Monday, October 10, 2011

Class activities to illustrate theories of justice

A correspondent writes:
I'm currently TAing for intro to moral and political philosophy and Rawls is only two or three weeks away. I was curious if you had any good class activities that put students in somewhat of an original position. I'm never done class activities, but I think one where they end up committing themselves to what Rawls says they would would be very helpful. I haven't thought too hard about it yet, but giving them random envelopes detailing their positions in society and various abilities--but not letting them open them until after they decide on how to distribute goods--would seem to be in the right direction. Any help would be appreciated.
Anyone have any ideas here — not only about activities to motivate Rawls' theory of justice, but other theories as well? Harry of course has this classic exercise about justice and gender. Does anyone have other techniques to motivate theories of justice they could share?


  1. I've always thought that it ought to be possible to devise a good (i.e. educational but also fun) game along these lines, but I've never managed to work out the details. There is this though:

    And this:

  2. I’ve had some luck teaching Rawls by recreating the OP using the idea of a small island that has three classes: a talented professional class, a middle class, and a disadvantaged class. We come up with a short list of careers for each class. I usually have each student propose one career and we try to get a suitable distribution (20% disadvantaged, 20% advantaged, and 60% middle-class). Each student writes down the career they propose into a scrap of paper which goes into a bag. I think this part is particularly interesting in terms of the insight that you get into students ideas of how much different professions make and who they think of as middle class, advantaged, disadvantaged, etc. I then come up with a certain number of resources (i.e Dollars) that we need to distribute. We then discuss particular proposals for distribution from equal resources for all three classes, most efficient distribution (stipulating that more gains would be had by providing an incentive to the upper class), and maxi-min. I then have students vote on their preferred distribution. Finally, students pick out a career from a hat and find out where they ended up in the distribution. We then discuss whether they still are happy with their choice of distribution. It’s a somewhat complicated activity and it definitely takes up the whole class, but I think students find it quite fun and engaging.

  3. I haven't been able to find a good source for it, but there are "poverty games" out there that involve assigning players or groups of players different "backgrounds," with different levels of income, etc., and have them make budgets, cope with random events, etc. You could play the Poverty Game and then have students think about how they might want to write the rules for the game if they (a) didn't know which "background" they would be assigned, and (b) were playing for real money.

    Less elaborately, the last time I introduced Rawls, I said something like this: "Suppose I told you that I was going to give you an assignment. It could be anything from writing a paper to digging ditches. You, however, get to decide how much the assignment should count toward your grade. What percentage of your grade should depend on this assignment?" Most students showed strong risk aversion. In this case, they know what skills they have, but they don't know whether their skills will help them—that is, they don't know what relevant skills they have. This only gets at a small part of the veil of ignorance, but it does motivate the risk aversion that Rawls expects people to exhibit in the original position.

  4. I just discovered this blog! Awesome!

    You know the party game, where you've got a famous person's name taped to your back and the other guests have to help you guess who your famous person is? ("Elizabeth Taylor!" "Kim Kardashian!")

    I do that with students, sort of, when I teach Rawls. Give them characters structured a little like online gaming characters with "skill points" as well as attributes like age, gender, race, ability, intellect, income level, etc. Tape them to the students (or, if you want a less showy option, given them the information in sealed envelopes, but it's more fun if other people in the group know). Then, make them make social contracts, in small working groups, while they don't know who their characters are. Then, make them open the envelopes (or remove the pages from their backs) and roleplay their social contracts. Are they just for everyone, no matter what? Why or why not? It's a bit silly, but it's fun and people really learn things about the veil of ignorance. And since, in my moral philosophy class, we do "normal" contracts (i.e. without the original position) and build social contracts in groups from our own positions, the week before we do Rawls, it's pretty eye-opening about our class' members' own cooperative and equal potential. Now that I've written this, I'm really looking forward to this unit this semester!

  5. David - that's a cool application, I'm doing Rawls in a week or so, I may give that a whirl. Thanks to all these responses, actually, I'll keep them all in mind when I have the Rawls discussion next week.


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