units—money had been created.
In some societies a special group had learned how to hoard this money, and another group of humans, now desperate for the means of survival, would borrow money and become subservient to the lenders. In some societies there was slavery, in others serfdom.
Eventually, they observed cities. Here the money tended to be most concentrated and changed hands most rapidly. In some cities a new group of producers appeared, capable of making many similar and increasingly complex things under one roof. Tasks were subdivided, each worker was assigned one task, and the workers did their tasks in a specific sequence. More products than ever before were being made.
These products found their way into world trade and all people, now much greater in numbers, were brought into indirect contact with one another.
In some of these more complex societies, certain groups armed themselves with powerful weaponry and subjugated the weaker groups, seizing their raw materials and making them work for next to nothing on mines and plantations. Those who worked the hardest and earned the least were labeled lazy and inferior. Often they were reviled because of their skin color or their religion.
The angels observed the rise of industry. They saw humans free masses of fossil fuel from beneath the ground and under the sea and put them to use in more massive production and consumption than ever before. They noticed the results of this process: pollution of the air and water, destruction of animal and plant species, depletion of the soil, and thinning of the ozone layer.
“This is all very interesting,” the angels thought, “but where is the person I'm expected to care about?”
In the third phase of the experiment, having learned about the laws of nature and the variety of human experience, the angels gathered in a celestial conference room to get down to work.
“We don't know anything at all about the persons we each care about,” Angel Theta said.
“But we do know some things,” Angel Gamma responded. “We know that they are people. We know that they have a gender, that they are male or female.”
“But," said Angel Beta, "we don't know what the genders are for our special persons,” said Angel Beta.
“We know that each human is born with handicaps or she is not,” said Gamma. “We could say that they have a handicap-status, even though we do not know exactly what it is.”
“We also know that they belong to a racial or ethnic group.” said Delta.
“Well, we don't know whether being in a racial group will be important in their society or not,” noted Epsilon.
“But," said Gamma, "we can say that racial divisions are either important or not in the person's society, and so in a sense we know something. For instance, we know that if racial divisions are important and if some people have more power than others because of race, then it will not be in the interest of those we care about to be in the less powerful groups.”
“We don't even know what generation they belong to,” said Eta. “I mean, human beings belong to generations. There are early generations and then there are later generations.”
“Why is that important?” asked Epsilon.
“Remember," said Eta, "that we learned that humans can create industrial societies that use up resources and pollute their home planet. None of us would want our person to have to live her life after all the resources were consumed and the planet horribly polluted.”
“I take your point,” said Epsilon. “We can say that we know that our humans belong to generations but I cannot know to which generation my human belongs.”
“So maybe we ought to make a rule that no generation should depart having made the planet less hospitable than it found it,” said Eta.
“Religion,” said Angel Zeta. “I noticed that a lot of humans have religions. And there are lots of different kinds.”
“And if you were paying attention,” said Theta, “toward the end of the scenario there were even humans that reject all religion.”
“But even those humans have a notion of happiness or the good life,” said Zeta. “Most humans have at least a vague idea of the best way to live. And the ones that will say they don't know are often the ones trying hardest to figure it out.”
“Maybe,” said Gamma, “we can say that each of our persons has a capacity for a conception of what is good in life and that they have an interest in pursuing whatever they think this good is.”
“And since humans have some of the intelligence that we have,” added Epsilon, “they use their minds to examine various concepts of the good life, pick one at least for the time being, and try to achieve it for themselves.”
“Somewhere in that scenario I remember somebody talking about the pursuit of happiness,” Theta interjected.
“That's it,” said Zeta. “Everybody has a capacity for a conception of the good life, but some are busy trying to create or figure out a satisfactory conception for themselves while others think they have succeeded in finding one. A few of this last group work out a complex and quite complete system that they call a religion or a philosophy, like the Catholics, or Buddhists, or Platonists or utilitarians.”
The angels eventually agreed that each of their humans would have a gender, a handicap status, a generation membership, an ethnic or racial grouping, a sexual orientation, and a conception of the good, however vague the latter might be. But they also agreed that they did not know the gender, the handicap status, the sexual orientation, the generation, the ethnicity or the conception of the good of the person they were assigned to help.
When it came time to design the rules for human society, the angels asked whether they should follow the example of some societies they had seen and make one religion the dominant or state religion. But no sooner had they asked this question, than they all spoke virtually in unison, “No, this cannot be, because my person, whose religion I do not know, may not be in the privileged group. I would not be guarding my person's interests if I were to permit another religion to be assigned privileges ahead of his or hers.”
“It seems that we must treat all religions equally,” angel Beta said. “Well,” replied Lambda, “Some of them are surely truer than others. For example, religions that believe in angels.”
“Of course,” said Alpha, “but humans don't have proof that we exist and they don't need to believe in us in order to treat each other decently.”
The angels decided that the rule they would recommend would not privilege any particular religion.
“And not just religions,” added Zeta, “but all philosophies and moral systems that give some detailed view of the good life.”
“But wait,” said Theta, “There are some comprehensive positions that do not understand the importance of mutual coexistence. Some wish to dominate or exclude the rest.”
“It seems,” replied Alpha, “that we will have to put limits on these comprehensive views, because if they become too influential without adopting a rule of tolerance, they would make life intolerable for the persons we might care about, should they be of a different persuasion.”
The angels decided to recommend a principle of equal liberty. It would allow every human being to formulate, revise, and pursue his or her conception of the good. Every human being would be able to belong to any philosophical or religious group of his choice, provided that the group itself recognized similar freedoms of conscience for other human beings.
Because of the importance of thinking intelligently about this kind of issue, the angels decided that the equal liberty principle ought to contain the following feature: Every human would have the right to be given the mental training, compatible with the resources of her society, to formulate and revise his or her conception of the good and, once she had formed it, to determine reasonably effective means to realize the good life of her choosing.
“But liberty is not enough,” said Angel Beta. “Humans are not disembodied. They need material things, and not just material things as found in nature, but material things that have already been worked up for human use.”
“True,” said Epsilon, “we'll have to address the issue of justice in the economy.”
“We've already agreed on the importance of liberty,” said Gamma. “Why not let humans make voluntary deals with each other that they then have to carry out?”
“But," said Rho, "we know from observation of human beings over the long run that deal making, left to itself, does not preserve liberty. It does not preserve liberty because over the long run it does not preserve even a rough equality. The rich tend to get richer and the poor poorer, because old wealth, which can first arise through an accident of nature, provides a lever to extract new wealth.”
“Yet," replied Sigma, :we should not deny persons with special talents the opportunity to improve their own situation.”
“True,” said Gamma, “but you notice that they almost always improve their own situation by being rewarded for their contribution to others.”
“The danger in deal-making,” said Rho, “is that people with prior advantages usually make deals among themselves to gain still further advantages while third parties, already less advantaged, turn out to suffer as an indirect result.”
“Yes, we saw that in racist or caste societies,” said Zeta. “The advantaged, privileged caste treats the social order as a club organized for its benefit, but it usually works out that the members of the other caste bale the hay or pick the cotton from which the profits accrue to the privileged caste.”
“I certainly would not want my person to belong to a group that was treated in this way,” said Sigma. “If there are going to be inequalities, let them not be determined by ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation but by some criterion relevant to a socially valuable task.”
Thus the angels agreed that the most desirable positions in the economy and government would be governed by a principle of equal opportunity.
“But the problem we were talking about before won't totally disappear even if racial and gender discrimination is ruled out,” said Rho. “It is still likely that persons with fewer assets and more handicaps will be gradually excluded from the benefits created by cooperation among the individuals with more talents and resources. This can happen even if the more advantaged persons intend no harm to the less advantaged.”
“The answer,” said Angel Phi, “seems to be to link rewards for talent with increasing the opportunities of the least advantaged. Only some such arrangement will prevent a constantly growing gap between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.”
Thus the angels drew up two principles, as follows:As they reflected on this set of principles, some angels recalled the oppressive societies that they had seen when they were learning about the arrangements possible among human beings. They realized that some societies had—and some did not have—ways of replacing unintelligent or power-hungry leaders when they began misusing their power.
- Each person has an equal right to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties which is compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
- Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions. First, they must be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and second, they must be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.1
“That means,” said Rho, “that it would make a big difference to your person whether he or she was in the leader group or not.”
“Humans who are not in the leader group might be subjugated or otherwise injured by those who are,” said Gamma, “and we do not know whether our humans are in that group or not.” “Perhaps,” said Zeta, “we should build into the principle of liberty the importance of political liberties. We have already discovered the importance of liberties to formulate, revise, and pursue a conception of happiness. But we should also include liberties to propose the specific rules that will govern society and to criticize rules adopted by the leaders.”
“And let us not leave out,” said Delta, “that free discussion of public issues must precede selection of leaders and that the leaders must be chosen by the people they will govern.”
“And,” added Beta, “that their deliberations on the people's business will be open and not secret.”
Finally, the angels called Gabriel in and reported the results of their discussion.
“What is the Big Fellow going to do with them?” Alpha asked.
“Well,” said Gabriel, looking at the principles. “I don't think he's going to change human nature so that humans automatically follow these principles.
“And I don't think he's going to announce them in a proclamation either. They are fairly abstract, you know, and humans, not being angels, find it difficult to remember principles that contain more than a dozen words.
“I would guess that He'll occasionally send prophets to reveal simplified versions of your discoveries. For example, humans might remember ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’
“Eventually humanity will have the entire collection, although most people may only dimly understand how the parts fit together.
“But some humans will discover these insights like needles in a haystack and value them more highly because they were difficult to collect.”
“You mean the Big Fellow may never reveal the whole set?” asked Alpha.
“Perhaps He will let a philosopher discover the whole set now and then. At least philosophers will not be put off by principles that contain more than a dozen words.”
1. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), p. 291.