The veil of ignorance

‘A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to enter it in a random place.’

John Rawls

The political philosopher John Rawls proposed a thought experiment. He asked us to imagine that we are responsible for designing a just society. However, we do not know what position we will hold in this society once it has been created. We do not know what our gender, race, or sexual orientation will be. We do not know whether we will be healthy or sick, or suffer from any disabilities. We do not know whether we will be rich or poor. We don’t even know what our tastes, passions, and interests will be.

‘Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities.’

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

Rawls described this as being placed behind a veil of ignorance. He believed that this uncertainty about our own potential position provided the necessary motivation to morally consider what would make a truly just society. Through not wishing to disadvantage ourselves, we would need to ensure that no one in the society was disadvantaged by the society. We would be required to empathise with those who, in the real world, hold a different position to ourselves and consider how we would wish to be treated in their situation. From behind the veil we would therefore opt for a much fairer society than we have in reality.

Rawls believed that people behind the veil would be drawn to the principles of individual freedom and equality of opportunity. One would then not be penalised by society due to an accident of birth or circumstance.

Humanists support human rights, equalities, and freedoms. The veil of ignorance thought experiment can help us to see how these guarantees, to which everyone should be entitled, can support a more just society. They provide a defence against any disadvantages at birth or poor fortune in our lives. Thinking about the veil of ignorance will help us, this week, to understand the motivation behind many of the humanist goals for society.

Humanist organisations will be concerned, in particular, about inequalities in society relating to one’s religion or belief. They campaign against privilege or prejudice where it exists on such a basis. Again the veil of ignorance can support us to understand why this might be. If one did not know whether one was going to be born into a religious or non-religious family, and if one was unaware of what one’s initial inclinations towards religious or non-religious beliefs would be or how these might change throughout one’s life, then one would surely hope to be born into a society in which there existed the freedom of religion or belief. One would wish for a society in which one could live according to one’s beliefs without fear of persecution or punishment. These are the goals of a secular society, supported by humanists, which we will take a closer look at later this week.

A motivation to action

‘The natural distribution is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.’

John Rawls, A Theory of Justice

We are obviously not all born equal. Nor can society make everyone equal. Some inequalities are inevitable. Of course, some can also be desirable. Few people would want to eliminate those inequalities and differences that provide the rich variety in human personalities and talents. However, humanists believe we can and should work to remove those inequalities of opportunity that can be removed by social reform or action. We should work to eliminate unfair inequality where we can. Inequalities of opportunity stand in the way of overall human welfare and progress.

The thought experiment is not therefore just an interesting philosophical exercise for humanists. It can also be a call to action. For humanists, there is no divine justice. There is no other life in which to rectify the injustices suffered in this life. That is part of their motivation to work for a more just society in the here and now. If we recognise that the world is such that we would not be happy to be in the position in which other human beings find themselves, then we should seek to change it.

Questions: Do you think the veil of ignorance is a helpful way to think about how best to organise society? If you found yourself behind the veil of ignorance what would you want society to be like?

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This article is from the free online course:

Introducing Humanism: Non-religious Approaches to Life

Humanists UK