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Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance and the Liberal Case for Equality Areo

Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance and the Liberal Case for Equality

The political left—and egalitarian projects more generally—are widely associated with identity politics and what is sometime caricatured as the philosophy of postmodern neo-Marxism. Pundits and commentators from all parts of the political spectrum—from classical liberals to nationalist conservatives—have been highly critical of these movements for their illiberal focus on identity, their apparent relativism and their dissociation from the more concrete worries of everyday people. These objections are sometimes overstated, but there is undoubtedly something to them. Many on the left today are highly critical of liberal norms and procedures—though that is also true of many postmodern conservatives on the right. Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that identity politics and the PC culture it engenders are most broadly supported by well-educated, upper middle class individuals. This abets the claim that identity politics and its affiliated philosophies are not especially connected with the concerns of many of the most vulnerable members of Western communities.

However, it is entirely possible to support liberal principles, while still advocating a more egalitarian distribution of resources across society. A number of left-leaning thinkers, including some of the regular contributors here at Areo—“liberal lefties,” as Helen Pluckrose calls us—are trying to return progressivism to its roots in liberal norms and procedures. Since its inception in the seventeenth century, the liberal political tradition has been a force for progress across the globe. Liberal thinkers, such as Mary Wollstonecraft and J. S. Mill, were instrumental in securing political rights for women. Immanuel Kant and Eleanor Roosevelt played an immensely important role in theorizing and helping to establish international legal regimes protecting human rights. More recently, writers like Martha Nussbaum and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen have done pioneering work in linking liberal norms on freedom to development efforts in some of the world’s poorest areas.

Here, however, I’d like to focus on the work of one figure: John Rawls. Despite his acclaim within academic circles, his work remains comparatively little known to the general public—certainly compared to that of controversial figures such as Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Jordan Peterson. Rawls argues that there is a rational connection between liberal principle and claims that societies should engage in a more egalitarian distribution of goods.

John Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance

The two events which marked Rawls beyond all others were the death of his brother in childhood, and the Second World War (in which he served). These experiences impressed upon the young philosopher that the world was often a very unjust place. They also demonstrated how infrequently we are capable of reasoning about justice from an impartial standpoint. Each of us is too embedded in our own lives, cultures and pursuits to look beyond our own narrow interests. In Rawls’ philosophical work, he was determined to devise more impartial ways of reasoning about these questions, which would eliminate our tendency towards bias. He believed that if we were more impartial in our reasoning about justice, we would be more inclined to recognize and seek to rectify unfairness in the world.

Rawls published relatively little during his lifetime, though all the pieces he did produce have been widely influential. In the words of mathematician Carl Gauss, Rawls’ writings were “few, but ripe.” Most of his best writings on the question of liberal distributive justice appear in his 1971 classic A Theory of Justice, revised and republished in 1975 and 1999. This work is a treasure trove of fascinating arguments about the history of liberalism, moral knowledge and other topics.

To Rawls, we are often far too partial in the way that we reason about justice. Most of us tend to accept the principles of justice bequeathed to us by our traditions and communities. Or favor principles that work to our self-interest. So the rich may very well favor principles of justice that vindicate mass inequalities in wealth, while the poor may favor those that suggest we should seek a more equal distribution. Neither are actually concerned with being impartial and objective. They are motivated by culture, self-interest, and, at times, even apathy. Rawls showed that it was possible to reason in a less biased manner by formulating a famous thought experiment.

Imagine, Rawls suggests, you know nothing about your individual identity. You don’t know whether you are a man or a woman, straight or gay, black or white, rich or poor. But you are rational and interested in advancing your self-interest. You are now operating behind what Rawls calls a “veil of ignorance,” in an “original position,” or comparative moral impartiality. Imagine we are all in that position and we need to establish a social contract, as abstract reasoners concerned to advance our own self-interest regardless of our positions within society. Once the veil of ignorance is lifted, we will have to live in a society governed by the principles chosen. In such a situation, what principles of justice would we choose?

Two Principles of Justice

Rawls argues that rational people, reasoning from behind the veil of ignorance, would want society to be governed by two principles of justice, in what Rawls calls lexical order, i.e. the first principle takes priority over the second. Rawls’ first principle is that “each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.” The second principle is that “social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions: they are to be attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity, and they are to be to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society.”

The first principle is relatively uncontroversial relative to the second. Rawls’s reasoners would want society to protect basic liberal freedoms: freedom of expression, religion and assembly and freedom from discrimination on the bases of race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. Rawls argues that no impartial person behind the veil of ignorance would risk being unable to practice their religious faith once the veil was lifted, or being a member of a persecuted minority. Rawls believed that many liberal societies were making important strides towards respecting his first principle. He would likely be horrified by the surge in illiberalism taking place today: particularly the postmodern conservative emphasis on belonging to the right identity as a basis for political legitimacy.

The second principle is more radical. The first part—that offices and positions should be open to all, under equality of opportunity, is relatively straightforward. Status in the workplace, politics or family should not be allocated on the basis of arbitrary factors. For instance, it is wrong to impose restrictions on women’s participation in the workplace simply because they are women. Or to discriminate against Muslims when hiring. However, some aspects of Rawls’ thinking remain controversial. From a practical standpoint, does equality of opportunity involve setting up quotas, so that historically marginalized groups have a better shot at getting a job? Or does it mean evaluating candidates solely based on merit?  What does it even mean to talk about merit? Rawls argues that it does not make sense to discuss merit in a society such as ours, in which so many arbitrary factors determine why people get ahead. This forms a major part of his argument that no inequality can be justified unless it can be shown to benefit “the least well off.”

Looking After the Least Well Off

The somewhat dry language Rawls uses to argue that inequalities must be to the “greatest benefit of the least well off” belies the argument’s radical implications. What Rawls is essentially saying is that no one reasoning impartially can support any inequality unless there is a quantifiable link between the existence of that inequality and a benefit to the poorest members of society. Rawls is not arguing for full equality of outcome. In fact, he argues that the resulting destruction of economic incentives would ultimately hurt the least well off. But you can only justify inequality so long as those economic incentives work to the benefit of the poor: the minute they primarily benefit the rich, they cease to be justifiable.

Rawls makes two arguments in support of this principle. The first stems from how one would reason from behind the veil of ignorance. Rawls argues that self-interested actors in that impartial position would be unwise to gamble on a principle that supported immense inequality. Self-interested but impartial reasoners, for example, would not be willing to risk ending up as one of the world’s 815 million people who regularly go hungry (, on the far slimmer chance that they would end up as one of the world’s 1,500 billionaires. Or, alternatively, they would not gamble on being one of the 25% of American households making less than $25,000 a year on the less than 10% chance of being a millionaire.

Rawls’ second argument has proved even more influential. He points out that impartial reasoners would not be willing to accept such inequalities because they would recognize they few of them stemmed from factors related to liberal conceptions of merit. They would acknowledge that most people get richer than others due to factors which are “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” They would therefore want to compensate for those arbitrary factors by ensuring that the poorest in society would be well cared for.

There are three dimensions to Rawls’ argument about moral arbitrariness. Firstly, we have to recognize that the natural talents we are lucky enough to be born with can play a major role in determining future life chances. For instance, there is significant evidence that, up to a point, higher intelligence is correlated with higher earnings. But is it the doing of the more intelligent that they happened to be born with a higher than average IQ, and is the fault of those with a lower IQ that they may be unable to compete for many highly skilled and highly paid positions in society? Secondly, favorable social conditions can play a huge role in determining how wealthy individuals become. For example, most students at Ivy League schools come from affluent families, while very few come from families living in precarious circumstances. Perhaps this is partly because more affluent parents may be more intelligent than their counterparts, and pass this intelligence on to their children. But such an argument ignores non-genetic predictors of academic success: being sent to good schools, having access to extracurricular activities and so on. Finally, many of the talents which enable us to become wealthy are only valuable because society happens to value them, often for entirely contingent reasons. For instance, if I had been born with an extraordinary talent for ice hockey, I might have made millions as a star athlete here in my native Canada. But such a talent would mean little if I had been born into a country that does not value hockey. Moreover, it seems clear that many people are born with talents which may contribute a great deal to society in the long run, but which are not rewarded in the same measure. Consider instances of artistic geniuses who produced masterpieces but spent their lives in dire poverty.


Rawls argues that:

We may reject the contention that the ordering of institutions is always defective because the distribution of natural talents and the contingencies of social circumstance are unjust, and this injustice must inevitably carry over to human arrangements. Occasionally, this reflection is offered as an excuse for ignoring injustice, as if the refusal to acquiesce in injustice were on a par with being unable to accept death. The natural distribution of talents is neither just nor unjust; nor is it unjust that persons are born into society at some particular position. These are simply natural facts. What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.

Rawls observes that many will simply claim that, fair or unfair, the world simply is unfair and there is nothing we can do to change it. But Rawls argues that this is an entirely irrational way of thinking, which involves naturalizing features of the human social world, as if they were, like hurricanes, beyond our control, when really they are the result of human decisions. Rawls argues that any just liberal society concerned with rationality and fairness needs to recognize that immense inequality cannot be justified without according too much weight to morally arbitrary circumstances. For Rawls, any sincerely liberal society needs to make far greater efforts towards creating an equitable world.

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