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.



  1. As I argued before, Rawls goes wrong because he’s talking about theoretical societies, but all that matters are the issues that perturb our actual society. Who cares if in a possible society, people might have a religion that requires cannibalism? As long as not too many people in our real society do that, it’s a moot issue and we’re free to ban it. If a lot of people actually do start believing that, then we’ve got bigger problems than just “we don’t know how to make an argument from behind the veil of ignorance to appeal to them,” you know?

    Comment by Carl — February 6, 2007 @ 4:15 am

  2. Are you saying that something is unjust only if it is actual? Because that’s not right. We can consider if an action is ethical before we undertake it. Similiarly, we can consider whether a rule or society is unjust without it being actual. The whole point of principles like Rawls’, and ethical philosophy in general, is to determine a way of seperating the right from the wrong, the just from the unjust, which means that the rule must apply to possiblities as well as actualities. For example, consider consequentialism. Consequentialism requires us to think about what might happen as a result of actions that haven’t actually been taken yet. Thus such reasoning is about theoretical matters, not actions that actually affect the world. Is consequentialism (as well as every other ethical theory) wrong too then? Additionally Rawls isn’t saying that having an argument for a position from behind the veil of ignorance makes something just, he is saying that only just things can be argued for in this way, and thus that the veil of ignorance principle is a way of determining what is just, not that arguments from it make something just; just as in consequentialism determining that the consequences will be good allows me to determine the action is good, not that having taken into consideration such factors makes the action good, people can do the right thing without reasoning about it in that way.

    Comment by Peter — February 6, 2007 @ 11:19 am

  3. The veil of ignorance is an interesting tool for judging our intuitions about what may or may not be just, but it can lead us down a lot of blind alleys, particularly if we don’t understand how it works as a rhetorical device. Namely, it’s clear that an argument of the form, “using the veil of ignorance, we would conclude that we should do X, therefore let’s do X,” will have no force over people who don’t share the assumptions that motivate it. To use the popular contemporary example: Radical Islamists.

    Let’s say we have a society where you could be born a Radical Islamist or a Western-style Liberal. Let’s say 99% of the population is Islamist. In such a society, saying, “Hey, if we use the veil of ignorance, we wouldn’t implement Shariah, since you might be born as a liberal, like me,” is a way of gaining the rhetorical high ground — a way of saying, “I am Rational, because I use the veil; you are not, because you don’t.” It’s also a good way to get your head cut off in such a society! Now, so long as the population is composed of 99% Islamists, using the veil of ignorance as a policy guide will lead to 99% of people being unhappy with the constitutional framework of their state. Having that many unhappy people will inevitably lead to revolution, and the heads of the liberals will roll.

    Now, given that a just society is one in which everyone gets what they deserve (and everyone deserves natural rights, etc.), and applying a veil derived constitution will result in some people getting a cephalotomy they don’t deserve, implementing a “more just” system will result in a less just outcome. Therefore in such a case, it makes sense to implement the maximally just system possible by appealing to the desires of the populace as a whole. Eg. Radical Islamists can probably be bargained down to voting for a merely pro-forma Islamic constitution if you include the right concessions to let them know that you’re not interested in destroying their way of life, so long as they allow a certain minimal set of liberties for non-Muslims.

    Now, if we were to be universalistic about it, we would jump from my last example to, “Therefore the US should also allow Shariah for some people who want it.” However, I strongly oppose any such thing! Why? Because even though America could in theory get a large Islamist population, and probably does have at least some Islamists living in the country, there aren’t enough of them living here for it to be worth our time to bargain with them, and absent the compulsion of the actual existence of an Islamist threat, it is more just to neglect their desire for Islamic law. We can just be Western Liberals and ignore them — at least so long as we can ensure that they don’t end up becoming a sizable chunk of the population.

    Now, I don’t mean to harp on Islamism so much, but I do think that Liberalism in general has a problem in dealing with non-Liberalism or other non-mainstream value systems. Like, say the Christian Scientists don’t want their kids vaccinated for religious reasons or the Rastafarians want to smoke weed: What should we do about it? Well, I say it really depends. Our overarching goal is to make a society where the amount of people disappointed by the rules of society is kept to a minimum, but the presence of certain conflicting value systems may make that impossible. So, we have to deal with real societies when we talk about the most just society, or else we’ll end up like all the people who tried to implement Plato’s Republic or Marxism, then got mad at each other and destroyed everything instead.

    Comment by Carl — February 7, 2007 @ 12:52 am

  4. Um, the veil of ignorance is not supposed to be a retorical device. It is supposed to be a method by which to determine if an rule or systen is just or not, just as an ethical theory is supposed to tell us if an act is right or not. An ethical theory, or the veil of ignorance, may convince people to do the right thing, but that is not their primary function. Your complaints seem based on this confusion (they seem like telling a Kantian that the categorical imperative is invalid because it isn’t convincing enough, or that people are too imperfect and might screw things up if they tried to live by it; the Kantian will say: “so what?”).

    Comment by Peter — February 7, 2007 @ 1:05 am

  5. Philosophical argumentation is a form of rhetoric. You have ideas; you argue for them; you hope people implement them. I’m saying that implementing the veil of ignorance system will lead to unjust results. You can talk about considering the results of using the veil in isolation, but that’s like saying I can fly if you don’t consider the fact that I’m actually held down by gravity. Sure, we can do a lot of math to calculate just how greater of flyer I would be, but it doesn’t get me anyway if I try to use it.

    Political philosophy has to be practical philosophy or else it’s worse than useless — it’s a dangerous menace, because someone might try to use it! I’m a bit of Burkean when it comes political philosophy. High flown theory is fine for metaphysics, but for politics, it can ruin the lives of millions.

    Comment by Carl — February 7, 2007 @ 1:54 am

  6. Not at all, philosophical argumentation is means to distinguish false statements from true statements. Those that can be argued for without error are true, those that cannot be are false, just like a mathematical proof. The veil of ignorance isn’t a system that should be implemented as a way to choose rules, nor is it proposed as one, or argued for and against as one, by Rawls or any of his published critics or supporters that I know of. Rawls doesn’t think we should actually try to get together and pretend we are ignorant of our situation, that would be silly, and Rawls is not a silly man. His thesis is simply that the rules that would be agreed upon IF we were in such a situation are those that are the most just, because only the ones that treat people as equally as possible would be agreed upon in such a situation.

    Comment by Peter — February 7, 2007 @ 2:08 am

  7. Talking about justice without talking about consequences is perverse. Yes, you can talk about ethics without talking about consequences, but justice is not ethics. In ethics, it’s possible that my moral standard could be more important than preventing some harm from occurring. In matters of justice, the key is creating a society in which injustice occurs as infrequently as possible. Therefore, we are not allowed to bracket our concerns as we can in ethics.

    His thesis is simply that the rules that would be agreed upon IF we were in such a situation are those that are the most just, because only the ones that treat people as equally as possible would be agreed upon in such a situation.

    In the Islamist situation, we would agree by using the veil it’s clear that the just thing to do is to create a liberal democracy, because we cannot know if we will be an Islamist or not, and being a non-Islamist in an Islamist society is just awful. Then when we try to act on the results of the thought experiment, all hell would break loose. The result would be more injustice.

    This is not a theoretical argument. You can watch this process on-going now on the nightly news. People said, “Iraq is not a just society. Let’s fix it,” but the result is even more injustice than there was.

    Comment by Carl — February 7, 2007 @ 2:42 am

  8. Um, the difficulty of changing from one system to another have nothing to do with the justice of the system either before or after the change. One might do an ethical analysis of the change, but in that case we would probably just argue that the long term benefits outweigh the short term costs, if the system we are moving to is really more just. See: american revolution, civil war, and so on. And in addition to say that we should never bear some costs in order to move to a better system is just silly, then we would never make any progress, because any change from a less just system to a more just one is where some people will be reduced in status, and thus it will be necessary to fight them for it. To reiterate: the veil of ignorance is about evaluating whether a system is just or not. It doesn’t make reccomendations about how to get to a more just system, that is not its purpose. Oh, one more point: justice has nothing to do with how happy people are either.

    Comment by Peter — February 7, 2007 @ 2:53 am

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