“Argumentatively discuss the strengths and weaknesses of John Rawls’ ‘Veil of Ignorance’ method”
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 prior knowledge of our future wealth, talents, and social status, and could be placed in any other person’s societal position (Velasquez, 2008). Through this, Rawls believes that people will create a system of “justice as fairness” because their lack of knowledge regarding who they are will prevent them from arranging a society that would benefit those in their position at the expense of others.
Rawls’ has designed his theory of the original position as a hypothetical social contract (Freeman, 2012).
As we do not live in a well-ordered society that the hypothetical contract is based on, Rawls’ theory and position is flawed and it is an implausible conception of justice.
Rawls’ theory of justice and the veil of ignorance cannot be effectively and practically executed in the modern society for several political, economical and sociological variables. Rawls’ defends that the veil of ignorance allows for equality within society, however without knowing the prior characteristics, talents and socioeconomic status of the people at cost, how can the distribution of benefits and burdens be equal and just to all parties? A major weakness of the veil of ignorance is that it does not account for merit or talent, resulting in unfairness and unjustness between parties. Another argument against Rawls’ principles of justice and the veil of ignorance is the opposition to utilitarianism. Rawls’ principles of justice call for the equal distribution of services, property and benefits. In this case, the maximum level of wellbeing in society can be jeopardized. Why prohibit a society from producing as much good as it can? Isn’t it better to have more good rather than less?
To begin, we must clarify what Rawls’ view of justice and the veil of ignorance defines equality as. Velasquez (2008) states that: “In a just society, every person will be given exactly equal shares of that society’s benefits and burdens”. This is known as strict egalitarianism.
Rawls stated that justice requires equal shares between the members of society. By distributing benefits and burdens from behind the veil of ignorance there are no relevant differences among people, resulting in an equal distribution. The weakness in this view is that people are not equal, and their inequalities seem to demand an unequal sharing in societies resources (Velasquez, 2008). In society we must take inequalities into account when distributing benefits and burdens. For example if every worker is given the same wage, the harder working and more skilled workers will have no incentive to work hard if it will only get them the same benefits as the unskilled workers who do not put in as much effort. On the other hand, if people are given the same amount of burdens, some will receive more than they can bear while others will not receive enough. Another example as illustrated by Velasquez (2008) to amplify this point is within a classroom context. In the belief that everyone is equal, everyone must be given the same education opportunities. Accordingly, thirty students of widely differing abilities and capabilities may be placed in the same class at the same time with the same instructor.
Faced with such essential diversity, teachers often end up aiming their teaching at the ‘average’ students. As likely as not, the instructional level will be too high for the slowest student, and too low for the most skilled and talented. As a result, the slowest don’t learn and the skilled ‘switch off’. Is this just? In light of these examples, the veil of ignorance does not seem to be the best way to distribute benefits and burdens, as it eliminates the incentives for talented or skilled individuals and cannot justly accommodate for all individuals. Although the veil of ignorance may not give incentive for skilled individuals to work harder, it assures that all members are given the same rights, opportunities and shares. Rawls emphasizes the belief that everyone is entitled to a period of roughly the same kind of education, treatment, law, and opportunities (Velasquez, 2008). On these grounds, immoral practices such as slavery are rejected. The veil of ignorance also rejects discrimination caused by unequal status of wealth, family, intelligence, and social status. This means that no person is better than another because of their determined status or ability, and grants everyone with an equal potential to achieve. In contemporary society one is always at a greater advantage if there are born into a higher socioeconomic status, and will receive greater benefits and more capable of handling burdens. The veil of ignorance allows for equilibrium of potential with equal distribution. Although the veil of ignorance is a strength for eliminating status power in the regard of equal distribution, it does not result in a just and fair society. Rawls does not equate fair distribution with equal distribution; meaning that what is equally distributed between parties does not mean that it is fairly distributed. Rawls argues that benefits and burdens should be equally distributed so that disadvantaged are not worse off, but is reverse discrimination just? Some people’s shoulders are broader and stronger than others, and society as a whole may profit from the greater efforts that some of its members are able to make. If some people are willing to put it more effort, is it not reasonable for them to take a larger share of the benefits? People should be granted benefits and burdens based on their abilities, achievements, wealth and power, in the means that they are given what they deserve and not given what is ‘equal’ to everyone else. Benefits are burdens need to be distributes according to the relevant differences among people (Velasquez, 2008).
Utilitarianism is generally held to be the view that the morally right action is the action that produces the most good (Driver, 2009). Utilitarianism insight is that morally appropriate behavior will not harm others, but instead increase happiness or ‘utility.’ Mill states that “the just society is the one that distributes benefits and burdens in whatever way will produce the greatest social benefits or inflict the lowest social harms” (Velasquez, 2008, p.19). Utilitarianism is appealing because it takes over the model of making decisions that individuals would make concerning their own lives. When a utilitarian perspective is adopted, then the maximum level of wellbeing in society can be achieved. An example of positive utilitarian thinking is the government tax system. The rich may not benefit from having to give up a greater portion of their income than the poor, but society as a whole benefits from this arrangement. The veil of ignorance opposes this view, as it is not seen as ‘equal’ and ‘just’. Behind the veil of ignorance, a utilitarian perspective is not welcomed, therefore a society may not have the potential to achieve the greatest goods and benefits for all members, and the greatest maximum potential cannot be achieved. A Theory of Justice is an alternative to utilitarianism. Rawls discusses the applicability of utilitarianism and of social contract theory to the theory of justice, and he argues that social contract theory provides stronger support for equality of basic rights for all individuals.
While utilitarianism may try to justify infringements upon the rights of some individuals if these infringements produce a greater happiness for a larger number of other individuals, the theory of justice as fairness (which is a social contract theory) denies that infringements upon the basic rights of individuals can ever be morally justified (Daniels, 1975). The aggregate good of many people outweighs the good of a few individuals. In these cases, utilitarians seem committed to favoring the majority over the minority, even if doing so seems unfair or in violation of their basic rights and liberties. The ‘greater good’ and maximum wellbeing for society can potentially welcome slavery, and that those who suffer from sacrifices do not always reap the rewards. In a society governed by Rawls’s principles of justice, the worst off know that their society is committed to their being as well off as they possible can be. The same is not true of utilitarianism. Utilitarianism requires the greater identification with the interests of others and a greater willingness to accept sacrifices for their good (Kukathas & Pettit, 1990). When a society has the best interests of everyone at heart, a utilitarian perspective can achieve great advantages to the benefits of its members. When behind the veil of ignorance the members of society do not know who they will be and what they can achieve, therefore the average level of wellbeing in society cannot be achieved. In modern society, we all need to make minor sacrifices to reap the maximum benefits and the greater good for society.
With the previous statements, arguments and examples taken into account, it is evident that Rawls’ veil of ignorance and the ‘justice as fairness’ principles are not rational and applicable to contemporary society. Rawls’ flawed perspective of equality will cause society to become unjust, and the lack of distribution for the greater good will result in an unstable and destitute society. There are certain aspects of the veil of ignorance that can positively contribute to society, however it is strictly a hypothetical concept and it is highly unlikely that it will benefit modern society for
the greater good. References
Daniels, N. (1975). Reading Rawls: critical studies on Rawls’ A theory of justice. New York: Basic Books.
Driver, Julia. (2009) The History of Utilitarianism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2009/entries/utilitarianism-history/>.
Freeman, Samuel, (2012) Original Position, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2012/entries/original-position/>.
Kukathas, C., & Pettit, P. (1990). Rawls: a theory of justice and its critics. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.
Velasquez, M. G. (2008). Social Philosophy. Philosophy: a text with readings (10th ed., pp. 566 583). Australia: Thomson/Wadsworth.
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