Social justice is what people in society owe to one another in a matter of rights. It is whether people have rights and entitlements to certain kinds of political and social arrangements, and as a result, to certain social outcomes. Rawls states that social justice is a type of fairness, where the social cooperation appropriately distributes the burdens and benefits of society (1999: 4). Rawls aims to do this using the theoretical device of the Original Position.
The intention of the thought experiment is to establish rules for the basic structure of society that would create a fairer society and advance the interests of the mutually disinterested parties involved. The conclusion about social justice that Rawls comes to is the two principles of the theory of justice as fairness. In this essay I will argue that Rawls’ conclusion about social justice, the theory of justice as fairness, is sound but the methodology using the Original Position and Veil of Ignorance is flawed.
Rawls’s theoretical devices of the Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance do not help us to come to sound conclusions about social justice. This will be done by questioning Rawls’ assumption that conclusions about social justice are to be found by placing restrictions on parties’ knowledge, including knowledge of the conception of the good. Additionally I will discuss risk aversion and how that leads to the bias of pessimism in the original position. This will establish my conclusion by showing that subjective reasoning is needed, to some extent, in the original position to produce rational decision-making.
While his conclusion may be sound, the approach Rawls adopts for thinking about social justice using the Original Position and Veil of Ignorance can be claimed to be flawed. The first, and arguably most important argument is that restrictions placed on the parties’ knowledge behind the veil of ignorance does not help us to come to sound conclusions about social justice. The veil of ignorance creates epistemic constraints for the parties. They do not know any facts about themselves such as race, age, gender, psychological predispositions, or their social standing.
They also do not know their conceptions of the good – views about what they find valuable or important to lead a good life (Rawls 1999: 118). They do, however, know the circumstances of justice in society and have access to social, economic, and scientific theories. It can be claimed that parties are deprived of excessive knowledge, so much so they are psychologically unable to make a rational decision about the principles of justice for the future basic structure. For instance… This also questions whether the agreement reached behind the veil of ignorance count as one between real people.
Parties are representative but as the choice making is stripped to a purely logical and objective decision. Although human beings are able to make decisions merely with a priori knowledge, most decisions require past experience or an emotional thought process – something which Rawls has stripped away. Yet without the restriction of knowledge, parties would not be successful in coming to principles of social justice. Rawls demonstrates that an original position with no veil of ignorance would be pointless.
This is because parties would be too biased to reach a conclusion (1999: 173). Some parties will have more wealth, property, and power that they would be able to extract more from the parties with less and exploit them. Parties with less would be weaker at negotiating because their position in society is weaker. If the parties were reasonable, they might start to bargain with one another and move towards a consensus, but even then parties would still try to adapt principles to their advantage (Rawls 1999: 121).
Knowledge in the original position would distort the judgment of parties and produce an unbiased assessment. Rawls aims to guarantee fairness in society. The only way to do that is by placing restrictions on the method of choosing the principles that will do so. Some critics claim that it is difficult to make any rational decisions without knowing the parties’ conception of the good (Freeman 2014). Parties behind the veil of ignorance are to make decisions by promoting the interests of the people they represent. They may not be able to do this well if they do not know any details about them.
Rawls’ dismisses this argument and claims that the concept of social primary goods enables the parties in the original position to base their rational decision of principles of justice. However, parties cannot further their own conception of the good if they do not know it, which is the point of the Veil of Ignorance as Rawls sees it. As this is the case, the only way to advance parties’ conception of the good, as they have no idea what it is, is to ensure that whatever it may be that there are no rules or barriers in the way of them achieving the reasonable conception of the good they might hold.
The theoretical devices of original position and veil of ignorance therefore do not help us to come to sound conclusions about social justice as the restrictions placed on knowledge, including the conception of the good, make it difficult to come to rational decisions. Despite the theory of justice being a sound conclusion, it can be claimed that the original position is flawed in its job of reaching to this conclusion because of the risk aversion parties feel when making decisions. This risk aversion leads to subjectivity within the original position.
Rawls’ response to the critique that the original position requires individuals who are extremely riskaverse is that parties are risk-averse only because they are selfinterested, rational beings (1999: 118). It is clear, however, the enormity of their situation is likely to cause parties to be more risk-averse that Rawls expected. This risk aversion could be reflected in parties making predictions about the outcome of their decisions, rather than in objective decisions about social justice.
This would be done using the little generalised knowledge of society they have. It would be based on speculative reasoning of what positions in society they would want. These predictions are therefore inherently subjective (Buchanan and Faith 1980: 27). Now Rawls believes that subjectivity in the original position would defeat the purpose of having a veil of ignorance, but it can be claimed, at least to some extent, that the concept of society revolves around the idea of subjective morality.
Justice is grounded on past experiences to ensure injustices do not occur again. Thus, social justice can be said to require a subjective outlook. The original position and veil of ignorance do not account for any subjectivity, as the conclusion as Rawls sees it needs objective decisions by parties in order to avoid bias. While Rawls maintains that parties would make a completely objective decision, results from a study conducted by Buchanan and Faith presents evidence that there is a bias towards “pessimist” (1980: 35) control in the veil of ignorance by parties.
It can be claimed that the risk aversion Rawls asserts is standard within rational thinking has led to this. For instance, parties choosing from two different societies are more likely to pick the society that has a low risk regardless of the returns. They would aim to maximise the social primary goods for the worst position in society which they could end up with. The point of objectivity in the original position is for parties realise a need for social justice, but this requires a subjective outlook that the original position cannot provide.
There is a claim against the idea that parties in the original position are risk-adverse. Imagine two societies, one where all the women are wealthy and the men poor, and another in which everyone is of the same wealth. Even as parties do not know their gender, some may prefer the unequal society depending on how tolerant they are to risk. The parties have different levels of how risk adverse they would be (Freeman 2014). Such claims, nonetheless, do not disprove that the parties are more likely to have a bias towards pessimist control in the original position.
The parties’ different levels of risk toleration would not matter as they naturally feel to make decision more conservatively because of rational thinking. Moreover, Rawls’ states that the veil of ignorance removes knowledge of “special features of his psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism” (1999: 118). Yet, this would not account for the pessimism that could be created inside of the original position even when there is no prior knowledge of the concept.
It is an innate feeling – parties may not realise that they are leaning towards conservative principles. Some critics believe that Rawls’ conclusion is full of principles that would only be chosen by parties who are “conservative by temperament, and not by men who were natural gamblers” (Dworkin 1973: 500). While Rawls has removed any knowledge of risk aversion, Dworkin maintains that it is possible for this bias to occur naturally inside the original position.
Buchanan & Faith expand by stating that even though parties admit to their lack of knowledge about the particular institutions in future society, they all create their own subjective predictions about the working properties of these institutions (1980: 34). They argue that the veil of ignorance is not as fair as Rawls hopes as parties are not equals in terms of their predicted abilities to influence group choice (1980: 36). This pessimist bias from risk aversion convinces parties that it is rational to make decisions not on the basis of furthering social justice but on predictions of where parties could end up in society.
Parties need to come to a consensus about the principles they want to live by. Rawls hopes that the principles of justice that the parties construct in the original position under the veil of ignorance will be fair simply because situation itself is set up fairly, but the situation itself is not fair in this case. Consequently, the conclusion these theoretical devices come to must not be sound. While parties are subjective in their predictions of future society, it does not suggest that objectivity cannot exist within the original position.
Nevertheless, it does make it less likely for parties to focus objectively on the situation when they can. pessimistically, influence the other parties’ decisions to be more risk-adverse to benefit society as a whole. This demonstrates that the theoretical devices of the original position and the veil of ignorance do not help us to come to sound conclusions about social justice as parties would be unable to be wholly objective due to their risk aversion.
While the ideas behind the devices of the Original Position and Veil of Ignorance have been shown to have some validity, they are too flawed to help us come to sound conclusions about social justice, Rawls’ theory in particular. This is due to restrictions on parties’ knowledge, including knowledge of the conception of the good. risk aversion and how that leads to the bias of pessimism in the original position. subjective reasoning is needed, to some extent, in the original position to produce rational decision-making.