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Social Climate

Opinion polling as fairness

/ 11:22 PM September 13, 2013

“Justice as fairness” was the title of the seminar by Zosimo Lee, professor of philosophy at the University of the Philippines, that was enjoyed by the staff, fellows and friends of SWS last Wednesday.  It was on the ideas of John Rawls, arguably the greatest political philosopher of the 20th century, who influenced our own Jose W. Diokno (see my “Inclusivity comes first,” Inquirer, 8/3/2013).

The SWS Fellows include more than one Rawlsian. Raul Pangalangan, Inquirer publisher, was a teaching fellow in a course about Rawls while a graduate student at Harvard; he came to listen to Zos. SWS board member Tony La Viña, dean of  the Ateneo School of Government, makes Rawls’ classic book “A Theory of Justice” required reading for his students.  Vlad Licudine, our Islamic specialist and a philosophy major, is a new convert.  And Zos will be joining our society, too.

Rawls addressed the issue of what principles of justice would be agreed upon, voluntarily and unanimously, by individuals in positions of absolute fairness.  He supposed a “veil of ignorance” keeping individuals from knowing anything about their own circumstances—gender, age, race, nationality,  religion, social status, physical features, etc.—so that no one would have any advantage or disadvantage.


Rawls’ theory only assumes that the individuals are rational and are capable of sensing justice and of pursuing a conception of the good. In short, they have consciences.

Rawls concluded that the individuals, given their original positions of fairness, would focus on setting minimum conditions for everyone’s survival. They would want a social contract to be inclusive, with guarantees for all.

Firstly, the contract would make basic liberties equally available to all. It would be against discrimination by gender, race, religion, etc.  It would be against slavery.  It would be concerned about the minimum standard of living, not the average standard of living. It would not allow the suffering of some to be offset by the comfort of others.

Secondly, the contract would tolerate inequalities only if coming from equally open opportunities and if they thereby improve the lot of the least advantaged. An advantage for some would be justifiable only if it thereby relieves the suffering of others.

The principles of “justice as fairness,”  or “katarungan sa pagkakapantay-pantay,”  have much relevance to social surveys. They give importance to studying the equality of access to basic rights and opportunities, with emphasis on minorities and other disadvantaged.

The principles imply a call for statistics about deprivation rather than about comfort, and about distribution rather than production, in the economy.  In particular, they give more importance to quantifying the poor and hungry than to estimating the per capita Gross Domestic Product or Gross National Income.

Opinion polling practices fairness by respecting all survey respondents as individuals of equal worth.   It gives individuals equal chance to be chosen in the sample.  It assures respondents that there are no right and wrong answers to the survey questions; anyone can answer differently.  (Of course, it eschews the use of leading or prejudiced questions; such polling is insincere and not genuine.)

What polling seeks from the answers is simply the truth. It searches for the consensus, but also respects and reports the minority views.  It realizes that the balance of opinion can change, for valid reasons, and thus the fair thing to do is to repeat a poll from time to time.


Open opinion polling is a manifestation of genuine democracy—where interviewers are free to ask questions, respondents are free to reply, and researchers are free to study and report the findings.  Exercising freedom is part of fairness.

Opinion pollsters practice fairness by not being partisan.  Not only should they not favor those of any gender, race, political party, or religion, but they should also respect those of uncertain gender, mixed race, no party and no religion.  They should treat all religions equally,  and also treat the irreligious equally with the religious.

SWS is particularly strict regarding neutrality on religion.  In any SWS program, the national anthem always comes ahead of the invocation (if any), which is the correct protocol; groups who do invocations before the national anthem are an  embarrassment.  The SWS office has no religious markings; we removed from the perimeter wall a tile signifying a religious devotion of the previous owner, after buying the property in 1999.

In May, Pope Francis said at a blessing in St. Peter’s Square: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ.  All of us, not just Catholics.  Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists.  Everyone! … We must meet another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

Just last Wednesday, Pope Francis wrote in a letter published in the leftwing Italian paper La Repubblica: “The question for people who do not believe in God is to listen to their consciences. … Listening to it and obeying it means making up one’s mind about what is good and evil.”

The saintly Gandhi, who knew Christianity from his education, did not convert because he could not accept any religion as superior to others.

Are there big differences in the moral attitudes of Rawls (who at one time wanted to be an Episcopalian minister), Pope Francis, and Gandhi?

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TAGS: John Rawls, Mahar Mangahas, opinion, opinion polls, Social Climate, SWS
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