John Rawls, arguably the most important American political philosopher of the 20th century, proposed that laws be written behind a "veil of ignorance" about who would benefit and who be harmed by the measures. In particular, the lawmakers should not know whether they themselves would benefit from the laws.
This is, of course, an impossible condition in the real world. But impossibility has never been a hindrance to the philosopher's imagination. The shadow people in Plato's cave were a figment of his imagination, but a useful one. Likewise Rawls's veil of ignorance, which would encourage legislators to be guided by the best interest of society as a whole, rather than that of themselves and their friends.
A simple example of the principle is the you-cut-I-choose strategy for sharing a sandwich. If I make an unfair cut, I'll wind up with the short end of the hero. In game theory this is called maximin, for maximizing the minimum payout.
The effect of this strategy is to emphasize the welfare of the least favored groups in society. The lawmakers behind the veil of ignorance don't know if they might be in one of these unfavored groups; by hedging their own downside risk, they ensure the welfare of the marginalized.
The veil of ignorance is already employed in certain aspects of modern life. Academic papers are submitted to review by referees who do not know the identity of the author. Nor does the author know the identity of the referees. The analogy is not exact. The referees do know they are not the author, and vice versa. Still, the veil of academic ignorance reduces the chances of playing favorites on grounds other than professional quality.
In an earlier time, a version of the veil of ignorance was applied in journalism. Newspapers did not usually identify the authors of their articles. Writers of opinion pieces often used noms de plume. Articles and essays were supposed to be judged on the evidence they adduced and the logic they employed, and not on the reputation or authority of the authors. Women authors of novels often used pen names to disguise the fact that they were women, lest their work be discounted for that reason.
These days the veil of ignorance is often thought an affront to the primacy of identity. Authors take pains to establish their legitimacy by relating their life stories to the things they write about. Hands wring and tweets fly when the author's biography and the author's subject do not align closely enough.
The veil of ignorance has come under particular attack from those who believe that discrimination in the past mandates counterdiscrimination in the present. Affirmative action is possible only if the veil of ignorance regarding race, gender and ethnicity is stripped away from applications for jobs and schools.
John Rawls's theory of justice was based on the principle of fairness. In fact, while his most important book is his 1971 Theory of Justice, a 1985 sequel bears the title Justice as Fairness. To the generation that came of age during the 1940s and 1950s, as Rawls did, fairness seemed a good basis for a just society. Racial segregation was patently unfair and therefore unjust. Civil rights leaders of the 1950s and 1960s wanted all people to be treated equally. Most would have been thrilled with a veil of ignorance in the marketplace and the voting booth.
The advantage of the principle of fairness is that it seems to be innate in humans. The first complaint that children often express in social settings is, "It's not fair!" Their parents have to explain that life isn't fair; to which the kids respond, "Well, it ought to be."
It takes sophistication—shading into sophistry—to master the arguments for unfairness in the name of fairness, of rectifying past wrongs. Those who didn't commit the wrongs are seldom persuaded. When the policy is imposed on them anyway, they develop their own sense of grievance. And politics becomes a battle of dueling grievances, a zero sum tit-for-tat with no obvious end.
Kids aren't always right. That's why they need parents. But sometimes they are. Put otherwise, if you can't justify a policy to a five-year-old, maybe you should re-examine the policy.
When Brands wrote "A simple example of the principle is the you-cut-I-choose strategy for sharing a sandwich. If I make an unfair cut, I'll wind up with the short end of the hero," it brought back memories of my childhood. If there was an extra piece of pie or cake, my dad would tell me and my brother: "One of you cuts it in two; the other gets to choose." That ensured the one doing the cutting didn't try to cheat.
Equal fairness in society would an ideal state. The problem with eliminating things like affirmative action is that it entrenches unfairness. When a marginalized group has been held back for decades, suddenly asserting things are all equal is fine and great for the groups already ahead. There's almost no possible way for the marginalized groups to make up ground to actually BE equal without a leg up- which our society clearly shows it won't allow. Sadly.
If fairness could be implemented in an actual fair manner, then elimination of affirmative action could be effective. A good example is in audition for symphonies. Years ago, players would audition in the open before a panel. The bias was clearly in for white male musicians. But a number of years ago, audition now began to be held with musicians behind a screen. The only metric the panel had was the notes wafting over the barrier- no visual as to appearance, race or gender. Orchestras are now quite diverse and intergrated.
But barriers to jobs. loans, housing and such are more difficult to overcome because they are seldom if ever done behind a barrier.