From feminist movements to indigenous rights movements, inequality and injustice are at the forefront of contemporary political discourse. John Rawls is a beacon of hope for liberal nations wanting to do more for those whose voices are rarely heard. John Rawls has kickstarted a comeback in the popularity of political philosophy, the enrichment of the concept of equity and justice, and a renewed interest in social democracy. This article looks into the way Rawls explores the concept of justice through a famous thought experiment: “the veil of ignorance.”
On John Rawls
Once a devout Christian on the path to priesthood, the horrors of the Second World War plunged John Rawls into liberalism. Rawls was born in the United States and enrolled in Kent School, which prepared students for priesthood. “Meaning of Sin and Faith” was Rawls’ thesis, and it consisted in a consideration for the study of the Episcopal priesthood. However, the brutes Rawls faced in his time in the military converted him into an atheist. The bombing of Hiroshima finally pushed Rawls over the edge, leading to his discharge from the military.
Rawls would then go on to obtain a Ph.D. in moral philosophy at Princeton, receive a Fulbright Fellowship to Oxford, and teach at Cornell, MIT, and Harvard. In his time at Oxford, Rawls was greatly influenced by liberal political and legal theorists Isaiah Berlin and H.L.A. Hart.
Rawls’ liberalism is constituted through his advocacy for social justice, constitutional democracy, and global justice in his books A Theory of Justice, Political Liberalism, and The Law of the Peoples. His works reinstated the necessity of political philosophy (particularly by adding to the social contract theory) after its supposed death in the 18th century. Today, Rawls is noted as one of the most influential philosophers and political theorists of the twentieth century.
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Distributive Justice in A Theory of Justice (1971)
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls took on the idea of distributive justice and attempted to illustrate that freedom and equality are not necessarily divorced. He argues for an idea of justice as the result of consensus within a group of persons, who operate as if in a “contract.” The group starts from a position of ignorance of social contingencies or, as he calls it, a “veil of ignorance.”
We can take away three key ideas from A Theory of Justice: Justice as Fairness, Original Position, and the Veil of Ignorance. His philosophical underpinnings lie in the general tenets of his social contract theory, within which he imagines an original position and the veil of ignorance. Taken together, these elements construe Rawlsian justice. In the rest of this article, all of these elements will be covered in more detail.
Social Contract Theory
In the 17th and 18th centuries, philosophers Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau attempted to scrutinize and justify the existence of an organized government by comparing it to the “state of nature.” The state of nature is taken to be a hypothetical pre-social condition, where every person is inherently self-interested and in conflict with one another because of the scarcity of resources. In such a state, these philosophers theorized, people would decide to form a society by entering into a “social contract.”
Shifting from the state of nature to a social contract would lead each person to, in a way, give up their rights so a sovereign can transform the initial state of conflict into one of cooperation. This is social contract theory in a nutshell. Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau all differ in their versions of the theory because of their varying support for either governmental intervention or individual liberty.
Rawls revived the social contract theory, and even political philosophy as a whole, when he used a Kantian version of this theory in A Theory of Justice. Rawls uses Kant to build on the assumption that persons have the moral capacity to judge principles impartially. Such persons are then plunged into a rather abstract version of the state of nature: the Original Position. Rawls uses this imagined position to derive certain principles of justice, which are conceived behind a “veil of ignorance.” After this step, the group of people has to enter into a contract to choose their first principles and set up other institutions accordingly.
“The merit of the contract terminology is that it conveys the idea that principles of justice may be conceived as principles that would be chosen by rational persons, and that in this way conceptions of justice may be explained and justified. (Rawls 16)”
Justice as Fairness
Rawls’ version of liberalism is an egalitarian one, based on the use of justice to resolve the conflict between freedom and equality, or—more concretely put—between individual liberty and state intervention. For him, in a liberal political order, justice provides the best possible arrangement of social institutions. This section is an overview of Rawls’ concept of justice.
Rawls assumes that society is a closed system, where one enters by birth and leaves at death. Institutions such as the family, the constitution, and the economy, constitute the “basic structure” of society, and for Rawls, individuals cannot easily opt out of it. Since these institutions determine the distribution of resources and income among people, for Rawls, their existence must be justified.
Rawls pens two principles that underlie a justly constructed society. First, each person has the same claim to equal basic liberties, and such a claim is compatible with those liberties being granted to all. Second, social and economic inequalities must come with fair equality of opportunity and must be of the greatest benefit to the least advantaged.
The fulfillment of the first principle takes precedence over the second because it positively ensures that all citizens have basic rights and liberties under normal circumstances. More politically intonated, the first principle provides that all persons be, at a fundamental level, equal, without any consideration for their specific social or cultural circumstances.
The second principle, on the other hand, deals with the exceptions of the first principle, i.e., with inequality. Rawls furthers that if there must be inequality, it should still have come as a consequence of equality of opportunity, i.e., every person must have access to the same educational, economic, and cultural opportunities.
Additionally, if we must create inequality as such, it should benefit the most disadvantaged. This means that in the distribution of wealth and income, the rich cannot get richer at the expense of the poor. This is called the difference principle, where every person must act in a way that benefits everyone, and the least advantaged even more so.
This places Rawls in stark contrast with utilitarianism, which he considers to be the competing ideology of justice as fairness. In utilitarianism, the distribution of wealth is just if it benefits more people, disregarding the minority. To Rawls, this is unacceptable. Rawls gives the reader several arguments to establish why his version of justice trumps that of utilitarianism throughout the book.
To achieve Rawls’ version of justice, the group must, as citizens in the original position, enter into a “social contract”, and decide on the first principles that will govern them. Rawls then adds that these principles would be the foundation for the development of just institutions, because they would have been conceived in the public consensus, without any special consideration for any particular individual feature. The original position is integral to the conclusion of this ideal contract.
Widely acclaimed as a thought experiment, the Original Position is a precondition for Rawls’ justice as fairness. Rawls imagines that his justice would have been conceived in the “state of nature,” the state before any social contracts had been entered into. Such a society would not contain any hierarchy, and consequently, no person would be aware of their social or economic standings.
Rawls calls this the “original position” because people would not “originally” have had any awareness about their race, religion, gender, intelligence, skills, moral positions, etc. It is, however, crucial that these persons have some idea about these features and structures, at least to the extent that they can identify persons who are disadvantaged because of them. So, persons in the original position would know about complex social systems but have a blindness of sorts when it came to their own positions in these systems.
Rawls carefully opts out of considering the features he thinks as socially and politically divisive. This equips himself and his readers with the ability to consider only what is necessary when thinking about justice, and a generally just society. Features such as race, gender, intelligence, etc., are acquired through resources that are available to each in different ways, creating obvious differences in standing. When no person ascribes to themselves any of these features, they are effectively ridding themselves of any biases these features could have informed.
An element of randomness is then introduced to this set, such that these persons could be assigned with either the most or the least favored features after they were done choosing their principles of justice. Crucially, this turn of events forces them into accepting a set of principles that would favor the most disadvantaged, purely out of the fear of being one of them. This solution to the perpetual scarcity of resources is not only a moral one but a logical one. Ultimately, this position is used to ascertain that all fundamental rights achieved within it are fair, so the justice developed therein is also fair, i.e., justice as fairness is achieved.
The Veil of Ignorance
This blissful state of Rawlsian unawareness in the original position is called the “veil of ignorance.” Without the elimination of specific contingencies which result in the exploitation of social and natural circumstances, it is impossible to create the original position. Thus, the “veil of ignorance” is used.
This veil allows knowledge of general facts of life and primary goods such as basic rights and liberties, freedom of movement, free choice, income and wealth, socially achievable self-respect, validation by social institutions, and the confidence to carry out plans (Fleming 58-59). This veil also blocks out the following matters:
- Particular Facts: Contracting parties do not know particular facts about their social existence. They don’t know what their “place” (class and social status) is, not what their “reserve” of natural assets, abilities, intelligence, and strengths is.
- Abstract Circumstances and Plans: This includes their moral conceptions, rational plans about their futures, and psychological features, such as the aversion to risk and their liability to optimism and pessimism.
- Social Structure: Finally, they don’t know which political or economic situation, level of civilization they are in, their cultural achievements, or the generation to which they belong.
Ignorance of these conditions would create uncertainty about the distribution of benefits and burdens that may result from their decisions. These contracting parties would by no rational means, create laws that would disadvantage anyone. The veil of ignorance thus becomes a method of creating the original position, a precursor to justice as fairness.
The final picture we arrived to is the following: to create the fairest justice, persons would have to be in the original position, behind the veil of ignorance. The veil would take away from them any social consciousness that would have allowed them to make decisions that would favor themselves over the rest. These persons would have to enter into a contract to exist in mutual cooperation, unaware of where they would stand socially after concluding the contract. They would then have no choice but to choose principles that would benefit everyone, and even more so the least advantaged. Given the lack of differences, the contract would be sustainable. Justice as fairness would then have been achieved, affording everyone basic liberties at the very least. The guiding principle for treating any contingencies or inequalities would be to ensure that they only exist to benefit the least advantaged.
Taking Rawls’ Theory Into Practice
“It is generally accepted that the recent birth of normative political philosophy began with the publication of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice in 1971. (Kymlicka 11)”
Rawls’ commitment to finding the most suitable notion of justice lead A Theory of Justice to be a rather difficult work to read. Before publishing it as a book, Rawls circulated its manuscripts several times to engage with criticisms and suggestions from peers and made revisions where he thought they were due. Because of this, the book features unprompted defenses of his own ideas, and even potential refutations. Followers and readers of Rawls, however, are understandably forgiving of these difficulties, given Rawls’ devotion to his own ideas and more generally, to justice.
Rawls has since been used to construe the modern notion of equity, the most notable of which is the equal protection clause in the Bill of Rights of the American Constitution. Rawls largely moved the global political community at large to think about methods of gradually dismantling socially and historically discriminatory structures.
Research conducted on the sex-based selection of orchestra musicians in the US found a 50% increase in the probability of women musicians being selected when auditions were done behind blinds, actual “veils” (Goldin and Rouse 740). Subsidized health and educational opportunities, quota systems, and social security schemes are all methods of ensuring equality of opportunity, i.e., the second principle of justice as fairness. Canadian and American courts have often cited Rawls to guide their jurisprudence on freedom and equality, building systems which do not facilitate radical social change (to avoid conflict), but gradual social change.
John Rawls’ philosophy has directly informed the tenets of social democracy. And so, Rawls, despite his apprehension about public appearances and interactions, became an esteemed figure in American politics. Former US President Bill Clinton even rewarded Rawls with the National Humanities Medal in 1999 for reviving “the disciplines of political and ethical philosophy” by arguing that “a society in which the most fortunate help the least fortunate is not only a moral society but a logical one.”
Rawls propounded two key ideas in particular: that justice is fairness, and the means of getting to justice as fairness (the original position and the veil of ignorance). Although Rawls’ ideas are not directly applicable, his aspirations for a just society inspire political and social development to this day. Human rights movements everywhere are outcries for radical social change, but majoritarian democratic structures cannot allow radicalism. Here Rawls becomes a guide to policy solutions, effectuating change by imagining a society that doesn’t condition treatment and opportunity based on social circumstances and reverse engineering our way to it.
Rawls’ contribution to political theory, particularly to the American idea of social democracy, is therefore conspicuous. With more nations becoming liberal democracies, Rawls is increasingly becoming a household name in global politics. The veil of ignorance is now an effective tool of legislative reform because it was the first idea that introduced “restraints” on social circumstances to create a more just society.
Fleming, James E. “Rawls and the Law.” Fordham Law Review, no. 72, 2004.
Goldin, Claudia, and Cecilia Rouse. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians.” Journal of Economic Literature, vol. 7, no. 16, pp. 715-740.
Kymlicka, Will. Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Introduction. Clarendon Press, 1991.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005.