Imagine that you have the magic power to create the basic structure of a society with its own set of principles of justice. Now consider that you must go on to live in that society, but without the choice or foreknowledge of what position you would end up having in that society. You might be a king or a slave, a celebrity or a pariah, or anything in between. How would your created society be structured? What would the principles of justice be there?
If this sounds familiar, it is because this is actually a thought experiment developed by American moral and political philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002), and it is called the original position or “the veil of ignorance.” Your choices are made from behind the veil, which prevents you from knowing in advance your social status, gender or ethnicity in your created society. Ideally, Rawls proposed, this would at least encourage those who take part in the experiment to select principles of justice rationally and impartially.
After the assault on the US Capitol last week by American citizens—during which, arguably, sharply different principles of societal justice were at violent odds—we think it might be a good time to play out this particular thought experiment ourselves.
If envisioning an entire society seems too unwieldy an exercise, we suggest tightening the focus to the microcosm of a single community—perhaps the Cape Cod town in which you now live.
Ask yourself the same questions as before, but view it through a more local lens: How would your created Mashpee be structured? What would the principles of justice be within the town borders? What would it mean to be a good citizen or to live a good life there?
The veil of ignorance is, at best, a useful tool for well-considered decision-making in our ordinary daily lives as well as in our most cherished or abhorrent moments of national significance.
We don’t often choose to be blindfolded, but in some instances we just might see better—or possibly farther—from behind the veil.