Veil of ignorance

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
  (Redirected from Veil of ignorance (philosophy))
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is about the philosophical concept. For the music album, see Veil of Ignorance (album).

The veil of ignorance, along with the original position, is a concept that has been in use by other names for centuries by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, and Immanuel Kant whose work discussed the concept of the social contract. John Harsanyi helped to formalize the concept in economics.[1][2] The modern usage was developed by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice.[3][4] It is a method of determining the morality of a certain issue (e.g., slavery) based upon the following thought experiment: parties to the original position know nothing about their particular abilities, tastes, and position within the social order of society.

The veil of ignorance blocks off this knowledge, such that one does not know what burdens and benefits of social cooperation might fall to him / her once the veil is lifted. With this knowledge blocked, parties to the original position must decide on principles for the distribution of rights, positions, and resources in their society. As Rawls put it: 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.

—John Rawls, A Theory of Justice [5]

The idea then, is to render obsolete those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.

"Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance . Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the "real world", however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other."[6]

Such a concept can have grand effects if it were to be practiced both in the present and in the past. Referring again to the example of slavery, if the slave-owners were forced through the veil of ignorance to imagine that they themselves may be slaves then suddenly the practice does not seem to be justifiable. Perhaps the entire practice would have been abolished without the need for a war to settle things. A grander example would be if each individual in society were to base their practices off the fact that they could be the least advantaged member of society. In this scenario, freedom and equality could possibly coexist in a way that has been the ideal of many philosophers.[7]

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, the device forces the parties to consider society from the perspective of all members, including the worst-off and best-off members.


David and Bathsheba, Nathan's Veil

One of the earliest literary examples similar to this concept appears in 2 Samuel, Chapter 12, of the Bible, where the prophet Nathan rebukes King David for his treachery in stealing the wife of one of his soldiers, Uriah the Hittite, through the telling a seemingly unrelated story.

There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him. Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.[8]

Abstracted from his personal bias and self-interest, David sees the injustice more clearly and is incited to bring justice to the situation by means of Nathan's technique—a veil of ignorance.

Gandhi's Talisman

Another application of the veil of ignorance towards a recognition of the worst-off members of society is captured in Mahatma Gandhi's Talisman, given in 1948.

I will give you a talisman. Whenever you are in doubt, or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test. Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen, and ask yourself, if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him. Will he gain anything by it? Will it restore him to a control over his own life and destiny? In other words, will it lead to swaraj [freedom] for the hungry and spiritually starving millions? Then you will find your doubts and your self melt away.[9]

David Barr Kirtley

Originally appearing in All The Rage This Year: The Phobos Science Fiction Anthology 3, this short science-fiction story relies heavily on the use of the veil of ignorance to convey its point.

Something strange is happening to me.

We're at Conrad's vacation house, a sprawling mansion that orbits the gas giant Hades-3. (His father owns both the house and the planet.) Conrad is in the living room watching sports. His girlfriend Alyssa is standing by the mirror in the bathroom, fixing her hair. Her friend Kat is sitting near the bay windows, watching the stars and the roiling vermeil clouds on the world below. Dillon is in the kitchen, mixing drinks. Brad is slouched on the sofa, watching everyone with a lazy smile. And I don't know which of them I am. Perception shifts. A few moments of Alyssa, running my fingers through silky hair. A moment of Dillon, using my knife to slice limes for the drinks. A moment of Kat, feeling awe of those looming bands of color, of those constantly churning swirls that look so majestic, and make me feel so insignificant. Then Conrad -- pride at my team's success, at my father's wealth.

Then Brad. I feel quite smug. "It's starting to work," I tell them. "You can all feel it, can't you?"[10]

The characters in the story are all under the effects of a drug given to them by Brad that causes each of them to experience each other's thoughts. This causes each character to feel a simulated version of the veil of ignorance which causes them to act much differently than they normally would. The story concludes by having the characters purchase enough drugs to last them a very long time as they are unable to go back to life without the veil of ignorance.

Undercover Boss

Aired in more than ten countries, this show highlights the affects of having someone in power, a CEO or boss, experience the problems that effect those who work for him/her. In every episode a CEO dons the attire of the workers and joins them undercover during the daily workday. This goes on for a week before the inevitable reveal in which the undercover CEO returns to his/her true position and reflects on his/her experiences as well as the status of the employees he/she had come in contact with. In many episodes there are employees who gain benefits and better conditions because the CEO was able to view their workdays through his/her own eyes. While the show may be glorified for the sake of gaining a larger audience, the basic idea that a veil of ignorance is beneficial to gaining equality within a community is very prominent.[11]

The veil of ignorance is part of the long tradition of thinking in terms of a social contract. The writings of Immanuel Kant, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson offer examples of this tradition.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harsanyi, J. C. (1953). "Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-taking". J. Polit. Economy 61 (5): 434–435. JSTOR 1827289. 
  2. ^ Harsanyi, J. C. (1955). "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility". J. Polit. Economy 63 (4): 309–321. JSTOR 1827128. 
  3. ^ Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-00078-1. 
  4. ^ Rawls, John (2001). Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. 
  5. ^ Rawls, John (1999). A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press. p. 118. ISBN 0-674-00078-1. 
  6. ^ "Ernie the Attorney : Searching for Truth & Justice (in an unjust world)". 
  7. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  8. ^ 2 Samuel Chapter 12 of the Christian Bible. New International Version. 
  9. ^ Gandhi Quotes
  10. ^ Kirtley, David. "Veil of Ignorance". Retrieved 2014-08-15. 
  11. ^  Missing or empty |title= (help)

External links[edit]