A Praxeological Critique of John Rawls

One of the most famous thought experiments in the history of philosophy is the “Veil of Ignorance”. Formulated and popularized by John Rawls and his “A Theory of Justice”, the experiment is meant to provide a hypothetical situation from which we can deduce principles of justice and fairness. In this way we could collectively agree upon the rules that should govern society. The thought experiment itself has drawn the attention and praise of political thinkers and philosophers from all over the world since Rawls published his Theory in 1971. This is unquestionably due to the sensibility of his conclusions on justice, as well as the cleverness of the “Veil of Ignorance” he uses to affirm them. Even so, the logic behind the Veil of Ignorance is hopelessly incoherent. Rawls uses the ideas of human choice to motivate his conclusions on justice, but an examination of the pure logic of choice, the science of Praxeology, demonstrates the entire basis of the thought experiment as unsound. With the “Veil of Ignorance” exposed as irreparably flawed, the entirety of Rawls’ system of justice is left hanging and totally unfounded.

Within his “A Theory of Justice”, Rawls posits his Two Principles of Justice. The first is that there should be the maximum amount of liberty for everyone, given that liberty does not infringe on anyone else. The second principle is that social inequalities should be arranged so that they provide the greatest advantage to the least endowed person. The method by which he argues for these two principles as a basis for justice is through the “Original Position”, and more specifically, the Veil of Ignorance. The idea behind the Original Position that we can discover truths about the nature of justice if we think of society removed from all of its non-essential elements. Instead of looking at the world and people around us as particulars, we think of them in the abstract. From this stripped-down view of human interactions, we can see more clearly how justice ought to operate. In Rawls’ own words:

“The idea of the original position is to set up a fair procedure so that any principles agreed to will be just. The aim is to use the notion of pure procedural justice as a basis of theory. Somehow we must nullify the effects of specific contingencies which put men at odds and tempt them to exploit social and natural circumstances to their own advantage. Now in order to do this I assume that the parties are situated behind a veil of ignorance. They do not know how the various alternatives will affect their own particular case and they are obliged to evaluate principles solely on the basis of general considerations.

It is assumed, then, that the parties do not know certain kinds of particular facts. First of all, no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like. Nor, again, does anyone know his conception of the good, the particulars of his rational plan of life, or even the special features of his psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism.” (A Theory of Justice, pg. 118)

The main thrust behind the Original Position is to remove everyone from all of the accidental features of society and formulate principles of justice based on this position of a lack of knowledge. The way in which we do this is through the Veil of Ignorance. Imagine that everyone currently living were all gathered together in one place, but did not have any knowledge of themselves or who they were before this moment in time. Not all of their knowledge is removed, of course, but all knowledge of their occupation, wealth, and status all are forgotten while behind the Veil. If all of these individuals had to decide upon principles of justice for their society to be governed by when they return from this temporary state of amnesia, what principles would they decide upon? Because we don’t know what place in society we would occupy, we are incentivized to be as fair as possible in our vision of the social order. In this way, we can discern sound ideas about justice, as we are examining the ideal society without any pre-existing biases or cognitions that would alter our judgement. As Rawls’ states,

“To say that a certain conception of justice would be chosen in the original position is equivalent to saying that rational deliberation satisfying certain conditions and restrictions would reach a certain conclusion” (pg. 119–120)

Using the Veil of Ignorance, the two principles that Rawls believes that everyone can unanimously agree upon are the two principles of justice mentioned at the outset. If we had no conception of our lives beyond the Veil and only our rationality, we would all agree for society to be governed by these two principles.

Rawls does not at all mean the Veil of Ignorance to be anything more than just a thought experiment. He doesn’t think of this imaginary assembly as actually taking place in reality. He does, however, view it as a useful and necessary tool for understanding the concept of justice. Not only in some theoretical sense, by also for purposes of everyday, practical application as well. Rawls writes,

“In any case, the original position must be interpreted so that one can at any time adopt its perspective. It must make no difference when one takes up this viewpoint, or who does so: the restrictions must be such that the same principles are always chosen. The veil of ignorance is a key condition in meeting this requirement. It insures not only that the information available is relevant, but that it is at all times the same.” (pg. 120)

The Veil of Ignorance is just a thought experiment, but one that we can and should use to answer questions of justice and fairness in our own lives. It isn’t just another useless philosophical musing, but a tool to be used in our own lives for our own purposes. It gives us general principles of justice, but is also a way of examining our own individual problems and dilemmas to arrive at just outcomes.

For Rawls, the concept of human choice and rationality are very important for discovering principles of justice. The entire Veil of Ignorance situation is built on the idea of what we would choose in a given scenario. This necessitates, however, a clear understanding of the inner workings of human choice. Rawls crucially does not provide us with such an explanation. It is for this reason that we turn to an examination of the science of human action, Praxeology.

The method and content of Praxeology are straightforward. It begins from an axiomatic statement and from this point deductively moves step by step into elucidating the necessary categories of human action. This beginning axiomatic statement is the “Action Axiom”. It states that actors utilize means for the attainment of ends. We know this statement to be incontestably true, as one cannot consistently argue against it. In order to do so, one would be using means — one’s words and thoughts — for the attainment of an end — to disprove the Action Axiom. Thus, one cannot even argue against the Action Axiom without being ensnared in a performative contradiction. Consequently, we can know it to be true a priori.

One the main conclusions that we can draw from Praxeology is the existence of ordinal value scales. We all do not have only one end that we wish to attain, but many different ends. We cannot value these ends all the same, or else we would not be able to act at all. We would be like Buridan’s Donkey, perpetually stuck between two equally appealing bales of hay. If these ends are valued differently, then some must be valued more than others. As a result, we can imagine values as being in ranked scales, such as the hypothetical listing below:

1. Eating a sandwich

2. Eating an apple

3. Eating a banana

This value scale shows that my most highly sought-after end is eating a sandwich. The second highest is eating an apple, and the lowest is eating a banana. We can imagine then, that I was placed before a table with all three of these items on it, the first item that I would eat would be the sandwich, as it would satisfy my most desired end. The next item eaten would by the apple, followed by the banana. If the sandwich was taken off of the table and I had the choice of only an apple or banana, I would choose the apple, as eating the apple satisfies a more highly sought-after end than eating the banana.

In reality, of course, our value scales don’t include just three ends. Our actual value scales are incredibly long and complex, with different ends themselves serving as means for other ends. But even if we could somehow list every single one of the ends we seek after, we still would not be able to construct personally accurate value scales. This is because the values that we hold are only demonstrated in the actions that we take. The preferences that we have are revealed by what we actually choose to act upon. Thus, we can only evaluate the values we hold post-hoc, and can only see the most valued end that we actually acted upon. Even with this inability to give actual value scales, we can still know that our actions are dictated by them through the logic of Praxeology, as implied by the existence of means and ends. Even though we cannot

The conclusion that is relevant for our purposes here is that human beings make decisions on the basis of their value scales. They will use the means at their availability to pursue the ends they view as being the most desirable. This process is not one that we are necessarily conscious of, but it is always constantly operating in the background behind every decision that we make. Human actions and choices are a product of the values that we hold.

With a basis of Praxeological understanding, we can now move back to Rawls and the Veil of Ignorance. Rawls says that behind the Veil, we have no knowledge of “the special features of his psychology such as his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism” (pg. 118). More specifically, he states that behind the Veil, we only have knowledge of justice and how justice could be practically applied:

“As far as possible, then, the only particular facts which the parties know is that their society is subject to the circumstances of justice and whatever this implies. It is taken for granted, however, that they know the general facts about human society. They understand political affairs and the principles of economic theory; they know the basis of social organization and the laws of human psychology. Indeed, the parties are presumed to know whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice.” (pg. 119)

The question we must ask ourselves, then, is whether or not we still have our value scales while we are behind the Veil or Ignorance? While Rawls does not use a Praxeological analysis, the indication that he seems to give is that we do not. While behind the Veil, we only have access to our faculties of reason and knowledge of what justice is and how it could be implemented. However, if we do not have access to our value scales, then how could we possibly make any decisions? The logic of Praxeology indicates that our action is a reflection of the values we hold. We pursue our highest-desired ends with the means at our disposal. If, however, we were somehow removed from these values, as is the case in the Veil of Ignorance, we would lack any motivation to action. Without our values, we don’t have the impetus to make any choices at all. We would not be able to make decisions of any kind, including those pertaining to a just organization of society.

Perhaps it is instead the case that we still do have our value scales while behind the Veil. Even though Rawls indicates to the contrary, it could be the case that in addition to our rationality and basic knowledge of society, we remain in possession of our value scales. However, once we assume that those behind the Veil have access to their value scales, then we can no longer make any assumptions about what they will and won’t decide to do. Indeed, the entire point of the Veil of Ignorance is that individuals are removed from the values and desires they hold! Once we drop the assumption that individuals lose knowledge of themselves, the entire experiment falls apart. For example, while behind the Veil there might be those who are nihilists about justice, or those who don’t view it very highly. They could be those that value chaos and destruction very highly, who would not have any affinity for establishing an idea of justice. In any case, there is virtually no prospect of coming to any consensus agreement on principles of justice with our value scales intact.

What if we assume that individuals all possess their value scales while behind the Veil, but that all of their value scales are modified in some way? If we apply Praxeological terms to Rawls’ analysis, this seems to be similar to what Rawls himself has in mind describing our states of knowledge behind the Veil. Rawls states that while behind the Veil, we still have our reason and our knowledge of justice and the details of its application to society. If these are the only remaining parts of our value scales, could we make decisions about justice on this basis? This solution also fails, as these components don’t constitute a value scale. Values scales are the ranking of the ends that actors wish to achieve. The ends are undoubtedly influenced by the knowledge that one has access to, but are not themselves just pieces of knowledge. Ends are goals that we wish to achieve. They are the product of the minds of actors, not just abstract information. Likewise, rationality itself does not impose itself on a value scale. Reason does not dictate how ends, but rather, which ends will be seek to achieve. Actors seek to attain their highest valued end. This fact is the result of the actor’s rationality and its application in practice. It is because actors are rational that they pursue their highest desired ends, but this rationality has no bearing at all on the content of those ends. With the information that Rawls provides to us, we still have no value scales to act upon behind Veil of Ignorance, making us still unable to make any kind of decisions or actions.

Once we evaluate the Veil of Ignorance through the logic of Praxeology, the results are as follows: either we do not have our value scales and are unable to make any decisions, or we do have our values scales and will not come a consensus on principles of justice. In either case, it fails to produce the conclusions that Rawls requires in order to establish any notions of justice at all, much less his Two Principles. While Rawls relies on human choice for the operation of the Veil of Ignorance, once we understand the Praxeological constructs of human choice, the entire thought experiment completely falls apart.

On first glance, Rawls and the arguments that he employs in favor of his ideas of justice appear both compelling and intuitive. Doubtless this is the cause for the influence that he has had in political philosophy ever since the 1970s. The ideas of the Original Position and the Veil of Ignorance appeal to our desire for objectivity in justice. We believe whatever is fair to be not a product of our accidental environment, but of set rules and principles that apply in all places and times. Even so, the proof is fundamentally flawed. The logic of human action dictates the incoherence of the situation as exposited by Rawls. This incompatibility cannot be ignored, and thus, the Veil of Ignorance must be discarded. As valiant an attempt as it may be to give a basis for understanding justice, it just doesn’t work. For those wishing to demonstrate the soundness of Rawls’ Two Principles, they are left in an “original position” of their own: back at square one.

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JW Rich

JW Rich

Alleviating uneasiness one end at a time.