The veil of ignorance

I’m doing this pretty cool course on moral and political philosophy at the moment and we discussed John Rawls‘ theory of justice. We did a thought experiment at the end of one lecture, which was pretty interesting so I’m going to share it with ya! It’s slightly difficult to explain, but stick with me.

Imagine you’re the ruler of a country and you must decide on a random distribution of money to give to each third of society. You are presented with these four options:

                   A          B           C
option 1 –   300     300       300
option 2 –   400     400       400
option 3 –   500     1000    1000
option 4 –   300     1500    2000

Which of these distributions is fair? What do you think? In our class we had disagreement between the egalitarians who thought option 2 was the best, even though everyone was  worse off than in option 3. Some said that as long as the person at the bottom had the most (option 3) then it didn’t matter if the other people had a bit more. And those that favoured the fourth option pointed out the combined wealth of everyone in society was biggest. The fourth option can be thought of as kind of unrestrained capitalism, involving a huge capacity to generate wealth but inevitably the wealth is spread very unequally. Rawls thinks that a just distribution of goods is one where the position of the worst off in society is maximised, and any deviation from equality must benefit those at the bottom. Therefore he would think that option 3 is the fairest, because the worst off are in the best position.

One part of John Rawls’ theory of justice called the veil of ignorance. His theory imagines a hypothetical situation where a whole group of people are getting together to determine the future set up of the society they’re going to live in. He argues that the most just way to allocate resources to people is for everyone to not know which person and allocation they’re going to end up with once the veil is lifted. Because everyone behind the veil of ignorance doesn’t know their future position in society, they’re probably all going to decide on a situation where everyone is relatively equal – because if it was unequal they might end up being one of the people in a bad position. Those behind the veil would probably choose option 3 out of these choices, because it is relatively equal and the position of those at the bottom is maximised. These people behind the veil would look at New Zealand or American society and decide that it was profoundly unjust and unfair because some people are in such a better position than others for reasons that are unclear.

It’s a way of thinking about justice that I think is quite enlightening, for instance, when thinking about welfare benefits or progressive taxation. An extremely rich person in society, looking after solely their own self interest, might argue against welfare and high taxes on the wealthy because they are in a position to be disadvantaged by such a policy. But if they were to think, ‘I could be anyone in this society, and if I were poor I might be really struggling to survive, and these policies would help me’, they might be much more willing to agree to taxes, recognizing that they could have easily been born someone different. I recognise that this is highly unlikely to ever happen, but it is interesting to think about the changes that would come about if everyone was to think like this.

It’s a way of putting self interest to the side and considering the position and welfare of everyone in society rather than just yourself, and it reflects badly on people who believe in neoliberal policies like reducing the size of the state and reducing taxation. It highlights the fact that when conservative governments reduce taxes on the rich and cut back benefits (like they’re doing in New Zealand right now) they are further cementing the position of the rich while failing to recognise the luck and often arbitrary reasons they’re in that position in the first place.

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