Ethics Unwrapped Blog

Veil of Ignorance

All people are biased by their situations, so how can people agree on a “social contract” to govern how the world should work.

Philosopher John Rawls suggests that we should imagine we sit behind a veil of ignorance that keeps us from knowing who we are and identifying with our personal circumstances. By being ignorant of our circumstances, we can more objectively consider how societies should operate.

Two primary principles supplement Rawls’ veil of ignorance: the liberty principle and the difference principle.

According to the liberty principle, the social contract should try to ensure that everyone enjoys the maximum liberty possible without intruding upon the freedom of others.

According to the difference principle, the social contract should guarantee that everyone an equal opportunity to prosper. In other words, if there are any social or economic differences in the social contract, they should help those who are the worst off. And, any advantages in the contract should be available to everyone.

So, according to Rawls, approaching tough issues through a veil of ignorance and applying these principles can help us decide more fairly how the rules of society should be structured. And fairness, as Rawls and many others believe, is the essence of justice.

Continue Reading

Social Contract Theory

Social contract theory says that people live together in society in accordance with an agreement that establishes moral and political rules of behavior. Some people believe that if we live according to a social contract, we can live morally by our own choice and not because a divine being requires it.

Over the centuries, philosophers as far back as Socrates have tried to describe the ideal social contract, and to explain how existing social contracts have evolved. Philosopher Stuart Rachels suggests that morality is the set of rules governing behavior that rational people accept, on the condition that others accept them too.

Social contracts can be explicit, such as laws, or implicit, such as raising one’s hand in class to speak. The U.S. Constitution is often cited as an explicit example of part of America’s social contract.  It sets out what the government can and cannot do. People who choose to live in America agree to be governed by the moral and political obligations outlined in the Constitution’s social contract.

Indeed, regardless of whether social contracts are explicit or implicit, they provide a valuable framework for harmony in society.

Continue Reading

Justice

Justice, for many people, refers to fairness. But while justice is important to almost everyone, it means different things to different groups.

For instance, social justice is the notion that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social opportunities irrespective of race, gender, or religion. Distributive justice refers to the equitable allocation of assets in society. Environmental justice is the fair treatment of all people with regard to environmental burdens and benefits.

Restorative or corrective justice seeks to make whole those who have suffered unfairly. Retributive justice seeks to punish wrongdoers objectively and proportionately. And procedural justice refers to implementing legal decisions in accordance with fair and unbiased processes.

Justice is one of the most important moral values in the spheres of law and politics. Legal and political systems that maintain law and order are desirable, but they cannot accomplish either unless they also achieve justice.

Continue Reading