Rawls's theory

Notes for April 17

Main points

We did two things. First, we laid out the parts of Rawls’s theory. These are given in the handout. Second, we engaged in an extended discussion of the most important aspect of Rawls’s theory: the veil of ignorance.

The veil of ignorance

The original position is supposed to be designed so that decisions made within it are fair. Rawls’s big idea is that it is easier to describe the conditions on a fair decision than it is fully to describe justice. If we can describe the conditions under which the decision made in the original position would be fair, then we can use the decisions made by the parties in the original position to tell us what justice is. That is how we are going to make progress on the problem of putting our ideas about justice into a systematic, rational order.

Since that is the big idea, we should pay special attention to the question of whether the constraints Rawls imposes on the original position genuinely are needed to make the decision fair.

In the spirit of learning by raising objections, I proposed that the veil of ignorance did not have to be as “thick” as Rawls made it out to be in order to make the decision fair. I said that it was not obvious to me that the parties could not know facts about the demography of their society, such as the proportion of left-handed people to right-handed people.

Rawls deprived the parties of this kind of information because he worried about fairness. If the right handers knew they were in the majority, they could come up with rules that favored themselves.

I think that’s right but I asked whether that is enough to show that the decision would necessarily be unfair. In the case at hand, I said that I could see how the parties might decide to spend less to guarantee the comfort and convenience of left handers than they would if they thought the odds of being one were 50-50. But I wondered whether that would make their decision unfair. Everyone decides knowing that they could be left-handed and they make a decision about how many social resources should be devoted specifically to left-handed people based on their knowledge of the odds. I see what Rawls is saying, but it is not obvious to me that this would be unfair.

Dixie made a strong case for Rawls’s side of this question. As she sees it, if the parties in the original position could estimate the probabilities of belonging to one social category or another, they would decide to benefit one category over another in ways that were unfair. Why should the rights of one group depend on how large a portion of the population they make up?

Key concepts

  1. The original position
  2. The veil of ignorance
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted April 17, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy