John Rawls and The Veil of Ignorance
It would seem that bringing normative questions into the study of global politics changes everything, but justice is built-in to analysis. John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” (1999 (1971)) opens with a consideration of how people’s perspectives on justice are often located in or near their interests. These interests are apt to warp assessments of justice in our favour. Rawls’ device of the “veil of ignorance” both highlights our partiality and provides a solution to it.
Robert Cox might say “theory is always for someone, and for some purpose” [p82] (Cox 1981), but it is also from some location within the institutions of society, and so is a sense of justice. We exist in relation to others, and our interactions are guided, if not formally dictated, by social institutions.
“Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought. A theory however elegant and economical must be rejected or revised if it is untrue; likewise laws and institutions no matter how efficient and well-arranged must be reformed or abolished if they are unjust”. (Rawls 1999)
Institutions are sets of rules, applicable in different situations, more or less stringent depending on our relation to and place within the institution. The market institution will allow the seller to waive the price, but not the buyer, for example.
But what if we could look from outside, ignorant of our own position? This ‘veil’ of ignorance nullifies the effect of our interests. It is part of the hypothetical ‘original position’, a situation in which no roles or rules have yet been assigned, and the task at hand is to design institutions and rules for a new society. In the thought experiment, a hypothetical society must be designed by people who don’t know what their institutional position will be.
If you were one of the designers, ignorant of your status and interests, would you institutionalize slavery? Would you create a rigid class or caste system? Would you encourage men to think of women as their property, and make provisions for how children should be beaten? In all of these cases, and a multitude of others, you would have to bet on yourself being on the upside of these relationships. This would be the case regardless of whether you had a sense of, or desire for, justice. A rational calculation of interests and odds would be enough. The point of the experiment is to demonstrate the relationship between interests and justice. When we don’t know our interests, justice, or rather injustice, is easy to see.
Ultimately, it is not so much the bringing-in of morals and ethics that shows us something new, but leaving interests out. Behind the veil, we cannot see our interests, as we normally do. People often find it difficult to talk about global politics without making statements of value, or norms. Observers, scholars, and practitioners can minimize the distortions of our place in society, and follow Rawls by forming our sense of justice without regard to our interest.
Cox, R. W. (1981). “Social Forces, States and World Orders: Beyond International Relations Theory.” Millennium 10(2): 126-155.
Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.