People don't want equality, they want inferiority

There was no shortage of willing skivvies and flunkies out there, hungry for a bit of structured injustice
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The Independent Online

The great thing about thought experiments is that you never have to wash up afterwards and it's virtually impossible to blow yourself to pieces. Demonic computers can self-destruct ­ in the sort of cheesy sci-fi movies in which astronauts tap in theological paradoxes to short circuit the logic chips and make smoke come out of the ventilation slats. But human beings just tend to get crotchety and perplexed and move on to simpler dilemmas ­ such as whether to "go large" on the Coke and fries.

The great thing about thought experiments is that you never have to wash up afterwards and it's virtually impossible to blow yourself to pieces. Demonic computers can self-destruct ­ in the sort of cheesy sci-fi movies in which astronauts tap in theological paradoxes to short circuit the logic chips and make smoke come out of the ventilation slats. But human beings just tend to get crotchety and perplexed and move on to simpler dilemmas ­ such as whether to "go large" on the Coke and fries.

The bad thing about thought experiments, on the other hand, is that it's very difficult to check whether your equipment is faulty before you start. And I'm not simply talking about the intellect running the program here, but also the raw data that gets fed in in the first place.

I was thinking about this after watching two television programmes this week, both of which presented themselves as vaguely academic in their ambitions. By chance, Channel 4's dressing-up box recreation of life in an Edwardian country house finds itself running directly opposite The Experiment on BBC2 ­ a solemnly self-important exercise in which 14 obliging human guinea-pigs have locked themselves into a hi-tech prison.

And while the settings for these two exercises are ostensibly very different, the human dynamics they involve are almost identical. Within a highly regulated regime, some people find themselves on the bottom rungs and others in positions where they can command obedience and ­ in theory anyway ­ respect. What's more there's a shared sense of incarceration ­ this week one of the country house's inhabitants called it a "gilded cage".

The Edwardian Country House is a very good programme and The Experiment a rather dreary one ­ given to underwhelming aperçus such as "the prisoners are demoralised by being at the bottom of an unequal society". But what's really intriguing about both of them is that they also contradict our simple assumption that, all things being equal, everybody would choose to be on top.

The American philosopher John Rawls once proposed that when people set out to define what a just society should be they should do so under "the veil of ignorance". In other words they wouldn't know in advance where they would end up in the society they created. The point of this was to get round the apparently intractable problem of self-interest by allowing it completely free expression. Rather than straining to imagine themselves as impartial on behalf of underdogs ­ those working out the basic social contract would be obliged, by the fear that they might end up as the lowest dog of all, to come up with an with arrangement that looked good from the gutter.

The veil of ignorance, in other words, is a philosopher's equivalent of the gameshow blindfold ­ it's a device to stop us cheating. And it's obviously not there because there's a notorious human tendency to empathise with the disadvantaged. It broadly assumes that when we think of an ideal world we are prone to thinking of ourselves as ideally placed within it.

Both The Experiment and The Edwardian Country House suggest otherwise. In the first episode of The Experiment, for instance, some of the "guards" expressed their disappointment at coming out on top in the lottery, saying they would have preferred to be prisoners. And when the carrot of a promotion was offered to the prisoners ­ bringing with it much better food and conditions ­ only a few of them were actively interested. They sniffed at elevation like a dog nudging at a piece of poisoned meat.

More startling still was the experience of the producers who worked on The Edwardian Country House. They discovered that out of more than 8,000 applicants only 500 had volunteered to live high on the hog. All the rest had knowingly consigned themselves to the hog's underbelly, in among the hair and the muddy nipples. There were practical reasons for the imbalance. If you wanted to be rich you had to volunteer en famille and how many families can take a three-month sabbatical from modernity? But even so there was no shortage of willing skivvies and flunkies out there ­ apparently hungry for a bit of structured injustice.

On screen, Mr Edgar, the house butler, is a living affront to our notions of human worth, unbending in his application of the rules. You would have thought that his unctuous insistence on rank and deference would have made him the lightning rod for the staff's resentment. But in life it turned out that he generated a considerable affection in the staff he commanded ­ many of whom seemed perfectly happy not to have to think too hard about what they might do next.

It's possible, of course, that this is egalitarianism in action ­ that we are now so imbued with democratic liberty that we shudder at the thought of placing ourselves above our fellow man, however artificial the circumstances. That's certainly the explanation that's been given for developments in The Experiment, where the prisoners are working their way up to a rooftop protest and the guards are fretting about how they've hurt their feelings. But it's also clear that one of the things that has made the prisoners so resentful is their sense that they are not being bossed about in a respectable manner. They feel humiliated that they're being humiliated so pathetically.

In The Edwardian Country House too there's a powerful nostalgia for a world in which what's expected of you is precisely laid down ­ rather than open to your own unreliable whim ­ or that of other people. These are people from whom the peculiarly modern burden of self-definition has been lifted, people in whom dissatisfaction can always find a convenient resting place outside of their own shortcomings. Both programmes raise the blasphemous possibility ­ in our piously egalitarian world ­ that people may not be all that worried about equality of opportunity after all. The "veil of ignorance" might be hiding more than it reveals.

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