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Rawls on justice and the veil of ignorance


To: Plinio C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Rawls on justice and the veil of ignorance
Date: 11th March 2011 12:17

Dear Plinio,

Thank you for your email of 27 February with your essay for the University of London BA Political Philosophy module, in response to the question, 'What is the veil of ignorance? Is Rawls justified in allowing exactly this level of knowledge and ignorance?'

This is a well argued essay, focused sharply on the question, which nicely captures the main difficulty for Rawls: that any adjustments to the level of knowledge/ ignorance, such as the examples you give of knowledge of one's 'conception of the good', or knowledge of one's 'natural talents and natural capacity for work' can only be made at the cost of unanimity amongst agents in the original position: unanimity being a basic criterion for the acceptability of the veil of ignorance thought experiment.

However, this makes your answer to the question somewhat problematic. If unanimity is a basic criterion, and the level of knowledge/ ignorance which Rawls assumes is the only way to achieve that goal, then that would, after all, constitute a justification for assuming that level of knowledge/ ignorance. The fact that the result conflicts with the intuitions of some persons, prior to philosophical reflection, is not irrelevant but nor is it a compelling objection. That's the whole point of the idea of Rawls' notion of 'reflective equilibrium', it could be argued. When contrary intuitions are very strong, theory may have to give way, but equally, we must be prepared to adjust or resist our pre-philosophical intuitions in the face of a powerful and consistent theory.

But whence the confidence that philosophers can formulate a consistent and workable theory? That's a question which for obvious reasons is not high on Rawls' agenda. He has found a brilliant and original way -- his supporters would argue -- of testing various theories of justice, in particular the main contender utilitarianism, and arguing for 'better' a better alternative, according to clearly formulated criteria. As with all theories, we have to be prepared to adjust our beliefs, but the payoff is a far stronger support for the beliefs which the theory validates -- e.g. in Rawls' case, the liberty principle -- than they had before.

I'm not convinced by that argument. I would rather say that there really isn't a theory to be had in this area, there is no way you will ever adjudicate philosophically between those who believe in the principles of liberal democracy and those who support, e.g., a strongly communitarian or theocratic view; or between those who believe that human beings have an inalienable right to all the goods they can obtain through the exercise of their greater talents or capacity for work, and those who believe that those who are lucky to be gifted with greater talents consequently owe more to society, and in particular the less gifted.

That would be my strategy for answering the question. What that amounts to saying, in effect, is that one can't say whether or not Rawls is 'justified' in allowing the level of knowledge and ignorance that he does, except in relation to a prior assumption or set of assumptions. If the need for a consistent theory is considered to be paramount, and his precise definition of the veil of ignorance is the only way to achieve it, then he is 'justified', but not otherwise.

To conclude, I would like to explore in more detail, your exposition of the 'natural talents' objection. Imagine the following case. Thinking about the romance/ marriage lottery and the vastly differing fortunes of men and women searching for a mate, it might occur to someone that society would be much fairer if there was just one, state controlled marriage bureau responsible for bringing together optimally suited partners. Only marriages arranged through the bureau are recognized as such. It's a silly idea, of course, but why is it silly? What is the objection?

In the original position, I don't know whether I am handsome or ugly, graceful or clumsy, whether I am a witty conversationalist or a man of few words. Might I not under the veil of ignorance have a greater propensity to agree to this proposal, than if I knew beforehand that I was handsome, graceful and a witty conversationalist? Marx has something interesting to say about this in his essay 'On Money' (1844 Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). If mother nature has given you good looks, then lucky you. Those who are less well-favoured may envy you then that's just their bad luck. Whereas the advantages men gain simply by virtue of possessing money are unnatural and therefore unjustified.

This points to a principle, which many accept, that not all natural 'advantages' are the same, or on the same level. While economic inequalities are matters over which there is great debate, with arguments for or against the redistribution of wealth, very few would accept that there should be a limits on sexual advantages you can gain through your looks or charm. The best answer I can give to this is that it isn't just about 'nature' but about the paramount role of liberty. Whereas my natural talents and capacity for work enable me to earn more money, the medium of exchange, my good looks and charm enable me to win the affections of a human being, who gives herself to me out of her own free will.

In Marx's day there were, in point of fact, socialists arguing for collective or communal 'marriages' on the grounds of 'fairness', an idea to which Marx objected in the strongest terms.

All the best,