Note: This was originally written as a term paper for my Ethics class and is formatted as originally written.

     John Rawlstheory of justice seeks to find a compromise between utilitarianism and Kant’s deontology, both of which many people find to be counter-intuitive and unrealistic when applied to common life. In this contractualist theory, Rawls suggests that the ideal, if hypothetical, way to determine what is just and what is unjust, as well as the principles that shall guide a society, is to create a “veil of ignorance”, under which rational people come together with the knowledge they have of humanity, but none of that of their identity or place within society, including their class, race, sex, education level, and so on. Through this Rawls believes that people will create a system of “justice as fairness” because their lack of knowledge regarding who they are will prevent them from arranging a society that would benefit those in their position at the expense of others (as they may in truth end up the disadvantaged party.) Despite being successful within some areas, this theory leaves much to be desired, both because it is limited in who it represents and protects, and that this separation of identity and knowledge that is necessary for the veil of ignorance to exist as described is far less simple than Rawls indicates in his treatment of the matter.

     The first problem of this theory is surrounding the issue of rationality. Rawls requires that those behind the veil of ignorance be rational people, in order to make decisions about how society will function, and also mentions that they are self-interested (that is, they wish to secure a good place in society for themselves, whatever “good” turns out to mean.) As a rational person who could fit anywhere in society, they might be members of any ethnicity, sexual orientation, height, profession, etc., but they will presumably maintain their rational state, thus not being among other categories, such as children too young to be considered rational, the mentally disabled, various non-human species, and the natural physical environment, which leaves those groups completely unrepresented in this theory.

     Some (rational) people might consider it in their own best interest to set up protective laws and rights for, say, the earthly environment (water, air, etc.) but others might think such laws are restrictive to their best interests. It would not be shocking if the majority of self-interested parties did not make arrangements for groups they have no chance of being a member of, even though probably most people would agree that children, at least, deserve some manner of rights, such as the right not to be killed should their parents grow tired of them, or even something more extensive, like the right to an education, and this theory leaves us with the question of where these rights would come from. Similarly, while perhaps not as many people would jump to the thought that the environment and non-human animals desire rights, a sizable portion of rational people would likely argue that they ought to be protected in some way, but this theory may well leave them ignored.

     In short, Rawls’ veil of ignorance is basically “by rational people, for rational people,” from what he has written about it, and does not account for the non-rational lives of children, the mentally handicapped, or non-human life. If the theory is to be considered useful it could only be within the realm of developing guidelines for the people represented within it, and some other method must account for those unrepresented, if they are to be granted some manner of legal rights.


     The second major problem is that of what the people behind the veil of ignorance know, how they know it, and how ignorant to their identities they truly are. In the beginning of the selection A Liberal Theory of Justice1, Rawls writes, “They are the principles free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept …” (Pojman 673), and later on “Since each desires to protect his interests, his capacity to advance his conception of the good …” (Pojman 675) but also writes between those two sections, “I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities” (Pojman 674) when discussing what the conditions would be under the veil of ignorance.

     If one does not know one’s conception of the good, how could one hope to advance it? Even if we assume he means that one only knows they will seek to further their conception of good, despite not knowing what it is, there are problems.

     Perhaps, by conception of good, Rawls means only one’s conception of the good with respective to that which are commonly regarded as ethical issues, but clearly good also extends to what one considers virtuous, desirable, and preferred. If I choose to live in San Francisco over New York, assuming the financial and personal strains would be equal, it is because I find that there is some good in San Francisco, and that it is indeed better than New York (and if the financial and personal strains are not equal, and they lead me to choose one city over another, it is because I consider it a good to not put myself through unnecessary strain.) Thus the word good must be interpreted to its full scope in this context, as the apparent separation (between ethical goods and any other concept of good) is arbitrary and not specified by Rawls.

     One’s own interests would likely include a few universal desires, such as staying alive, and having sufficient food, shelter, and other amenities so as to make sustenance of life a relatively easy task. On the other hand, one’s own interests might also include such things as living in a safe neighborhood, being able to provide a comfortable life for one’s children, and being able to afford things beyond life sustaining levels. To determine what a safe neighborhood is, one must know what sort of activity is undesirable, or bad. Some people would include drug related activity among bad acts that would not take place in a safe neighborhood, while others would think of this as a victimless crime in and of itself and not mind having it in their neighborhood. This discrepancy of views is based on personal experience, knowledge about the subject, theory of how the presence affects a neighborhood, and, in some cases, the ethical theory subscribed to. One’s idea about what comprises a safe neighborhood would be affected by things such as what sort of neighborhoods they have lived in, their ethnicity, and their socioeconomic status, (as race and class are subjects often associated with issues of crime and other differences between neighborhoods). If one must abandon their idea of what is good, how can it be decided what sort of activities are undesirable and thus ought to be eliminated in order to further one’s own interests?

     The issue of distribution of wealth also brings up a similar problem, as, while perhaps all rational people in a culture that uses money in the way modern industrialized countries in the West do will want enough of it to make physically living an easy task, some people do not value material things as much as others, though they have equal amounts of rationality. Some may hope for completely equal distribution between individuals with the excess going to government programs while others would value a more capitalistic point of view where one does not receive money unless it is earned somehow. Like with forming ideas about what activities ought to be criminal, the amount that money is valued is based on factors found within an individual situation, their past, and ideals.

     The important issue with both of these examples is that there is no objective conclusion which can be reached by all rational people, and there is also no support given (in Rawls’ theory or elsewhere) for a default position which should be taken in the event of the removal of one’s personal knowledge which would normally dictate their opinion on the matters. Based on this it seems that one does not have any less of a biased view while behind the veil of ignorance than if one is aware of one’s personal backround.

     Issues of preference also carry over into what one “knows” to be true about humanity. For example, a person who has spent their life as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist may “know” that homosexuality is a choice made due to being seduced by undesirable (evil) forces and desires and making this choice erodes traditional values. Likewise, someone on the liberal side of this situation may equally “know” that homosexuality is a status which is not chosen, cannot be changed, and does nothing to undermine separate values and beliefs. If there is an objective truth to this matter, whatever it may be, it will not be found by all rational people, as people “know” different facts which will lead them to different conclusions even if the same, logically sound, process is used to reach them. Due to this, some groups of people may be over-protected (if you’re inclined, an example of this might be making the molestation of children legal because of sympathies of pedophiles who were often themselves molested and have a very hard time controlling themselves,) or some may be under-protected (again, if you are inclined to disagree with this position, perhaps all people engaging in homosexual behavior be jailed or killed would be a proper example.) With this problem Rawls, probably unintentionally, calls forth difficult epistemological problems.

     Perhaps rational people would reach similar conclusions about basic principles, such as the two Rawls discusses, but there is no reason to think that the veil of ignorance is functional beyond that point, and whether it is as useful as it it seems for basic principles is dubious, because even though a person does not consciously know their lot in life, their views and choices will be highly affect by it.



1 As it appears in Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings (see cited works.)


Works Cited
Rawls, John. Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings. 3rd ed.
     Comp. and ed. Louis P. Pojman. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. 1998.
     673-685.

I don't think that most people find Fnordian's first objection to be much of a problem. I always assumed that although I was rational while I was behind the curtain, once I 'came out' I would be born anew into the world I had created. The tricky bit here is that the Veil of Ignorance is a gedanken experiment, and no one is actually going to go behind it or come out. It's just pretend. First you pretend what it would be like to be born poor. How would you like the world to be? Then crippled. Now how do you want the world to be? Then stupid. The brilliant. Then rich. And eventually you decide which world suits all of these people the best.

Fnordian's second point is much more important. It means that the Veil of Ignorance can only be used to help you find your perfectly just world. Other people will find a different just world.

Then we can either have a Congress of the Ignorants, to duke it out among themselves, or we can use a MetaVeil, behind which you don't even know what your opinions are on matters like the desirable level of basic living conditions and diet, or ethical matters like personal property and basic rights. This might be what Rawls meant by the "conception of good", but I think he didn't mean anything so overwhelming. I don't think that I could do that gedanken experiment very well at all.

One of the reasons that I can't do that experiment is because the factors involved just get too weird. There are those who think animals have rights. Do I have to assume that I might be born as a dog, deer, or fish? Do I have to weigh the just worlds of a shark, a tuna, and a fisherman, and find the happy medium? There are way more cockroaches than humans. Will the 'just world' end up being correspondingly weighted towards the ideals of cockroaches? Or is it only weighted that way within the percentage of people that think that cockroaches have a concept of just to weigh? Should I count the cockroaches themselves as being among those who think that cockroaches should have a vote? Oy vey.

The Veil of Ignorance is great as a jumping off point for finding a just system, but it's more a fun idea than a complete philosophy. And that's the problem.

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