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.