Essay Help | Explain the role of the “veil of ignorance” in the work of John Rawls.

Explain the role of the “veil of ignorance” in the work of John Rawls. (Caution: Read Rawls carefully.

Contemporary Political Thought

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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. Thus, Locke envisions as legitimate a constitutional monarchy that is in effect a class state, a state wherein only a small class of amply propertied males exercise political rights to vote, hold office, exercise political influence, etc. (See Rawls, LHPP, 138–139.)

The problem with this, of course, is that gender and lack of wealth are, like absence of religious belief, not good reasons for depriving people of their equal political rights. These reasons are not morally relevant for deciding who qualifies to vote, hold office, and actively participate in governing society. Rawls suggests that the reason Locke’s social contract results in this unacceptable outcome is that it transpires (hypothetically) under unfair conditions of a state of nature, where the parties have complete knowledge of their characteristics and situations—their gender, wealth, social class, talents and skills, religious convictions, etc. More powerful parties rely on knowledge of their “threat advantage” to extract favorable terms from those in less advantaged positions (JF 16). Consequently the parties’ judgments are biased by their knowledge of their circumstances and are insufficiently impartial.

The remedy for such biased judgments is to redefine the initial situation. Rather than a state of nature Rawls situates the parties to his social contract so that they do not have access to knowledge that can distort their judgments and result in unfair principles. Rawls’s original position is an initial situation wherein the parties are without information that enables them to tailor principles of justice favorable to their personal circumstances. Rawls says, “Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance” (TJ, 12/11). This veil of ignorance deprives the parties of all knowledge of particular facts about themselves, about one another, and even about their society and its history.

The parties are not, however, completely ignorant of facts. They know all kinds of general facts about persons and societies, including knowledge of the relatively uncontroversial laws and generalizations derivable from economics, psychology, political science, and biology and other natural sciences. They know then about the general tendencies of human behavior and psychological development, about biological evolution, and about how economic markets work, including neo-classical price theory of supply and demand. As discussed below, they also know about the circumstances of justice—moderate scarcity and limited altruism—as well as the desirability of the“primary social goods” that are needed to live a good life and to develop their “moral powers.” What they lack however is knowledge of any particular facts about their own lives or other persons’ lives, as well as knowledge of any historical facts about their society and its population, level of wealth and resources, etc. Rawls thinks that since the parties are required to come to an agreement on objective principles that supply universal standards of justice applying across all societies, knowledge of particular and historical facts about any person or society is morally irrelevant and potentially prejudicial to their decision.

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