John Rawls And The Veil Of Ignorance


In his book, A Theory Of Justice, John Rawls asks us to imagine a fantastic scene:  a group of people are gathered to plan their own future society, hammering out the details of what will basically become a Social Contract.  Rawls calls this the “Original Position.”  In the Original Position, the future citizens do not yet know what part they will play in their upcoming society.  They must design their society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance.

“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”

Neither do the people know what type of society they will be entering.  They do not know its culture, its economic situation, or political climate.

It is important for Rawls that the planners of this future society operate behind this Veil Of Ignorance, for as Rawls says, “if a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he were poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle.  To represent the desired restrictions, one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this sort of information.”

Rawls contends that if “rational persons concerned to advance their interests” found themselves in this type of Original Position, they would agree to a Social Contract in which there existed an equal distribution of liberties and social goods.  As an illustration, he describes the following situation:

A group of people are presented a cake (that we assume they all desperately desire).  One of them must slice the cake and divvy out the portions.  What instructions will they give the man doing the slicing?  Rawls says that they will tell the man slicing that he must take the last piece.  By doing this, they assure the man will cut equal pieces, for this is the best way he can assure himself that he will get the largest share possible.  If he were to cut uneven slices then the larger slices would already be picked when his turn came, and he would be left with the smallest slice.

[For a critique of Rawls’ philosophy, see:  The Imperfect Justice Of John Rawls]

Similarly Rawls says that when the Original Position is behind a Veil Of Ignorance, the parties to the Social Contract being drawn up will want make certain that —no matter what physical, mental, economic, or social condition they wind up with in the coming society— they will get a fair share of the things they need to make for themselves a good life.  Rawls calls these necessary things Primary Social Goods, and they include:  1) Rights and Liberties,  2) Powers and Opportunities, 3) Income and Wealth, and 4) conditions for Self-Respect.

These Primary Social Goods “are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these values is to everyone’s advantage.”

Rawls says that the parties to the Social Contract will eventually reason their way to a pair of fundamental laws that he calls the Two Principles Of Justice:

1st— each person will be given the most extensive basic liberties possible without intruding upon the liberties of others, and

2nd–  there will be equal opportunity for everyone to climb the economic and/or social ladder and that any social or economic inequalities that are allowed must be arranged so that they improve the access to Primary Goods for the Least Advantaged.

For Rawls, of all the Primary Social Goods, the most important is Liberty.  If there is a choice to be made between Liberty and some other social good, Liberty always takes precedence.  This means that no one can be made to give up a single liberty merely for the sake of improving society’s Wealth, or Power, or Economic Efficiency, or Social Welfare– or even for greater Justice.

The one and only reason to restrict Liberty is for the sake of even greater Liberty.  For instance, when Liberties interfere with each other, some Liberties may be limited (for example, your Liberty to play loud music might be limited so that your neighbors can gain the Liberty of getting a good night’s sleep).  And even in this special case, where some Liberties are basically exchanged for others, Rawls says that the people who are having their Liberty restricted must agree to the imposition.

When Rawls speaks of Liberties, he has in mind several basic types:

* Political Liberty (the right to vote and to be eligible for public office)

*  Freedom of Speech and Assembly

*  Liberty of Conscience and Freedom of Thought

*  Freedom Of The Person & the Right to Hold Personal Property, and

*  Freedom from Arbitrary Arrest and Seizure

[Check out what Rawls’ greatest critic has to say… Robert Nozick: The Anti-Rawls]


Other Hammering Shield articles on A Theory Of Justice by John Rawls:

Perhaps The Greatest Work Of Philosophy Of The Last Fifty Years

Decoupling Inequality from Injustice

Rawls’ View Of Good Government

The Rawlsian Four Branches Of Government

Last Thoughts On Rawls’ Theory Of Justice

6 thoughts on “John Rawls And The Veil Of Ignorance

  1. Base on Rawle line of reasoning one can easily get the impression that once the veil is lifted the person who were selected and who had a say in how their unfolding society should work work invariably maintain the same thought pattern. People don’t live like that. They would find a way to cheat and get the most for themselves at the expense of others. Intrinsically, greed is a human conundrum..there’s no getting away from that. It’s a good line of reasoniong but difficult to manage and maintain.

  2. His pie analogy is all wrong: “A group of people are presented a cake (that we assume they all desperately desire). One of them must slice the cake and divvy out the portions. What instructions will they give the man doing the slicing? Rawls says that they will tell the man slicing that he must take the last piece. By doing this, they assure the man will cut equal pieces, for this is the best way he can assure himself that he will get the largest share possible. If he were to cut uneven slices then the larger slices would already be picked when his turn came, and he would be left with the smallest slice.”

    Nothing about picking last. This whole analogy makes no sense at all. I tried to come up with something a little better: you and a bunch of people are randomly selected out of a hat for the pieces and if you choose to cut them unevenly, then you may get a big one, may get a small one. But we are saying that a rational person would cut them all the same to increase chances. In a perfect world people would be on the same footing but theyre not. But say the cake is already cut unfairly and you get the small piece, you are out of luck. No one wants to be poor but TANF (not like todays tanf but actually temporary) can just assure everyone gets a similar slice.

    1. The cake analogy does make perfect sense. They tell him that he will be picking the last piece. If he cuts four huge pieces and 1 small piece, the four people that pick before him will all take the four big pieces and he will be left with the small piece. Same goes for if he cuts one big piece and four smaller ones. Since he picks last, someone before him will take the bigger piece. The only way to ensure fairness is for him to cut all pieces the same size (the veil of ignorance).

  3. We took up Rawl’s work in a Philosophy club and there were several misconceptions about Rawls which seemed prevalent (at least to me; maybe I am the one misunderstanding Rawls!). One misconception, it seems to me, is that Rawls is somehow ADVOCATING that we make political decisions from the Original Position. If he is, then such objections as “People are too greedy” or “People are unreasonable”, etc. But I read him as using the Original Position to derive the two principles. It is the principles, derived from thinking about what being in the Original Position entails, which should be the guide to decision-making which will bring about just decisions. This has the upshot of dodging many objections to Rawls arguing that practically being in the Original Position is possible. To me, this seems awfully clear, yet many objections play on assuming that decisions relating to just actions are to be made while behind the veil of ignorance.

    1. I think Ben has the right idea about the veil of ignorance. The veil is necessary only for the establishment of the bases of a just society. It follows that a just society based upon the two basic principles which Rawls identified, would produce citizens whose decisions would approximate everyone having the broadest range of liberties they personally want, constrained only by not unfairly diminishing the liberties of others. And, having equal access to opportunities to achieve the basic social goods. To which a recent paper added freedom of association. Something I think is a valid thought in this context. Although Rawls didn’t write formally about luck egalitarianism (the conception that no one should be worse off through no fault of their own), his ideas about justice entail exactly that formulation of the just way to share the resources of a society.

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