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John Rawl's Perspective on Moral Responsibility and Ignorance

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What kind of world would you formulate if you were conscious before you were born, but you didn’t know the circumstances you would be born into? Philosopher John Rawls uses this thought experiment to argue for the moral responsibility of creating a just world. He referred to this scenario as the “veil of ignorance,” where a person is hidden from the circumstances they may or may not be born into. From a moral standpoint and in the best interest of oneself, it is imperative that the world is fair to all of its inhabitants.

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Rawls “veil of ignorance” thought experiment intended to highlight the unfairness that was prevalent in the world. In the United States in particular, Rawls had grown up during the Great Depression and witnessed blatant discrimination against minorities. The other astute observation he had was the rarity of the “rags to riches” phenomenon. While there are many cases of poor individuals who become wealthy through great accomplishments, Rawls found that these cases were extraordinarily rare. This led to many policymakers and those in position of wealth to take the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” view of the world and as a consequence, make little effort to make a more fair world for those not as privileged as they were. Rawls formulated a thought experiment to put those in positions of privilege into the shoes of someone who potentially could be born into circumstances that society is not as fair to than those that are privileged.

One of the great tragedies of life is that you do not get to choose the circumstances that you are born into. You could be the child of well-meaning parents in a wealthy developed country or you could be born in an impoverished area in an underdeveloped country. Where you are born is obviously not well-understood and the best guess is it is simply a matter of chance. In the instance that basically a lottery determines where you are born, John Rawls proposes a thought experiment where behind a “veil of ignorance,” you are in a sort of limbo before you are born where you do not know whether you are born in the wealthy country or the impoverished nation. In this scenario, you are tasked with developing policies that will govern the world you will live in. With an equal chance of growing up in either rich or poor circumstances, it is in the best interest of the person and everyone else that faces this lottery to create a world that is fair to all of its inhabitants. You do not want to take the risk of creating an unbalanced world and hope that you are born into the more positive circumstance.

Creating a more fair world doesn’t necessarily mean that some form of utopian society is always going to be the end result of the “veil of ignorance” thought experiment. Creating a more just world can be accomplished by small things like guaranteeing certain rights, regardless of circumstance. These include guaranteeing each individual the right to free expression, right to fair trial, freedom from slavery,, among many other basic human rights. There can still be wealth inequality in a just world, as long as the accumulation of wealth isn’t accomplished by the exploitation of underprivileged workers. The wealth inequality can be mitigated by the redistribution of that wealth via programs that provide aid to underprivileged individuals. Even if you are an ardent believer in capitalism where there is an inevitable separation between the haves and have nots, you would still advocate for at least a fair shot for each individual at achieving considerable wealth, if you were calling the shots from behind the veil of ignorance.

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The law of reciprocity says to do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Most of us acknowledge that we should treat each other fairly as if you were that person. History shows us that this is much harder to accomplish in practice. Rawls identified that those in privileged circumstances are not faced with many injustices and lack the perspective to advocate for a more fair world. Rawls used the “veil of ignorance” to illustrate the point that everyone would support a more just world if they were faced with the reality that they could be born into less ideal circumstances.

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John Rawl’s Perspective on Moral Responsibility and Ignorance. (2019, January 28). GradesFixer. Retrieved June 9, 2023, from
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