Veil of ignorance

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The veil of ignorance means nobody knows into what group they will be born.

The veil of ignorance is a thought experiment formulated by John Rawls in 1971 which is used to try and eliminate social biases in order to come up with the most equitable society. The thought experiment asks that, prior to creating the rules of a society, imagine a veil of ignorance obscuring where you will end up in the society. For example, if you were going to randomly be put into a society where 70% of the people are slaves, 25% are free people without slaves, and 5% are wealthy slave owners, would you want to change the rules to outlaw slavery? The experiment is basically a more elaborate version of the idiom, don't judge someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes.

This thought experiment is easy to imagine since, from birth, nobody gets to choose their sex, gender, race, body type, abilities, societal class, and so forth; from the perspective of the individual, they're all randomly determined. I find the veil of ignorance to be very useful when considering what my ideal utopian society would be like because it forces me to imagine myself in so many different lives. What if I were born with a mental disorder, as a woman, a minority race, physically disabled, homosexual, into an extremely poor family, and so on. While the slavery example has been played out, an example using a modern issue is to imagine a society where millions of people are born randomly where they don't feel like the sex of the body they're born into, and face frequent abuse because of it. Assuming you could be randomly picked as one of those millions of people, would you want a society where the laws offer you protections?

One flaw I see with the thought experiment is that, while it reminds you to look at things from various perspectives, it doesn't give you any new information, and people are fantastic at justifying their biases. For example, I had a conversation with a man who argued that, after slavery was ended, black people should have very quickly risen to equals in society, and the fact that they didn't is their own fault. The man was completely unaware of segregation, Jim Crow laws, redlining, and various other forms of racism that remained for a century after slavery was outlawed. To him, the veil of ignorance wouldn't be very useful; he would be just fine being born black because he was ignorant to all the discrimination, and, even after learning about them, was unable to understand why they were so difficult to overcome. Of course, the thought experiment can't fix ignorance, it can only invite you to try to eliminate biases, which is a step in the right direction.