Certain principles and moral values dictate the forms and levels of interaction amongst individuals govern societies. These principles and morals form the bonds that bind one individual to another and everyone else to the society. The core aim of these values is to ensure that society does not fall apart coupled with maintaining peace and protecting each individual in the society. Various philosophers have come up with theories that give detailed accounts of their opinions on how these values come to being, how they work, and the implications they have in various societies. One such value is justice, which underscores a concept that natural law theorists have separate, but similar opinions towards it.
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Justice is thought to be a creation of a form of the social contract and various philosophers have given their views on what they think it constitutes (Bentham 20). This paper aims at a critical analysis of the concept of the “veil of ignorance”, proposed by John Rawls in his book A Theory of Justice with relation to the determination of principles of justice. The paper looks at the applicability of this concept. The paper will focus on the viability of the concept as well as its shortcomings and strengths.
In order to create a better understanding of the concept of the veil of ignorance and its applicability, it is important to look at John Rawls’ view on justice. John Rawls was a 21th century philosopher and author of the book A Theory of Justice, which depicts his support for the social contract theory as well as his perception of society and morality. The book specifically gives an insight on his view of justice and the principles that are worth consideration in order to ensure that proper justice is available to all. In his book, Rawls equates justice to fairness. He describes a society as a self-sufficient group of people who recognize that certain rules exist and operate according to the rules in their everyday interactions with each other (Rawls 3).
He attributes the formation of a social contract as the genesis for these rules governing the people. Rawls also defines justice as the fair distribution of the benefits as well as the disadvantages that arise due to social cooperation brought about by the contract. In Rawls’ opinion, an institution in is just if it passes two tests, viz. “When there is no arbitrary distinction between persons in the assign of basic rights and duties, and the rules determine a proper balance between competing claims to the advantage of social life” (Rawls 5).
Rawls also insists that there are specific values such as liberty, which apply to every individual in society and are inviolable, regardless of the person’s social standing or capabilities. He adds that the determination of whether such rights should exist cannot be dependent on methods such as a majority vote. The rights are inviolable and irrevocable. This assertion is supported by John Stuart Mill’s opinion that a person should have the liberty to choose to cause harm to himself or herself as long as he or she does not harm others in the process (Mill and Bentham 11). This assertion is a contrary opinion to Jeremy Bentham’s theory on utilitarianism that suggests that in the choosing of rules to govern a society, one should look at what creates the greatest happiness for the majority of people (Bentham 20).
In response to the question of the best criteria to follow in the construction of the basic principles that ought to govern society, Rawls introduces the concept of the original position (Rawls 15). He expounds that human beings are predisposed to making decisions that favor themselves over others. This premise is also shared by Thomas Hobbes, an English philosopher, who is of the view that human beings are innately selfish and driven by the need for self preservation, hence the need to have rules in place that enable them to live in harmony with one another.
Rawls thus suggests that it is proper for a society to put an institution in place that establishes principles on how people interact. However, in the establishment of these principles, the institutions must ensure the observation of fairness so that the resultant principles are just. These institutions are necessary because they lack prejudicial knowledge such as the abilities and wealth of the individuals that they are representing and hence they are able to come up with principles that would favor all individuals fairly. Every person in the society is considered equal in the making of the rules, and thus everyone stands an equal chance in sharing the benefits as well as the burdens resulting from the execution of the principles. This aspect is what Rawls refers to as the original position. The lack of knowledge about the individuals that the institutions represent is the veil of ignorance.
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The original position is important for a number of reasons. First, it ensures that there is an objective evaluation of the issues that the institutions seek to address on behalf of the society. Secondly, the decisions that the institutions arrive at are for the general good of everyone and thus everyone stands an equal chance of benefiting. The creation of principles in a fair manner ensures that the very principles do not become the source of contention and conflict in the future. Rawls asserts that the original position has to contain two components for it to be valid. First, the presumptions made have to be natural and plausible. Two, one should argue from a widely acceptable perspective that is weak and move towards more specific conclusions (Rawls 16).
The principles of the original position and the veil of ignorance have their shortcomings. Despite the fact that they may seem ideal in theory, they are much harder to put to effect in a practical sense. For instance, in a democratic society during the election of leaders, people choose leaders who understand people’s problems and they require these leaders to represent their interests in the various institutions of government. Therefore, in the formulation of policies, these leaders consider what actions and decisions will best suit their people in various parts of the country, and this element forms the basis of their decision-making. Secondly, Rawls seems to assume that the leaders or institutions chosen cannot be prejudicial to the extent of enacting policies that benefit themselves to the disadvantage of the rest of the population. In essence, this situation happens more often than the inverse. As a result, the bigger chunk of wealth in most countries across the world is under the control of a small percentage of a country’s entire population.
As Hobbes suggests, it is innate for every human being to look out for himself or herself. Immanuel Kant adds to this premise by stating that people act out of a sense of duty and thus moral virtues such as justice are enforced and not inherent as Rawls implies (Freeman 72). Therefore, morals come after the governing institutions set the ruling principles and not the other way round. This aspect may be close to impossible to change in the current society for as long as the majority of the population has the smaller percentage of wealth to share, there is intense competition for available resources. The result of this aspect is that once a person gets a portion of wealth, whether big or minute, he or she hangs on to it and protects it viciously. As such, redistribution of wealth is nearly impossible, as everyone is afraid of losing the little or the much he or she has.
Rawls’ concepts seem to focus more on policies concerning resources, and thus ignoring other aspects such as a culture, which requires the policy-maker to have knowledge that the veil forbids. For instance, policy-makers require prior information about the communities that live within a certain territory in order to ensure that they make policies that suit each culture. In a community society where half the population is nomadic while the other half prefers farming, making the same policies to govern both lifestyles could end with disastrous results. In such a case, the two sides need policies that uniquely address the individual cultures. Lastly, the assumption of moral universality in the principles proposed by Rawls may cause difficulty in execution of the principles as different people have different views with regard to moral values, even among the policy-makers and institutions of governance.
In isolated scenarios, it is paramount to come up with regulations that are befitting to the larger number of people as opposed to an all-inclusive approach that might present difficulty in execution. For instance, Rawls considers the right to liberty as an inviolable right. However, it may be necessary to curtail the right of an individual to liberty in order to maintain balance in the society. For instance, if a person uses his or her right to liberty to terrorize other members of a community, it would be more logical to curtail the right of that person and maintain order in the society. Looking at it ethically, it might also make more sense to curtail the person’s liberty instead of letting other people in the community to suffer. It is not ethically correct to let every other person to suffer for the actions of one person. Put simply, some people would consider it moral to permit a lesser evil if it prevents the occurrence of a greater evil.
Although the principles of the original position and the veil of ignorance seem ideal, they lack practicability in the real world. People are inclined to do things that result in the betterment of their “self” before that of others, as described by Thomas Hobbes and Friedrich Heinrich. The people put in a position of power by the society in order to come up with policies that benefit society as a whole are also prone to egoism, which explains why small percentages of entire countries control wealth while the majority of the population struggle to make ends meet.
Bentham, Jeremy. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, Oxford: Claredon Press, 1907. Print.
Freeman, Samuel. The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002. Print.
Mill, John, and Jeremy Bentham. Utilitarianism and other essays, London: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice, Harvard UP, Harvard, 1971.Print.