Bryan Caplan  

The Veil of Implausibility

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The veil of ignorance is arguably 20th-century political philosophy's most successful new meme.  On one level, it's easy to see the appeal.  Political philosophy seems morally deadlocked.  The veil of ignorance provides a meta-norm to break this deadlock: We should all follow whatever first-order norms we would accept if each of us were ignorant of his personal - and potentially biasing - characteristics.

Most debates about the veil of ignorance focus on what this meta-norm truly implies.  Harsanyi argued that it implies average utilitarianism; Rawls argued it implies his difference principle plus some other stuff.  In my view, these debates dodge the interesting question: Is the veil of ignorance a remotely plausible meta-norm?

Not really.  Sure, if you were ignorant of a bunch of obvious facts, you would probably want very different things, leading you to make very different choices.  But so what?  It is hard to see why wants and actions grounded on the world as it is are morally inferior to wants and actions grounded on the world as it is not.  In fact, the opposite is true.  "You should keep the agreements you actually made" has some moral force.  "You should keep the agreements you never made, but would have made if you were ignorant of obvious facts about yourself" has none.

You could reply, "Wants and actions grounded on morally objectionable circumstances are morally inferior to wants and actions not grounded on morally objectionable circumstances."  Fair enough.  But then you have to identify "morally objectionable circumstances" before you can apply the veil of ignorance, leaving it useless as a meta-norm for breaking prior moral deadlocks.  If an egalitarian considers inequality a morally objectionable circumstance, and a libertarian considers forced equality a morally objectionable circumstance, no veil will bridge their worldviews.

There are worse meta-norms than the veil.  Slavery, for example, is hard to defend behind a veil of ignorance.  But again, so what?  Almost every moral theory implies the wrongness of slavery.  The fact that the veil is anti-slavery is no more than a reason against summarily dismissing the theory.

If the veil is as intellectually lame as I say, why does is it have so many smart fanboys and fangirls?  Because even the smartest people tend to "look for their keys under the streetlight because it's brighter there."  The veil of ignorance gives smart people something abstruse to discuss.  While the veil doesn't break prior moral deadlocks, it opens up new avenues for conversation and research.  It is, in short, a massive philosophical make-work project that helps smart people forget their failure to make progress on moral questions that actually matter. 

HT: Nathaniel Bechhofer, the smartest fanboy of the veil I know.



COMMENTS (24 to date)
Philo writes:

The phrase "morally objectionable circumstances" seems to be based on confusion. Only *actions* can be *morally objectionable* (i.e., wrong). *Circumstances* can only be *better* (more desirable) or *worse* (less desirable) than other circumstances, whence they can be absolutely *good* or *bad* by being better or worse, respectively, than *a circumstance with zero value*. (The value here is so-called "non-moral value." There is supposed to be also a concept of *moral value*, which applies to *traits of character* or *dispositions to act*--virtues and vices, and perhaps by extension entire personalities. But this notion, while acceptable in practice, is useless for theorizing.)

Thomas writes:

I agree with you, Bryan. My take is here: http://politicsandprosperity.com/2010/07/06/rawls-meets-bentham/

A writes:

Philo, actions are too ambiguous to be the endpoint of moral proclamations. A man slices into another man. In one case, the man is a surgeon removing a burst appendix. Alternately, the man is a surgeon removing a healthy kidney from an unconscious businessman who drank too much at the wrong bar. The actions are meaningful in context, which implies that judging circumstances is more useful than abstracting moral meaning from the movement of matter.

Greg G writes:

>---" The veil of ignorance gives smart people something abstruse to discuss."

Well, we certainly wouldn't want to do anything as "intellectually lame" as discussing something abstruse here. That never happens.

Daniel Kendrick writes:

Bryan, thanks for spelling out in an eloquent way the exact feelings I've had on the "veil of ignorance" ever since I first heard it mentioned. It is a completely useless and absurd doctrine.

Don Geddis writes:

My objection to the Veil was always that it assumes there will be some agreement on what the equivalence class is going to be. Unfortunately, most of the interesting questions basically get determined, by deciding "who you might have been". Assume you're a rich, white, male. What is the set of "people" behind the Veil? Could you have been poor? Black? Female? Gay? Living in a different country? What about in the past, or the future? What about a different species? What about an Artificial Intelligence?

You will come out with wildly different conclusions, if you try to construct rules for a "good" world, but can't agree on what the class of "people" are that you need to account for.

Greg Heslop writes:

Regarding Don Geddis' question about different species above, if the first living organisms were initially behind the Veil of Ignorance, would not their high-ability offspring have to compensate those eventually born into less able species? Does not the Veil of Ignorance demand that the losers of evolution be compensated by the winners? Alternatively, would reproduction be regulated to minimize the emergence of new species? These conclusions appear to me to be much too demanding but certainly Rawlsian.

An igyt writes:
Almost every moral theory implies the wrongness of slavery

Can this be true? Has the great majority of human history, where slavery is normal, really been bereft of moral theory?

Or is it, perhaps, that their theories are no longer recognized as "moral" because slavery is now universally condemned?

Noah Carl writes:

People might be interested to read this: http://posnetres.blogspot.co.uk/2013/11/a-correction-to-my-post-about-rawls.html

Greg G writes:

The weakness of the concept of the veil is that it assumes that everyone behind the veil would make pretty similar choices. In fact people vary wildly in how lucky they feel and how much they like to take chances.

The strength of the concept of the veil is that would narrow the range of agreement on those choices quite a bit from where it is now.

Tom West writes:

I would say that the purpose of the veil is to establish support among those who *already* naturally tend towards egalitarianism and attempt to maximize that tendency.

With respect to slavery, I have no doubt that the majority of egalitarian-minded people tolerated slavery quite easily until such time as philosophical tools such as the veil were used to force such people into empathy for the slave.

The danger of the veil to Libertarians is that it forces a distinct weighing of the misery of some versus the freedom of others. Under such circumstances, it's quite possible that those who might otherwise pursue a freedom-based agenda might veer towards an egalitarian-based agenda.

Of course, there's some possibility of it going the other way, but given the fact that Libertarians often dislike the tool, I suspect it doesn't happen that often.

Steve J writes:

"Sure, if you were ignorant of a bunch of obvious facts, you would probably want very different things, leading you to make very different choices."

The veil only obscures knowledge of your personal situation. All "obvious facts" are available to you even behind the veil. I think you have a basic misunderstanding of how the veil works.

Roger writes:

Correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that the value of the veil is as a metaphor to identify impartial rules of the game.

I agree the metaphor has weaknesses, including that it assumes we do know our values and the assumption that they are reasonably consistent. (Again I am no Rawls expert, so feel free to set me straight).

I would offer that a better metaphor is for people to choose which league they play in. Leagues establish rules and compete constructively for players. Thus potential players choose rules matching their values. This would lead to more fairness as those with different interpretations could always play by what they saw as the fairest rules, or they could exchange fairness for other values.

wd40 writes:

"If an egalitarian considers inequality a morally objectionable circumstance, and a libertarian considers forced equality a morally objectionable circumstance, no veil will bridge their world views."


I think that this phrase shows confusion regarding the use of the veil of ignorance. It is just a utilitarian way of resolving conflicting preferences. The veil does not bridge different world views, it just aggregates them. Suppose first that a society has only two choices: organizing along libertarian grounds or organizing along egalitarian grounds. If there are 50 libertarians and 100 egalitarians and the sum total of utility is greater under a libertarian system (because libertarians care much more about liberty then egalitarians care about equality), then we should have a libertarian polity; and if the reverse is the case, then we should have an egalitarian polity. When there are other possibilities and combinations of organizing society, these too would also have to be compared under a veil of ignorance. This is just a generalization of the rule regarding which activity to jointly undertake when there are three friends. If ice skating is chosen, it does not mean that everyone likes ice skating or anyone has changed his or her mind, only that the group has chosen a rule that works in general under the veil of ignorance. All three agree that this is the right choice. Of course, it is hard to envision interpersonal comparisons of utility under multiple circumstances, especially so when individuals may have such different preferences under such different possible circumstances. In Bryan’s example, it requires him to envision how egalitarians (and libertarians) would feel under a libertarian and egalitarian society where he might be uneducated or female. If there were relatively few libertarians and they were relatively even-keeled, they would opt for an egalitarian society, but it would not change their beliefs that forced equality is objectionable.

Handle writes:

Moral instincts and intuitions emerged from natural selection of behavioral-tendency solutions to coordinating problems in the ancient environments of evolutionary adaptedness. Following them will occasionally be maladaptive in the contemporary and highly distinct social context.

They are also susceptible to being heavily influenced by ideological fashions and social-transfer mechanisms that have no real foundation as organizing principles except for their rhetorical usefulness for moral entrepreneurs in obtaining status and authority.

Moral ideological and intellectual systems, however, are all arbitrary and artificial constructs, with no possible basis in first principles of physical law, and which inevitably end up countenancing absurdities at odds with both current fashions and innate instincts.

Meta-Ethical Moral Nihilism is a complete and consistent perspective on morality against which I know of no good arguments, but which is seen by many people as bleak and depressing and which causes a bit of a gag reflex. The desire to believe that some human actions really are transcendentally right and wrong is very strong and has generates all kind of intellectual hopeless attempts at a salvage operation.

But all of these are as futile as trying to trisect an angle or square a circle or rationalize pi. Just because people desperately want something to be the case, and have strong emotional instincts demanding that it be so, don't actually make it so.

It's an interesting question why public intellectuals have turned away from realistic Nihilism and keep heading down the same dead-ends in attempts to bootstrap moral system over and over even though there are perfectly sound and well-established arguments for why they are really fooling themselves.

The answer almost certainly lies in the political and rhetorical usefulness of moral claims, and the human instinct to respond instinctively to such claims and adopt them when they are made by high-status people and thus coordinate socially on that basis.

But people are also programmed to respond rhetorically to all kinds of manipulative salesmanship, and to want to buy things that are in fashion, or that are possessed and displayed by high-status people and celebrities, and indeed buying flashy and fashionable items can achieve positive social effects for some people. But most people understand how arbitrary and meaningless this coordination is when it manifests itself commercially. No one tries to develop an abstract ideology of aesthetic fashions and insist on the One True Fashion, the Final Correct Answer for everyone, everywhere, all the time - quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus

Musca writes:

Isn't the purpose of the Veil to beg the question of the morality of self-interest, by ruling it conceptually illegal before philosophical discussion even starts?

It goes beyond consideration of personal circumstances - it biases the entire field toward altruism at the outset. Pretty neat trick.

JA writes:

Accepting the Veil premise, I still wouldn't reach Rawls's conclusion.

I may prefer, as a one-time event when everyone takes a random body, to have property evenly distributed (I'm not sure why that is more preferable than a random distribution, but let's assume I am risk adverse or prefer egalitarianism). But after the one-time initial redistribution, I wouldn't want someone coming on a regular basis with a gun to redistribute property.

My main objection to the Veil, is that are you supposed to assume you will have none of the same preferences, intellect, or thought processes you currently have, and if so isn't it a meaningless question. Did Rawls ever consider that he might come back from the Veil valuing individual liberty over egalitarianism?

Handle writes:

I'll be more concise and pose the question simply:

Why not just be a Meta-Ethical Moral Nihilist?

James A. Donald writes:

The reason for failure to make progress in moral philosophy is precisely because you don't want conclusions like inequality, war, and slavery because you want to justify left wing ideology that has moved ever lefter.

Egoistic morality, like that of Xenophon, Ayn Rand, and Aristotle, is easy to justify, from the nature of man and the world. Ayn Rand reasons from man the maker, Xenophon from man the trader - and Xenophon promptly grasps the nettle and tells us that under certain alarmingly common circumstances genocidal war, enslavement of the enemy-, etc, is entirely justified, is good, heroic, and manly.

As in fact everyone has always believed until quite recently.

If most believed as Xenophon believed, and acted as Xenophon plausibly claims to have acted, those alarmingly common circumstances would rapidly become a lot less common. But quite a few people would be slaves.

Tracy W writes:

Hmmm, I am thinking of the common rule given to two kids sharing some cake or other desirable food: one cuts, the other chooses. Is not that a veil of ignorance for the cutter, that changes their incentives sharply?

And, more generally, consider negotiating a contract with someone, with these two situations:
1). You pick how disagreements will be settled up front, when writing the contract.
2). You pick how disagreements will be settled when the first major problem arises.

The 2) is likely to be much more difficult and dangerous than the 1), is this not a veil of ignorance solution?


Although I have another objection to the veil of ignorance argument, namely that there's no agreement on fundamental values. Personally I think some types of mental illness would be much worse than being poor, so under Rawls' min/max theorem would prefer a society that throws much more resources into mental health research. A good Christian presumably would prefer a society which maximises the number of people who are Christians and thus get into heavan above all else. Etc.

Pithlord writes:

You don't seem to understand the "veil of ignorance." First of all, it isn't that you don't know relevant facts. You know the relevant facts, including facts about economics, etc., but you just don't know how you will personally fit into the order once the rules are chosen, or (more controversially) which controversial conception of the good you will hold.

Second, the veil of ignorance isn't supposed to be a general mechanism for determining the good. It is specifically about principles of *justice*, which requires an impersonal perspective.

It begs the question to say you should perform a contract you have agreed to, since the question is where the force of that norm comes from. If you say the contract breaker agreed to the norm that contracts must be performed, you are (a) arguing circularly and (b) not obviously correct as a factual matter. Why can't the contract breaker say , "I never agreed that contracts are enforceable"?

The norm that contracts should be performed (unless there is a compelling reason not to) can be justified by reference to the original position/veil of ignorance. Regardless of what contractual commitments I would want to make or get, I would be better off if they were enforceable. Therefore, pact sunt servanda is a plausible norm to arise behind the veil of ignorance.

Brendan writes:

There's actually nothing wrong about Rawls

Nick N writes:

I realize this is a small point of the article, but I strongly disagree with the following statement: "Almost every moral theory implies the wrongness of slavery."

Most are in fact compatible with slavery. For example, the dominant morality today is altruism which holds that we all have a moral duty to serve others and live for others.

This is why today it is considered acceptable, moral and just for some people to have as much as 70% of their income – their work, effort, life – forcibly taken from them by the state.

RNVN writes:
Isn't the purpose of the Veil to beg the question of the morality of self-interest, by ruling it conceptually illegal before philosophical discussion even starts?

It goes beyond consideration of personal circumstances - it biases the entire field toward altruism at the outset. Pretty neat trick.

I see it differently, what it does is remove preferences that flow from situational self-interest, one can still favor selfishness over altruism under the veil, that preference would just be more pure and unconditional; for example a preference for "Might makes right" is more genuine when that preference is expressed by someone that doesn't know whether they will be strong or weak relative to everyone else -- they don't know whether they will be able to take particular advantage of this rule (whether they will be better situated to use the license for force than their neighbors/rivals), they are just expressing that they think that is the more just rule, or the rule that makes the world better, or simply the rule that they have a taste preference for.

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