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Am I a Rawlsekian?

Last night I learned a new word: “Rawlsekian”. Apparently Rawlsekian is a thing that you can now be.

I don’t know exactly what others mean by this word, although this morning I made a start by reading this, by Will Wilkinson. But, I have long believed in at least one notion that could well be described as Rawlsekian, that is to say, combining a John Rawls idea which I consider to be good with all the good ideas of persons such as Friedrich Hayek.

The Rawls idea that strikes me as good is the veil of ignorance idea. This (commenters will please correct me if I have it wrong) says that a very good way to judge the relative merit of two contrasting societies is to say to oneself: Which would I rather be a citizen of, if I have to take my chances as to whereabouts I land up in each society? Choosing either society is a lottery. You could be a duke or a dustman, a government apparatchnik or a concentration camp inmate, a plutocrat or a pauper, or anything in between. The question is: Which society offers you your best chance of a good life? The “ignorance” bit being that whereas you do know quite a lot about the contending societies, you do not know where you might land in whichever one you decide to pick.

I think that this is a very good way to judge the relative merits of different societies. It is not the only way, by any means, but it is a very good way.

So far so Rawlsian. What puts the -ekian on the end of Rawls, when it comes to describing me and my opinions, is that if my understanding of Rawls’s many other and far worse ideas is even approximately right, I believe that Hayek World scores much better, by the Rawls veil of ignorance test, than does Rawls World. Rawls is not just wrong by the standards of other and wiser persons. He is wrong by his own standard, at any rate by this particular standard.

Follow that veil of ignorance link (that’s it again) and you will find that Rawls talked about “justice” rather than the more general idea of a good life. But it is my further understanding that Rawls did not mean by justice what I mean by justice. For me justice is a particular aspect of a society. A society can be hideously unpleasant, but quite just, or quite pleasant but hideously unjust. For Rawls “justice” was the entire deal, including such things as the government imposing a high degree of equality of economic outcome. So what he calls “justice” is what I prefer to call, in a deliberately rather vague way, “a good life”.

(I consider equality of economic outcome to be, among many other wrong things, very unjust.)

28 comments to Am I a Rawlsekian?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    The problem with the “veil of ignorance” argument is that if we expect humans to be entirely ignorant of their own positions or welfare, what is left? Do such people really have any “interests” at all?

    Essentially, the “veil of ignorance” is a riff on the old notion that “justice is blind”, and Rawls uses it cleverly, presuming an egalitarian default setting from which any inequalities of position must be justified (as in allowing this because of economic growth, etc). But as Nozick famously pointed out, why is equality of outcome, as such, inherently good or fair? Rawls just assumes this, and does not really argue for it.

    Here is a good short critique of Rawls and the veil of ignorance argument. (Link)

  • Charlotte

    The problem with Rawls’ veil of ignorance is that it doesn’t actually prove anything: it’s constructed in such a way so that you are meant to chose Rawls’ certain outcome (e.g. that you’re risk averse, your ignorance of certain attributes but awareness that you want Rawls’ specially chosen primary goods etc…) The veil of ignorance doesn’t actually do any independent work in justifying his position.

    I’ve tried arguing with my uni tutors quite a few times about the fact that people may well choose a libertarian/ free market position under a genuine veil of ignorance- as it seems formally and intuitively fair- but mainly they just tell me to shut up and think about it properly.

    Rawls does consider a kind of libertarian outcome from the veil… I can’t remember why he rubbishes it but I think it has to do with the argument that your natural talents are arbitrary from a moral point of view and therefore their use in determining your life is ‘unjust’

    So I guess it exactly boils down to your point of Rawls seeing natural endowments as unjust, as if that is the kind of thing you can apply judgements of justice to. Which is weird.

  • Mose Jefferson

    Charlotte has it, I think, although some of this is beyond my brain – which I fully accept, expecting no remunerations from society.

    Rawles might weasel out of Hayeks free market solutions by pointing to those natural inborn inequalities and claiming it is society’s duty to correct such unfairness. Rawles obviously never read “Harrison Bergeron”.

    In an imperfect world of scarcity and need, however, at least the Hayek model realizes the true motivational value of inequality and recognizes the markets ability to naturally correct for natural unfairness.

    Rawls never gets past the percieved problem of inequality, and sacrifices personal autonomy to “fairness”.

    I think.

  • veryretired

    Dennis Moore, Dennis Moore, dum te dum dum dum…

    As always, the crucial question in all these “Let’s correct the injustices of nature and make things more fair for everyone” schemes is: Who decides what is fair?

    The obvious answer, of course, is me—but I’m kind of busy this week…

  • RRS

    This will be heresy to the clerisy:

    Nozick was on to the course Rawls was taking for a philosophical affirmation of what Hayek referred to as constructivism. Nozick laid out the roads roughly available for course choosers. Unfortunately, but for good reasons, he never returned to pave them.

    Rawls, like many, many others, was convinced (or so it seems) that the concepts of what is “just” or results in “justice” within a social order develops in its members from the way in which that social order comes to have a particular structure. [Here, refer to Hayek, et al. on spontaneous order]

    Thus, if another set of concepts of “just” and “justice” which is appealing because it might provide “treatments” for the imperfections of the relationships in the social orders we know, the way forward is to consider constructing a social order on a tabula rasa format with the objective of producing that different set of concepts in its members. [Now why can that not be congruent with spontaneous order?]

    Some may now hear the faint wind-chimes melody of “the general Will,” that dirge of individual freedom.

    Whatever symptoms Brian may sense, they are not likely from constructivism (which can also be called “fabrication”).

  • RRS

    Ok they fixed permalink to get me with smite

  • RRS

    However I have saved it to try again

  • Lee Moore

    The veil of ignorance rapidly collapses into mush. And the essential problem is that one is simply asked to assume that everyone would choose what Rawls chooses. Attempts to correct this lead anywhere you want them to lead.

    For example the chap that BM links to, with his cake cutting test, suggests what we might choose if we knew we were going to be bottom of the pile. But that’s not what Rawls’ test is – it’s not choose on the basis that you’ll be bottom, it’s choose on the basis that you don’t know where you’ll be.

    If you choose what Rawls chooses, you set a value of zero on individual liberty. Since even poor people quite like individual liberty, it’s not easy to see why he thinks his choice will be popular.

  • RRS

    People sure get ensnarled in that “Veil of Ignorance” thingy (actually it was a brilliant device), which served the philosophical purpose of setting the stage of taking out a clean, clear sheet of drafting paper on which to outline the construction of a different edifice (for a supposedly different function), rather than taking known designs developed from human experience and adapting them to the desired function.

  • Current

    I agree with RRS and Brian Mickeltwait that the “Veil of Ignorance” device is useful.

    It wasn’t Rawl’s invention or even John Harsanyi’s invention. Hayek mentions the idea in the “Constitution of Liberty”. I believe the first use of it is in the constitution of one of the American states.

    The principle of asking “if you don’t know where you stand then what society would you choose” is a useful one. But as others have said, we don’t have to accept Rawl’s conclusions.

    The main problem I see with it is that Rawl’s wants us only to consider one period of time. The person standing behind the veil of ignorance is thought of as entering society straight away after making his decision about what he wants society to be like. That makes the hypothetical decider look at their own time in a parochial short-termist fashion. A better thought experiment would be to make not only the persons genetic endowments random, but also the *time* when they enter society.

    This changes things entirely because it makes progress in living standards count. That in-turn means that socialist economic policies that slow progress count. Suppose for example that I have no idea of my natural abilities relative to others, and suppose I will leave my “veil of ignorance” into a time that may be now or may be anytime in the future where humans exist (suppose chance is evenly distributed over time). Would I be risk averse and choose a social-democrat world? No, because my chances of landing in the immediate future are small compared to my chances of landing further into the future. And further into the future progress or lack of it count.

  • Alsadius

    I think I’m the only one who’s actually a fan of this argument. The basic principle of the veil is “Don’t argue for what benefits you personally, argue for what benefits all people in society on the whole”. I actually like that. All the ancillary arguments are dumb excuses for socialism, but the basic idea is sound.

  • Robert

    I’m no expert on Rawls,but the question I would ask about the “veil of ignoranace” is: How does the principle help me decide between
    a) A society of 100 people where everyone earns £100k
    b) A society of 100 people where 50 people earn £25k and 50 people earn £200k
    c) A society of 100 people where 99 people earn £10k and 1 person earns £15000k
    d) A society of 200 people who each earn £90k
    Assuming that monetary income is the only variable of relevance.

  • Tedd

    It’s important to distinguish between Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and “original position” arguments and his “difference principle.”

    “Original position” deals with the circumstances of birth — are you born smart or stupid, healthy or sickly, black or white, and so on. It has nothing to do with unequal circumstances that result from your choices in life, but rather unequal circumstances that result from things you were born with and over which you have no control. As such, I think the “veil of ignorance” idea (which supports “original position”) stands up pretty well, at least as a moral argument, and doesn’t directly contradict any principle of liberty so long as it’s conclusions are limited to individual moral choice. (Rawls, however, does not so limit them.)

    This is in stark contrast to the “difference principle,” which is an attempt to portray unequal outcomes as unjust even when they are the direct result of a person’s voluntary choices. That’s obviously a very different matter.

  • Snorri Godhi

    OK, I do not know Rawls at 1st hand, but it seems to me that, like most modern political philosophy, his work is little more than a justification for giving more power to the State.
    As for the veil of ignorance: I think it a useful concept for ranking societies of the past, but when ranking present-day societies, it would be impossible to remove personal bias. I’d not want to live in a society that allows slavery, even if I were a slave owner, but apart from such extreme cases, it would be impossible for me to neglect my class interests; just as it was impossible for Rawls to neglect his class interests, which apparently were closely parallel to the interests of the ruling class.
    Note that the above amounts to a Marxist critique of Rawls.

  • RRS

    OK. Given the degree of pre-judgment already expressed, I probably should not play in this tangle about “ignorance.” However, I will point out a reason for assuming a limited purpose of the device.

    That is, the proposed field of “Ignorance” is limited. The human (a sort of modified[?] Roycian character as I recall) retains “self-knowledge,” desires, and those all- important (but impeding?) “ends.”

    All that other content of human psyche (and its effects on how human interactions that form the social organizations that coalesce into social orders) plays its roles in reactions to, and use of, the remaining information available to the senses after that specified field of ignorance – is still here. The human psyche, with its variants, does not change (and admittedly does function subject to much other ignorance).

    The lives we can observe, and probably all that can be imagined, consist largely of required reactions rather than fulfillment of “plans,” including those reactions necessary to attempt fulfillments.

  • Tedd


    Not that anything you said was incorrect, but that same critique can be applied to any attempt at ethical rationalism, from Plato to Kant to Rawls. It’s the age-old question of whether ethics and morality are inherently sentimental or can be arrived at through rational argument.

  • RRS

    Tedd –
    I am encumbered by a personal concept that morals (and morality) in any social order derive from the sufficient commonality of recognized, understood and accepted obligations of the members; and that ethics are the modes of performing or avoiding those obligations.

  • Tedd


    Exactly. It’s an explanatory approach to ethics, as opposed to a normative approach. It tells us something about how ethics are created in the real world, and why, but nothing about what our ethics ought to be. So, by definition, no advance in ethics can ever be made that way, and all such attempts to use ethics to justify action are indistinguishable from popular sentiment.

    By contrast, Kant, Rawls, and others sought to create normative ethical arguments that could be defended on purely rational grounds.

  • Snorri Godhi

    Tedd: “Kant, Rawls, and others sought to create normative ethical arguments that could be defended on purely rational grounds.”

    Such attempts are doomed to fail, as should be obvious from Agrippa’s Trilemma.

  • RRS

    Tedd –

    Didn’t Hume have something to say about “oght and “is?”

    By the way I abhore the use of “normative’ (without more). I never know what is being said, even by James Buchanan.

    It’s sorta like “meta” with me.

    So, what is “Normative” in this context?

  • Tedd


    I’m not an expert on Agrippa’s Trilemma, but my understanding is that it was only a dilemma to the ancient Greeks because an axiom, to them, meant accepted or received knowledge. But the modern conception of an axiom is that it meets the test of reductio ad absurdum. So, if reality is not absurd, then rational arguments can be constructed and there’s no dilemma. Of course, reality could be absurd, but that’s not really a problem either because then it wouldn’t matter that your rational argument was wrong, anyway.


    Sorry, I’m accustomed to using the word normative because it’s common in my profession.

    In this context you can take “normative” to mean “how it ought to be.” In other words, Kant and Rawls tried to determine what ethical principles a person ought to follow, based on rational argument. That’s different from the approach that’s more popular at the moment, which is to investigate the existence of ethics (or the propensity to create ethics) as a human characteristic, without making judgements about the ethics themselves.

    I think both are interesting questions. Looking at why we’re inclined to have ethics — by examining the brain, investigating human behaviour, and considering the evolutionary consequences of ethics — tells us interesting things about ourselves. Asking what ethical principles rationalism might dictate we ought to follow leads to some interesting arguments. (Even if we can never be sure we’ve arrived at the right answer.)

  • Snorri Godhi

    “I’m not an expert on Agrippa’s Trilemma, but my understanding is that it was only a dilemma to the ancient Greeks”

    Well, first of all it was, and is, a TRIlemma, not a dilemma.

    “But the modern conception of an axiom is that it meets the test of reductio ad absurdum. So, if reality is not absurd, then rational arguments can be constructed and there’s no dilemma.”

    I probably misunderstand you here: you cannot mean it, but I cannot interpret what you say in any other way, so I’ll stick my neck out:
    if you mean that axioms can be proven true by showing that their negation implies a contradiction, then, with the exception of logical axioms, then you are wrong*.
    Anyway, how does that contradict Agrippa’s trilemma? if you accept only analytic propositions as axioms, which is what you are doing in my probably wrong interpretation, then what you say does not apply to the synthetic propositions to which the trilemma applies. In particular, it does not apply to synthetic ethical propositions.

    “Of course, reality could be absurd, but that’s not really a problem either because then it wouldn’t matter that your rational argument was wrong, anyway.”

    On this we can certainly agree.

    * More correctly, if you find any such axiom, you can remove it from your system, because it is derivable from the other axioms. keep doing that and eventually you can replace any remaining axiom by its negation.

  • RRS

    Thank you for confirming what I have written elsewhere to the effect that when one sees the word “normative” in the midst of a discussion you are seeing discourse amongst “pros;” academics talking to academics in ther fields of economics, philosophy, anthropology, etc; engaged in argumentation, not explication.

    I am a bit confused by the reference to the deontic “ought.” But I guess that can be taken as an explanation that there is a “standard form” of ought (at least accepted by all the pros). I have not found it so.

  • Tedd


    As I said, I’m not an expert on Agrippa’s Trilemma. You may well be correct.

    I happen to like the categorical imperative, and I think original position is pretty good, too, even though I’m sure you’re correct that they’re not beyond rational debate. It still seems worthwhile to me to make the attempt to develop rational moral arguments even (as I said above) if we can never be sure of their truth.


    You forgot my field: engineering, where the word normative is commonly used in engineering standards (not surprisingly). I think your interpretation requires some adjustment, but I apologize for using a hot-button term. I didn’t realize.

    I don’t understand your point about a “standard form” of ought, though. Do you mean a standard way of using the word, a standard set of things that ought to be, or is there some other subtlety here I’m not aware of? I only use it in its common sense: to indicate a duty or obligation (however that duty or obligation is formed).

  • Snorri Godhi

    actually I said nothing about Agrippa’s T. except stating without argument that it invalidates any attempt “to create normative ethical arguments that could be defended on purely rational grounds” as you put it.

    Let me now provide the argument.
    Suppose you have a normative proposition N, justifiable from some other statement A.
    A must be synthetic, if it’s used to justify synthetic proposition N. Therefore S cannot be self-evidently true: it must be justified by some other proposition B. And how are you going to justify B?

  • RRS


    Here is why I used that term:

    Normative: adj.

    establishing, relating to, or deriving from a standard or norm, especially of behavior:

    I got into this because of my efforts in reading the works of james Buchanan (Public Choice Theory). He over-used the term for me.
    I left the field of engineering (though not completely) around 1954. Possibly because of the kiinds of people I worked with (which included drillers & riggers) I did not encounter that term. Times change. We did use it in science (“norms”).

    It is quite interesting to find that there is someone else who senses that obligations probably originate in the deontic, the sense of oughtness.

  • Paul Marks

    To write a lot about John Rawls is to waste time – as our friend Antony Flew torn his doctrines apart many years ago (in many works).

    It astonishes me (and deeply angers me) that some people (whether the call themselves the “libertarian left” or whatever) want to dig up John Rawls.

    “Veil of ignorance”

    The vital part of that (in Rawls) is not just that you do not know your income or wealth in society – it is that you have “no conception of the good”, you have no MORAL opinions.

    In short you are not human at all – you are just a flesh robot who comes out with anything that John Rawls wanted you to come out with.

    The whole concept (like everything else in “A Theory of Justice” and the other works of Rawls) is a sham – a hollow sham.

  • Ben

    Charlotte is correct.

    Rawls’ criterion of extreme risk aversion is frankly implausible and it is hard not to conclude it was chosen by working backwards from his preferred conclusion.

    The veil of ignorance doesn’t do what Rawls wants, becuase Rawls’ preferred outcome, radical egalitarianism, is embedded in the assumption of being risk averse. But in real life, people don’t behave like that. They just don’t spend their whole lives trying to avoid the worst, they spend a lot hoping for the best. IIRC, actual practice suggests that people before the veil would maximise expected (i.e. average) utility, rather than minimising the chances of the worst case. Because that is what they tend to do in real life.

    Secondly, the major problem (the above, believe it or not is the minor one) is the choice of “community of interest”. Who is behind the veil voting? Aborted fetuses? What about spontanous miscarried babies at 4 weeks? All races or just the Elect? Is it really bad to die young, or is it about the quality of life while you are alive (since we all die)?

    Finally, the gigantic problem is this. There is no fucking veil. Why should we give a toss what we would have thought behind a veil which never existed and never will? The decision to do the veil thought experiment, to choose the community of interest, and to may crazy assumptions about what people would do in those circumstances, are all fake-ups to generate the desired conclusions.

    And it won’t work. Because moral philosophy isn’t really a search for “true morality” (how could you tell if you had found it – an argument that “compels assent”?) it is a search for arguments that convince people who are convinced by that type of argument.

    For most people, no logic compels assent. They just think you are pulling a fast one. The only way to convince most people is to give examples of what would happen under each rule, and let them do the inductive reasoning themselves.