My question is not about the contractarian methodology adopted by Rawls, but specfically about the "veil of ignorance" condition.

How to articulate precisely the moral intuition that is behind this requirement?

An idea that comes immediately is that supposing that the persons involved in the choice of the principles of justice do not know their particular conditions makes sure that their choice will be impartial.

Though I have read Rawls' Theory Of Justice ( some years ago have to say) , I cannot fully explain to myself the reasons justifying this requirement. Which does not mean I'm unable to appreciate the admirable power of its consequences.

In brief, how to convince an anti-rawlsian that the veil of ignorance is a pertinent condition of the social contract?

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    One is morally obliged to minimize the effect of her personal biases and prejudices when making rules for everybody (fairness principle). And the safest way to do it is to procedurally make selfish motivations themselves favor fairness (rather than rely on moral scruples). That's the reason. Another nice illustration of it is divide and choose: one person cuts the cake in two, the other chooses her slice first. The divider is selfishly motivated to be as fair as possible, it is the veil of ignorance in miniature.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 17:25
  • As if someone needs many more experiments to prove that... but some more were done pnas.org/content/116/48/23989 Commented Mar 13, 2021 at 18:07
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    @causative: Nope. Firstly, that is only a psychologically similar construction, and, more importantly, probabilistic decisions are explicitly excluded in the Original Position. Otherwise, it would be purely about utilitarian selfishness. That's not what the VoI is about, though.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 7:01
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    @causative You do not simply not know who you will be in the sense of your economic status, you do not know your gender, ethnicity, intelligence, abilities, education, position, health, anything which allows for selfish bias. But the point is: If you'd think probabilistically, there would be an incitement to utilitarian calculus à la "even if there are only 10% rich people, if I give them enough, I'll take that chance". That's something Rawls wanted to prevent. And that's why they don't know how the above properties are going to be distributed as well. It's about a fair system.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 7:17
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    @causative Equal probabilities appear in Harsanyi's version of the veil, not Rawls's. Rawls, unlike Harsanyi, was anti-utilitarian, and in his scheme the probabilities are unknown/undefined, not equal, see Fizz's first link. Indeed, probabilities are moot if one does not aim at maximizing utility. But even in Harsanyi's scheme one has equal probability of being the divider or the chooser when the rules for the cutting are set up beforehand. There is no coin flipping when they are applied, i.e. after the cutting.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 9:19

2 Answers 2


A major part of Rawls' argument here depends on a contrast with the sympathetic-spectator model of impartiality. Rawls goes to great lengths to point out the difficulty with resolving the question, "How would the spectator judge?" especially considering that we have much more real-life experience with a lack of knowledge than with the relative omniscience attributed to such a spectator.

Doubtless(!) Rawls would not put his point so strictly, but you could frame the appeal to the veil of ignorance as either/or: to model impartiality, you can assume a sympathetic spectator, or you can assume a veil of ignorance. Again, the point is not strict since as Rawls argues, it's possible that deductions from either model might end up lining up.


I subscribe to Socrates’ notion that, knowledge is the only virtue.

Unlike Rawl’s theories, especially VoI, Socrates position is simple and lacks nuances. Which, I think, leaves us with two possibilities:

  1. The father of Philosophy was incredibly naive
  2. His position stems from deep insights into human nature — the insights that Rawl was lacking.

I think 2) makes more sense, aside from the obvious reason, because we all know what makes ignorance preferable — it often is when the knowledge is incomplete.

“The only thing worse than the outright lies is a half-truth”, and in Rawl’s theories half-truth is abundant. E.g. he defined rationality not by stating what it is, but by offering vague accounts of how it would manifest itself in some circumstances.

So that’s my objection to VoI — it’s a band-aid meant to adjust for... lacking key bits of knowledge — like the role of happiness in our lives (it’s not a reward, but our first moral duty before ourselves and others).

Or being clear about the dynamics of a fight, when you and your opponent always fight on the same side against fear, your common enemy — their fear, as well as your own. There are tons of similarly important insights, which, if taken into account, would make the whole idea of justice and the social contract simply irrelevant. With enough knowledge of how things really work between us, simply acting out of enlightened self-interest would produce morally perfect behavior.

Or in Socrates' words, “Once a man knows good from evil, nothing on earth can compel him to act against that knowledge.

The ultimate goal, therefore, is to uncover the whole truth, to keep asking why and looking for explanations until you see the whole picture, knowing yourself, others, the meaning of life and the word we share.

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    Not an answer to the question. Also, it is full of ignorance regarding Rawls. The people in the Original Position (behind the veil of ignorance) know a great deal about the world, morals, and psychology. Actually, much more than most people. That is the basis of their ability to conceive fair, working, and stable systems.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 7:06
  • @PhilipKlöcking > "The people in the Original Position... know a great deal about the world..." -- in that case, why don't they talk to me? Commented Mar 14, 2021 at 9:10
  • For someone who adheres to the views of what probably is nothing more but a literary device and repeatedly states that we need to seek knowledge, it is surprising how little you know (or understand) of the philosophers you argue against. This answer is telling since it shows that you do not even know how limited the ignorance in that model is, nor basic facts about human psychology it tries to address.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 15, 2021 at 12:32
  • i'm sure that is not the only thing you find surprising about me... speaking of which -- FYI, there is an objective test that will show who, between us two, is a real human being, and who only pretends to be one... interested? Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 5:19
  • Oh, so you presume that only one of us can be "a real human being" and the other one necessarily "only pretends"? Not very Socratic. I am listening.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Mar 17, 2021 at 9:11

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