Veil of Ignorance


paul krugman by Joe Ciardiello

The ‘veil of ignorance‘ and the ‘original position’ (state of nature) are concepts introduced by Hungarian economist, John Harsanyi, and later appropriated by American Philosopher, John Rawls, in ‘A Theory of Justice.’

It is a method of determining the morality of a certain issue (e.g. slavery) based upon the following principle: imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind the veil of ignorance, one does not know what role they will be reassigned. Only then can one truly consider the morality of an issue.

For example, whites in the southern United States, pre-Civil War, did indeed condone slavery, but they most likely would not have done so had there been a re-fashioning of society so that they would not know whether they would be the ones enslaved. An important feature of this thought experiment is that one doesn’t get to keep any aspects of their current role, even aspects that are an integral part of their self.

As put by John Rawls himself …’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.’ For example, in the imaginary society, one might or might not be intelligent, rich, or born into a preferred class. Since one may occupy any position in the society once the veil is lifted, this theory encourages thinking about society from the perspective of all members.

The veil of ignorance is part of the long tradition of thinking in terms of a social contract, discussed by Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson, among others. It also has obvious roots in – and addresses some of the critiques of – the widespread ethical concept of ‘The Golden Rule.’

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