• Lauren Mooney

The Conflict of Veiled Ignorance: An Analysis of the Rawlsian Original Position

Updated: Sep 9, 2018

Author: Lauren Mooney, PPL Class of 2019

In an effort to discern the most just form of government, John Rawls proposes an objective scenario called the Original Position within which he deploys rational, un-socialized actors converse and debate over which economic and governmental policies are the most desirable. However, these rational, un-socialized actors are steps further away from humanity in that these individuals have no conception of the arbitrary position they will end up in in society when the Veil of Ignorance is lifted. In this way, he hopes to discern how the components of justice, some of which being fairness, equality and merit, most rationally determine the best distribution and policy within society. By this principle, Rawls conjectures that we will come up with two positions of justice, the first being that any inequality must serve to benefit the least well-off in addition to all Social Primary Goods being equalized and maximized, and that all political offices must be free and fairly open to all citizens. In this paper, I will critically analyze the facets of, as well as the outcome of, the Original Position to discern the probability that these rational, un-socialized actors would bring about these specific positions.

First, I would like to bring into question Rawls’ conditions within the Original Position. He claims that these rational actors, stripped of all socialized conceptions of good, would be “rationally and mutually disinterested” in their conceptions of the ideal society. He claims that people will be rationally egoistic in their decisions in the Original Position, given that they are trying to create the best end for themselves once the veil is lifted. In the same way that Hobbes and Locke strip government from the scene to try and discern human nature in their perspective State of Nature arguments, the Original Position seems to insinuate that humans, at their core, without socialized values, are rational in being mutually disinterested. As each individual is compelled to decide by rational reflection what comprises his or her own good, being the system of desirable ends that is rationally pursuable, so must the group of Original-Position persons come to decide the ultimate forms of justice and injustice. I will follow a line of criticism similar to Marx’s criticisms of liberalism to bring this into question. Within this individualistic framework, Rawls is projecting his own personal, socialized, American values of individualism and selfishness that are bred by values of capitalism and liberty, given his affluent, educated family background. Marx criticizes classical liberals in this same way by saying that humans wouldn’t be inherently egoistic and profit-seeking in a way that violates the rights of the common proletariat worker if they had not been socialized to do just that. He and the communitarian think that people can be socialized to do a lot of different things without a rooted “natural human tendency”, and although one might assume that “human nature” is demonstrated when all the restrictions are lifted and people can act freely in a laissez-faire economy, it really breeds a very specific portfolio of values and attitudes that it seems Rawls takes as invariable.

In a holistic manner, claiming that the objective, rational human is egoistic is erroneous and tends to demonstrate his socialized conception of the human persona which he is specifically trying to avoid. Rawls even claims that the “original position is not, of course, thought of as an actual historical state of affairs, much less as a primitive condition of culture. It is understood as a purely hypothetical situation characterized so as to lead to a certain conception of justice” (Rawls 9). It seems that he thinks he “knows” what the “unknowing” person in the original position will know, and this alone seems to render the Original Position arbitrary, and that any other culture’s idea of “rational and objective” would invariably be colored by their own conceptions as well. For example, an East Asian conception of this might say that each rational, non-socialized person at their most objective state would be motivated by honor and family, whereas socialist Norwegians and Finnish people would probably claim that rationally people would want the greatest good for all and rationally disregard the individual for the greatest good. Within this framework, it seems circular to impose on these rational, non-people critters this one-sided conception of justice simply by veiling in what might bring them to the desired, western conclusion.

Flowing from the original position, the theories of justice are also something I would like to explore, as they are nearly embedded in the Rawlsian Original Position. The “non-arbitrary” denomination of his theories of justice denotes specifically that civic positions will be “free, fair and open” regardless of arbitrary characteristics. However, the denotation of these arbitrary characteristics must either be kept incredibly vague, or they present a problem for his Original Position of being self-aware enough to discern what characteristics are arbitrary. Is it simply race? Gender and sexuality too? Disability? What about intelligence? Must we separate our arbitrary advantage from how hard we actually work? If you work your hardest at a job that was acquired by familial connections, does it invalidate all achievements made do there? Answering all these questions engages a moral intuition that seems to again violate the Original Position, requiring that we engage in self-awareness to determine what characteristics are arbitrary, which violates the principle entirely.

Rawls would push back on this idea by saying wherever the line is drawn, it repeals the unfair advantage many have, and even serves to rectify the injustices that promulgated this stance within society. Given that one has no conception of your arbitrary advantages or disadvantages in the Original Position, one will likely choose to negate at least some of these arbitrary advantages given that nobody is privy to which ones he or she may have, if any at all. Further, it will not be just for the society to uphold acquisition by dumb luck or without merit, so some maintenance of the benefits sought from arbitrary characteristics or benefits of persons seems valid.

I would argue that the logistics and actualization of maintaining this would produce even greater arbitrary burdens than the good that would come about by regulating this. Even if we could draw a line at where the arbitrary line would be to discern, say, the end of wealth-based advantage and the beginning of natural hard work, how would one do this? Where does the line reside between using your dad’s money and affluence to pay for a Harvard education versus your work ethic to become Valedictorian at this institution? Would everything you earned be taken away because you didn’t earn the schooling in the first place? The regulation of this phenomenon alone would prove to be incredibly intrusive and unjustly inhibit liberty, potentially presenting a greater detriment than the benefit would arise. I do not mean to say, however, that some regulation of arbitrary disadvantage would not be desirable. I simply explaining why drawing any line involves everything you know and every disadvantage you’ve faced as a person that created your conception of the “fairness” of arbitrariness.

Another facet of Rawls’ theory that I’d like to explore is whether or not these rational actors would arrive at the conception of the Difference Principle. Within the difference principle, it’s anticipated that every rational person will choose to create laws in accordance with the idea that there will first be equal distribution of Social Primary Goods, consisting of liberty, freedoms, and a general basic income, all grouped under the assumption that these are goods that everyone wants. However, the weightier facet of the Difference Principle is the idea that any policy that creates economic inequality will serve to benefit the least advantaged in society. Given that he “veils in” economic rationality into the equation, economic conversation is a pertinent layer of the Original Position. I am going to explore why drawing mutual self-interest to mean the difference principle isn’t wholly correct for a rational actor. He draws justice to mean fairness within the confines of these principles, but that is inherently weighted by his socialized conceptions of good.

Within this economic conversation, Rawls is too quick to dismiss the utilitarian viewpoint on the grounds that no rational actor would supposedly choose this idea, given that it permits the interests of some to be sacrificed when it is accordance with supporting the good of others, and that rational justice principles “rule out justifying institutions on the grounds that the hardships of some are offset by a greater good in the aggregate. It may be expedient but it is not just that some should have less in order that others may prosper” (Rawls 11). This statement is painting an unfair image of utilitarian policy. He claims namely that utilitarianism disregards the natural difference between persons, and this rational, non-socialized person in the Original Position would dismiss it. However, in terms of utilitarian economic policy, the possible benefit of the greatest number would overlook these “arbitrary” differences that Rawls is attempting to quash in his Equal Opportunity Principle. With the aim to help as many people as possible rather than the motivation to only look after one group, this seems to overlook arbitrary differences in an even more all-encompassing way (given the provision for a utilitarian income floor), uniting closely with the idea of “justice as fairness”. The idea that utilitarians take all people as “moral equals” seems quite appetizing, especially for those self-interested persons. Therefore, the greatest good of the greatest number would be maximized.

This Utilitarian economic policy would matriculate as something like an income-floor for the general public as to generate happiness that way and prevent suffering, as well as allowing the propensity for growth which would pacify Rawls’ general concerns about lack of incentive to work hard in economics. The relatively laissez-faire approach of utilitarianism, given Keynesian economic theory, seems to make a lot more practical sense in upholding the Difference Principle, given that freedom of the market will be able to freely flourish and benefit the people rather than count-by-count deliberation on whether or not a specific policy can be proved beyond reasonable doubt to help specifically the worse-off. If a utilitarian minimum-living-wage “floor” existed, along with strong incentives to work hard and the ability for great achievement, this seems to satisfy the Difference Principle by giving incentive to innovation and trickle-down economics that includes benefits for the least well off. Another way that this would meet the rationally disinterested “Original Positioner” is that it would create the greatest probability that you would be better-off in society. If policies must always benefit the greatest number, you will be much more likely to receive that aid, be part of that greater number, be taken care of and your situation bolstered than if you happened to be in the 99th percent that received aid in the original Difference Principle.

A Rawlsian would respond to this in a few ways. First, one might assume his main critique of utilitarianism is that it would allow for astronomical income inequality. Although it may benefit masses of people, Rawls is one to say that inequality is intrinsically unjust unless, in this situation, it helps the most disadvantaged. In the same way Rawls criticizes Nozick’s acceptance of the Wilt Chamberlain example for the great disparity in income that it promulgates, Rawls would also have to bring up inherent issue with vast differences in socio-economic strata as inherently wrong. Regardless of who it benefits, subjugating members of the class who are arbitrarily disadvantaged under greedy CEOs who earn mega-millions seems inherently unjust. Further, this stagnant income “floor” that comes tangential to Utilitarian economic policy does not benefit the least well-off in a way that the chain-connected Rawlsian theory would. Rawls outlines chain-connectedness as a phenomenal manifestation of his Difference Principle in that different groups in society would be connected by a chain and any increase in the well-being of any class would inherently increase the other classes as well. Similar trends and trajectories would exist for all groups, so the “floor” that might exist in Utilitarianism would be obsolete given the growth of all of society in a way that benefits the poorest well above the line of subsistence. The benefits of society would pull the 99th percentile up in accord with the 1%, so that it would create a better-off society overall, which is both just and ideal for the self-interested person in the Original Position.

I would respond to this saying that allowing for growth without the parameters of explicitly benefiting the lowest class would effectively benefit all members of that society in immeasurable ways, and these benefits would never come to fruition if a cap were placed on growth in a connected-chain sense. The burden of proof would be so heavy for political pundits to prove that their specific policy would benefit the poor that no aid would ever manifest. Further in this idea, deterring all aid and international investment into your country on the basis of stunted growth does inherently hurt the poor, in addition to the general public. It seems that, given globalization, monetary incentive, international trade, and trickle-down economics, the policies that benefit the most would actually best benefit the poor in conjunction. Utilitarianism seems to closely entangle itself with that of Rawlsian-intended ends. Given this idea especially, choosing the situation in which the greatest number benefit from any given economic choice made seems to give incentive that any mutually disinterested person to choose this, even in a purely egoistic way, given that it will produce both the most successful society and also the best likelihood of being better off.

In conclusion, I do not mean to say that Rawls’ thought experiment is invalid intrinsically. I do think that if rational, robot-like minds could independently create the best conception of good that it could be a beneficial reference-tool to discern how government should be. However, the way that Rawls draws out this theory is inherently circular, setting up the conceptions of good by what he allows to exist “behind the veil”. This is a product of his socialized conception of the good which he is explicitly trying to avoid by taking the necessary steps to arrive at the Original Position, rendering the outcomes of the thought experiment obsolete. We are constantly socialized to our conceptions of reality, so even a computerized weighing of numerical, quantitative factors of good would have to have inputs and data that is increasingly or decreasingly weighed by overwhelming, overarching morals and virtues. I do not think, though, that this is a bad thing. We, as members of our specific society, hope to support the poor because it is virtuous, not because it is what is necessarily in our best interest. We allow for iniquitous income rates because we think (or hope, rather) that greater income correlates with merit, and that individuals should have the liberty to accrue such a wealth with hard work. We also value equal and utmost liberty as a fundamental right. However, this isn’t a conception that is shared cross-culturally, and that is something that should be cherished, rather than negated. There is an intention behind coloring our governmental structure with moral and virtue and society, and purely rational robots wouldn’t be the best entities to decide this for us. The main problem lies in where he draws his theory, but the fact that he constructed the Original Position strategy is not inherently invalid in and of itself. Only having written the Original Position would be a short and sweet theory to say the least, but only the conjunction of the original position and the theory that flows forth is erroneous.


Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 1999.

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