I’ve always been fascinated by the philosopher John Rawls’ ‘veil of ignorance’ theory as a way to determine a just society. Rawls asks us to imagine that we have yet to be born and have no idea what kind of life situation awaits us. Collectively we gather together behind a ‘veil of ignorance’ about our future selves. We might be born healthy or disabled or sick, we might be born into wealth or into poverty, we might be born white or black or brown, we might be born with great intellectual abilities or be intellectually impaired, we might be born into a secure loving family or we might be dumped on the street, and so forth. The point is we don’t know - anything is possible.
So the question is raised among us – what kind of society would we want to await us (bearing in mind that none of us know what our personal life situation will be)? Rawls’ point is that we would surely all hope for a society that was fair, compassionate, tolerant, and which gave help and protection to its weakest members. It brings home the moral folly of thinking our greatest advantages are self-earned. It also humbles us into caring for those without those advantages.
That said, its appeal is essentially to selfishness rather than altruism (i.e. 'hedging your bets') - and doubtless some, even behind a veil of ignorance, would be prepared just to ‘roll the dice’ in the hope of coming out on top. Nonetheless, as a concept for the desirability of a just society it possesses a huge amount of force.
And in a world that rejects other sources of moral guidance it’s worth exploring its implications in specific areas of life.
The right to life itself: so there we are gathered together discussing life beyond the veil. We agree that the world should give everyone the chance for the best possible outcomes in whatever life they find themselves in. But would we then consider it fair that 25% of us will have our lives prematurely terminated by the people who have had the great advantage of getting beyond the veil? Surely the exercise of such draconian power by the strong over the weak would be the mark of a horribly unjust society.
Childhood: but what about our hopes beyond just entering the world itself – our hopes for our childhood and upbringing? Is there anyone behind the veil anyone who wouldn’t hope to be brought up in a loving secure home by their biological parents? Now of course, that’s not always possible and individual mums, dads, carers and adoptive parents provide impeccable loving care for children. So this is about the ideal not what may be the next best in a fallen world. Indeed those ‘next bests’ for children are all the more to be praised and commended because they often require greater effort and sacrifice than the ideal.
However, we increasingly live in a world where the ideal is being withheld not through misfortune but deliberately and selfishly. The sentiment of one ‘polyamarous’ woman is rapidly becoming our culture’s received wisdom, "It is really outdated to think a child needs one mother and one father”. Outdated for adults perhaps! That is, those with power over children – but not for children themselves – either emotionally or in terms of life outcomes (as testified to by the overwhelming testimony of social studies). So increasingly those behind the veil are being made to serve the interests of those who will hold power over them on the other side.
The ‘veil of ignorance’ is a powerful concept in the pursuit of a just world – but it also highlights the deep partiality and deep self-interest of our contemporary liberal culture despite its claims to want fairness and equality.
Only in Jesus
Ultimately the ‘veil’ relies on a set of moral principles outwith itself – e.g. the belief that it’s better to suffer loss than to cause loss or that we should treat other people the way we ourselves would want to be treated. In that regard it relies on an under-pinning Biblical morality – a morality that has objectivity and transcendence because it emanates from a Creator God.
Try as we might only in Jesus Christ has humanity been presented with absolute self-giving that puts the deepest interests of others before self – and thus only in following Him is there the hope for a truly just world beyond ‘the veil’.