In John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, he argues that morally, society should be constructed politically as if we were all behind a veil of ignorance; that is, the rules and precepts of society should be constructed as if we had no a priori knowledge of our future wealth, talents, and social status, and could be placed in any other person's societal position. Just give an easy example, rule by tyranny would be an unjust society, because doubtless no one would agree a proiri to governance by tyrant if he were not one himself.

I've never accepted this argument. First of all, I just don't believe people are exchangeable in this fashion, because of hereditarian considerations; the exchanging of places before hand would not, in many cases, would not lead to a significant "shake-up" of society, if meritocracy is truly operating — so considering things with a veil seems needless. Secondly, using the veil to argue for distributive justice and egalitarianism, as Rawls does, in my opinion seems to presume that moral virtue is orthogonal to societal position, so that it is only "fair" that we "start off on the same foot"; I don't agree with that either, because I think the poor, at least in America, are somewhat less virtuous than middle America or the rich, and that a moral accounting behind this veil would in any case send these lacking to the same positions they occupy.

But, alas, I'm a naif in philosophy, having never studied it seriously. So I have two questions: Are there any prominent attacks on Rawls' position along these lines, and secondly, if so, have any liberal philosophers updated Rawls' argument to deal with positions from hereditariainism and so on?


7 Answers 7


The classic answers to Rawls's work come from his fellow Harvard professor, Robert Nozick. In particular, Nozick's seminal work entitled Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974). It's written as an almost direct critique of Rawls's Theory of Justice, published a few years prior in 1971. In it, Nozick adopts a libertarian approach to justice to challenge Rawls's Second Principle of Justice.

Among other things, Nozick's most easily understandable argument boils down to the point that property rights must be included within Rawls's notion of individual rights; that is, the individualist right of and to self-ownership. But once we include that right, we arrive at a subtle contradiction. In order for Rawls's theory to make sense, he must reject the conception of absolute property rights; but at the same time, at least in Nozick's view, the absolute right to property is one of the individual rights that must be protected.

But personally, I'd say the best attacks against Rawls are those that fundamentally question the notion of social justice at its core, i.e., F. A. Hayek. As a member of the Austrian School, Hayek is probably most famous for his work on economics. But mixed in with the economics is a lot of fascinating treatment of social and institutional justice. His aptly-named book, The Mirage of Social Justice, is probably the best place to start researching such a critique. A few gems (emphasis added):

Though we are in this case less ready to admit it, our complaints about the outcome of the market as unjust do not really assert that somebody has been unjust; and there is no answer to the question of who has been unjust. Society has simply become the new deity to which we complain and clamour for redress if it does not fulfil [sic] the expectations it has created. There is no individual and no cooperating group of people against which the sufferer would have a just complaint, and there are no conceivable rules of just individual conduct which would at the same time secure a functioning order and prevent such disappointments.

The only blame implicit in those complaints is that we tolerate a system in which each is allowed to choose his occupation and therefore nobody can have the power and the duty to see that the results correspond to our wishes. For in such a system in which each is allowed to use his knowledge for his own purposes the concept of 'social justice' is necessarily empty and meaningless, because in it nobody's will can determine the relative incomes of the different people, or prevent that they be partly dependent on accident. 'Social justice' can be given a meaning only in a directed or 'command' economy (such as an army) in which the individuals are ordered what to do; and any particular conception of 'social justice' could be realized only in such a centrally directed system. It presupposes that people are guided by specific directions and not by rules of just individual conduct. Indeed, no system of rules of just individual conduct, and therefore no free action of the individuals, could produce results satisfying any principle of distributive justice.

We are of course not wrong in perceiving that the effects of the processes of a free society on the fates of the different individuals are not distributed according to some recognizable principle of justice. Where we go wrong is in concluding from this that they are unjust and that somebody is to be blamed for this. In a free society in which the position of the different individuals and groups is not the result of anybody's design—or could, within such a society, be altered in accordance with a generally applicable principle—the differences in reward simply cannot meaningfully be described as just or unjust. There are, no doubt many kinds of individual action which are aimed at affecting particular remunerations and which might be called just or unjust. But there are no principles of individual conduct which would produce a pattern of distribution which as such could be called just, and therefore also no possibility for the individual to know what he would have to do to secure a just remuneration of his fellows.


The conduct of the individuals in that process may well be just or unjust; but since their wholly just actions will have consequences for others which were neither intended nor foreseen, these effects do not thereby become just or unjust. (p. 69–70)

And that's only a small tip of the iceberg; it's really great stuff. Of course, he's writing from the perspective of an economist, discussing the market system and its external effects, but that's still applicable to Rawlsian theory on a number of levels.

Additionally, he sharply criticizes the notion of distributive justice on the basis of reallocation. He denounces any attempt by government to redistribute capital or income on the basis of individual need as an unacceptable intrusion upon individual freedom (bringing in shades of Nozick's critique, which accuses distributive justice of being in contradiction with Rawls's own expansive theory of individual rights).

If you're not much of the book type, here's a YouTube video that I just turned up in a Google search, showing James Buchanan and Hayek discussing where Rawls went wrong in his conception of social justice. But I must warn: There are probably better videos, and I don't have sound where I am, so I can't screen it.

Finally, if critical theory is your bent, you can find some good material from feminist authors to use as a critique of Rawls. Martha Nussbaum and Iris Marion Young (one of my personal favorites) are probably the most well-known here.

As far as a good contemporary of Rawls, you might look no further than Rawls himself! He has written several books following ATOJ  that aim to respond to some of his critics' writing in the interim (Nozick in particular).

And I would strongly suggest reading the works of Thomas Nagel. He actually argues that Rawls's theory of justice doesn't go nearly far enough, as it merely seeks to redress the inequalities, rather than remove them altogether. He laments that a Rawlsian state would still permit intolerable inequalities and that we need to adopt an even more ambitious view of equality. For more on this, check out Equality and Partiality.

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    None of this really argues against the veil-of-ignorance, does it? Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 13:10
  • @Lennart: Well, yes, but I suppose it does so indirectly. If we adopt Hayek's view that social justice is entirely meaningless, then there seems little point to adopting the veil of ignorance. And several feminist critics take specific issue with the veil of ignorance, as well. I.M. Young and Seyla Benhabib argue that the ideal of impartiality and universality implicit in Rawls's notion of moral reasoning is both misguided and in fact oppositional to feminist and other emancipatory politics because it attempts to eliminate Otherness, rather than embrace it. But that's a whole other answer... Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 13:28
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    For me, the veil of ignorance is in itself an argument for social justice, but maybe that's just me. :-) But the point that it eliminates otherness is interesting. Not sure I agree, but I don't have time to dig into that this decade. :-) Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 13:45
  • Your response was incredibly enlightening; thank you very much! I have long been thinking about 'evil', or whatever you want to call it, as often existing non-locally; one way to look at this is through the diffusion of responsibility. So often we want a single person to blame when the error is located closer to the social contract level.
    – labreuer
    Commented May 30, 2014 at 17:46

First of all, I just don't believe people are exchangeable in this fashion, because of hereditarian considerations; the exchanging of places before hand would not, in many cases, would not lead to a significant "shake-up" of society, if meritocracy is truly operating — so considering things with a veil seems needless.

With respect, I think that this suggests a slight misunderstanding of what Rawls is arguing. He is well aware that people are not created equal. However, what he does believe is that every individual should be taken to have equal moral status i.e. our considerations of justice shouldn't start from the starting point of preferential treatment towards some. (I would imagine - or hope! - that very few would disagree with this as a fundamental part of the definition of 'justice'.)

So, we're trying to work out fair principles that treat everyone as morally equally important, but these principles are to govern over a situation where people are not equal in strength, mental ability, inherited wealth, social connections, and so on. Now, if we actual people were to try to design these principles then it seems likely that, say, on the whole the weakest or poorest might try to design principles that put their interests above all others, whereas the wealthiest and most powerful might try to design principles that maintain their status. The naturally physically strongest might try to design principles that link power to physical aptitude. And so on - and this doesn't seem fair, or workable.

So, how can we avoid this situation? Rawls thinks that we can avoid it by undertaking a thought experiment: if none of us actually knew anything about our social status, strengths/weaknesses, race, gender, etc., but knew that we were about to enter into a society that we were going to have to be happy in, what principles would we choose?

What is actually going on here is that the method, in the thought experiment, of depriving the deliberating parties of information is a way of building in fairness and impartiality into the deliberation. The parties can't possibly be *un*fair to one another in their choice of principles because they wouldn't know how, and wouldn't know whether their choices would actually disadvantage themselves. As such, whatever principles these imaginary parties would choose will be fair and impartial.

Now, we could argue about exactly what principles the parties behind the veil would actually choose, but, at any rate, the above is the method and whatever else we might say one can understand the thinking behind it and appreciate the philosophical elegance. I think it would be a mistake to suggest that it relies on the idea that people could be 'exchanged'; firstly, it is just a thought experiment designed to generate certain kinds of conclusions in the right way, and so doesn't really have a lot to do with actual people, and secondly, its aim is to arrive at principles that can ensure the just social co-existence of people who, indeed, aren't interchangeable.

Secondly, using the veil to argue for distributive justice and egalitarianism, as Rawls does, in my opinion seems to presume that moral virtue is orthogonal to societal position, so that it is only "fair" that we "start off on the same foot"; I don't agree with that either, because I think the poor, at least in America, are somewhat less virtuous than middle America or the rich, and that a moral accounting behind this veil would in any case send these lacking to the same positions they occupy.

I think I read above that this isn't a forum for opinion so I'll move swiftly on from that one (!...) but I think again Rawls's answer would centre around the idea of the equal moral status of persons (at least at birth). Clearly, many would argue that during life people through their agency makes choices that mean that they 'deserve' or 'don't deserve' certain things, but Rawls thinks that in the eyes of justice every person is still equal; no matter how 'good' or 'bad', people don't earn preferential treatment from justice (we wouldn't say that someone who gives to charity should get away with murder, or that people who are mean to their friends should be stripped of their wealth). Rawls isn't really interested in what people 'deserve' through their deeds (for that you want Robert Nozick) or through some idea of their innate virtue, but rather in having a social system that isn't predestined to militate against the life chances of particular people and groups.

But, alas, I'm a naif in philosophy, having never studied it seriously. So I have two questions: Are there any prominent attacks on Rawls' position along these lines, and secondly, if so, have any liberal philosophers updated Rawls' argument to deal with positions from hereditariainism and so on?

On your first complaint, that people are different and not exchangeable, there is a well-known critique of Rawls - and perhaps of liberalism and the social contract more generally - that it assumes that all people are essentially equal and the same, when in fact they are not, as is proved by the ubiquitous fact of need and dependence in society. It is unclear that, say, the mentally handicapped or the very old and frail, or young children, can participate in the (hypothetical) social contract that Rawls envisages, and so - the critique goes - Rawls cannot deal with difference and dependence and need. This argument is particularly associated with feminist critics like Martha Nussbaum or Eva Kittay. I've not explained it particularly well but it is easy to look up and is often called the 'dependence critique' of Rawls. Handily for your second question, both Nussbaum and Kittay are still essentially within the liberal tradition and aim to adapt rather than to overhaul Rawlsian liberal egalitarianism.

On your second complaint, that the idea of 'starting off on the same foot' is misguided because virtue tends to increase up the income distribution (at least in the US), it sounds like Robert Nozick would be about the closest to what you have in mind. I doubt that he would express it in terms of the 'virtue' of different social groups, but he too doesn't like the idea of starting off on the same foot because he is interested in property and what it means to hold property justly, and for him as long as property was acquired justly in the first place and has been passed on fairly - such as through a family - then it is still held justly. As a result, his conclusions are essentially very right-wing in advocating almost no redistribution or interference in the market (although not quite as right-wing as suggesting that the poor are less virtuous than the middle class and wealthy and even given the chance would still go sliding back down to a lowly and un-virtuous position...)


Rawls is usually viewed as someone who based his ideas upon the idea of a social contract. But this is odd, because one of the most important ideas behind the Original Position (i.e. the position in which each person hides behind the 'veil of ignorance' to draft justice for society) is that people would come to realize a certain necessity for justice. That is, there is only one possible point of view, and thus there is no agreement. It's not really even a social contract in that sense, as there is no agreement.

This is the fundamental idea behind David Gauthier's criticism of Rawls. A description of this and other criticisms can be found here. Really, this link contains an astounding description of the criticism against Rawls' veil of ignorance argument.

I have read other criticisms not mentioned in the link before (and I remember them because I agree with them more). Rawls hides a great many apparently arbitrary moral decisions in his argument. There is only one assembly, there is only one agreement, and there is only one contract. And it permits absolutely no one to leave once they enter into the 'contract.' I think that no rational person would enter into a 'contract' that they cannot leave and about which they are uncertain of others' actions. Again, it's not really a social contract at all. And who is to say that any one assembly can act morally justly in choosing a single contract for all events and all conceptualizations of justice? Too arbitrary, very problematic.

But to answer your second question, Rawls himself updated this argument. In his book "Political Liberalism" (published in 1993), Rawls admits to his previous faults and introduces new ideas to smooth the folds, so to speak. I recommend looking into this book.

He continued to write "The Law of Peoples" in 1999. In this, he extends his arguments on public reason and discusses international law. It's a great read.

  • Your understanding of the Veil of Ignorance is incorrect. It doesn't say that there is only one possible point of view, or conclude that there can be no agreement. The entire first paragraph doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 5:34
  • @Cody: that's okay - I was summarizing the argument in the link. You should read it. In fact, he says that it is inevitable that all parties in the Original Position come to a similar conclusion, hence the power of the veil of ignorance. This is also what he retracts and addresses in his later book, Political Liberalism. Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 5:36
  • @Cody: thank you, by the way. Now I feel that someone at least knows what's going on here - as so few people read this question, it made me wonder if people knew who Rawls was. ;p Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 5:37
  • Quite familiar; I was composing an answer of my own. That's a very nice link, actually. It gives an impressive overview of all the various critics of distributive justice, including a couple that I might not have thought of on my own. Commented Jun 8, 2011 at 6:07

I don't know about any attack on Rawls that is based on genetic variation leading to different proposals from behind the Veil. But I can imagine what Rawls might say.

The great majority of humans share an intuitive sense of justice. There may be slight variations, but these aren't excessively large: if the great majority find a certain political system just from behind the Veil, we can count on its being just.

There may be a small number of freaks who would support an unjust system, because they were born lacking this basic sense of justice; but we should just disregard them. The great majority will be just. At any rate, I believe this experiment wasn't meant as a serious, practical plan: it was just a hypothetical situation, a mind experiment.

Some scientists have tried actually carrying out his experiment by taking real people who didn't know anything about political systems or actual society (I don't remember what kind of people those were: children? primitive hunters-gatherers?). They then asked them what their ideas on a just society were. But Rawls would consider this experiment useless, because his was only hypothetical and wouldn't work in practice, at least not this way.


Ayn Rand criticised Rawls in Chapter 11 of "Philosophy: Who Needs It", which includes a criticism of the veil of ignorance idea. She points out that you can't make choices on the basis of ignorance. Also, the person operating behind the veil of ignorance is supposed to lack knowledge, but also be rational, but the ideas required to act rationally are knowledge.

Your hereditarian argument is wrong. A person is capable of changing his mind on a timescale of the order of seconds. Genes change only on timescales of the order of decades. Furthermore, genes are always selected according to whether they can produce a working body. Ideas can go through stages in which they need not be implemented in practice, which allows the generation of explanatory knowledge with no immediate application. As such, the knowledge that makes you different from other people is all in your ideas, not in your genes. Even in cases where that knowledge happens to match what is in your genes that has something do to with the logic of the problems involved.

The idea of distributive justice is piffle. It is not the case that stuff gets produced and then can be distributed any way some tinpot tyrant deems fitting. The only way to make stuff worth distributing is to offer goods for sale on the market and let people decide whether to voluntarily buy them. See Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics by George Reisman for a detailed discussion. Taking stuff without the owner's consent and handing it out to people who are deemed deserving for whatever reason sabotages this process.

As for whether the poor are bad people. Some may have bad ideas, but not necessarily all of them. Governments have a lot of policies that make it difficult for people to improve their lives. For example, the minimum wage makes it more difficult for unskilled people to get jobs in which they might learn skills.


Maybe the criticism to "Veil of ignorance" can be framed in the traditional dynamics of Orthodoxy Church & similar (we have to transform THIS world) and the Catholic Church & similar (the substitution of THIS world for the NEXT).

If it would be possible to materialize a peaceful community maybe "Veil of ignorance" could be a useful tool to co-use.

**Actually** we (quite many of us) apply the "Veil of ignorance" even without knowing it.


The elite or very capable would not like the veil of ignorance idea because they are where they want to be in hindsight. Any criticism - valid or otherwise - of Rawls would be offered up by them as their view is biased (which essentially IMHO is self interest).

The veil of ignorance is precisely that of no prior knowledge of your place in society, politically, financially, socially or intellectually.

If rights are to be equal no matter what, then it is obvious that the result of the veil of ignorance would be for each agreeing to join that society to accept just rules that are equal for all. This is still self interest, by the way.

If you do not accept the premise of "equal rights" then you should be honest and say so.

  • I think this is basically wrong vis-a-vis Rawls. I think he takes it that the elite would also choose the just society, because part of the magic of the veil of ignorance is that it asks them not "would a given social arrangement help you?" but "what social arrangement would you pick if you did not know your place in it?"
    – virmaior
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 7:19
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    yes i agree. i am not talking about the elite facing that theoretical choice of the veil of ignorance. I am talking about the criticism of rawls THEORY by others as they are now in society in hindsight if you like.
    – fred2
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 19:19

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