Veil of ignorance (1971)

Element in the theory of justice of American political theorist John Rawls (1921-2002).

Conditions for just social life can be sketched if people are imagined in an ‘original position’ where they decide upon social rules whilst behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ which prevents their knowing anything about their own situation in the hypothesized society.

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

The original position (OP), often referred to as the veil of ignorance, is a thought experiment developed by American philosopher John Rawls to discover the principles that should structure a society of free, equal and moral people.[1][2] Rawls claims that his Principles of Justice would be chosen by parties in the original position.[3]

In the original position, you are asked to consider which principles you would select for the basic structure of society, but you must select as if you had no knowledge ahead of time what position you would end up having in that society. This choice is made from behind a “veil of ignorance”, which prevents you from knowing your ethnicity, social status, gender and, crucially, your individual idea of how to lead a good life. Ideally, this would force participants to select principles impartially and rationally.[4]

In Rawls’s theory the original position plays the same role that the “state of nature” does in the social contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke. The original position figures prominently in Rawl’s 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. It has influenced a variety of thinkers from a broad spectrum of philosophical orientations.


The concept of the veil of ignorance has been in use by other names for centuries by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant whose work discussed the concept of the social contract, Adam Smith with his “impartial spectator”, or the ideal observer theory. John Harsanyi helped to formalize the concept in economics,[5][6] and argued that it provides an argument in favor of utilitarianism rather than an argument for a social contract, as rational agents consider expected outcomes, not maximin outcomes or the worst-case outcomes.[3] Harsanyi argued that a person in the original position would maximize their expected utility, rather than choosing minimax. The usage of the term by John Rawls was developed in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice.[7][8] Modern work tends to focus on the different decision theories that might describe the choice of the decision-maker “behind the veil”.[9][10] In addition, Michael Moehler has shown that, from a moral point of view, decision theory is not necessarily central to veil of ignorance arguments, but the precise moral ideals that are assumed to model the veil. From a moral point of view, there is not one veil of ignorance but many different versions of it.[11]

Nature of the concept

Rawls specifies that the parties in the original position are concerned only with citizens’ share of what he calls primary social goods, which include basic rights as well as economic and social advantages. Rawls also argues that the representatives in the original position would adopt the maximin rule as their principle for evaluating the choices before them. Borrowed from game theory, maximin stands for maximizing the minimum, i.e., making the choice that produces the highest payoff for the least advantaged position. Thus, maximin in the original position represents a formulation of social equality.

The social contract, citizens in a state of nature contract with each other to establish a state of civil society. For example, in the Lockean state of nature, the parties agree to establish a civil society in which the government has limited powers and the duty to protect the persons and property of citizens. In the original position, the representative parties select principles of justice that are to govern the basic structure of society. Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice:

  1. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;
  2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:
    • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle);
    • attached to positions and offices open to all.

The reason that the least well off member gets benefited is that it is argued that under the veil of ignorance people will act as if they were risk-averse. The original position is a unique and irrevocable choice about all the most important social goods, and they do not know the probability they will become any particular member of society. As insurance against the worst possible outcome, they will pick rules that maximize the benefits given to the minimum outcome (maximin).

Recently, Thomas Nagel has elaborated on the concept of original position, arguing that social ethics should be built taking into account the tension between original and actual positions.

Recently, the original position has been modeled mathematically along Wright-Fisher’s diffusion, classical in population genetics.[12] The original position has also been used as an argument for negative eugenics.

One thought on “Veil of ignorance (1971)

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