Using the Veil of Ignorance to Create a Just Society

Today was one of my favorite Saturdays – Dan Ariely’s column was in the Wall Street Journal!

I’ll offer my perspective on his advice in a later post, but what I want to focus on in this post is a phrase which Ariely used that I had not heard of before, the veil of ignorance.

Here’s how Ariely described the veil of ignorance:

Political philosopher John Rawls notes that the veil of ignorance refers to a scenario where people are asked to design an imaginary society they will have to live in, without knowing whether they are going to be rich or poor. This means that they have to decide what is fair before they know how much they will personally stand to gain or lose from any given arrangement—for instance, the tax rate.

The phrase was enough to pique my interest, so naturally, I went to my go-to source when wanting to learn more about something – Wikipedia – and it did not disappoint. SInce Ariely mentioned John Rawls in his advice, that is the section from Wikipedia I will share here:

The version proposed in 1971 by American philosopher John Rawls in his “original position” political philosophy is based upon the following thought experiment: people making political decisions imagine that they know nothing about the particular talents, abilities, tastes, social class, and positions they will have within a social order. When such parties are selecting the principles for the distribution of rights, positions, and resources in the society in which they will live, this “veil of ignorance” prevents them from knowing who will receive a given distribution of rights, positions, and resources in that society. For example, for a proposed society in which 50% of the population is kept in slavery, it follows that on entering the new society there is a 50% likelihood that the participant would be a slave. The idea is that parties subject to the veil of ignorance will make choices based upon moral considerations since they will not be able to make choices based on their own class or self–interest.

As Rawls put it, “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like”. The idea of the thought experiment is to render obsolete those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.

The image shown above is a symbolic depiction of Rawls’s veil of ignorance. The citizen making the choices about their society make them from an “original position” of equality and ignorance (left), without knowing what gender, race, abilities, tastes, wealth, or position in society they will have (right). Rawls claims this ensures the person will choose a just society.

I found this to be a fascinating thought experiment, and it seems to have a lot of validity and promise for making the world a more just place.

Here’s a bit more from Wikipedia: The theory contends that not knowing one’s ultimate position in society would lead to the creation of a just system, as the decision-maker would not want to make decisions which benefit a certain group at the expense of another, because the decision-maker could theoretically end up in either group. The idea has been present in moral philosophy at least since the eighteenth century. (emphasis added)

It’s embarrassing that this idea has been around for over 200 years, and I’m just hearing about it now! Makes me wonder what else I don’t know about life.

I guess it’s time for me to take a few philosophy courses.

Fortunately, given where I work, I can do so for free.

The only thing it might cost me is having to look at the world in a whole new way.

*image from Roz Savage

6 thoughts on “Using the Veil of Ignorance to Create a Just Society

  1. It is a noble concept; one which probably doesn’t exist anywhere. The rules/norms are set up by the people who hold the most power.


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