On Philosophy

February 6, 2007

Return To The Veil Of Ignorance

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:04 am

The veil of ignorance is a very elegant proposal to determine what social structures are just, put forward by John Rawls. The veil of ignorance principle says that a rule, or society, is just if it is a rule, or society, that would be agreed upon by everyone even if they were in a state of ignorance about their position within society is. For example, a law that gave half the people all the money wouldn’t be agreed upon because people wouldn’t know whether they would be among the half that got the money, and so the law is revealed to be unjust.

I have already addressed some of the problems facing the veil of ignorance here, but I would like to poke some more holes in it today. Why? Well the veil of ignorance seems like such a good idea that I keep hoping that in some way it can be saved. Last time I mentioned that it might be impossible to get people to agree on any set of principles due to different preferences with respect to risk, and other factors, such as the environment. But, if we understand the veil of ignorance as only about justice, maybe those disagreements reveal only that there are many possible maximally just societies.

But there is another problem with the veil of ignorance, which is deciding what possible lives you might end up living. For example, John Rawls himself points out that not only the current generation of people but future generations must be considered as possibilities, because if we reduced the possibilities to just the current generation then it is conceivable that rules would be agreed upon that place an undue burden upon future generations, which is unfair. But if future generations count what about other things, like trees and animals and unborn babies (that’s a classic point of contention)? Sure we might hold the idea that justice only applies to relations between people, but that is just our gut feeling, we don’t really have a reason to back it up. For example not too long ago many would have thought that justice only applies to relations between white people, and thus would have thought that racial slavery was perfectly justified by the veil of ignorance. And they were wrong about that, so how do we know that our gut reaction isn’t flawed as well?

One thing I think we can agree upon though, is that justice is something that applies between members of a society. Of course the definition of who or what counts as a member of society is something that is also subject to change over time. But in this case we do have at least one candidate for an objective definition of “member of society”, mine (I knew that would come in handy some day).

But let me return to the problem with different preferences. Earlier I simply passed over that problem by saying that perhaps they simply revealed that many possible societies are equally just. But is this a consistent solution? Maybe I am someone who hates art and thinks that society should prevent any resources from going towards art, directing them instead to other pursuits. Isn’t this unfair to the artists, and the other people who enjoy art, and hence not a just system? Indeed I think it is an example of injustice. But we can’t rule out such a position from being adopted by someone from behind the veil of ignorance, because even though they don’t know where they will be placed in society they know they hate art, and hence that getting rid of it will benefit them no matter where they end up. One way to try and escape this problem is to invoke the idea that the principles we adopt together from behind the veil of ignorance must be ones we can all agree on. But then what happens when art lovers and art haters, who feel strongly enough about the issue, can’t agree. Does that mean there is no just society that contains both groups of people? Although consistent that certainly seems like an unhelpful solution, because in our minds what is fair is sort of like a compromise imposed on people even if those people would be too stubborn to agree on it. Another possibility is to assume that not only are we ignorant of our place in life when we are behind the veil of ignorance, but that we are ignorant of our preferences as well. In this case it would seem like we would be motivated to create a society that satisfies the preferences of all people about equally, since we might end up with any set of them; surely that is fair. But in that case what motivates us to pick one possible society over another; because we want to be as happy as we can no matter where we end up in it? But happiness is a preference that isn’t shared by everyone to the same degree, some people value other things more, so that that must be put aside behind the veil of ignorance as well. And so this solution doesn’t fix the problem either, because we end up unable to make any choice behind the veil of ignorance.

Thus I still think the veil of ignorance is a flawed, but that the ideas behind it have some validity. Somehow justice must be derived from a principle of equality. Ideally we could just treat everyone equally, but unfortunately that doesn’t work practically. People who commit crimes need to be treated unequally by placing them in prison while everyone else remains free. And people are willing to give up money to someone else are given ownership of some item, while people who keep their money aren’t. Justice then is when these small, necessary, inequalities are kept small, and don’t become large-scale inequalities (ex: people with more money are the only ones who get to hold important public offices, are favored by the legal system, and so on). But I have yet to come across a theory of justice that accomplishes this perfectly.

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