a blog about philosophy in public affairs

Philosophical experiment about inequality

A cross-post with crooked timber  – written with Ingrid Robeyns.

Political philosophers often engage in thought experiments, which involve putting hypothetical persons in hypothetical scenario’s. However, it is often challenging to find ways to involve real, non-hypothetical, people with the questions we are dealing with, aside from the more traditional ways to engage in outreach such as debates and opinion pieces.  On the evening of Friday the 5th of October, the Fair Limits team – which studies the plausibility of upper limits in the distribution of economic and ecological resources – attempted a new way to engage the public by making use of a participatory “veil-of-ignorance” thought experiment.

On the evening of Friday the 5th of October in Tivoli/Vredenburgh (Utrecht, the Netherlands), the Fair Limits team contributed to the Betweter Festival, which was attended by over 2,000 people and celebrates science and the arts. Between concerts, lectures, and discussion sessions people could participate in several experiments.

In addition to a broader lecture, given by Ingrid Robeyns, the Fair Limits project also conducted an experiment at the Betweter Festival. We asked people to imagine that they had responsibility for the well-being of a child. However, they didn’t know anything about the specific child: nothing about the child’s health, or its intelligence, or talents. Moreover, they had to imagine they were not taking care of the child themselves, and that they had no control over the kind of family the child would grow up in. However, they had one important decision to make: Which world will the child be born into?

After this initial briefing, people were ushered into a closed off space, where they saw visual artistic representations, made by the artist Niels Sinke, of three different worlds, each governed by a very different distributive principle: an equal world, an unequal world and a world ‘in-between’.

Equal World

World In-between

Unequal World

In the equal world, people have roughly equal economic resources, healthcare is mainly preventive and income is guaranteed. Schools and universities are state funded and of roughly equal quality, with neither extremely bad nor extremely bad ones. In the unequal world, there is extreme poverty as well as great wealth. Access to healthcare depends on your ability to buy health-insurance, if you have the means many diseases are treatable but if you do not you are dependent on charity. There are fantastic universities, hospitals and museums, but these are only accessible to those from wealthier groups. The ‘in-between’ world has limited inequality, and healthcare is a mix of preventive and curative care. For rarer diseases people need more expensive insurance, not available to all, but the basics are covered. There is assurance against loss of income due to illness for a limited amount of time. Schools and Universities are partially state funded and of decent quality, but there are market-based elite schools for those who can afford it.

Based on these art works, and on brief written descriptions of what life is like in these different worlds, people had to make a decision: Which world would they want the child to live?

After they settled on a decision, participants had to report to “Fortuna” where they had to roll a dice and, based on the result, were given one of six cards on the table. On the card, the participants found a characterization of various facts about the child and description of how that child would fair in the different worlds. The participants read the result for their child in the world they chose out loud.

The possibilities were wide-ranging, but we focused on health, intelligence, and marketable talents, as well the family and social environment the child was born into. A talented child born into a very poor family in the unequal world would not be able to develop these talents, whereas a less talented child born into a well-connected family would do well. Whether a sick child could be treated, depended on the illness, the kind of insurance, and the level of technology available in the various worlds.

Over three hundred people participated in the experiment, and 261 participants casted a vote for their favored world. Most people went for the ‘in-between’ world (136) which, of course, resembles the Netherlands (although perhaps not our world!) most closely. The equal world came in second (69), and the unequal world appealed the least (47).

After learning about the impact of their choice on the child whose well-being they were entrusted with, the participants where ‘debriefed’ at the exit.  Why did they choose the world they chose? Are they happy with the result? Would they choose otherwise now? And, do you think the world is fair or did you just get lucky?

People offered a wide variety of reasons for their choices. Some appealed to freedom and equality, and the way these values where embodied in the different worlds. Others justified their choices by an appeal to human psychology or tendencies that worked out differently across the worlds. Is there an incentive to be productive in the equal world? If not, would that mean everybody is better off in the ‘in-between’ world? The experiment also forced people to consider the value of public provision of goods like education and healthcare. How important is it that everybody has access? Should we aim for the highest possible quality, even if that means excluding some?

We quickly learned one weakness of our set-up. Initially, we asked people to imagine they were going to have a child. The idea was, of course, that people would feel more attached and responsible for the child and, closer to the spirit of the veil of ignorance, less willing to take on some risks that they might if they assumed they were choosing for themselves. Perhaps somewhat naively we hadn’t thought of downsides. We very quickly found out that this hit a bit too close to home for some people. What about people who had lost a child, had wanted one and never had the chance, or young couples facing challenges conceiving?  One of the first potential participants walked away visibly upset after we explained the idea to her, another potential participant declined, telling us that he and his partner where trying to conceive and considered the experiment potentially upsetting. Although the new formulation did visibly touch some people, probably inevitably, no other participants declined to participate.

The experiment clearly made participants think. Many started to have doubts about their choice after the roll of the dice. People stuck around for a good discussion afterwards, and several groups of friends and couples continued to discuss what the right choice was well after the debriefing. Some people even came back later on in the evening to discuss an idea they had had after leaving. The set-up turned out to be a great way to get people to think about what kind of society we should aim for.

Mission Accomplished!

The Fair Limits team consists of Ingrid Robeyns, Colin Hickey, Petra van der Kooij, Dick Timmer, Bart Mijland and Tim Meijers. We also had help from three stellar volunteers.

Tim is assistant professor at Leiden University (Philosophy) and a postdoctoral researcher at the Ethics Institute in Utrecht University. He is interested in justice between generations, global justice, agency of justice, justice and the family, procreative ethics, and transitional justice.


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  1. Mitch Whitehead

    This sounds entirely captivating and, as a teacher of philosophy to young people, I would bite your hand off for a chance to gain access to the materials you used and run with them in the classroom.

    • Dear Mitch (if I may),

      I’d be happy to share the materials with you. They are in Dutch of course, but google translate should get you pretty far. Feel free to send me an email on my Leiden University account.


  2. Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

    Great experiment! I’m surprised by the number of people choosing the “in-between” world although it would cost them nothing to be utopian for once… A widespread world justification syndrom?

    Another thought: maybe the game structure of the experiment encourages gambling, trying an unequal world to see the result, given that the equal world is likely to be less surprising. Don’t you think?

    • Tim Meijers

      It may be simply another form of risk-aversity: going with what you know. Also, of course the people who come to this kind of thing generally did pretty well in that world!

      We tried to counter the tendency to gamble by making this about a child, not about oneself. Perhaps one feels it is OK to gamble with one’s own life. But with that of a child? I think many people who picked unequal world may not have taken the experiment very seriously, and thought they should go for a gamble. Not sure!

  3. Julia Hermann

    A very interesting experiment indeed! I fully understand why you decided to rephrase the initial set-up based on the reactions of some potential participants, however, I would assume that the reformulation has a significant impact on the choices people make. In the new set-up, people are asked to imagine that they are responsible for the well-being of a child with whom they have no emotional connection. You might ask why they should care at all about that child, given that it is not related to them in any way besides that they can make this one decision about its life.
    Do you have any thoughts about how the results of the experiment might have been different had you sticked to the original set-up? And are there notable differences between the choices of the people who participated before you changed the set-up and those who participated afterwards (or did only very few people do the experiment with the original set-up?)?

    • Tim Meijers

      We changed the set-up pretty quickly. I’m not sure whether it changed the outcome a lot: I guess if people take the idea of being responsible for seriously, the emotional connection might be less important. We really described their job as making the decision that they thought would be the best for the child. No way to know. Of course, our intention was never to measure any of this very precisely, the main goal was to get people to think about alternative ways to organize the world, and the very different role that good luck and bad luck play depends on how we organize it.

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