Is the Veil of Ignorance plausible? Is it even necessary?

In my break here in Monterey Park, I have been working my way through Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (original edition), and I must say that this enterprise has proven very intellectually stimulating thus far. I have some substantive quarrels with some of Rawls’ conclusions, but I really enjoy reading the work as a whole. Right now, I am working my way through Chapter 3, the one on the original position. Specifically, Section 24, on the veil of ignorance, has really made me think. In six short pages, Rawls manages to pack in some really dense philosophy, and I don’t claim that this is anything even resembling a thorough, close analysis. Instead, these are just my thoughts on this section. I have two problems with this section. First, I find the conception of the veil of ignorance implausible, from an epistemological view. Second, I am not sure that the veil of ignorance is absolutely crucial to the enterprise as Rawls claims it is.

Rawls argues that in trying to decide upon principles of justice in the original position,

“the aim is to use the notion of pure procedural justice as a basis of theory. Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage. Now in order to do this I assume that the parties are situated behind a veil of ignorance.” (136)

I have no disagreements with this claim, because I agree with Rawls that social and natural contingencies are morally irrelevant, as they are arbitrary, and no one is really entitled to them in any moral sense. Rawls then goes on to describe the conditions behind the veil of ignorance:

“It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, 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. Nor again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of his psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism.” (137)

Yet the veil of ignorance is not a condition of complete ignorance, because Rawls claims that there are certain things which individuals do in fact know behind the veil

“It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice.” (137)

The kind of epistemological access that Rawls ascribe to individuals behind the veil of ignorance seems very implausible to me. The obvious question to me is this: how can individuals have epistemic access to a host of theoretical knowledge but not any concrete knowledge? It would seem to me that one’s knowledge of economic theory, for example, would have to come from knowledge of particular economic arrangements in one’s society. In denying this, is Rawls suggesting an idealistic epistemology in which one can grasp truths through pure reasoning? The things that Rawls claim that individuals behind the veil know are things of a practical nature: politics, society, economics, and psychology. I don’t see how individuals can know these things without knowing particular details, unless Rawls assume that there are a priori knowledge about these things that can be grasped purely through thought.

To be fair, Rawls never claims that the original position or the veil of ignorance corresponds to any actual concrete state of existence. Instead, these concepts represent a “move” in reasoning. But this claim makes the epistemological conditions in the veil of ignorance even more implausible. If the veil of ignorance is only a move in one’s reasoning process, then one is moving from an epistemic state in which one does know the particulars, to one in which he does not. In making this move, the individual cannot be making it in any actual state of ignorance about particulars–instead, the very language of a “move” suggests that his initial state is not that of ignorance. Of course one can purposefully limit his epistemic access when he’s making this move, but human subjectivity is inescapable, and knowledge of certain natural differences cannot be willfully blocked even with the best efforts (for example, gender).

However, I personally don’t see the epistemological problems as THAT serious, because as Rawls says, the veil of ignorance might be an absolutely necessary concept in this enterprise. If I accept that claim, I would probably overlook some of the epistemological assumptions that underlie the concept of the veil of ignorance.


But, and there is always a but, I don’t agree with Rawls that the veil of ignorance is an absolutely necessary concept in his enterprise, which is to choose principles of justice in the original position. What that means, Rawls claims, is this:

“To say that a certain conception of justice would be chosen in the original position is equivalent to saying that rational deliberation satisfying certain conditions and restrictions would reach a certain conclusion.” (138)

The certain conditions and restrictions mentioned in that claim are elaborated upon in the previous section, Section 23. Rawls summarize them as the following:

“Taken together, then, these conditions on conceptions of right come to this: a conception of right is a set of principles, general in form and universal in application, that is to be publicly recognized as a final court of appeal for ordering the conflicting claims of moral persons.” (135)

But, Rawls goes on to say, these conditions and restrictions by themselves aren’t sufficient to establish a theory of justice, as ignorance of particular details is also needed. The reason for this is that in the original position behind the veil of ignorance, there is no bargaining among persons, because

“no one knows his situation in society nor his natural assets, and therefore no one is in a position to tailor principles to his advantage.” (139)

I, however, do not see the bargaining problem as posing too serious of a problem, and furthermore, I don’t think it’s necessary to get behind the veil of ignorance in order to establish principles of justice. I say this because historically, the existence of the bargaining problem is not an insurmountable obstacle to establish principles that satisfy the conditions imposed by the conditions of right. I’m thinking of the ratification of the Constitution, which would to me satisfy those conditions: it is general in form and universal in application (or at least in the US), it is public recognized, it acts as the final court of appeal as the supreme law of the land, and it provides ways to adjudicate competing claims of citizens. Now, as any student of US history and the Constitution can tell you, the Constitution itself is a product of intense bargaining among various factions and interests. Yet the bargaining problem has not made it impossible to come up with rules that satisfy the conditions and restrictions that Rawls stipulates.

As an aside, I’m aware that Rawls does bring up the Constitution in A Theory of Justice, but I am not that far into the book, so I’m well aware of the incompleteness of my thoughts on this matter.

Like I said, I don’t see the bargaining problem as too serious of an impediment, and Rawls’ worry about the bargaining problem seems to rest on a view of human nature that is much too pessimistic. Rawls seems to believe that once individuals know about their particular circumstances and social position, they will inevitably choose principles that tailor to their advantage. I just don’t think this is the case, because this view of human nature makes it almost impossible for persons to think in moral terms on their own. I want to maintain that it is perfectly possible for persons to come to the right moral conclusion while maintaining knowledge of their own particular circumstances. For example, one can be a white person and still think rightly that African Americans should not be denied economic benefits merely by virtue of their being African Americans. Nor is it impossible for a man to think that woman should be given decision powers in the reproductive process. If any kind of particular details must be suppressed, then I would say that it is not the details about the person that should be blocked out, but rather one’s pre-existing moral attitudes.

Actually, my disagreement with Rawls on this matter is not as big as it comes across. Fundamentally, the veil of ignorance, as Rawls acknowledges, is a variation of Kant’s categorical imperative. I have no disagreement with this, but I will say that thinking from an universal point of view is not identical to and does not consist of blocking knowledge of particular facts about the self. I think individuals can and should consider factors beyond the particular ones about themselves when thinking morally, but this kind of moral perspective is not the same thing as the veil of ignorance. And I maintain that in this weaker version of taking the universal perspective, it is still very much possible to come up with principles of justice that satisfy Rawls’ conditions.

Fundamental Differences

Of course, one can object to my claim and say that what Rawls wants requires something stronger, something more robust–taking the veil of ignorance. What Rawls wants, he claims, is unanimity. He argues:

“Moreover, if in choosing principles we required unanimity even when there is full information, only a few rather obvious cases could be decided. A conception of justice based on unanimity in these circumstances would indeed by weak and trivial. But once knowledge is excluded, the requirement of unanimity is not out of place and the fact that it can be satisfied is of great importance.” (141-142)

This is where I perceive that I have fundamental differences with Rawls in approaching problems of political justice. Rawls wants unanimity in unequivocal terms, and if that is what he wants, the veil of ignorance is indeed absolutely necessary. I, on the other hand, think that it is too implausible (there it is again) to demand unanimity when it comes to justice and politics in general. Politics by nature is a pluralistic enterprise, and it seems to be driven by differences and efforts to negotiate between them. In this pluralistic enterprise, I think unanimity is not only (almost) impossible, but also counter-productive if the search for it becomes the pre-requisite to conduct politics. Therefore, I am satisfied with something weaker, and this weaker demand makes knowledge about particulars, and the bargaining problems that come with such knowledge, much more manageable.


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