Veil of Ignorance

If you could redesign society from scratch, what would it look like?

How would you distribute wealth and power?

Would you make everyone equal or not? How would you define fairness and equality?

And — here’s the kicker — what if you had to make those decisions without knowing who you would be in this new society?

The Fairness Principle: How the Veil of Ignorance Helps Test Fairness – Farnam Street

Philosopher John Rawls asked just that in a thought experiment known as “the Veil of Ignorance” in his 1971 book, Theory of Justice.

Like many thought experiments, the Veil of Ignorance could never be carried out in the literal sense, nor should it be. Its purpose is to explore ideas about justice, morality, equality, and social status in a structured manner.

The Veil of Ignorance, a component of social contract theory, allows us to test ideas for fairness.

Behind the Veil of Ignorance, no one knows who they are. They lack clues as to their class, their privileges, their disadvantages, or even their personality. They exist as an impartial group, tasked with designing a new society with its own conception of justice.

As a thought experiment, the Veil of Ignorance is powerful because our usual opinions regarding what is just and unjust are informed by our own experiences. We are shaped by our race, gender, class, education, appearance, sexuality, career, family, and so on. On the other side of the Veil of Ignorance, none of that exists. Technically, the resulting society should be a fair one.

The Fairness Principle: How the Veil of Ignorance Helps Test Fairness – Farnam Street

Now, imagine we’re all standing around on this new planet formulating how a society should be structured. Rawls wants us to imagine a few other things as part of this thought experiment. Imagine you’re structuring this society through what he calls a “veil of ignorance,” or you are asked to decide how this society will be structured without knowing anything about your position within that society once it’s founded. You can’t know whether you’re going to be living in Beverly Hills or in the projects in New York City. You can’t know your age, gender, race, sexual orientation. You can’t know your IQ, your athletic ability, your charisma. You can’t know what kind of family you’re going to be born into. You can’t know whether you’re going to have some mental illness that makes every day miserable.

Human beings have the capacity to be rational. Rawls wants to ask, “How would rational beings without a vested interest in one group or another create a society?” Well, one thing’s for sure, Rawls thinks, it wouldn’t look anything like the modern United States. No rational being would look at the statistics and choose that structure because it’s much more likely for you to be born into one of the many millions that struggle versus one of the handful of people with power and resources.

In fact, Rawls thinks that when people consider the lives that some people in the inner city are forced to live in parts of the United States, the very fact you could possibly get unlucky and be living one of those lives is enough to make rational people want to restructure society.

So how would rational beings structure it? They would follow what is known as the “maximin” rule, or the idea that we would pick the structure of society that provides the best situation for the least advantage within that society in comparison to all other potential societies. Put another way, we pick the structure where the worst-case scenario for a person is the best out of all the other possible worst-case scenarios in other strategies. Rational beings would do this because they can’t know whether or not they’re going to be “the one,” you know, the actual least advantaged person in the entire society.

There’s a lot of metaphors about this. But there’s a particularly common one, and I guess I’ll just lay it out here. Imagine you’re having a pizza party, and you’re asked by the people at the party to cut up the pizza however you want. The catch is, you can’t know which piece of pizza is going to be yours until after you cut the pizza. Now, you may cut up the pizza into bigger pieces and smaller pieces if that’s what you chose to do. But, one thing’s for sure here, you’re going to cut the pizza in a way where if you were to get the smallest piece it’s still something you’d be satisfied receiving.

Episode #137 – Transcript — Philosophize This!
Episode 137 – John Rawls – A Theory of Justice — Philosophize This!

This way of thinking about inequalities within a society is more broadly known as the “difference principle,” or that we should remove inequalities within a society as much as we can until the removal of further inequalities would cause harm to the least advantaged. Now, this is in contrast to the way we’ve often thought about things before, sometimes called part of the “efficiency principle,” the idea that we should find people in society that need help and help them as much as we can until helping them would cause harm to someone else. This is a completely different area of focus. The focus for Rawls is always on ensuring the most we can for the least advantaged person as long as that insurance doesn’t prevent us from contributing to society.

This person, who would without a doubt be an extremely impressive individual, is standing on the shoulders of giants. The contribution of everyone in society has made anything they ever accomplish even possible. Think of how much less this person could have accomplished if they had to grow all their own food or didn’t have roads to efficiently travel on or had to constantly keep watch to fend off criminals. Through our own individual skill sets, we all look after each other in a way. This is why we want to incentivize people to become as talented as they possibly can. You know, to Rawls, we want to allow for unequal positions of pay or status, but the difference in money or status is only justifiable if that difference is used to benefit the least advantaged among us or people like them — the “difference principle.”

So these two rules that we talked about for what makes an inequality just, that it must be to everyone’s advantage and be available in a position open to all, what these two things ultimately boil down to is equality of opportunity and the “difference principle.” These two things combined make up the test that we have to run inequalities through to make sure that the inequality is just. And Rawls thinks the actionable way to apply this is simply to start looking around at society, find examples of inequalities, and put them to the test.

And, when it comes time for dinner and everyone’s sitting at the table, there’s an unspoken agreement that everybody in the family gets firsts before anyone gets seconds. You wouldn’t give grandma table scraps that she could barely survive on. And why? Well, I’d imagine it has something to do with the fact that she had my parents; my parents had me. In a strange way, nothing that I have ever done in my life would be even possible without this woman and the contribution that she has made. Rawls might say, so too with every member of our society, even the least advantaged.

Episode #137 – Transcript — Philosophize This!
Episode 137 – John Rawls – A Theory of Justice — Philosophize This!

We are marginalized canaries in a social coalmine and Rawlsian barometers of society’s morality. It is deeply subversive to live proudly despite being living embodiments of our culture’s long standing ethical failings.

Our non-compliance is not intended to be rebellious. We simply do not comply with things that harm us. But since a great number of things that harm us are not harmful to most neurotypicals, we are viewed as untamed and in need of straightening up.


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