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A visual depiction of philosopher John Rawls' hypothetical veil of ignorance. Citizens making choices about their society are asked to make them from an "original position" of equality (left) behind a "veil of ignorance" (wall, center), without knowing what gender, race, abilities, tastes, wealth, or position in society they will have (right). Rawls claims this will cause them to choose "fair" policies.

The original position (OP), often referred to as the veil of ignorance, is a thought experiment used for reasoning about the principles that should structure a society based on mutual dependence. The phrases original position and veil of ignorance were coined by the American philosopher John Rawls,[1] but the thought experiment itself was developed by William Vickrey[2] and John Harsanyi[3] in earlier writings.[4]

In the original position, you are asked to consider which principles you would select for the basic structure of society, but you must select as if you had no knowledge ahead of time what position you would end up having in that society. This choice is made from behind a "veil of ignorance", which prevents you from knowing your ethnicity, social status, gender and, crucially in Rawls' formulation, your or anyone else's idea of how to lead a good life. Ideally, this would force participants to select principles impartially and rationally.[5]

In Rawls's theory the original position plays the same role that the "state of nature" does in the social contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. The original position figures prominently in Rawls's 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. It has influenced a variety of thinkers from a broad spectrum of philosophical orientations.


The concept of the veil of ignorance has been in use by other names for centuries by philosophers such as John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant whose work discussed the concept of the social contract, Adam Smith with his "impartial spectator", or the ideal observer theory. John Harsanyi helped to formalize the concept in economics,[3][6] and argued that it provides an argument in favor of utilitarianism rather than an argument for a social contract, as rational agents consider expected outcomes, not maximin outcomes or the worst-case outcomes.[7] Harsanyi argued that a person in the original position would maximize their expected utility, rather than choosing minimax. The usage of the term by John Rawls was developed in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice.[8][9] Modern work tends to focus on the different decision theories that might describe the choice of the decision-maker "behind the veil".[10][11] In addition, Michael Moehler has shown that, from a moral point of view, decision theory is not necessarily central to veil of ignorance arguments, but the precise moral ideals that are assumed to model the veil. From a moral point of view, there is not one veil of ignorance but many different versions of it.[12]

Nature of the concept

Rawls specifies that the parties in the original position are concerned only with citizens' share of what he calls primary social goods, which include basic rights as well as economic and social advantages. Rawls also argues that the representatives in the original position would adopt the maximin rule as their principle for evaluating the choices before them. Borrowed from game theory, maximin stands for maximizing the minimum, i.e., making the choice that produces the highest payoff for the least advantaged position. Thus, maximin in the original position represents a formulation of social equality.

In social contract theory, citizens in a state of nature contract with each other to establish a state of civil society. For example, in the Lockean state of nature, the parties agree to establish a civil society in which the government has limited powers and the duty to protect the persons and property of citizens. In the original position, the representative parties select principles of justice that are to govern the basic structure of society. Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice:

  1. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;
  2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:
    • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle);
    • attached to positions and offices open to all.

The reason that the least well off member gets benefited is that it is argued that under the veil of ignorance people will act as if they were risk-averse. The original position is a unique and irrevocable choice about all the most important social goods, and they do not know the probability they will become any particular member of society. As insurance against the worst possible outcome, they will pick rules that maximize the benefits given to the minimum outcome (maximin).

Recently, Thomas Nagel has elaborated on the concept of original position, arguing that social ethics should be built taking into account the tension between original and actual positions.

Recently, the original position has been modeled mathematically along Wright-Fisher's diffusion, classical in population genetics.[13] The original position has also been used as an argument for negative eugenics, though Rawls' argument was limited to its use as a preventative measure.[14]


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In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), Robert Nozick argues that, while the original position may be the just starting point, any inequalities derived from that distribution by means of free exchange are equally just, and that any re-distributive tax is an infringement on people's liberty. He also argues that Rawls's application of the maximin rule to the original position is risk aversion taken to its extreme, and is therefore unsuitable even to those behind the veil of ignorance.[15]

In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (1982),[16] Michael Sandel has criticized Rawls's notion of a veil of ignorance, pointing out that it is impossible, for an individual, to completely prescind from beliefs and convictions (from the Me ultimately), as is required by Rawls's thought experiment. More recently, the psychological implausibility of Rawls's theory has been highlighted using possible worlds, in a paper[17] that stresses some problematic points of Rawls's proposal.[original research?]

In a 1987 empirical research study,[18] Frohlich, Oppenheimer and Eavey showed that in a simulated original position, persons throughout a variety of temporal and cultural settings unanimously agreed upon a distributive principle that (in great majority) maximizes the average with a specified floor constraint (a minimum for the worst-off in any given distribution). The finding that a much less demanding distributive principle of justice is agreed upon in a (simulated) original position than Rawls' specification of the "difference principle", implies that the (rational) resistance to a cosmopolitan application of justice as fairness could be less forceful than its critics imagine.[19]

In How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time (2008), Iain King argues that people in the original position should not be risk-averse, leading them to adopt the Help Principle (Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you) rather than maximin.[20]

Harold Anthony Lloyd argued in a 2016 HuffPost blog post that Rawls's veil of ignorance is actually real rather than hypothetical, because all people are ignorant of the future for themselves or for others, and that Rawls and others have failed to recognize the intertwined moral and practical implications of such an actually real veil of ignorance.[21]

See also


  1. ^ John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001.
  2. ^ Vickery, William (1945). "Measuring Marginal Utility by Reactions to Risk". Econometrica. 13 (4): 319–333. doi:10.2307/1906925. JSTOR 1906925.
  3. ^ a b Harsanyi, J. C. (1953). "Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-taking". Journal of Political Economy. 61 (5): 434–435. doi:10.1086/257416. JSTOR 1827289. S2CID 222439814.
  4. ^ Feiwel, George, ed. (1987). Arrow and the Foundations of the Theory of Economic Policy. Springer. p. 92. ISBN 9781349073573. ...the fictitious notion of 'original position' [was] developed by Vickery (1945), Harsanyi (1955), and Rawls (1971).
  5. ^ "Veil of Ignorance". Ethics Unwrapped. Retrieved May 27, 2020.
  6. ^ Harsanyi, J. C. (1955). "Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility". Journal of Political Economy. 63 (4): 309–21. doi:10.1086/257678. JSTOR 1827128. S2CID 222434288.
  7. ^ Freeman, Samuel (2016). "Original Position". The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University. Retrieved September 13, 2017.
  8. ^ Rawls, John (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press. ISBN 0-674-00078-1.
  9. ^ Rawls, John (2001). Justice as Fairness: A Restatement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press.
  10. ^ Mongin, Ph. (2001). "The Impartial Observer Theorem of Social Ethics". Economics and Philosophy. 17 (2): 147–179. doi:10.1017/S0266267101000219. S2CID 17352285.
  11. ^ Gajdos, Th.; Kandil, F. (2008). "The Ignorant Observer" (PDF). Social Choice and Welfare. 31 (2): 193–232. doi:10.1007/s00355-007-0274-8. S2CID 11230946.
  12. ^ Moehler, Michael (2018), Minimal Morality: A Multilevel Social Contract Theory. Oxford University Press.
  13. ^ Mostapha Benhenda A model of deliberation based on Rawls’s political liberalism Soc Choice Welf (2011) 36: 121–78
  14. ^ Shaw, David (2006). Genetic Morality. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang. p. 147. ISBN 3-03911-149-3. What Rawls says is that "Over time a society is to take steps to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects." The key words here are "preserve" and "prevent". Rawls clearly envisages only the use of negative eugenics as a preventative measure to ensure a good basic level of genetic health for future generations. To jump from this to "make the later generations as genetically talented as possible," as Pence does, is a masterpiece of misinterpretation. This, then, is the sixth argument against positive eugenics: the Veil of Ignorance argument. Those behind the Veil in Rawls' Original Position would agree to permit negative, but not positive eugenics. This is a more complex variant of the Consent argument, as the Veil of Ignorance merely forces us to adopt a position of hypothetical consent to particular principles of justice.
  15. ^ Nozick, Robert (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books. ISBN 978-0465097203.
  16. ^ Sandel, Michael (1982). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0521567411.
  17. ^ Cipriani, Enrico (2015). "A modal account of the initial position". Austrian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences (9–10): 55–58. doi:10.20534/AJH-15-9.10-55-57.
  18. ^ Frohlich, Norman; Oppenheimer, Joe A.; Eavey, Cheryl L. (1987). "Choices of Principles of Distributive Justice in Experimental Groups". American Journal of Political Science. 31 (3): 606–636. doi:10.2307/2111285. JSTOR 2111285.
  19. ^ Pols, Paul (2010). Applying Rawls in a Globalizing World (Thesis). University of Utrecht.
  20. ^ King, Iain (2008). How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong. Bloomsbury. pp. 77–78. ISBN 9781847063472.
  21. ^ Lloyd, Harold Anthony (March 2, 2016). "Beyond Rawls' Fiction: The Veil of Ignorance Is Real". HuffPost Contributors blog. Retrieved March 2, 2024.

Further reading