Faculty Sponsor: Professor Daniel Layman
In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls constructs one of the most famous thought experiments in modern political philosophical thought, known as the veil of ignorance. Rawls claims that by creating and examining this hypothetical scenario, in which agents do not know anything about their specific character traits or interests, we can create a context of fairness that generates two principles of justice by agreement. This agreement serves as the main justification for Rawls’ entire theory and constitutes what is known as Rawlsian contractualism. Over the course of this paper, I attempt to show why the veil of ignorance fails to function adequately as a justification for Rawls’ theory of justice. In order to do so, I develop and carry out what I call the “agreement test,” which demonstrates how contractualist scenarios can fail to function as justifications. In order to understand how the test is supposed to work, I discuss the function of agreement in contractualist hypothetical scenarios and what type of agreement contractualism demands. After this discussion, I argue that Rawls’s agreement behind the veil cannot provide justification for his theory, in that it represents a mere consensus rather than contractual agreement. This is because his agents do not qualify as qualitatively distinct. In the rest of the paper, I provide evidence that Rawlsian agents do not qualify as qualitatively distinct, why this feature of his scenario ultimately undermines its necessary function as a justification for his theory, and how his hypothetical scenario fares in comparison to those found in other contractualist philosophies.