John Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance

John Rawls was one of the most influential philosophers of the 20th Century. The reason his work is so important is because it gives us a very simple and elegant way of defining what is wrong with our society.

Growing up in a difficult time and witnessing first-hand the unfair distribution of resources, Rawls became obsessed with the idea of justice and equality. This led to his first publication — A Theory of Justice.

“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust.” 
John Rawls

Have you ever felt overwhelmed with frustration and often anger about the unfairness in the world, yet you couldn’t figure out exactly what’s wrong? John Rawls felt the same while growing up, which is what motivated him to go into academia and focus on justice and fairness in modern society or rather, the absence of it.

The problem is that when people start discussing the unfairness of our day, they tend to digress into unnecessary details and to focus on themselves and their immediate environment. The broad picture is often forgotten.

Rawls felt he had to use his brain superpowers to create a simplistic way of understanding what’s wrong and how to fix it. He developed a thought experiment that puts us in a third person perspective in relation to the world. Fittingly named after a magic spell, The Veil of Ignorance proposes the following.

Imagine being in a conscious state before your birth. You are about to be born in our world, but you have no knowledge of where you’re going to be born, what you’re social status would be, which ethnic group you will belong to and so on.

Would you risk entering this world, knowing that there is an equal chance you might end up as the child of a business owner in central Copenhagen or an orphan in northern India? When you consider this situation, you immediately realise what can go wrong with your placement and what you would rather have. Basic things like safety, housing, access to schools, hospitals, entertainment, a chance for development begin to emerge.

In other words, we know exactly what we want our society to look like. We only need to focus on the most important things, so that if we look at the world behind the veil of ignorance, we would be fine with the worst case scenario.

Naturally, different people considering this thought experiment will have different opinions over the most crucial problem that needs to be addressed. However, Rawls’s invaluable contribution is a simple way of realising how unfair society is by shifting the focus from the separate parts to the whole.


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