veil of ignorance

Social Justice vs. Liberty

The original position is a central feature of John Rawls’s social contract account of justice, “justice as fairness,” set forth in A Theory of Justice (TJ). It is designed to be a fair and impartial point of view that is to be adopted in our reasoning about fundamental principles of justice. In taking up this point of view, we are to imagine ourselves in the position of free and equal persons who jointly agree upon and commit themselves to principles of social and political justice. The main distinguishing feature of the original position is “the veil of ignorance”: to insure impartiality of judgment, the parties are deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances. They do know of certain fundamental interests they all have, plus general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences. The parties in the original position are presented with a list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy, and are assigned the task of choosing from among these alternatives the conception of justice that best advances their interests in establishing conditions that enable them to effectively pursue their final ends and fundamental interests. Rawls contends that the most rational choice for the parties in the original position are two principles of justice: The first guarantees the equal basic rights and liberties needed to secure the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens and to pursue a wide range of conceptions of the good. The second principle provides fair equality of educational and employment opportunities enabling all to fairly compete for powers and positions of office; and it secures for all a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.

Samuel Freeman, “Original Position,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,
February 27, 1999, with a substantive revision on September 9, 2014

Rawls, like many moral philosophers, presumes to judge all and sundry with his God-like mind. He uses it to fabricate abstract, ideal principles of distributive justice. Thus the real and possible world is found wanting because it fails to conform the the kind of world that’s implicit in Rawls’s principles. And thus the real and possible world must be brought into line with Rawls’s false ideal. The alignment must be performed by the state, whether or not Rawls admits it, because his principles are inconsistent with human nature and the facts of human existence.

There can’t be an original position. Human beings are already in myriad “positions,” of which they have extensive knowledge. And a large fraction of human beings wouldn’t willingly act as if they were “deprived of all knowledge of their personal characteristics and social and historical circumstances.” Why? because they wouldn’t deem it in their interest. The original position and the veil of ignorance are therefore nothing but contrivances aimed at justifying Rawls’s preferred social, political, and economic arrangements.

Further, there isn’t — and never will be — agreement as to “general facts about psychology, economics, biology, and other social and natural sciences.” For example, many of the related entries in this blog are representative of deep divisions between respectable schools of thought about such subjects as psychology, economics, evolution (as it applies to race and “natural rights”), criminology, etc. Rawls writes blithely of “general facts” because he assumes that they point to the kind of world that he envisions.

Similarly, there’s Rawls’s “list of the main conceptions of justice drawn from the tradition of social and political philosophy.” I doubt that Rawls is thinking of the conception that there is, or ought to be, an absolute rejection of any kind of social-welfare function wherein A’s gain is “acceptable” if it (somehow and by some impracticable measure) offsets B’s loss. But that position is implicit in the idea that there ought to be “a guaranteed minimum of all-purpose means (including income and wealth) individuals need to pursue their interests and to maintain their self-respect as free and equal persons.” This is nothing but cover for redistribution. Who decides how much of it is enough? Rawls? The social engineers who buy into Rawls’s conception of justice? Well, of course. But what justifies their stance? Their only real recourse is to impose their views by force, which reveals Rawls’s philosophical rationalization for what is, necessarily, a state-enforced redistributive scheme.

And who says that a person who accepts state-enforced handouts (the fruit of theft) will thereby maintain his self-respect and is a free and equal person. In fact, many recipients of state-imposed handouts are lacking in self-respect; they are not free because as wards of the state they subject themselves to its dictates; and they are equal only in an irrelevant, rhetorical sense, not in the sense that they are the equal of other persons in ability, effort, or moral character.

Rawlsian equality is an empty concept, as is the veil of ignorance. The latter is a variant of Kant’s categorical imperative: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” The categorical imperative is a vacuous bit of philosophical rhetoric that doesn’t get around reality: Human beings often act as if there were a “law” for everyone else, but not for themselves.

The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia (as of July 2010) requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you can’t do it. Your position about a moral issue is your position, not that of someone else. Rawls’s position is Rawls’s position, and that of persons who like the redistributive implications of his position. But who are Rawls and his ilk to set themselves up as neutral, omniscient judges of humanity’s moral, social, and economic arrangements? Who died and made them Gods?

In the end, justice comes down to the norms by which a people abide:  They can be voluntarily evolved and enforced socially, or in part by the state (e.g., imprisonment and execution). They can devised by clever theorists (e.g., Rawls) and others with an agenda (e.g., redistribution of income and wealth, abolition of alcohol, defense of slavery), and then imposed by the state.

There is a neglected alternative, which Michael Oakeshott describes in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays:

Government…as the conservative…understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philosophy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

…[A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble. Consequently, the conservative will have nothing to do with innovations designed to meet merely hypothetical situations; he will prefer to enforce a rule he has got rather than invent a new one; he will think it appropriate to delay a modification of the rules until it is clear that the change of circumstances it is designed  to reflect has come to stay for a while; he will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances re tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment.

Such was the wisdom of the much-violated and mutilated Constitution of the United States. Its promise of liberty in the real world has been dashed by the Saviours of Society — idealists like Rawls, opportunists like FDR and LBJ, and criminals like the Clintons.

*      *      *

Related posts:
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
What Is Conservatism?
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Accountants of the Soul
Rawls Meets Bentham
The Meaning of Liberty
Positive Liberty vs. Liberty
On Self-Ownership and Desert
Burkean Libertarianism
Nature Is Unfair
Human Nature, Liberty, and Rationalism
Utilitarianism and Psychopathy
Merit Goods, Positive Rights, and Cosmic Justice
More about Merit Goods
Liberty, Negative Rights, and Bleeding Hearts
Why Conservatism Works
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
More About Social Norms and Liberty
God-Like Minds
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)

On Self-Ownership and Desert


Fernando Teson, one of the Bleeding Heart Libertarians, addresses self-ownership:

Self-ownership is the property right that a person has over her natural assets, that is, over her mind and body. As is well known (and nicely summarized in Matt [Zwolinski]’s post,) Lockeans think that this right can, under appropriate circumstances, justify ownership over external assets.  Most libertarians endorse the idea of self-ownership. Some progressives do too, but an important line of progressive thought rejects self-ownership.  According to John Rawls (in A Theory of Justice,) natural assets are collective property. That is, they belong to society, not to the person who possesses them. The reason for this, Rawls thinks, is that just as we do not deserve being born rich or poor, so we don’t deserve our natural talents. For this reason, societal arrangements that reward talented persons are only justified if they benefit the least talented.

I am exasperated by claims, like Teson’s and Rawls’s, that appeal to abstract principles which adduce to human beings abstract, Platonic attributes. One such attribute is “natural rights” — a close kin of self-ownership. I am especially exasperated when such attributes are bestowed by third parties speaking from a position of judgmental omniscience. Desert is an excellent case in point.

The attribution to humans of ethereal characteristics (like self-ownership and desert) exemplifies the fallacy of reification:  “the error of treating as a “real thing” something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea.”

Self-ownership is in a class with “natural rights” as a condition that somehow inheres in a person by virtue of his status as a human being. I have dealt with “natural rights” at length (e.g., here, here, here, here, and here), and will not repeat myself. The rest of this post takes up self-ownership and desert.


The argument for self-ownership, as forumalated by Robert Nozick, goes like this (according to R.N. Johnson’s summary of the political philosophy of Robert Nozick):

The self-ownership argument is based on the idea that human beings are of unique value. It is one way of construing the fundamental idea that people must be treated as equals. People are “ends in themselves”. To say that a person is an end in herself is to say that she cannot be treated merely as a means to some other end. What makes a person an end is the fact that she has the capacity to choose rationally what she does. This makes people quite different from anything else, such as commodities or animals. The latter can be used by us as mere means to our ends without doing anything morally untoward, since they lack the ability to choose for themselves how they will act or be used. Human beings, having the ability to direct their own behavior by rational decision and choice, can only be used in a way that respects this capacity. And this means that people can’t be used by us unless they consent.

The paradigm of violating this requirement to treat people as ends in themselves is thus slavery. A slave is a person who is used as a mere means, that is, without her consent. That is, a slave is someone who is owned by another person. And quite obviously the reverse of slavery is self-ownership. If no one is a slave, then no one owns another person, and if no one owns another person, then each person is only owned by herself. Hence, we get the idea that treating people as ends in themselves is treating them as owning themselves.

In summary:

1. I own myself because I am capable of making rational choices for myself.

2. If someone else “uses” me without my consent (e.g., enslaves me or steals food from me), he is denying my self-ownership.

3. Therefore, when someone else “uses” me he is treating me as a means to an end; whereas, I am an end in myself because I own myself.

Oops. I went in a circle. I own myself; therefore, I cannot be used by someone else, because I own myself.

Nozick’s proposition amounts to nothing more than the assertion that everyone must act from the same principle. Immanuel Kant made essentially the same assertion in his categorical imperative:

Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.

Well, what if the person making that statement believes that his end is to be a slave-owner — and that he has the power to make me a slave?

The fact is that people, all too often, do not act according to Nozick’s or Kant’s imperatives. As Dr. Johnson said, I refute it thus: Look around you. Rights are a social construct. They exist only to the extent that they are reciprocally recognized and enforced. There are very good reasons that rights should be only negative ones (here and here, for example). But those reasons do not trump the realities of human nature (follow the links in the final paragraph of the introduction).

The concept of self-ownership, as with many ideals, arises from the ideal world of “ought” instead of the real world of “is.”


Desert is a more infuriating concept than self-ownership. Self-ownership, at least, is an attribute which supposedly inheres in me by virtue of my humanity. (That it does not inhere in me can be seen readily by looking at my 1040, my real-estate tax bill, and the myriad federal, State, and local regulations that govern my behavior and transactions with others.) Desert, on the other hand, is mine only if someone else says that it does.

The Wikipedia article about desert gives this illustration:

In ordinary usage, to deserve is to earn or merit a reward; in philosophy, the distinction is drawn in the term desert to include the case that that which one receives as one’s just deserts may well be unwelcome, or a reward. For example, if one scratches off a winning lottery ticket, one may be entitled to the money, but one does not necessarily deserve it in the same way one would deserve $5 for mowing a lawn, or a round of applause for performing a solo.

Whether or not one “deserves” one’s lottery winnings depends arbitrarily on who is making the judgment. The arbitrariness is readily seen in the opposing views of Rawls and Nozick (from the same article):

One of the most controversial rejections of the concept of desert was made by the political philosopher John Rawls. Rawls, writing in the mid to late twentieth century, claimed that a person cannot claim credit for being born with greater natural endowments (such as superior intelligence or athletic abilities), as it is purely the result of the ‘natural lottery’. Therefore, that person does not morally deserve the fruits of his or her talents and/or efforts, such as a good job or a high salary. However, Rawls was careful to explain that, even though he dismissed the concept of moral Desert, people can still legitimately expect to receive the benefits of their efforts and/or talents. The distinction here lies between Desert and, in Rawls’ own words, ‘Legitimate Expectations’.[1]

Rawls'[s] remarks about natural endowments provoked an often-referred response by Robert Nozick. Nozick claimed that to treat peoples’ natural talents as collective assets is to contradict the very basis of the deontological liberalism Rawls wishes to defend, i.e. respect for the individual and the distinction between persons.[2] Nozick argued that Rawls’ suggestion that not only natural talents but also virtues of character are undeserved aspects of ourselves for which we cannot take credit, “can succeed in blocking the introduction of a person’s autonomous choices and actions (and their results) only by attributing everything noteworthy about the person completely to certain sorts of ‘external’ factors. So denigrating a person’s autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self-respect of autonomous beings.”[3]

Jonathan Pearce, writing at blog, sorts it out:

[T]he idea of “deserving” poor or “undeserving” rich is, in my view, loaded with ideological significance, depending on who is using the term. Clearly, people feel a lot more relaxed about handing out money – either from a charity or from a government department – to people who are down on their luck but of good character, than they are about handing it out to the feckless. Similarly, it follows that there is more support for taxing supposedly “undeserved” wealth than “earned” wealth. The trouble with such words, of course, as has been shown by FA Hayek in his famous demolition of payment-by-merit in The Constitution of Liberty, is who gets to decide whether our circumstances came about due to “desert” or not. Such a person would have to have the foresight of a god. It is, as Hayek argued, impossible to do this without some omnipotent authority being able to weigh up a person’s potential, and then being able to measure whether that person, in the face of a vast array of alternatives, made the most of that potential. (“Desert according to whom?“)

Rawls and his fellow travelers (who are usually found on the left) simply cannot stand the idea of individual differences, and so they attribute them to “luck.” The idea of luck, as I have said elsewhere, “is mainly an excuse and rarely an explanation. We prefer to apply ‘luck’ to outcomes when we don’t like the true explanations for them.” In the case of desert, the idea of luck is used as an excuse for redistribution, even though it is an inadequate explanation for variations in economic and social outcomes.

I am “lucky” because I was born with above-average intelligence. I did not earn it, it just happened to me. So what? I had to do something with it, right? And I did do something with it, but not as much as I could have, because I lacked the temperamental qualities required to pursue great wealth and political power. I chose, instead, to earn just enough to enable an early retirement, which is comfortable but far from lavish. I could just as easily have chosen to earn less than I did.

There are many, many, many individuals whose IQs are lower than mine but whose earnings far exceed mine, and whose abodes make mine look like a shack. Do I begrudge them their earnings and lavish living? Not a bit. Not even if they are dumb-as-doorknob Hollywood “liberals” whose idea of an intellectual conversation is to tell each other that Bush is a Nazi.

By the same token, there are a lot of individuals whose IQs are higher than mine, and I am willing to bet that some of them did not do as well financially as I did. So what? Should they have done better than me just because they have higher IQs? I Where is that rule is written? I will wager that there’s not a Democrat to be found who would subscribe to it.

Everyone deserves what they earn as long as they earn it without resorting to fraud, theft, or coercion. Members of Congress, by the way, resort to coercion when it comes to paying themselves. Yes, there is a constitutional provision that congressional raises can’t take effect until the next session of Congress, but incumbents are almost certain of re-election, and most incumbents run for re-election. The constitutional provision is mere window-dressing.

Back to the topic at hand. Tell me again why I am where I am because of luck. I had to do something with my genetic inheritance. I did what I wanted to do, which was not as much as I might have done. Others, less “lucky” than me did more with their genetic inheritance. And others, more “lucky” than me did less with their genetic inheritance.

Well, I could go on in the same vein about looks, athletic skills, skin color, parents’ wealth, family connections, and all the rest. But I think you get the picture. “Luck” is a starting point. Where we end up depends on what we do with our “luck”.

Not so fast, you say. What about family connections? Suppose Smedley Smythe’s father, who owns General Junk Foods Incorporated, makes Smedley the CEO of GJFI and pays him $1 million a year. If Smythe senior is the sole owner of the company, that is his prerogative. The million is coming out of his hide or, if consumers are willing to pay higher prices to defray the million, out of consumers’ pockets. But no one is forcing consumers to buy things from GJFI; if its prices are too high, consumers will turn elsewhere and Smythe senior will rue his nepotism. Suppose GJFI is a publicly owned company? In the end, it amounts to the same thing; if the nepotism hurts the bottom line, its shareholders should rebel. If it doesn’t, well…

Now what about those who are born poor, who are not especially bright, good looking, or athletic, and who are, say, black rather than white. Do they deserve what they earn? The hard, cold answer is “yes” — if what they earn is earned without benefit of fraud, theft, or coercion. Why should I want to pay you more because of the circumstances of your birth, your IQ, your looks, your athleticism, or your skin color. What matters is what you can do for me and how much I am willing to pay for it.

But what about individuals who are poor because they have been unable to “rise above” their genetic inheritance and family circumstances. What about individuals who are poor because they have incurred serious illnesses or have been severely injured? What about individuals who didn’t save enough to support themselves in their old age? And on and on.

Those seem like hard questions, but there is a straightforward answer to them. Such individuals may be helped legitimately, by private parties. As I say here,

Every bad thing that happens to an individual is a bad thing for that individual. Whether it is a thing that calls for action by another individual is for that other individual (or a group of them acting in concert) to decide on the basis of love, empathy, conscience, specific obligation, or rational calculation about the potential consequences of the bad thing and of helping or not helping the person to whom it has happened….

There is no universal social-welfare function. Therefore, it is up to the potential alms-giver to give or not, based on his knowledge and preferences. No third party is in a moral position to make that choice or to prescribe the criteria for making it. Governments have the power to force a choice other than the one that the potential alms-giver would make, but power is not morality.

Charity is a voluntary act that one commits without a sense of obligation; one helps one’s family, friends, neighbors, etc., out of love, affection, empathy, or other social bond. The fact that charity may strengthen a social bond and heighten the benefits flowing from it is an incidental fact, not a consideration. Duty, on the other hand, arises from specific obligations, formal or informal. These include the obligations of parent to child, teacher to pupil, business partner to business partner, and the like. Charity can be mistaken for duty only in the mind of a philosopher for whom love, affection, and individuality are alien concepts.

What happens, instead, is that individuals — whether needy or not — are helped illegitimately through coercive government programs that draw on free-floating guilt, large measures of political opportunism and economic illiteracy, and coercive state action.

Except for criminals and “public servants,” we deserve what we inherit (or do not), what we earn (or do not), what comes to us by chance (or does not), and what is given to us voluntarily (or is not).

By what divine right do John Rawls and his followers make judgments about who is deserving and who is not? The “veil of ignorance” is a smokescreen for redistribution under the pretext of omniscience.


Self-ownership and desert belong in the pantheon of empty concepts, along with altruism.

Rawls Meets Bentham

Steven Landsburg writes:

Paul Krugman is at it again, casting aspersions on everyone who opposes extended unemployment benefits while offering absolutely no positive argument for those benefits. Let me explain what would count, to an economist, as a positive argument.

There’s no question that extending benefits would be good for the currently unemployed, and no question that it would be bad for those who are called on to foot the bill. Economists usually deal with that kind of conflict is by asking what policy you’d prefer if you had amnesia, and and didn’t know your own employment status…. The amnesiac is an impartial judge who is forced to care about everyone, because he/she might be anyone.

I have no wish to defend the indefensible Paul Krugman, but Landsburg’s attack is equally indefensible, combining — as it does — John Rawls’s “veil of ignorance” and the utilitarianism of Jeremy Bentham and his philosophical progeny. The “veil of ignorance,” according to Wikipedia, requires you to

imagine that societal roles were completely re-fashioned and redistributed, and that from behind your veil of ignorance you do not know what role you will be reassigned. Only then can you truly consider the morality of an issue.

This is just another way of pretending to omniscience. Try as you might to imagine your “self” away, you cannot do it. Your position about a moral issue will be your position, not that of someone else. Moreover, it will not truly be your position unless you put it into practice. Talk — like happiness research — is cheap.

Pretended omniscience is the essence of utilitarianism, which is captured in the phrase “the greatest good for the greatest number” or, more precisely “the greatest amount of happiness altogether.” From this facile philosophy grew the patently ludicrous idea that it might be possible to quantify each person’s happiness, sum those values, and arrive at an aggregate measure of total happiness for everyone.

But there is no realistic worldview in which A’s greater happiness cancels B’s greater unhappiness; never the twain shall meet.  The only way to “know” that A’s happiness cancels B’s unhappiness is to put oneself in the place of an omniscient deity — to become, in other words, an accountant of the soul.

Landsburg, in the space of a single post, has put himself in company with “liberals” like Krugman, who arrogate to themselves the ability to judge the worthiness of others. A pox on both their houses.

Related posts:
On Liberty
Greed, Cosmic Justice, and Social Welfare
Positive Rights and Cosmic Justice
Inventing “Liberalism”
Utilitarianism, “Liberalism,” and Omniscience
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty
Beware of Libertarian Paternalists
Negative Rights, Social Norms, and the Constitution
Rights, Liberty, the Golden Rule, and the Legitimate State
The Mind of a Paternalist
Accountants of the Soul