The “Veil of Ignorance”

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Last updated: March 29, 2019

In analysing John Rawls concluded version of just principles from his egalitarian liberalist standpoint, the methodology and justification utilised in reaching these principles must be closely scrutinised. Rawls initiates his reasoning, and then delineates it in a hypothetical model, from the primary conception that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override”1.From this basic inception he then generates a theoretical situation qualified by factors he perceives to either be, representations of actual circumstances or ideal provisions that are necessary to produce the most “fair” principles of justice. Within this hypothetical sphere of the Original Position he proposes an operation known as the “veil of ignorance”2 which seeks to embody a considered judgment that arbitrary contingencies are morally irrelevant in the formulation of society’s principles of justice3. This model and in particular its employment of the “veil of ignorance” has been both widely criticised and commended.

However, before positive or negative evaluations can be assessed it is important to comprehensively take account of the operation and influence of the “veil”. Essentially the hypothetical situation constructed by Rawls is one of many models created under the social contract theory. The conception of the State of Nature by Thomas Hobbes provides that people form civilised society guided by certain principles and procedures in order to gain a mutual advantage from the preferable conditions afforded to groups over individuals.

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This representation of the required formulation of just principles in nascent society is roughly equivalent to Rawls Original Position. The Original Position is a non-temporal scheme where the initial principles of justice are to be considered. Where Rawls conception differs from Hobbes is in his qualifications of allowable knowledge pertaining to the abstraction of fair doctrines; these qualifications are manifested in his “veil of ignorance”.This unique theoretical technique operates within the parameters of the described initial situation and is designed to elicit unanimous assent to a kind of enduring “moral geometry”4 allowing society to proceed by virtue of pure proceduralism rather than intuition. The “veil” primarily acts to prevent the contracting parties from having self-consciousness.

Ones class position or social status, natural assets or abilities, intelligence and strength, gender, temporal position, technological progress and development of civilization5 are unknown by the participants creating the compact.Furthermore the parties are not informed of the relative proportions of society and so probabilities cannot be gauged. The “veil of ignorance” effectively excludes knowledge that Rawls alleges is morally irrelevant to the generation of a conception of justice, as well as rectifying the issue of insurmountable pluralism due to the requirement of unanimity.

In excluding specific information the “veil” conversely acts to permit general and indeed necessary information regarding aspects of humanity and society.Understandings of “political affairs”, “economic theory”, “the laws of human psychology” and “the basis of organization”6 are unconditionally permissible subjects of knowledge. The “basis of organization” entails a deeper comprehension regarding the circumstances that make justice both possible and necessary; namely the existence of a “moderate scarcity of resources”7, the amelioration of interests through mutual cooperation8, the conflict arising from competition for resources used in the advancements of these interests and “a diversity of philosophical and religious belief, and of political and social doctrines”9.

Rawls construction of the “veil” operates on a third type of knowledge; that which is essential but must be limited in the interests of eliminating threat advantage and partial perspectives. This moderated knowledge pertains to awareness of a limited number of alternative theories of justice10, a “thin” conception of the good elucidated by a list of “primary goods” which are known to universally aid in the realisation of any given rational life plan11, and an understanding that the people the principles are relevant to possess two moral powers: a capacity for a sense of justice and a conception of the good.Additionally the “veil” may be seen to prevent contracting parties from having an interest in the desires and requirements of the other participants and from a conception of envy.

The compounded operation creating mutual disinterest and the inability to experience envy means that the parties exhibit neither altruism nor malevolence; their sole concern lies with the acquisition of primary resources. A final condition which informs the parties to the compact is the assumption that the concluded principles will be unconditionally applicable and that they will endorse universal compliance and acceptance12.Thus the “veil of ignorance” outlined in Rawls hypothetical Original Position acts to prevent policy formulation based upon partial perspectives arising from morally irrelevant information, to induce complete consensus by the parties though the elimination of the factors creating pluralism and as a kind of proof (although clearly not in a strictly logical sense) that, given the ascribed circumstances there cannot be another solution produced by the considerations of rational and self-interested individuals.Rawls theory is a comprehensive and detailed account of his conception of justice which provides a system of thought catalysed by ascribed parameters and embodied in the “veil of ignorance”. This unique technique in cognition seeks to prove the possibility of only one solution when justice is considered by rational individuals in the given conditions. It consequently functions to produce a justification for Rawls two principles of justice by attempting to demonstrate that these conceptions are the most ‘just’ outcomes.

However, despite Rawls thoroughness his theory contains several flaws which undermine the model provided. Such faults include the unproven and largely unaddressed initial premise, an innate deductive error producing a fundamental contradiction and the fact that this does not essentially provide a dialectical instrument of consideration with the possibility of pragmatic outcomes. Rawls formation of a conditioned system called the Original Position is chiefly distinguished from other initial situation models by the operation of the “veil of ignorance”.Rawls claims that the inclusion of this knowledge limiting technique will promote a fairer theory of justice due to factors of moral irrelevance being excluded. The institution of the “veil” appears to have arisen from Rawls observation that this judicial irrelevance is agreed upon communally.

Thus in an effort to test the reflective equilibrium, or lack thereof, between the general and the specific, he embodied this concept in the “veil of ignorance”.Essentially this technique influenced the formulation of the final conception of justice and thus established general principles into which the alleged communal principle concerning arbitrary contingencies was incorporated. Once the principles have been ascertained the reflective equilibrium of the theoretical general and the individual specific theorems may be analysed.

Take for example the specific case of citizens of a certain religious persuasion holding as one of their tenets that men are superior to women and so ought to be treated accordingly.The considered judgment on the part of the these citizens is in direct conflict with the general principles – derived in part from the initial assumption that sex is not a morally relevant factor – which state that inequality is only acceptable if it benefits the least advantaged; clearly the inequality depicted in the concrete case does not fulfill this requirement. Thus the idea that the “veil of ignorance” appears to be faulty in that it makes an inaccurate assumption regarding a concept of communal justice. Within the framework of reasoning that Rawls provides there appears to be a fundamental error in deductive logic.The “veil of ignorance” implicitly indicates that people, provided they are rational, are equal. The exclusion of information pertaining to aspects that are morally irrelevant seems to suggest this.

At any rate the clear delineation of certain conditions that must be fulfilled in order for the “veil” to be effective in the decision making process, included the criterion requiring that people be “free and equal”13. Thus in the prescribed function of the “veil”, as well the express condition of equality required so as to validate the use of the “veil”, it can be logically implied that people are equal in this theory of justice.However, the very existence of the Difference Principle in the two principles of justice indicates that perhaps this is not the case. Indeed, as a whole the proposed theory of social institutions within this conception appear to “counteract the natural inequalities derived from birth, talent, and circumstance”14. Thus there seems to be an implicit contradiction which can be clearly viewed when subject to reductio ad absurdum where it is provisionally assumed that people are in fact equal.

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