The veil of ignorance: great thought experiment

John Rawls

John Rawls

What if we could get together to form a new kind of society … and we did not even know who we would be in that society?

This is a famous thought experiment, proposed by the Harvard philosopher John Rawls in his 1971 book, Theory of Justice.

Rawls was trying to justify democracy as fair as opposed to merely utilitarian (ie, “the greatest good of the greatest number”). How would we go about deciding what is fair? By imagining a situation that has never existed, and indeed can never exist.

Rawls called that situation the “original position”:

No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone 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. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

You have probably already grasped the power of the experiment. Normally, we think of justice with ourselves in mind. A single black mom in a public-housing project will have a very different view than a start-up entrepreneur in Silicon Valley or a trustafarian in prep school or a prisoner or …. you get the point.

But if we don’t know whether we will be tall or short, male or female, smart or dumb, lazy or ambitious and all the rest of it, we have to test every principle against the possibility that we might be the least advantaged member of society with respect to it.

A simple example: Slavery in 19th-century America.

Slave owners considered America free and fair and were prepared to go to war for that “freedom”. That’s because the slave owners assumed that they were, well, slave owners. Using purely utilitarian reasoning, they might have concluded that slavery produced the maximum pleasure of the greatest number of people (ie, the white majority) and was therefore right.

But if they had played Rawls’ thought experiment, they would have had to imagine that they might instead be slaves. Suddenly, slavery no longer looks so good.

Getting liberté, egalité, fraternité onto one flag

756px-eugene_delacroix_-_la_liberte_guidant_le_peuple

Now, some of you might remember that, back in April, I tried to figure out whether freedom and equality could ever coexist, as the naked-boobed Marianne (pictured) was clearly hoping. In that post, I was thinking about biology. But perhaps the answer lies in Rawls’ thought experiment.

As we imagine a society without knowing what role we have in it, we will certainly agree that it should be free, and that we should not sacrifice that freedom by forcing everybody to be equal.

But that leaves us having to imagine inequality, and, thanks to our veil of ignorance, we might be the ones ending up with the least (wealth, opportunity, beauty, power…). So how can we agree to inequality that is fair?

The answer is

  • First, that inequality must benefit even the least advantaged member of society (though obviously not in the same proportion). So we do not mind that the Sergey and Larry at Google get astronomically rich because even a single black mom in a public-housing project can now google where to get her baby a flu shot.
  • Second, that the cushy positions in society must be open to all.

Intelligence and talent, for those playing the thought experiment rigorously, would thus cease being mere boons for the individuals that are lucky to have them and instead become social resources that help even those who don’t have them.

I can immediately think of lots of things that we still would not agree on–inheritance taxes, say. But Rawls’ thought experiment definitely introduces even a certain amount of fraternité into the equation. Marianne would love him. For the power of this experiment, I’m hereby including Rawls in my pantheon of great thinkers.

45 thoughts on “The veil of ignorance: great thought experiment

  1. I like this post.

    Let’s do a thought experiment about justice.
    Can justice and mercy exist in the same realm?

    What is justice?
    Plato had his thoughts for sure.

  2. This topic is way to complex and subtle to comment on. But that isn’t stopping me! Two things. First, it is interesting to speculate on the kind of world that people truly cloaked in a “veil of ignorance” would envision. It is one thing to speculate on how known inequalities would be viewed if the playing field were suddenly levelled, but if the experiment could be done purely theoretically, there would be no limits on how human capital (e.g., intelligence and talent) would be valued and used in the socieity. So in one respect we can’t even imagine how the experiement would really play out and it is exciting to think about alternative constructions that could be developed.

    Following on from that, I take exception to your observation about justifying the earnings of Google execs because of the benefit the mother receives for two reasons. First, it is a rationalization of a grotesque inequality, second, there is no logical correlation between the benefits accruing to each of the parties–they are not necessarily interdependent and therefore under the experiment the justification might not be apparent.

    Thanks for a very stimulating post.

    • Nice ironic opening. 😉

      Re the Google guys: The inequality may be, as you said, “grotesque” but it is not necessarily unfair. And fairness, remember, is what we are after in this thought experiment. Furthermore, I do think that the people who use Google are “interdependent” with its creators.

      Many people are better off because they can google their disease symptoms, read books that used to be unavailable or unaffordable to them, communicate at little or no cost, et cetera et cetera. The total value accruing to the large number of people slightly better off almost certainly surpasses the huge wealth of the two founders. In our thought experiment, THAT is why we–without knowing whether we are founders or users in the hypothetical next world–would allow the grotesque inequality. We want more Google guys and more Googles. We are ready to reward them grotesquely because–but only as long as–they make the least advantaged of us better off too.

      If you change the logic subtly, so that the grotesqueness of the inequality, as opposed to the gain of the least advantaged, becomes the measure, you tip over the edge of “fairness” and into socialism, which, as Churchill remarked, is ultimately based on envy.

    • I like what you are saying–it shows the importance of perspective to a discussion of this issue. I agree that it’s valuable to uncouple grotesqueness and fairness; and the question of whether we focus on inequality or gain of the least advantaged is crucial. A lot of contemporary social discourse could benefit from that shift in focus!

  3. Injustice (and its corollary) are subjects of such immediate and serious import for the individual that they are not suitable for a thought experiment. If you were unjustly accused, you would not like to think that those sitting in judgment (an inevitable inequality anyway) came with any preconceptions at all, egalitarian or otherwise? Ivory tower stuff. Indeed, an unwritten constitution provides the flexibility that justice requires. Sorry!

    • I do not follow your logic, Richard.

      Rawls’ thought experiment would require us to contemplate precisely this possibility: that we might, in the hypothetical world, be unjustly accused (or the victim of a crime, or the accuser…). And that thought would compel us to design a justice system that protects those who are accused, in the eventuality that they are innocent.

    • My problem here – which perhaps you can resolve for me – is the utility or validity of a “Design” for justice. What we need, perhaps , is a more pragmatic or ad hoc approach. Isn’t this the way of the Common Law, with precedent as the counterbalance?

    • Now I understand you, Richard.

      (I’m planning, at some point, a post on adversarial (= common law) vs inquisitorial (= continental) legal traditions.)

      You’re interested in a different question than Rawls raised.

      Rawls tried to get us to clarify in our own minds, via an experiment, what we consider fair.

      You are interested in whether real-world legal systems are better designed, via a written constitution, or left to evolve, via an unwritten constitution composed of the accumulation of precedents.

      I’ve always been a fan of the Anglo-Saxon “muddling-through” approach, which, as you say, is incredible flexible and moderate and durable. But there are drawbacks with the adversarial nature that it implies. That’s a lot to get into. Feel free to opine yourself. In due course I promise to clarify my thinking on that.

    • I look forward to your post about Common Law as against Civil, that is, Roman Law, systems. As usual, you will educate and enlighten.

      I’m sorry I did not make it clear that I was not challenging Rawls’ conclusions within his own parameters. I was saying rather clumsily that the needs of justice prevail over any desire to create a system, however sophisticated, or even practical. I had to adopt this approach because I had never heard of Rawls and knew nothing of his work. Thank you again for educating me.

      Philip S. Phogg’s approach has, with great respect to him, the same shortcoming. The legal and the moral are not to be confused. A code of morals is individual and subjective. A legal system overrides individual morality, by its very nature. It is itself amoral. All we can ask is that individual lawmakers, or interpreters of the law, are moral people following, say the principles in the Sermon on the Mount or their own honest construct. Rawls’ ideas may, indeed, be one, but only one.

      Anglo-Saxon “Doing things up with string” is not “Muddling through”. It demands constant self-questioning and self-discipline. It is very hard work because there is no underlying principle, or opt-out for responsibility when a new question arises. I suspect it is Rawls’ object to provide such an opt-out. The adversarial tradition, on the other hand, assists rather than impedes. A pre-defined code is incompatible with the interests of justice and lacks the required humility and emblematic blindfold.

      It is over forty years since I read The Laws and The Republic, Cheri, and so remember no detail. I do however remember feeling stifled by the notion of an ideal state imposed by an elite according to certain preconceptions. Probably because I didn’t understand.

      I am tempted to draw comparisons with Evolution by Natural Selection as against creation by Design. This is difficult, however, because evolution of the law in a natural way involves a human hypothetical “God” in the shape of the responsible person. This was the inbuilt inequality to which I was alluding in my first post, again clumsily, and which will apply in any legal system, with or without a Veil of Ignorance.

      You have to forgive me. I always have a great struggle trying to understand things. I have studiously avoided brackets in this post in order to follow your prescriptive requirement, but I find I need more words and punctuation and even then I deprive myself of shades of meaning.

  4. I’d love to see Rawls on more lists of greatest thinkers… sadly he’s not so widely known outside his field.Though some prominent folks (Buffet, Gates – not sure about Google founders) subscribe to his views – colloquially referred to as ‘ovarian lottery’.

    A key follow up point is that while the ‘veil of ignorance’ thought experiment is very worthwhile – we now have at our disposal some related non-thought experiments, from the field of experimental ethics (or behavioral economics) e.g. the Ultimatum Game

    (the following is a short extract from my book)

    “The Ultimatum Game has a Proposer and a Responder. In the simplest version, each has perfect information and plays a single game. The Proposer is given a sum of money; the Responder knows how much. The Proposer then has to offer the Responder a piece of the pie. The Responder can either accept or reject it. If the Responder accepts, each of the players gets a share and they both go on their merry ways. However, if the Responder rejects, neither gets to keep any of the money. Classical economics predicts that whatever is offered will likely be accepted. After all, the Responder is getting something for nothing, so accepting is the “rational” choice. However, that’s not what happens. On average, the typical offer is less than half, in line with the homo economicus predictions. There is always a point, however, below which Responders behave in a way that doesn’t fit the homo economicus model (i.e., supposedly “irrationally”). If the offer is considered too low, Responders reject. The prevailing opinion as to why this occurs is that Responders are viewing a low offer as being unfair or humiliating. In any case, by rejecting, Responders incur real costs (the foregone share) to punish Proposers. This study has been replicated many times in many cultures. It seems that we humans have a built-in mechanism telling us that we should disrupt a situation in which we feel unjustly treated—and that we should incur costs to enforce our preference for being treated justly. Much other research has shown that evolution has equipped us to use our brains in ways that aren’t simply what would be thought of as purely logical. The logic of survival of our deep ancestors hunting and gathering on the African savannah didn’t equip us to be only self-interestedly rational. The Ultimatum Game also has confirmed that classical economists have been trying to make monkeys of us all. Scientists are trying to present animals with the closest thing they can come up with to economic choices. For monkeys, it’s all about marshmallows or raisins. When simplified versions of the Ultimatum Game are run with chimpanzees, they always behave rationally.”

    For another description and view (bringing in some cultural and linguistic

    nuances) see http://business.theatlantic.com/2009/01/fairs_fair.php

    “These observations have deep implications for our understanding of this social concept, particularly as it relates to economics. Let me be clear: I am not claiming that Anglophones are the only fair people on the planet. It’s just that fair doesn’t have an exact equivalent in any other language. Other languages either directly import the English word, as in the German exclamation, “Das ist nicht fair!”, or fail altogether to have a comparable word, as is the case for French.”

    • “a short extract from my book”:

      Are you saying, Jag, that you already have a manuscript of your second book (the one criticizing the Enlightenment, presumably)?

      If so, are you planning to blog on your site about it? If not, do you want to write a guest post/teaser on the HB?

  5. You would have a just society were the principles of the veil of justice to be implemented. This is my understanding of Rawls’ position.

    I think you would also have a just society, if all human actions, and all legislation, were infused with the spirit of two sayings from the biblical New Testament:

    1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

    2. What you do to the least of men, you do unto me (this is God talking).

    When I assert that these two sayings are essential to creating a just society, I do so as someone totally secular ie with no religious beliefs. In any case they are far better and clearer than the inane: In God we trust.

    To have these two sayings as the essential criteria for all actions by wielders of of power, whether in government or business, and by individuals, would require flexibilty, which the law often hinders.

    Therefore I sort of like what Richard Manchester said in one of his comments: “……an unwritten constitution provides the flexibility that justice requires. ……..”.

  6. Very very stimulating post…
    I wonder what will happen if a democratic country’s constitution acknowledges a simple fact: all humans are free (inlc all freedoms of speech, action etc), have a right to pursue happiness but all humans are NOT born equal, and that a mix of chance & DNA has as much effect as hardwork etc in deciding a person’s final status.
    The only Equality any Govt can rationally promise to its citizens is in terms of institutional opportunities (private and public) being 100% meritocratic. Ex: College admissions, jobs, free public utlitities etc.

    • However hard hard we try, we cannot avoid the inherent weakness of any prescribed system: judging before the event. There will always be a surprise which defeats all the good will in the world. You can see this in microcosm in Statute Law. All the definitions, all the complexity, all the foresight, all the clever drafting will fail to catch that one surprise, which can be serious.
      How much worse if the weakness is enshrined in a constitution by those who arrogate to themselves the right, through an elective dictatorship, to settle it. Far better to bump along from case to case.

  7. There seems to be an assumption that inequality is unfair. But the real question should be what is inequality. Is measuring inequality with proxies such as intelligence or talent really the best method? People, after all, do not seem to differ much in terms of either category. The putative “intelligent” usually just worked harder than someone else to reach their specific point. The same goes for talent. In other words, the base level from which intelligence or talent develops doesn’t seem to differ much from person to person. Thus, should people who worked harder than others and reached a higher social position be considered unequal? If the black mom living in the housing projects had been born in similar circumstances as the google guys, would she have been able to reach the same level as them? Is the real inequity in life the social situation we are born into? Is that something that could ever realistically be remedied?

    • …….the base level from which intelligence or talent develops doesn’t seem to differ much from person to person…….

      Am I to understand from what you said, Jeff, that we are all born with roughly the same inborn mental stuff, from which spring intelligence or talent? Thus if we were all born and raised under fortunate circumstances, we could all potentially achieve great things in life if only we put our minds to it?

      I’m not so sure. I have this feeling that if I, for instance, had been born into the same circumstances as Sergey or Larry, or Wolfgang Amadeus, or Barack, and had worked as hard as did they, I still wouldn’t be much more than the mediocrity I turned out to be.

      But then, it could just be me………..

    • As can so often be the case with any of us, Phillip, the idea lurking behind Jeff’s words is more important than the words themselves. After all, he is very tentative. His second sentence is really the key. Maybe Rawls does define his terms – I don’t know – but justice is a delicate flower and could be crushed by a definition of equality. So perhaps equality, defined or not, appearing mysteriously behind a Veil of Ignorance or not, is a bad starting point for this thought experiment, of you really are going to have one.
      If I’m way off track because of my lack of reading or understanding, someone stop me, please – quick. Andreas?

  8. Well, I admit that Jeff has given this debate a major turn. We now have to consider the CAUSES of inequality, and the old question of nature versus nurture.

    Gladwell, in Outliers, has recently weighed in on this one, arguing essentially with Jeff that success is the result of luck and hard work, not genes: whose family you are born into in what place at what time when what opportunities present themselves in what order. If we are lucky enough (as Bill Gates was in the 1960s) to practice for 100,00 hours (or was it 10,000?) to attain a skill (computer coding) which then suddenly (in the 1970s) turns out to be the ticket to success, we make it. Others don’t.

    I can’t unravel my thoughts on this in this comment. Perhaps I’ll blog on it.

    But perhaps we can resolve something else first: Even if we could figure out what (ie, innate talent, hard work or luck) causes inequality, would it make a difference?

    Ie, in a hypothetical world where success were purely the result of superior genes, would fairness dictate that we impose Marxist-style equality?

    In a world where success were the result of hard work (and failure of sloth) would we allow unlimited inequality?

  9. A quick scan of the Wickipedia entry on Rawls suggests to me that he was talking about more than economic justice and success. Am I wrong?

    We seem to be broaching the unmentionable divide between the radical and the conservative. Yet there is a latent paradox. The radical seeks to fix notions of change this side of the Veil of Ignorance, whilst the conservative is content that the current flow of change should continue on the other side.

    I find this thought experiment altogether too difficult even to identify. How do the original position and the Veil of Ignorance relate to the causes of inequality? I’m lost.

    Don’t let this ball you’ve started rolling go over the cliff, Andreas.

    • As thought experiments go, this one seems to be a success, Richard. Recall that even with Einstein’s light beam, the experiment led (after years and decades) to great things (Relativity Theory) precisely because it was so perplexing.

    • Weren’t Einstein’s thought experiments more specific? Anyway, Andreas and Charles Sanders Peirce have saved the day for me. If it works, its OK, Eh?
      Amazing how just uttering a great name authenticates things. Some names are synonymous with their work, others not:
      Shakespeare: yes; Homer: yes; Freud: yes; Jung: no; Jesus: no; Beethoven: yes; Mozart: yes; Handel: no; Rubens: no; Da Vinci: no; Austen er… yes; Plato: yes; Aristotle: no ; Socrates: no; Einstein: no; Newton: no; Bacon: er … yes; Euclid: yes.
      Why?
      Do doctors, teachers, journalists, lawyers, engineers, statesmen figure?
      Having an “ism” appended doesn’t count.

  10. I am roused by this post because of its practical consequences, given your authority and following.

    There is no objection to attempting a theory, or theorem of justice, but success depends on the careful choice of axioms. “The Veil of Ignorance” is, I submit, an arbitrary assumption, based neither on observation nor experiment but on speculation.

    We speak of a “Sense” of injustice. Thus the purpose of any system of justice is to avoid wrong, but it will never be perfect. There is some right and some wrong in all issues. It is the extreme wrongs we seek to avoid and it is just those that escape the Veil of Ignorance.
    I may do Rawls an injustice, for I have not read him in the raw, but I have learned to rely on your reporting, Andreas.

    I venture to suggest that reason is a sense. It belongs to Jung’s higher faculties such as intuition. Logic is simply a tool to test its accuracy. Individual cases deserve individual assumptions. Is it right to allow The Veil of Ignorance to restrict the choice?

    I came to this blog as a layman trying to grasp Godelian incompleteness. What is remarkable about Godel is that he confounded logicians by the use of “Metamathematics” – the expression of mathematics by means of ordinary language. Language (and I include music and mathematics in that term) is without axiom yet operates to convey meaning by our common human awareness of the unattainable. And what do we find? Yes: perfect justice is unattainable in this world, but the search for it is hampered by this thought experiment.

    Lord Denning (a very controversial hero of our time) spoke of the judiciary as a priesthood. I mention this to create an artificial link to another post. Was Socrates a monolatrist? I hope I have got the term right: I have only just discovered it. It seems Moses was.

    I feel an urge to retire again, having re-read the draft of this comment, and finding myself with doubts, both in its substance and in its relevance, especially as the nature of democracy features. But I’ll hit the “Submit” button and take a chance!

    • “The Veil of Ignorance” is, I submit, an arbitrary assumption, based neither on observation nor experiment but on speculation….

      Er, well, it’s a “thought experiment”. By definition, that’s speculation. But of the constructive sort.

      You seem to criticize it as being a priori as opposed to a posteriori, as though “logic” would lead us astray when “experience” would get us to the goal.

      But in this thought experience you’re asked to use your a posteriori experience about life (your knowledge of poverty, or of somebody falsely accused, etc) to imagine a priori what it would be like if life doled you out one of these fates.

      So the thought experiment is fine, I feel. How sophisticated one reasons through it is another matter.

    • Thank you for the second link. Yes, I suppose, in the end, we can only ever see things from our own individual perspective. [I don’t quite know where this comment will deposit itself. It is intended to be a reply to your second comment. The one about the dig was supposed to be a reply to your first comment. It’s all falling apart!]

    • Sorry, I think I got it. I shouldn’t read the words but look at the shape, which is the curvature that we should see if we were not wearing beer goggles, right?

    • I have no f’ing idea. It’s rubbish.

      I’m still wondering if reason is a sense. Some things feel wrong. Is that nature or nurture? (I’m sure this is baby talk to a real philosopher.)

    • I love he way you bring true perspective to things by your cutting, but kind, humour. I don’t mind the dig, because there is a wormhole for those vaguely interested enough.

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  12. You raise a very interesting question, and provide an equally novel answer, Andreas 🙂
    I would compare this thought experiment to that of Schrodinger’s Cat. The common thread is the unknowing. Quantum uncertainty.

    But also, I would opine that fairness & equality are often 2 very different things. And democracy is again a very different 3rd issue.

    For example, when the asteroid came & ended the Dynasty of the Dinosaurs, handing over the empire to us Mammals, was there any fairness, any equality in it? No! It is just blind luck. Not that Mammals were smarter, or more hardworking, etc, and definitely not stronger! Ditto when Cro-magnon/Homo sapiens hounded Neanderthals to extinction & took over the world. Okay, maybe we were more ruthless, like what the the Romans did to the Carthaginians. Still, it could be that the throne was won more by luck than skill. Evolutionary lottery. Where’s the fairness & equality?

    Let’s use the given example of slaves & slave-owners. We could also say that there are natural checks & balances, like the way the Taoists believe when things go to extremes, a big reversal is bound to occur. So if the situation gets too oppressive, a Spartacus will rise, or a Lincoln, depending on your era. Or somebody will devise a game like Hannibal’s, where slaves/prisoners could fight to the death for their freedom. Slavery still exists today, although we often don’t recognize it. And despite our largely “democratic” world today. The migrant workers in China & Bangladesh working for a subsistance wage… the women forced into prostitution… the citizens of North Korea… etc. Somebody once said – “history is made by individuals” (not committees). We await somebody to step up & fix it.

    Democracy. A Greek invention, perhaps more accurately an Athenian invention. Look where it led – the Pelopponesian War, and the Athenians kicking out their best general even before it started. Fast forward 2000 years – George “Dubya” Bush (maybe he swore an oath to Baal to “finish what Daddy started”) and his Second Punic…oops I mean Iraqi War. Not that he actually fired a single shot. Both Rome & Carthage were *somewhat* democratic states during their war. But Rome didn’t really reach its peak til the Republic ended, eh? Back to bad old monarchy. America, the champion of democracy, (not that we are not grateful) often decides to topple “evil dictatorships”, or punish “recalcitrant states”, or bring to justice “errant drug lords” etc. But it is not the man in the street, the guy who votes every 4 years, who made the decision, is it? It is the elected reps, or more likely the Prez, who gets to say so. Maybe a modern day Cato keeps harping on it til it gets done.

    My point is, there is no fairness or equality. Democracy is just a poor approximation, but hey, maybe it’s better than nothing. At least we have our consuls & suffetes, we just call them different names now. Remember it was a democratic govt that preceded Hitler’s rule. A short democratic China between 3000-5000 years of multiple or absolute monarchy and then the Communist/Socialist regime. It would seem that democracy is a very fragile system in human history. Sadly?

    • I love the way you weave bits from Hannibal and Me into your ruminations on the Veil of Ignorance in this comment, Lawrence.

      And you leave us at the end of your meditation–very effectively–with an insight that is as inescapable as it is unfashionable.

      To paraphrase what Alan Greenspan once said: if I seem unduly convoluted in my praise, it may be that I do not want to be any clearer. 😉

  13. Hi there Andreas!
    Yes, it is my way of modestly saying that, yes, I have read your book, and that I not only enjoyed it, but also digested & assimilated it 🙂
    As a rejoinder to that Greenspan quote, I believe Einstein said something to the effect that “Everything should be kept as simple as possible, but no simpler” ;p
    therefore I shall assume the convolutions must have arisen due to the sophistication of middle age, just as Hannibal’s route through the world became an increasingly tangled web!
    P/S – I’m also in that stage…
    And I’m living in that little red dot named Singapore, where to most cursory observers, it’s a progressive democratic state, but in convoluted ways, it could also be postulated that a hereditary monarchy is slowly taking shape. As light could be wave & quanta at the same time, so a living contradiction exists.

  14. I also strongly suspect that “Dubya” is Punic for “When disaster strikes & ya dunno what the heck is goin on, just pick some unpopular schmuck & whack the poor bugger”

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