Modern Morality: Veil of Ignorance


Kristine Cho

It’s undeniable that philosophy is generally dominated by ancient, dead white guys, but it’s also dominated by contemporary, dead white guys. John Rawls is one of those contemporary dead white guys and is the father of one of the most beloved interpretations of the infamous social contract: the veil of ignorance.
Imagine that you’re an alien, observing the earth from a couple miles above in space with an incredibly powerful telescope. Knowing nothing about human society and having grown up without bias, you are tasked with making a new society with the knowledge that you will be transported down into the society, taking a random role in it, and are forced to live a life in it.
Given that you are a rational being, you’ll probably try to make society as egalitarian as possible, in the event that you’re transported down into the role of a societal pariah.
The position you would take as an alien is what Rawls calls “the original position” in his theory of the veil of ignorance. Here, you are not yourself, but a potential someone that is to take a role in society. He reasons that any rational being would try to make sure that they get the least amount of discomfort possible, thus setting a standard for the works of society.
When policy makers or debaters think about the morality of certain structures or actions, thinking from behind a veil of ignorance allows them to think about how to make a more equal and just world.
For us, in our day to day lives, Rawls’ theory is essentially a huge metaphor to try and get people to sympathize with one another. It’s difficult at times to think about specific situations from different people’s perspectives, to “walk a mile in another person’s shoes,” but with the veil of ignorance, we try to do just that.
To be better and more considerate people, we think from behind the veil of ignorance and continue in our own shoes to connect and make a better tomorrow.