Ethics and Love: An Examination of Human Will and the Veil of Ignorance

But Christianity never suffers a man to go in vain, not even a single step, for when you open the door which you shut in order to pray to God, the first person you meet as you go out is your neighbor whom you shall love.
~ Kierkegaard from Works of Love

An everyday Christian (whoever that might be) may inventory various ethical propositions and decide that all have their strengths and that none are entirely favorable. That Christian may then determine, motivated by faith or by tradition, to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all other pretenders for the pinnacle of the ethical, and that which will systematically envelop all possible conditions. And let us say our Christian, with full care and consideration, develops such a theory, with the Christ as his center and God the Father as his master. Will not, then, this ennobled person still struggle against the masses of people who would, without hesitation, denounce or, worse yet, merely shrug away his system, just for being from a different world (or bowing to a different god) than theirs? Might not, then, this Christian seek an ethical approach that would unify the goals of faith and tradition with the general desires of humanity (if there be such a thing) even merely only as a strategy?

Certainly, a method of approach is needed, for to spring too quickly is the hunter’s faux pas. One must be a modern ethnographer of sorts, slowly assimilating into the world of the people under scrutiny, while keeping, secretly of course, a safe moral distance. And this Christian will certainly realize the best methods tend to encourage the participation of those for whom conversion is the goal. In other words, people will more likely accept a conclusion they helped to create than one thrust upon them, especially one that determines the courses of their future actions. And if a Christian ethics is likely to have at its core a series of obligations, then a method that also seeks obligations is a strategy worth considering.

Looking for a method of participation toward obligations, our Christian might choose the philosophical thought experiment of John Rawls. In A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls proposed a kind of mental game (but a game of serious implications nonetheless). What if, he suggested, one were to try and mentally create the best possible world, by way of a social contract of sorts, with one significant caveat: one would not and cannot know where one will end up in that world? In other words, think of a world in any fashion one chooses while keeping in mind that one may end up in power or poverty, in India or France, in silk suits or in chains. What kind of world will one envision? The mental experiment is a kind of research in reincarnation where one imagines the next life and then has to accept one’s fate on the other side. Not knowing where one will be in this imaginary world is a kind of conditional ignorance Rawls calls the original position, or the veil of ignorance. The neat trick of this original position is that as one seeks his own advantage, he must seek the advantage of all. The seriousness of Rawls’ experiment is that one is really thinking about this world and creating the foundational ideas that may undergird a platform for change.

A friend of our Christian may ask what is it about this world that needs changing? If one does not say “everything,” then one might as well start choosing particulars. Our Christian may state that a good place to start is with economic injustice, and that seems fair enough.


Shell and the Niger Delta

One child died after being caught in the crude. About 20 of our people are going to hospital each day with skin problems, breathing difficulties and other illnesses.

(Sustained misery: Shell in the Niger Delta, p. 1)

The world needs oil. The world, in this sense, is the industrialized and proto-industrialized world; an ever ravenous beast for petroleum and its myriad of products, from gas to power our oversized SUVs to the non-animal, synthetic fabric products used to make the outdoor clothing of nature enthusiasts. Backroom deals are made over oil, wars are fought over oil, and debates about need, greed, and the future of oil are part and parcel of our world. And occasionally, even in the midst of the already fomented controversies about oil, there are cases that raise additional questions, if only because of their scale and/or implications. Shell Oil production in the Niger Delta region of Africa is just such a case.

Nigeria is the most populous country in Africa. Oil and natural gas are Nigeria’s largest industries accounting for more than 98% of export earnings and about 83% of government revenue, and around 40% of it GDP. (Petroleum in Nigeria) Most of that oil is located in the Niger Delta region. Nigeria is also the 10th largest oil producing nation and the U.S. remains its largest customer of crude oil, accounting for about 40% of Nigeria’s total oil exports. From the time the British discovered oil in Nigeria in the 1950s the industry has been marred by political and economic difficulties, including corrupt military regimes, collusion between foreign oil companies and Nigeria’s government, abuse of indigenous peoples, and significant, ongoing pollution of the region. Although all the major oil producing companies have their stake in Nigeria, Royal Dutch Shell (locally known as Shell Nigeria) has by far the largest investment and produces about 50% of Nigeria’s total oil extraction.

The physical impact of oil extraction has taken a significant toll on the people and environment of the Niger Delta. Correspondingly, almost none of the vast wealth produced by the oil extraction has gone to the people in the region. Uncountable oil spills have created such a level of pollution that any hope of reclaiming the land to even an approximation of its original health is largely fantasy. Neither Shell, nor the Nigerian government, has shown much interest in either cleaning up the mess or reducing the causes of the pollution.

The human toll has also been high. Many Nigerian citizens suffer from air, water, and soil pollution. There is little to no doubt that much of the human suffering in the Niger Delta region comes from the insidious curse of oil and related contamination. Bronchial asthma and other respiratory diseases, gastro-enteritis, and cancer have all been recorded at significantly higher levels among those in the region than elsewhere. Neither Shell nor the Nigerian government have shown much interest in alleviating the suffering or addressing the obvious sources of the suffering.

One area of investment of great importance to Shell is helping to fund the Nigerian military. The military, under the auspices of protecting Shell from unlawful harm and dissent, have killed numerous indigenous people, destroyed several villages outright, and brutally stopped peaceful, non-violent protests. Shell has admitted to purchasing weapons for the military and of paying specifically for the military to go into villages which, in each case, has resulted in death.

Much more can be said of the role of Shell and other oil companies in the Niger Delta. The overwhelming question is not whether Shell, in collusion with the Nigerian government, is doing bad things. That is fairly obvious, even in light of the great apparent value of having billions of gallons of oil available to the world’s economic system. The question is why do these things happen? Why do companies, and apparently the people that run them, seem to care more for innumerable profits and the power necessary to guarantee those profits than for what we all, in our better moments, claim to be of a higher good, that is, human life in its fullest and most meaningful sense? Does the answer lie with economic systems or with human nature? Or both?

Working Women in a Global Economy

Exploiting the circumstance of vulnerable people – whether intentionally or not – is at the heart of many employment strategies in global supply chains.

(Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004, p. 4)

For a citizen of an post-industrialized consumer society, where goods are offered in vast quantities and competitive prices, the global supply chain is critical to economic maintenance. With margins to be managed all along the way, goods must be produced quickly, efficiently, and at virtually no cost. Laborers must (as so-called free markets dictate) be found who will work without complaint for low wages. In other words, exploitation of human life-energy, in its more negative connotation, is becoming increasingly de rigueur for modern global economies supplying consumer based societies.

Certainly there is nothing new in exploiting human labor for one’s own gain. The pharaohs built their pyramids, the caesars conquered the known world, and U.S. farmers harvested their cotton by the sweat of the subjugated, conscripted, and vanquished. What makes the present day so singular is the combination of scale, perceptions, possibilities, and gender.

Increasingly, women are playing a central role in the global supply chain. In fact, the majority of jobs at the end of the chain, from sewing, to harvesting and packing fruit, to making shoes, are done by women. Given the poverty of the countries where many of these women live one might assume that having the opportunity to participate in the global supply chain ,working for some international company producing goods for affluent societies, would provide a release from the shackles of penury. All too often the very opposite seems to be the truth. The following examples were taken from a recent Oxfam report (Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains, 2004):

  • In Chile, 75 per cent of women in the agricultural sector are hired on temporary contracts picking fruit, and put in more than 60 hours a week during the season. But one in three still earns below the minimum wage.
  • Fewer then half of the women employed in Bangladesh’s textile and garment export sector have a contract, and the vast majority get no maternity or health coverage – but 80 per cent fear dismissal if they complain.
  • In China’s Guangdong province, one of the world’s fastest growing industrial areas, young women face 150 hours of overtime each month in the garment factories – but 60 per cent have no written contract and 90 per cent have no access to social insurance.

When one walks into a major retailer, a supermarket, or any other conveyor of goods in North America or Europe, one is likely to be confronted by products made by underpaid, overworked laborers from the global exploitation network. Marx was concerned that workers in capitalistic economies would lose contact with the results of their work, that they would become alienated from the very product of their own energy and efforts, and even from labor itself. Ironically, it is not only the laborer who have become alienated from their products, it is the consumer who has become alienated from the reality of their consumables. The shopper perusing the shelves in The Gap, or Target, or Wall-Mart, or Safeway is typically unaware of the toil behind the products displayed before them, or the true cost of those products. And the true cost is increasingly carried by the women (and their families) who toil in harsh conditions, with low pay, no benefits, and little guarantees. Therefore, it is not only the companies who rely on these women, but it is the pleasantly ignorant consumers who are, though unaware they may be, happy to let someone else bear the burden.

Might there be a different way to doing global economies? The question is not about the rightness or wrongness of abusing women’s social positions within the global supply chain for economic gain, for its wrongness is evident. Rather, the question is how is it that so much injustice seems to be a part of a system that so many apparently good, ordinary people readily accept? Where is Adam Smith’s invisible hand guiding all these selfish desires toward the best possible outcomes for everyone? Or maybe the solution is, in fact, not an invisible hand at all, but a will toward love.

Putting Meat on the Table

Worker looses hand. Worker loses legs. Worker killed.

(Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants, 2005, p. 2)

At you local grocer, neatly wrapped in clear plastic and styrofoam, laying in rows under bring lights, are the appealing displays of relatively fresh meat, from poultry to beef, pork to veal. But the packaging belies a deeper truth than what’s for dinner. Certainly, one truth is that meat comes from animals and does not magically appear at the store; somewhere an animal had to die for this display of tasty comestibles to exist. However, another more serious truth lies behind these neat rows of animal protein, that is the human toll of the meatpacking industry.

In the U.S., the meatpacking industry, with its slaughtering and processing plants churning out mass quantities of products for the American table, is home to some of the most dangerous jobs in the world. More significantly is the harsh reality facing the workers in these factories. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report (Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants): “Employers put workers at predictable risk of serious physical injury even though the means to avoid such injury are known and feasible. They frustrate workers’ efforts to obtain compensation for workplace injuries when they occur. They aggressively block workers’ self-organizing efforts and rights of association. They exploit the vulnerabilities of a predominantly immigrant labor force in many of their work site.” (p. 1)

Workers put in long hours, face possible death, amputation, and maiming daily, are not allowed freedom of association, fear reporting injuries for fear of being fired, and suffer ignominious treatment in abject conditions due, not least in part, to the fact that many of the workers are immigrants. According the report, these abuses are not rare, isolated cases (bad enough as that would be), but represent “systematic human rights violations embedded in meat and poultry industry employment.” (p. 1) A great amount of ink has been spilled defending the rights of animals against the meat and poultry industry. Little has been said, unfortunately, about the human toll.

The report also highlights that the U.S. government has committed itself to upholding and protecting rights guaranteed in several critical international documents, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and members Families. These documents have formally established at least the following workers’ rights: (a) A safe and healthful workplace, (b) compensation for workplace injuries and illnesses, (c) freedom of association and the right to form trade unions and bargain collectively, (d) equality of conditions and the rights for immigrant workers. The U.S. government has failed to promote and enforce these obligations.

Surely the troubles here described are not merely a government issue about enforcing obligations accepted by the international community. A more fundamental question is why do such abuses of seemingly obvious human rights happen, or maybe “happen” is not the right word. At every turn, as in all of life, choice is available for each player in the process. For some, choice has little personal consequences, for others, choice is a matter of life and death. Using and abusing other persons for one’s own ends is a choice, it does not just happen, regardless of how uncritically one approaches those choices. But the question remains, why do such abuses happen? Where is the basic goodness that we are told people have innately within them? If people are basically good, where then is the rebellion against evil choices? Why is there so much room for selfishness, greed, and the acceptance of other people’s suffering? Could it be that we are without an adequate system of ethics, even an adequate system of economics, to guide us? Could it be that the world is fundamentally the victim of a false idea? If so, where then is the answer to be found?


” . . . [E]xtorted promises are void ab initio.”

~ John Rawls

Applying Rawls’ thought experiment to these case studies forces one to consider the possibility that one could end up as an indigenous person in the Niger Delta, or a woman in Bangladesh making garments for large retail chains, or an immigrant worker in a U.S. meatpacking plant. The potential reality of such an experiment, if it truly could be advanced into real change, would likely be the unraveling of much of the world’s systems, from economic to political, the social to the religious. Rawls’ argues that the implications of his experiment lead to two fundamental principles or maxims.

  1. Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.
  2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, and b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

With these maxims in one hand and the case studies in the other, one might imagine how the world could be different. Shell Oil and the Nigerian government would have to consider the inherent inequalities between the vast wealth produced by oil production and the relative poverty and sufferings of local residents and seek to develop a system where pollution is better controlled and more of the wealth is given to the local population. For the global supply chain, one would seek to provide adequate benefits and minimum pay for women workers. For the U.S. meatpacking industry, allowances for worker associations and adequate representation would need to be allowed and encouraged. Obviously, these changes would only be the tip of a vast iceberg. In fact, so many changes would be necessary to carry forth Rawls’ experiment from theory to action that many of the issues described in the case studies would cease to be issues just because the fundamental inequalities that make the case studies the examples they are would disappear.

The irony is that Rawls’ thought experiment is unnecessary, though not without individual value. This new and improved world has already been imagined and, though imperfectly, been codified. If our economic and political systems were truly based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant of Economics, Social and Cultural Rights, et al., then would not Rawls’ experiment be made manifest, at least to a significant degree? Which raises the question: Is the issue an issue of imagination, or even of knowledge? Do we need to build another castle in the air? Or is the issue about something much deeper and profound, at the level of our individual wills and desires?


And the second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

~ Matthew 22:39

The dilemma with systems of ethics is that the human heart always finds a way of disregarding them. More importantly, the human heart, history shows us, is capable of great goodness and indescribable evil, and every shade in between. Both the goodness and the evil of the human will can be exacerbated by systems, even as it seeks to overcome them. For Rawls there are two systems, one is the method of deriving the other. Both are capable of being influenced by the corrosive forces of power seeking, arrogance, and self deception. And neither have an answer for ignorance. Rawls’ original position is also a position of perfection, an ideal seeking after an ideal. Is this, then, a truly feasible solution? No, and yet ideals are what create the greatest forces for change. How then shall our everyday Christian friend find a true solution? Maybe the answer lies not with a question, but with an exhortation, and not an exhortation to be ethical, but to love one’s neighbor as oneself.

Questions of rights have ways of getting tangled. Business and political leaders can twist out of many ethical questions, or can redefine them in slightly different terms, or can deny them on some imaginary higher grounds. That is because ethics is an outward proposition. Ethics asks people (mainly other people) to change their behaviors regardless of their inward desires. Love seeks to change the core of people, to make them better, to seek what is ultimately good in spite of failures and poor choices. If the powerful decision makers of Shell Oil, the captains of the global supply chain, and the capitalists of the U.S. meatpacking industry were to truly and honestly adopt Rawls maxims there would be significant change for the better. That is certainly true. But if those same decision makers, captains, and capitalists were to love their neighbors (and maybe that is all Rawls really intended) then something truly transforming would happen, and not merely to the loved, but also to the one who loves.

At this point our fearless everyday Christian may realize that an impasse is looming. The strategy of choosing a method that seeks obligations cannot change the human heart. All it can do is build another system with a set of maxims by which to live. It cannot solve the dilemma of good intentions corrupted by ever present evil. Might then our Christian turn back to God and ask for wisdom. And in this turning back, might our Christian have finally set himself on the path for which he set out, namely to construct a Christian ethics, one that will trump all others? The path might be narrow, but it is well worn: “He has showed you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

A final note

I wrote this paper in 2006 for a business ethics course as part of my MBA degree. I do not think I would change anything in it, though I feel my thinking has progressed somewhat and, if anything, I would expand the paper significantly. Fundamentally I still believe that a critique of business from a moral/ethical stance must include a recognition of the existential nature of human beings. Answers are not found in systems, though some systems are far better than others, rather answers are found in God’s working on the human heart, and that remains a mystery still.


Blood, sweat, and fear: Workers’ rights in the U.S. meat and poultry plants. (2005). Human Rights Watch report. Retrieved Friday, March 17th, 2006 from

Kierkegaard, S. (1962). Works of love: Some christian reflections in the form of discourses (H. Hong & E. Hong. Trans.). New York: Harper & Row, Publishers.

Petroleum in Nigeria. (n.d.) Retrieved Tuesday, March 14, 2006 from

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press.

Sustained misery: Shell in the Niger Delta. (n.d.) Christian Aid report. Retrieved Monday, March 13th, 2006 from

Trading away our rights: Women working in global supply chains. (2004). Oxfam International report. Retrieved Monday, March 13th, 2006 from

Additional sources

Compa, L. and Fellner, J. (2003) Meatpacking’s human toll. Washington Post. Retrieved Monday, March 20th, 2006 from

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