Open Lifespan and knowing our age in Rawls’s Original Position

Another quick post, from the beach of Lake Balaton, stealing some precious family vacation time, also our train leaves soon for Budapest [1]. On the other hand I’ve been thinking on this topic for a while now. In our last post entitled Open lifespan as a coherent life plan enables super-agency we already mentioned one important concept of John Rawls, the concept of rational life plan. Today we go much deeper into Rawls, behind the life plan concept, at the heart of his foundational justice theory.
Our foreground argumentation deals with the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’ in the ‘original position’: a thought experiment leading to a just society.
Our background deeper question: How would knowing our chronological age impact our impartiality, self-interest and our self-assessment?

Here’s a great quick introduction using Enhancing John Rawls’s Theory of Justice to Cover Health and Social Determinants of Health by Perihan Elif Ekmekci and Berna Arda:
Individuals need some fundamental resources to realize their life plans; these are called “primary goods”. Primary goods may be defined as the things free and equal citizens need all through their lives to live as a normal and social member of the society. Rights, freedoms, income and welfare are the essential elements of the primary goods set. Primary goods are natural or social by source. Natural primary goods are the ones which are due to the natural lottery rather than the distribution by the social institutions. Depending on the natural lottery individuals may have or lack these resources.
Rawls’s theory of justice aims to constitute a system to ensure the fair distribution of primary social goods. This system requires the establishment of institutions to distribute primary social goods according to the principles of justice and fairness. The institutions established for the fair distribution of primary social goods are the subjects of justice. Rawls imagines a hypothetical original position to determine the principles of justice. Individuals are considered to be rational and capable of making rationalistic decisions as a priory. Another a priori acceptance is that individuals know how the greatest utility would be achieved and what the highest good is when they are in the original position, gathered to decide on the principles. Individuals are considered to be behind a veil of ignorance when they are in the original position. Veil of ignorance creates an environment in which the individuals are ignorant about their social status, gender, age, ethnicity, abilities, level of intelligence, level of education and likewise

A short methodological consideration

A typical method am following here when dealing with important texts and concepts of other philosophers, whose thinking obviously have not included the counterfactual scenario of open lifespan is to ask what happens with their concepts and arguments if we assume open lifespan. What we care about is how to re-use, re-mix the concepts and parts of the argumentation for the philosophy of open lifespan, to be able to show how open lifespan as a thought experiment can be embedded into existing philosophies and modify them and more importantly how the philosophy of open lifespan can benefit from existing argumentation and conceptual frameworks. In terms of historical reconstruction, what the real X might have thought et cetera: I don’t really care about it although occasionally I use secondary literature using such reconstructions.

Body of argumentation

Here are the 3 main background assumptions for the argument to work.

Knowing our age or not: It is not known whether in the original position people would know their chronological age or not, Rawls does not explicitly assumes either way as far as we know. I’m not a Rawls researcher so don’t really know. But the assumption is that for his argumentation which aims for simplicity age is not needed so it is behind the veil of ignorance. (see citation) I’d like to show that whether age is known or not known it leads to serious problems in Rawls’ argumentation, forming a dilemma, out of which we will offer the assumption of open lifespan as a way out.
Closed lifespan: The background assumption for both parts of the dilemma is closed lifespan with a capped maximum lifespan and current life-expectancy with well-known health trajectories.
Persons with biological bodies: Although the ‘thick veil of ignorance’ abstracts away from most characteristics of people to focus on impartiality, it cannot be as thick as to abstract away from biological bodies as carriers of those persons. Abstracting away from the biological bodies and assuming say, brains in a vat or physical carriers as thin as bit based computer programs running on machines would endanger the very realistic aspects of present-day, ’traditional’ people forming societies that we should have in our mind when thinking through the original position thought experiment.

Let’s see now the actual argument.

1. The first branch of the dilemma: Let us assume that people know their particular chronological age in the original position. (See another discussion point here about how many ways can we know our ages). Assuming current life expectancy and closed lifespan what would happen if we were to know our chronological age? In that case assuming closed lifespan, people in late life would be well aware of the frequent occurrence of age-associated diseases and functional decline. So people were able to statistically predict our health status and that would compromise their impartiality.
2. The second branch of the dilemma: Let us assume that people don’t know their actual age. This is the usual assumption in the literature. Here my argumentation plans to show that it creates a problem. I’m going to provide different arguments on why knowing our chronological age is important enough to be included in the original position but right now let’s just mention one such argument here. Not knowing our age means we don’t know at which point we are in our own life trajectory. If we don’t know this we cannot assess whether our life is going according to our life plan or not. We don’t know our own conception of good in the original position but we know we do have a conception of good in order to be able to execute our life plan. Similarly we don’t need to know our particular rational life plan but we need to know at which point we are at in executing our life plan to be able to see whether we align to this life plan or to be able to see whether we need to amend our life plan. Knowing our own age serves as a basic reference point in the execution of our life plan. Knowing our own age is therefore instrumental in us being rational being in the Rawlsian sense so we need to know our age in the original position (+-n years if we consider life stages, life periods or life sequences instead of instants and particular ages) in order to fulfil the rationality criterion.
3. Bring in Open Lifespan: But let’s assume that the original position is a possible world where Open Lifespan is accessible for all who are choosing it. So here we abandon our closed lifespan background assumption and make it open in the argument, please note logically speaking we only needed closed lifespan to create the dilemma above in the first place, to create the starting point of our argument.  Open Lifespan based on open healthspan equalises (or neutralises) all adult chronological ages with respect to probability of potential health status by keeping age-associated functional decline and increasing mortality continuously at bay. So mortality rate is practically the same for all adult chronological ages.
4. Resolving the dilemma: Both problems leading to the branches of the dilemma have been resolved this way, as the problems associated with them under Closed Lifespan are not problems anymore. Knowing our chronological age under Open Lifespan won’t compromise our impartiality in the ‘health care’ sense as Open Lifespan equalises/neutralises all adult chronological ages with near-constant biological ages. On the other hand,  this does not lead to complete age-ignorance, and we know just enough about our age (or life stage, period) to use it in the execution of our life plan.
5. Mirror Conclusion 1: The Open Lifespan assumption saves Rawls’ crucial justice as fairness argumentation. This is a theoretical conclusion, dealing with the inner things of philosophy.
6. Mirror Conclusion 2, more relevant for Open Lifespan: Open Lifespan leads to a more just society than Closed Lifespan as justice as fairness has a bigger chance to succeed in a society where age cannot be used as a ground for discrimination. This is more of  a practical conclusion and we’ll analyse it further. (For many ‘life extension’ supporters this is a trivial conclusion but for most people, including most philosophers, it is probably not).


[1] Since the original publication of the post I had time to significantly update the ‘Body of argumentation’ section. This update is my attempt to clarify 2 comments made by Janos Kis. Professor Kis, although not the formal supervisor of my philosophy M.A. thesis back in 2004, advised me extensively. I’m grateful for the short comments as besides being important those were the first actual comments made on my current Open Lifespan book blog.

[2] ‘Veil of ignorance creates an environment in which the individuals are ignorant about their social status, gender, age, ethnicity, abilities, level of intelligence, level of education and likewise.’