Explain the role of the “veil of ignorance” in the work of John Rawls. (Caution: Read Rawls carefully. He’s not talking about a system where everyone is equal.)
Do you think that hypotheticals like this are useful in determining just laws or the just allocation of resources, given that we’ll never be able to replicate those conditions in government and decision making? Why or why not?
Lesson 8: John Rawls’ Philosophy
“Veil of Ignorance”
John Rawls calls his conception “justice as fairness.” His aim in designing the original position is to describe an agreement situation that is fair among all the parties to the hypothetical social contract. He assumes that if the parties to the social contract are fairly situated and all relevant information is taken into account, then the principles that would be agreed to are also fair. The fairness of the original agreement situation transfers to the principles agreed to, so that whatever laws or institutions are required by the principles of justice are also fair. The principles of justice chosen in the original position are in this way the result of a choice procedure designed to“incorporate pure procedural justice at the highest level” (CP, 310, cf. TJ, 120/104).
There are different ways to define a fair agreement situation depending on the purpose of the agreement and the description of the parties to it. For example, certain facts are relevant to entering into a fair employment contract—a prospective employee’s talents, skills, experience and motivation for example—that may not be relevant to other fair agreements. What is a fair agreement situation among free and equal persons when the purpose of the agreement is fundamental principles of justice for the basic structure of society? Here it is helpful to compare Rawls’s and Locke’s social contracts. A feature of Locke’s social contract is that it transpires in a state of nature among free and equal persons who know everything about themselves that you and I know about ourselves and each other. Thus, Locke’s parties know their natural talents and other personal characteristics, their social class and careers, their level of wealth and income, their religious and moral beliefs, etc. Given this knowledge, Locke assumes that, while starting from a position of equal political right, the great majority of free and equal persons in a state of nature (all women and all men who do not meet a rigid property qualification) could and most likely would rationally agree to alienate their natural rights of equal political jurisdiction in order to gain the benefits of political society. Thus, Locke envisions as legitimate a constitutional monarchy that is in effect a class state, a state wherein only a small class of amply propertied males exercise political rights to vote, hold office, exercise political influence, etc. (See Rawls, LHPP, 138–139.)
The problem with this, of course, is that gender and lack of wealth are, like absence of religious belief, not good reasons for depriving people of their equal political rights. These reasons are not morally relevant for deciding who qualifies to vote, hold office, and actively participate in governing society. Rawls suggests that the reason Locke’s social contract results in this unacceptable outcome is that it transpires (hypothetically) under unfair conditions of a state of nature, where the parties have complete knowledge of their characteristics and situations—their gender, wealth, social class, talents and skills, religious convictions, etc. More powerful parties rely on knowledge of their “threat advantage” to extract favorable terms from those in less advantaged positions (JF 16). Consequently the parties’ judgments are biased by their knowledge of their circumstances and are insufficiently impartial.
The remedy for such biased judgments is to redefine the initial situation. Rather than a state of nature Rawls situates the parties to his social contract so that they do not have access to knowledge that can distort their judgments and result in unfair principles. Rawls’s original position is an initial situation wherein the parties are without information that enables them to tailor principles of justice favorable to their personal circumstances. Rawls says, “Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance” (TJ, 12/11). This veil of ignorance deprives the parties of all knowledge of particular facts about themselves, about one another, and even about their society and its history.
The parties are not, however, completely ignorant of facts. They know all kinds of general facts about persons and societies, including knowledge of the relatively uncontroversial laws and generalizations derivable from economics, psychology, political science, and biology and other natural sciences. They know then about the general tendencies of human behavior and psychological development, about biological evolution, and about how economic markets work, including neo-classical price theory of supply and demand. As discussed below, they also know about the circumstances of justice—moderate scarcity and limited altruism—as well as the desirability of the“primary social goods” that are needed to live a good life and to develop their “moral powers.” What they lack however is knowledge of any particular facts about their own lives or other persons’ lives, as well as knowledge of any historical facts about their society and its population, level of wealth and resources, etc. Rawls thinks that since the parties are required to come to an agreement on objective principles that supply universal standards of justice applying across all societies, knowledge of particular and historical facts about any person or society is morally irrelevant and potentially prejudicial to their decision.
Another reason for Rawls’s “thick” veil of ignorance is that it is designed to be a “position of equality” (TJ, 12/11) that represents persons purely in their capacity as free and equal moral persons. The parties in the original position do not know any particular facts about themselves or society; they all have the same general information made available to them. They are then situated equally in a very strong way,“symmetrically” (JF 18) and purely as free and equal moral persons.
They know only characteristics and interests of themselves in their capacity as moral persons—their interests in developing the moral powers of justice and rationality, their need for the primary social goods, and so on. The moral powers are the“basis of equality, the features of human beings in virtue of which they are to be treated in accordance with the principles of justice” (TJ, 504/441). Knowledge of the moral powers and their essential role in social cooperation, along with knowledge of other general facts, is all that is morally relevant, Rawls believes, to a decision on principles of justice that are to reflect people’s status as free and equal moral persons. A thick veil of ignorance thus represents the equality of persons purely as moral persons, and not in any other contingent capacity or social role. In this regard the veil interprets the Kantian idea of equality as equal respect for moral persons (cf. CP 255).
Many criticisms have been leveled against Rawls’s veil of ignorance. Among the most frequent is that the parties are deprived of so much information about themselves that they are incapable of making a rational choice. How can we make any rational choice without knowing our fundamental values? Though the parties do not know their particular values and final ends, they do know that they require an adequate share of primary social goods to effectively pursue these values; they also know they have a higher-order interest in developing their moral powers, which are conditions of responsible agency and social cooperation. Rawls contends that knowledge of these “basic needs” (he also calls them “essential goods”) is sufficient for a rational choice in the original position. Moreover, it is important not to get too caught up in the fiction of the original position, as if it were some historical event that has to transpire among real people who are being asked to do something psychologically impossible. For as a thought experiment, the original position is not supposed to be a realistic situation. Instead, the veil of ignorance is a vivid representation of the kinds of reasons and information that are relevant to a decision on principles of justice for the basic structure of a society in which persons regard themselves as free and equal (TJ, 17/16). Many different kinds of reasons and facts are not morally relevant to that kind of decision (e.g., people’s race, gender, religious affiliation, wealth, and even, Rawls says, their conceptions of their good), just as many different kinds of reasons and facts are irrelevant to mathematicians’ ability to work out the formal proof of a theorem. Whether or not it is psychologically possible for a person to enter into the original position and come to a decision there in ignorance of all particular facts is inconsequential to the validity of Rawls’s argument. We can simulate the reasoning of the parties now (knowing all kinds of facts about ourselves) by observing the constraints on their reasoning and taking into account general information about persons, their needs, and societies provided to the parties (TJ, 120/104, 587/514).
A related criticism of Rawls’s “thick” veil of ignorance, voiced by many consequentialists, is that even if the parties can come to a decision without knowledge of their final ends, still the decision does not have any bearing on justice. For justice is said by consequentialists to consist of the measures that most effectively promote ultimately good consequences. Without knowledge of the ultimate good, however it is to be defined, the parties cannot discover the principles of justice that best promote it. This criticism is mirrored in utilitarian versions of the moral point of view, which incorporate a “thin” veil of ignorance that represents a different idea of impartiality. The impartial observer/chooser found in David Hume, Adam Smith, John Harsanyi, et al. has complete knowledge of everyone’s desires, interests and purposes as well as knowledge of particular facts about people and their historical situations. Impartiality is achieved by depriving the impartial observer/chooser of any knowledge of its own identity, leading it to give equal consideration to everyone’s desires and interests from that point of view. It impartially takes everyone’s desires and interests into account, and chooses to maximize utility (aggregate or average) across all persons.
Rawls’s original position with its “thick” veil of ignorance represents a different conception of impartiality than utilitarian accounts. Unlike utilitarians, Rawls seeks to abstract from current conditions and the status quo. Utilitarians take peoples’ desires and interests as given and seek to maximize their satisfaction; in so doing utilitarians suspend judgment regarding the moral permissibility of peoples’ preferences and of the social circumstances and institutions within which preferences were formed. For Rawls, a primary reason for a thick veil of ignorance is to enable an unbiased assessment of the justice of existing social and political institutions and of existing preferences and conceptions of the good. If the parties to Rawls’s original position had knowledge of peoples’ beliefs and desires, as well as knowledge of the laws, institutions and circumstances of their society, then this knowledge would influence their decisions on principles of justice. The principles agreed to would then not be sufficiently detached from the very desires, circumstances, and institutions these principles are to be used to critically assess. Since utilitarians take peoples’ desires and interests as given by existing circumstances, any principles, laws or institutions chosen behind their thin veil of ignorance will reflect and be biased towards maintaining the status quo. To take an obvious counterexample, there is little that seems just about laws approved from a utilitarian impartial perspective when these laws are determined on the basis of racially prejudiced preferences grounded in grossly unequal, racially discriminatory and segregated social conditions. To impartially give equal consideration to everyone’s interests formed under those conditions is hardly sufficient to meet requirements of justice. This illustrates why Rawls prefers a “thick” to a “thin” veil of ignorance.