On the Veil of Ignorance

In a world where socioeconomic disparities are glaringly evident, the foundational principles that guide our societal structures are under scrutiny. What kind of world would you design if you didn't know who you'd be in it?

The Veil of Ignorance, a philosophical tool proposed by John Rawls, encourages just such a thought experiment.

Before shaping the rules of society, imagine yourself behind a veil where you have no knowledge of your socioeconomic status, race, abilities, or gender. From this position of uncertainty, what principles would you choose? Rawls posited that this perspective would lead to a society that's more just and equal, for the simple reason that no one would want to fashion a system that might place them at a disadvantage.

Recent research provides an intriguing look into this theoretical construct. In a simulated society experiment, participants voted on how rewards should be distributed. Initially, they made these decisions from behind the proverbial veil. People preferred a system where inequality favored those at the top, seemingly making decisions under the presumption of a best-case scenario. However, when the veil lifted and participants were randomly assigned statuses, self-interest immediately colored their preferences. Those who found themselves in privileged positions were content with the established inequality, while those at the bottom sought greater equality.

Interestingly, these stances and attitudes weren't set in stone. As participants moved between different statuses within the simulation, their views on what constituted an ideal level of inequality shifted, suggesting that our beliefs about fairness are more fluid than we’d like to imagine.

I ask myself: Behind the veil, bereft of my current identity, would I still care about the same issues and prefer the same systems? Would I prioritize different values? Would education, healthcare, and other things I take for granted become unequivocal rights rather than privileges?

It's a challenging exercise because we are so intertwined with our identities, our statuses, our tribes. But by stripping these away, even theoretically, we can push towards a raw, honest evaluation of our values.

Evidently, this thought experiment isn’t just about societal structures—it also offers important personal insights. It nudges us towards empathy, urging us to step into the shoes of those less fortunate, or those who simply have a different life experience.

It also highlights the fleeting nature of privilege and status. Fortunes can change, health can deteriorate, and societal norms can shift. Trying to create a society that's fair for everyone isn't just altruistic, but also pragmatic.

As we navigate our complex world, making decisions that influence not just our journey but also that of those around us, it seems vital to occasionally adopt the Veil of Ignorance. Not for some grand vision to change society, but to understand our biases and blindspots better so we can act with compassion and kindness.