How can we create a perfectly fair and just society? In one of his most celebrated and debated works, “A Theory of Justice”, John Rawls presents a thought experiment that he believes can help establish such a society.
The Veil of Ignorance is a thought experiment that Rawls suggests should be used when we are deciding which laws and principles should govern a state.
The experiment starts in the “original position” behind the veil of ignorance. In this position we are asked to imagine that the individuals are tasked with establishing a society while simultaneously being unaware of their position within that society.
The individuals behind the veil of ignorance are asked to abandon preconceived notions about themselves and their roles in society.
While they are behind the veil they do not know what role they will have in a new society, they do not know what skills they have, what social class they belong to, they do not even know if they are able bodied.
In this way Rawls hopes that individuals will make decisions regarding the structure of society that are fair and equitable to all people.
Let us imagine, for example, those behind the veil are considering implementing segregation of 50 per cent of the population to inferior areas of habitation. Because no one knows their position in society it would be irrational to implement such measures as there is a 50/50 chance that once the individuals behind the veil emerge into the society they created they may suffer the adverse consequences they themselves set out.
That is obviously an extreme example but we can extrapolate from it that any structuring of society that creates significant levels of inequality is not likely to be created from behind the veil.
Some inequality of wealth and social power is still possible, but because individuals in the original state are unaware of their position in the state they will seek an equitable distribution for all.
The thought experiment has value but has often been criticized for a variety of reasons.
One such criticism is that in order for the veil of ignorance to function properly those behind it must abandon their biases and their understanding of their role in society.
While this seems like a good idea, it is very difficult to put into practice even as a thought experiment. As such many scholars have pointed out that the thought experiment is interesting but not possible to implement.
Despite such critiques there is undoubtedly some value in the Veil of Ignorance as a thought experiment and a lens through which we can examine laws, rules, values, and the structure of society.