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 (https://www.worldhunger.org/world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/), 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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  1. It is not “unfair” that some people are born tall and some short. It is funny that no one argues that the NBA should somehow allow short people to play, and yet players are among the richest. Likewise no one suggests it is unfair that singers become rich.
    When Rawls argues that the least among us should be benefitted for us to accept inequality, he may be missing a major fact. The SYSTEM that allows bill gates to get rich also allows my friend to have a small plumbing business and be self-reliant. A contrasting system that prevents inequalities by massive taxation for example, is a system that prevents innovation and corporate growth, which is how people get jobs. For example, Europe has lower inequality via high taxes but persistent high unemployment, low innovation, and low starts of businesses. Thus the consequence of choosing greater egalitarianism is not so simple as choose=get. Choose actually creates LESS opportunity for the poor to get ahead.
    Another fact along with the usual conceptions of justice for all is that crony capitalism is a type of corruption that usually favors only the rich and powerful and is contrary to justice. Whether you give out gov contracts to your supporters or curry favor with unions, it is corruption that increases inequality (though people feel it is ok when their friends benefit).

  2. Rawlsian equality ignores the reality of limited resources. Many seek to live better than systematically possible, as nearly all living creatures on Earth. Innate inequality allows that.

  3. Did you hear the Left is now blaming white women for their failure to do better in the midterms? Gosh, it’s like they’re deliberately dividing us and making us fight with one another.

    An entire essay that fails to call Dr. Jordan Peterson alt-right, or a fascist. Did the writer forget to do this? I thought this was obligatory by now.

  4. Ah yes…Rawls. I had to read A Theory of Justice for my Democratic Theory class in university. It was not a fun read. However, it was very much worth it.

    One of the criticisms that I remember from the class was that Rawls doesn’t address fully intergenerational issues, although I have to think more on this to remember the precise criticism.

    However, my primary inability to accept Rawls fully (other than his inability to answer issues surrounding who gets the power to determine redistribution) is his definition of thick and thin conceptions of the good. For Rawls, the right is prior to the good. So, in his original position, you decouple yourself from ALL individual identity, including age, family status, religion or sexuality. IN other words, from the most meaningful and deepest levels of connection to an actual lived life. So, say I am a Catholic (whether born or converted) and I take it seriously. There are certain political and moral positions that flow from that. They might even include thick conceptions of the good to justify them on theological grounds that have effects in the social and political spheres. For Rawls, political action is only acceptable on public reason, but this assumes purity of motive and it could fundamentally undercut egalitarian efforts that he clearly supports. This is because “public”, “reason” and “motive” are contentious ideas. After reading Theory of Justice, I always felt he ordered the book to come to the conclusion of left liberalism without establishing a rational (see, there I go again) or metaphysical justification for the re-distributive, administrative state.

    1. “other than his inability to answer issues surrounding who gets the power to determine redistribution”

      But that is answered, it would be the institutions that have been created in line with the principles of justice, same would apply to individuals. Any power would need to be justifiable in line with the principles of justice.

      I also think you’ve misrepresented the thinking behind public reason. Those holding what Rawls called ‘comprehensive doctrines’ will of course shape their concepts of the good in line with them, but the issue comes when taking those into the public sphere. You need to come up with a justification which others who don’t hold your ‘comprehensive doctrine’ can find acceptable. In a plural society, it would seem to be imperative. Otherwise, you either end up with someones narrow world view being imposed on others who don’t share it, or things become intractable.As for the idea that ‘public’ is contentious, that seems a little odd. Laws, policies institutions that affect everyone living in society are ‘public’.

      1. I guess the problem I see with this is that it’s unavoidable that someone’s narrow worldview is going to get imposed on someone else, at least for a little while. Under the Rawlsian liberalism is the idea that the government should be somehow netural towards the right and the good because everyone has their own unique conception of these, but this idea of neutrality is in itself the imposition of a moral perspective. Take for instance the Supreme Court case about the baker who didn’t want to make a wedding cake for a gay couple. The court sided with the baker in an attempt to protect his first amendment rights to the practice of religion, but in doing so, they hindered the couple’s first amendment rights as well (not literally, but I just mean that they did impose a particular vision of the good life onto the couple). The Court could have said that making the cake did not hinder the baker’s practice of his religion because such an act was not a necessary end to his vision of the right and the good. That, however, would have been a substantive argument, and god forbid we have our government consider what a person’s particular end’s actually pertain! The problem with trying to decide what “justice” is using a neutral perspective–the veil of ignorance–is that there will be times when someone’s conception of the right and good is somehow hindered. This is inevitable. So is that really a just world?

        I side much more on the side of Michael Sandel, as he has argued in “Liberalism and the Limits of Justice” as well as in “Democracy’s Discontent.” The veil of ignorance will at many times become an arbitrary tool that does not fairly provide justice, exactly because it pretends to be neutral. Neutrality cannot exist. Everything we do or believe is tied to a certain theory, and these particular theories are tied to our values, and our values are inherent in who we are, where we come from, and who we want to be. It is not only foolish but regressive to pretend that ideas of world order–ideas stemming from certain values, neutrality included–can exist independent from our grounded places in the world. Ideas of neutrality are inevitably going to live out the values written into our consitution which come from a place of wealth, whiteness, maleness, etc. that not everyone in our pluralistic country holds. It is better to understand that no “equality” to be conscribed, one case fits all. Even though there are attempts to group people together by race, gender, class, religion, etc. these identities are many and overlapping (and include many more than the classic feminist or race scholar or whatever would describe in their work), and thus negate the understandings of the consequences of some of these identities. For intsance, we could say that being black is inherently an impediment on opportunity, but if you look at O.J. Simpson, he had the wealth and social status that priveleged him to say, “I’m not black, I’m O.J.” If we were to automatically give black people a step up because they are black (e.g. a version of affirmative action–unlike the one we have now–that only considers race) rich black people would gain opportunities that poorer black people would miss out on. The multi-facetedness of our identities means that to truly acheive justice, we need to allow people to see themselves from the perspective of all of their identities and what ends those identities require in order for them to be fairly lived. The means looking at the gay couple and the baker and asking what ends they require in order to properly live out their identities, not just comparing their consitutional rights until one wins out. This also means instituting policies that ensure people are able to fully examine their situation and to be able to engage with each other (those who share their identities and those who don’t) about what their particular needs are.

        I haven’t quite described Sandel’s perspective thoroughly, and you may still question how we can prevend coercion (that’s what the judicial system is for, but when that coercion is invisible, more work needs to be done) but I think this is the strongest critique that exists of Rawls. I think it’s also just important when we discuss any ideas about political philosophy that we all have very particular situations and have affected our value-systems, and these values greatly affect our perspectives. On a practical and principled level, it can be dangerous to pretend that ideas which have a bearing on life can exist independent of the lives they have a bearing on.

  5. Really enjoyed reading this. To me, at least, it seems that the consequences of these principles are unclear. The most pertinent of his two propositions seems to be that; inequality is only justified if it also benefits the worst off in society. However, this does not say anything about the way our societies are structured, or ought to be structured. Perhaps having more inequality than we currently have will actually benefit the worst off in society even more. This is unlikely, however, unless you can prove that the opposite is true, with substantial evidence, Rawl’s theory–or at least this principle–does not necessarily imply that there should be less inequality than we currently have.

    1. If having more inequality would benefit the worst off, then that inequality can be justified. As the article notes, Rawls wasn’t arguing for complete equality of outcome. He’s arguing for his concept of justice, not merely making and argument against inequality.

  6. Thanks for this. I know next to nothing about Rawls so can’t really comment but I might look further into his ideas – which, I guess, is the reason you wrote this in the first place.

    1. I would recommend at least starting with any number of excellent attempts to explain and discuss Rawls ideas, rather than reading Rawls himself. Even many of his greatest admirers would admit his writing is pretty turgid at times.

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