Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance

**This is from guest blogger Cole, D.**

In his initial description of the veil of ignorance and what it blocks out, Rawls makes an extensive (although admittedly incomplete) list of the things that the person behind the veil of ignorance does not know. A lot of them make perfect sense and help strengthen his argument. For example, he specifically says that the person behind the veil does not have personality traits such as a penchant for gambling. This helps strengthen the usage of the maximin principle; if the person was wont to gamble recklessly and was allowed to have this quirk behind the veil, they might opt to formulate a tyrannical society in hopes of landing the top position.

However, I found one of the elements of the veil that he cited to be problematic: “I assume that the parties do not know the particular circumstances of their own society. That is, they do not know its economic…situation or the level of civilization…it has been able to achieve,” (638). First of all, this seems wholly unnecessary. What sort of effect would knowledge of one’s society have upon the entirely rational person’s decision that would lead them to reject justice as fairness and the maximin principle? It just seems odd that he would include this, but make no mention of the agent’s knowledge of their gender being of any importance. This inclusion seems to counter no objections and only cause problems. If the person behind the veil had no knowledge of his or her society, they might decide upon a heavily redistributive economic situation. In practice, this could be entirely unfeasible. Consider a society in which food, knowledge, and general goods are bountiful in nature and free for the taking, with a very low, very spread-out population with a universally-practiced religion which dictates that its practitioners only take as much as they need and never enslave others. In this society, redistribution would be nonsensical; if anyone could take what they wanted without negatively affecting anyone else, redistribution would do far more harm than good. Note that I am not arguing against redistribution here—in fact, I am generally highly in favor of it. However, Rawls’s inclusion of a limitation on societal knowledge seems to be a definite flaw in his thought experiment, as some hypothetical societies would not benefit from it at all. I am interested in if anyone was able to deduce a reason or come up with a defense for Rawls’s inclusion of this counterexample.


Danny Witt said...

First off, I think the analysis you decided to make was very nuanced and cool. I had these same thoughts brewing and wasn’t sure how to articulate them, so kudos for going after it! I actually feel that Rawls might still stand by his inclusion of the limitation on knowledge of the future society’s distribution of resources.

In the example you used, are you alleging that the person behind the veil would not know of the hypothetical society that you described? If this is the case (that they do not know the type of society in existence), why is there a problem with the principles that the agent decides upon? If they decide that highly redistributive—and by this I take it you mean goods/resources get redistributed until all is equal—is going to leave them in a potentially “best of the worst” position, there seems to be no tension if they do land in the society with ideal circumstances (as is the one you have described). If everyone is equal already, I think Rawls might say that the principle you voiced from the original position would pan out as having no redistribution—since redistribution for the sake of redistribution doesn’t make rational sense and would hardly be rationally decided upon.

However, I think we would need to have the “no-knowledge of society” qualification for all rational agents in order to prevent the manipulation of principles that could benefit a self-interested agent. If someone in the original position is informed that they will enter a society with 95% of the population living high and mighty well above the poverty line—and the other 5% falling below the poverty line—that agent might calculate out some probabilities and realize that there is (a) a high probability that they will fall in the upper echelon and that (b) they will be better off in the upper earning bracket if they do not have their money stripped away for the poor. People who are self-interested and reason that they will be most happy if they have the most money—and reason that there is a very high chance of falling into this situation—could shape their principles of justice to protect and enhance that very probabilistic outcome once it materializes. They might rationally justify this decision by saying that the odds of living an awesome life far outweigh the odds of being in miserable poverty. However, these principles achieved by those agents privy to the social order of their receptive society would be skewed and biased.

Hopefully I wasn’t too ignorant to the case you were trying to make. It just seems like having the agent “in the know” defeats the case that Rawls is trying to make about his principles reflecting a fair socio-economical construct which leaves the lowest socioeconomic rung in the best possible position. Let me know what you think, though.

Dan S said...

The whole idea of the veil of ignorance has always seemed as though it was missing something to me. I think you're right when it seems odd to completely take out all societal knowledge, but I also think that the commenter above me is right when he says that it seems almost necessary for Rawls to do that. I've always thought that as beings that have lived in societies for ages, that our rationality has already conformed to social norms. It makes me wonder what exactly a completely rational being would be able to think of behind the veil of ignorance if they have no idea of the societal conditions that could play a role in the moral assessment.