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Edson Senna: Justice, the Veil of Ignorance, and Trayvon Martin

Posted on December 11, 2013
“What is justice?” A very deep question—one that could be debated forever. Philosophers dedicate their entire lives to seeking answers to questions like this. While I would love to spend pages discussing this topic, what intrigues me at the moment is how this question pertains to the Trayvon Martin case, specifically when viewed through Rawls’ theory of the veil of ignorance. Here is a brief overview of the veil of ignorance, the Trayvon Martin case, and a question that merits all of our attention.

Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance


John Bordley Rawls (1921-2002) was an American philosopher whose theories on justice are considered some of the most important work in moral and political philosophy. His work was so influential that his theories have been dubbed Rawlsianism. In his masterpiece, A Theory of Justice, Rawls states that the “most reasonable principles of justice are those everyone would accept and agree to from a fair position.” A “fair position,” according to Rawls, is one void of bias. To support this conclusion, Rawls developed several thought experiments. His most famous though experiment is the “veil of ignorance” experiment.

The ideology behind the veil of ignorance is that moral decisions in a society should be made without consideration  of race, gender, social standing, or any other characteristic that would influence a person’s decision-making process. The veil of ignorance was not a concept singular to Rawls; it comes from the theory of the social contract, which dates back to the Age of Enlightenment. In a social contract, individuals consent (either explicitly or implicitly) to  forfeit some of their freedoms and submit to an authority figure or the rule of the majority in exchange for the protection of their remaining rights. The social contract theory was not entirely unique to the Age of Enlightenment philosophers either; it has roots in Greek and Roman law and in Biblical texts.  So it appears that human beings have for centuries had some common feeling that societal decisions should be based on the greater good, rather than personal considerations.

In theory, the veil of ignorance sounds logical and obvious: we know that we cannot make social decisions based on the attributes of a subset of society or our laws would be biased and ineffective. But no one is free from bias or personal concerns. So we have a silent agreement that we will make societal decisions as if we were all wearing a blindfold. But is this more easily said than done?

The Trayvon Martin Case


On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, called the police to report a suspicious person who was walking around Zimmerman’s gated complex. Police told Zimmerman not to follow the person (later identified as Trayvon Martin) and agreed with Zimmerman on a place to meet. By the time police arrived, Zimmerman and Martin had engaged in a scuffle, and Zimmerman had fatally shot Martin. On April 11, 2012, Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder and plead self-defense. On July 13, 2013, a six-woman jury found Zimmerman not guilty.

It is telling to look at the reactions that Americans had to what is typically referred to as the “Trayvon Martin case.” Initially, Zimmerman was not charged because police did not believe that there were grounds to disprove Zimmerman’s story that he had acted in self-defense. However, one officer reported that he had received pressure from three other officers to charge Zimmerman anyway. One of these officers is rumored to be a friend of Martin’s father. Prior to Zimmerman’s charge on April 11, protests were staged across the United States. High-profile citizens spoke out, including Reverend Jesse Jackson and President Barack Obama. After Zimmerman was acquitted in July, the NAACP posted a petition formally requesting that Zimmerman be tried in a civil rights case. Zimmerman’s parents received death threats after the verdict and were too afraid to return to their home. A woman whose number was mistakenly identified as Zimmerman’s also received death threats, and threats were posted on the Seminole County Sheriff’s Department at the rate of 400 threats per minute. Several hate crimes have followed the verdict, in which white or Hispanic men were targeted by black assailants.

Where are these reactions coming from? From feelings that the verdict was wrong based on blind justice? Nationwide polls suggests otherwise. According to the polls, reactions to the jury’s verdict are split sharply along racial lines. Nearly 90% of African Americans called the shooting unjustified; only 33% of whites said it was unjust. If Americans as a whole were considering the case with a veil of ignorance over their eyes, wouldn’t these numbers be much less drastic? Wouldn’t reactions change from hate crimes to sympathy for those involved?

Our dedication to maintaining a veil of ignorance is something to consider as we contemplate social issues and our approach to them. To rally around a member of our own societal subset is natural and understandable. But when it affects the carrying out of the law which we have all agreed upon, it threatens the capacity for a peaceful society. Justice cannot be served if everyone looks at the law through the lens of gender, race, social standing, or any other personal considerations. Doing so would mean that laws could only serve certain groups of people. Someday we could be a Zimmerman, a Martin, or their families, and it is crucial to decide beforehand how we view justice.

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Edson Senna is a freelance writer who enjoys writing about law and finance. He sometimes does consulting for California Lemon Law Attorney Jon Jacobs. Edson is single and enjoys reading and dancing.