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Using ignorance to know if mandatory drug testing laws are sound

  • 14 August 2017
  Sometimes ignorance can be a virtue in political decision-making. The great 20th century political philosopher John Rawls had a thought experiment called the 'Veil of Ignorance' which he suggested should be applied to any political decision to test whether or not it is just.

An adapted form of the experiment functions like this: shut your eyes and imagine that you’ll wake up tomorrow with the legislation passed and enacted and, crucially, you are no longer yourself, but someone else for whom the legislation will have a concrete impact. If, after doing this, you can honestly say that the legislation serves the interests of the common good, then it is just. If not, it may be that it is serving other interests or ideologies.

In a few weeks, legislation will be voted on which would result in a trial of mandatory, randomised drug-testing of new welfare recipients. In part, the stated goals of the legislation are to prevent income support payments funding prohibited substance addiction and “that people in these situations are given every assistance to improve their lives.”

These may seem like reasonable motivations but those voting on the legislation might use the Veil of Ignorance to consider whether it will have its desired effect and promote the common good. An MP voting on the legislation might imagine opening her or his eyes in the following scenario, in which they awake as Jeff, a 28 year old diagnosed with a clinical addiction to methamphetamine.

Jeff has been in treatment for a year, has been holding down a job at a local supermarket during this time, and has a dependent child. Two weeks ago he had a relapse following a stressful encounter with his ex-partner, lost his job, and he and his clinicians are now working on getting him back on track.

Jeff is confident that he’ll be able to get back to work, but for now he needs income support to pay for the basics: rent and food. On arriving at Centrelink, he is informed he’ll need to undertake a mandatory drug test.

He stresses out and leaves, knowing it’ll come back positive given his recent relapse. He cannot pay his rent, nor afford food for his daughter. He relapses again. His clinicians attempt to support him, but since Centrelink won’t accept clinical addiction to a prohibited substance as a reason to look favourably on Jeff’s situation, their hands are bound. He and his daughter are now homeless.