What is the veil of ignorance? What role does it play in Rawls' theory?
This is going to be a fun one. The Veil of Ignorance is Rawls' idea that relates to how a just society can be formed. As Rawls argues the justice and the maximizing of it becomes the basis for all social orders, he has to derive a philosophical justification for the notion of justice as fairness. In order to accomplish this, Rawls develops the "veil of ignorance." Essentially, it means that if an individual had no idea as to what they where they would fit in a social or political order, they would make decisions with the least benefitted individuals in mind. They would do this because this could be them. Few would create decisions that would benefit the upper echelon of a social order because in a veil of ignorance, there is a distinct possibility that an individual could wind up at the bottom rung of a social order. If a rational person had to select policy within the veil of ignorance, they would do so ensuring that that the lower levels of society would be represented in some manner for this could be them. The veil of ignorance is what Rawls uses formulate his two premises of justice in that individuals have the right to individual liberty and freedom in so far as it does not interfere with another and that social/ political orders have accountability to ensure that those who are marginalized are spoken for in this political order as justice being fairness, under the veil of ignorance, demands.
In Rawls' thinking, the veil of ignorance is a device that can be used to help a person determine whether something (an action or an institution or such) is moral.
What Rawls says is that you can only determine the morality of an action or institution or custom if you use the veil. What this means is that you have to consider the action, etc. as if you did not know how it would affect you -- which position in the society you would hold. As an example of this, when you consider the morality of allowing gay marriage, you would have to consider it not knowing whether you would be a gay person or a fundamentalist Christian.
By using this veil, a person is forced to consider the implications of the action, etc. from the perspectives of various other people. This, to Rawls, allows a person to consider the true morality of the action.
John Bordley Rawls the American philosopher conceptualized 'The Veil of Ignorance' as a mental and intellectual device to help individual citizens to formulate a standard of justice and value system whilst remaining ignorant of their place in or value to their own society.
His concept of 'The Veil of Ignorance' was first mentioned in his path breaking book "Theory of Justice" which was published in the year 1971. According to this concept Rawls affirms that the veil permits individual citizens to be conscious and aware of ‘the general facts of human society’ such as ‘political affairs and the principles of economic theory… whatever general facts affect the choice of the principles of justice’. But at the same time it does not allow them to know any particular facts about themselves: ‘no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status…his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength… his conception of the good…his aversion to risk or liability to optimism or pessimism.’