Empathy and the veil of ignorance

Now, before I flip the coin and determine whether you'll be rich or poor, how do you feel about redistribution?

The Roving Bandit wonders why he feels more guilty about living near poverty in the United States than in South Sudan:

Driving through my neighbourhood in Juba, an American once asked if I felt guilty living in the midst of such poverty. I didn’t. At least no more than I had done living in England, being equally aware of the existence of such poverty. Physical proximity shouldn’t really have much to do with it.

I do though feel guilty about the guy who sleeps in the bus shelter in my New Haven neighbourhood. What is that?

One common explanation is that relative poverty should be, in theory, more manageable in more developed countries, so it seems more outrageous to us that there are people who have managed to slip through the net.

I have another theory: that we we’re more likely to empathize with those who suffer outcomes we might have (however unlikely) also endured.

It is connected to the concept of the veil of ignorance, introduced by John Rawls: we should design policy as if we were ignorant of what role in society we will take. For example, if the poverty rate is 25%, I should make decisions about redistribution while assuming there is a one in four chance I’ll be poor.

We may judge relative deprivation as a failure of these basic principals of fairness – I am bothered by poverty in the US or UK because I recognise that a roll of the dice might have placed me in a similar position.

Yet one’s subjective probability of being poor may be limited to the country of birth. While I may consider the 25% poverty rate at home when deciding how I feel about local poverty, I might consider my probability of being Sudanese to be strictly zero. As a result, I might feel less empathy towards poor Sudanese, because my subjective social contract only extends across possible outcomes.

Any other thoughts on why we find poverty in our home countries more distasteful (that fall outside the typical `same tribe’ arguments)? Is the `veil of ignorance’ argument discernable from more traditional `us versus them’ arguments?