The Veil of Ignorance

14 Jul 22

A cogent summary of the Veil of Ignorance, first articulated by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice (1971).

The Veil of Ignorance is a way of working out the basic institutions and structures of a just society. According to Rawls, working out what justice requires demands that we think as if we are building society from the ground up, in a way that everyone who is reasonable can accept. We therefore need to imagine ourselves in a situation before any particular society exists; Rawls calls this situation the Original Position. To be clear, Rawls does not think we can actually return to this original position, or even that it ever existed. It is a purely hypothetical idea: our job in thinking about justice is to imagine that we are designing a society from scratch. …

Of course, if we were designing a society in the Original Position, people might try to ensure that it works in their favour. The process is thus vulnerable to biases, disagreements, and the potential for majority groups ganging up on minority groups. Rawls’s solution to this problem comes in two parts. Firstly, he makes some assumptions about the people designing their own society. People in the Original Position are assumed to be free and equal, and to have certain motivations: they want to do well for themselves, but they are prepared to adhere to reasonable terms of cooperation, so long as others do too. …

The second part of the solution is the Veil of Ignorance. This involves a further leap of imagination. When we are thinking about justice, Rawls suggests that we imagine that we do not know many of the facts – both about ourselves and the society we currently live in – that typically influence our thinking in biased ways. By intentionally ignoring these facts, Rawls hoped that we would be able to avoid the biases that might otherwise come into a group decision. For instance, if I were helping to design a society, I might be tempted to try to make sure that society is set up to benefit philosophers, or men, or people who love science fiction novels. But if I don’t know any of those facts about myself, I can’t be tempted. The Veil is meant to ensure that people’s concern for their personal benefit could translate into a set of arrangements that were fair for everyone, assuming that they had to stick to those choices once the Veil of Ignorance ‘lifts’, and they are given full information again.

One set of facts hidden from you behind the Veil are what we might call ‘demographic’ facts. You do not know your gender, race, wealth, or facts about your personal strengths and weaknesses, such as their intelligence or physical prowess. Rawls thought these facts are morally arbitrary: individuals do not earn or deserve these features, but simply have them by luck. As such, they do not deserve any benefits or harms that come from them. By removing knowledge of the natural inequalities that give people unfair advantages, it becomes irrational to choose principles that discriminate against any particular group. The Veil also hides facts about society. You do not know anything other than general facts about human life, and in particular you do not how their society is organised. Finally, the Veil hides facts about your “view of the good”: your values, preferences about how your own life should go, and specific moral and political beliefs.

Ben Davies, John Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance.