The veil of ignorance is arguably 20th-century political philosophy’s most successful new meme.  On one level, it’s easy to see the appeal.  Political philosophy seems morally deadlocked.  The veil of ignorance provides a meta-norm to break this deadlock: We should all follow whatever first-order norms we would accept if each of us were ignorant of his personal – and potentially biasing – characteristics.

Most debates about the veil of ignorance focus on what this meta-norm truly implies.  Harsanyi argued that it implies average utilitarianism; Rawls argued it implies his difference principle plus some other stuff.  In my view, these debates dodge the interesting question: Is the veil of ignorance a remotely plausible meta-norm?

Not really.  Sure, if you were ignorant of a bunch of obvious facts, you would probably want very different things, leading you to make very different choices.  But so what?  It is hard to see why wants and actions grounded on the world as it is are morally inferior to wants and actions grounded on the world as it is not.  In fact, the opposite is true.  “You should keep the agreements you actually made” has some moral force.  “You should keep the agreements you never made, but would have made if you were ignorant of obvious facts about yourself” has none.

You could reply, “Wants and actions grounded on morally objectionable circumstances are morally inferior to wants and actions not grounded on morally objectionable circumstances.”  Fair enough.  But then you have to identify “morally objectionable circumstances” before you can apply the veil of ignorance, leaving it useless as a meta-norm for breaking prior moral deadlocks.  If an egalitarian considers inequality a morally objectionable circumstance, and a libertarian considers forced equality a morally objectionable circumstance, no veil will bridge their worldviews.

There are worse meta-norms than the veil.  Slavery, for example, is hard to defend behind a veil of ignorance.  But again, so what?  Almost every moral theory implies the wrongness of slavery.  The fact that the veil is anti-slavery is no more than a reason against summarily dismissing the theory.

If the veil is as intellectually lame as I say, why does is it have so many smart fanboys and fangirls?  Because even the smartest people tend to “look for their keys under the streetlight because it’s brighter there.”  The veil of ignorance gives smart people something abstruse to discuss.  While the veil doesn’t break prior moral deadlocks, it opens up new avenues for conversation and research.  It is, in short, a massive philosophical make-work project that helps smart people forget their failure to make progress on moral questions that actually matter. 

HT: Nathaniel Bechhofer, the smartest fanboy of the veil I know.