13 Ocak 2011 Perşembe

Rawls' Veil of Ignorance Versus Mill's Impartial Spectator

The right base for justice[1] has always been one of most interesting and popular topics in philosophical world. Many philosophers have tried to create theories for showing the right source through which justice and just laws can derive. These theories are mostly grouped under few main headings and among these groups; two of them (natural right theories and utilitarianism) seem to leave the most apparent marks in philosophical era. This essay aims to compare these two views with the light of two different ideas of two philosophers from these groups: John Rawls[2] who is one of the most important names of natural right theories and his idea of the “veil of ignorance” versus John Stuart Mill[3] who is one of the founders of modern utilitarianism and his idea of “impartial spectator”. Both theories will be analysed in detail with respect to our topic question in a systematic way. I will first start by analysing John Rawls’ theory and then move on to consider Mill’s approach to the base of justice. Thirdly, I will try to clarify Rawls’ critical response to Mill’s ideas by showing the differences between their theories. I will conclude the essay by relating my own ideas.
John Rawls, who died on 27 November 2002, with no doubt is one of the most important thinkers of natural right approach. Although Rawls’ theory is in the form of a social contract[4], his ideas about natural and inviolable individual rights make him a natural right theorist. Like famous philosophers Thomas Hobbes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, John Locke and Immanuel Kant, Rawls thought of a period of time in the history in which human beings lived freely without the existence of a state or any kind of central authority. Rawls constructs his natural right theory upon this hypothetical stateless period called “original position”. Some of other social contractarian philosophers presented their ideas as a real historical process instead of a thought experiment (Other philosophers preferred to call this period as state of nature[5]). Rawls claims that in this original position, people do not know their status, class, abilities, profits and even the conception of good. “Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like” (Rawls, p. 12). Rawls calls this situation as “living in the veil[6] of ignorance”. People not knowing their profit and the conception of good because of the veil of ignorance do not try to favour them. In addition, they do not feel like single individuals. “The point is rather that the persons in the original position are not to view themselves as single isolated individuals” (Rawls, p. 206). They do not try to cheat on each other or to make secret plans because they really do not know their profit and they think that the original position is fair and advantageous for them.
According to Rawls, “justice as fairness” derives from this original position and basically tells the fairness of people living in these conditions. “This explains the propriety of the name justice as fairness: it conveys the idea that the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair” (Rawls, p. 12). Due to this fair equal situation, benefits and burdens are distributed appropriately in the society. No one tries to violate other people’s basic rights for his own profit or the profit of the whole society. So, inviolable individual rights are protected in the original position due to the existence of the veil of ignorance and the disinterestedness of people. Rawls is a real defender of individual freedoms and thinks that a person’s thoughts and actions should be tolerated as much as possible unless this person’s actions begin to cause problems for social order that is necessary for keeping free individual and social life. “Furthermore, liberty of conscience is to be limited only when there is a reasonable expectation that not doing so will damage the public order which the government should maintain” (Rawls, p. 213). So, we can say that Rawls’ proposal for the base of justice is the untouchableness of basic individual rights and the disinterestedness of people derived from the untouchableness of their rights in a tolerant environment. Thus, laws should be arranged according to this basic principle of justice and the state should be responsible of only taking part when there are problems threatening the untouchableness of natural individual rights. Inviolable individual rights should be superior to public interest and any other ethical proposal. This should be the base of justice and laws. “Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override” (Rawls, p. 3).
John Stuart Mill has different point of view for the base of justice. His ideas are based on utilitarianism, the ethical theory claiming that all actions should be directed towards achieving the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. By utility of actions what meant by Mill, is the satisfaction of actions to produce happiness in the society. By happiness, what he meant is intended pleasure or the prevention of pain. “Utility, or the Greatest Happiness Principle, holds that actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasure” (Mill, p. 137). Mill also tries to define the essence of real pleasure. Mill’s pleasure conception is not only about bodily pleasures that are based on instincts, appetites. Mill claims that this kind of pleasures is not satisfactory for humans that are above animals because of their capacity of mind. “Humans beings have faculties more elevated than the animals appetites, and when once made conscious of them, do not regard anything as happiness which does not include their gratification” (Mill, p. 138). In Mill’s understanding mental pleasures are superior to bodily pleasures. So, Mill claims that being a fool satisfied is not valuable as being a wise person who is not satisfied. He explains this view with a good analogy. “It is better for a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied” (Mill, p. 140).
In addition to the importance of the type (quality) of pleasure, what is most important for Mill is the quantity of this pleasure. An action should not be called just when it promotes happiness only for a small group of people or a single individual. From a utilitarian approach, actions are expected to produce pleasure, happiness for maximum amount of people if possible for the whole community. So, Mill believes that justice can only be derived from people’s intellectual maturity that will help them to realize that the important is to behave according to the benefits of the society instead of self-profit. Mill calls this intellectual maturity as biggest virtue in the world. “I fully acknowledge that the readiness to make such a sacrifice is the highest virtue which can be found in man” (Mill, p. 147). However, this sacrifice can be accepted as good and as a virtue only if it produces happiness for the society. Otherwise, it is nothing but a waste. “A sacrifice which does not increase, or tend to increase, the sum total of happiness, it considers as wasted” (Mill, p. 148).
How this intellectual and ethical maturity can be achieved? According to Mill, the only solution for this question is the existence of citizens who act like “impartial spectators” in social life. Individuals should realize that their self-interest could only be provided through their actions aiming the public utility. So, people should realize the wrongness and the damage of egoism and should act devotefully. The laws should be arranged to keep individual benefit in harmony with public utility. “…that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole” (Mill, p. 148). People would also personally gain from this mechanism and in a sense maximize their self-profit from the achievement of utilitarianism. In order to reach this ideal, the education system should be used as an instrument to implant the necessity of utilitarianism into people’s minds. The public utility should always come before individual rights thus, if it is beneficial for the society you have to kill a person.
Thirdly, I will try to show the differences between the ideas of “impartial spectator” and “veil of ignorance” from Rawls’ perspective. According to John Rawls, although these two theories seem to have close links, there are many important fundamental differences. We can clearly say that Rawls would not claim that Mill’s idea of impartial spectator functions in the same way with his idea of the veil of ignorance. For instance, Rawls’ veil of ignorance idea claims that both sides in a situation are disinterested rather than sympathetic. This is caused by the veil of ignorance that prevents people to know their profits and direct them to behave fairly. “In the original position, by contrast, the parties are mutually disinterested rather than sympathetic; but lacking knowledge of their natural assets or social situation, they are forced to view their arrangements in a general way” (Rawls, p. 187). However, in impartial spectator idea, people are aware of their profits, their status but they choose to act devotefully in order to reach public utility. This idea of the supremacy of public utility should be dictated upon the individuals with an effective education system based on brainwashing. Rawls thinks that the idea of impartial spectator is based on sympathy of people. So the impartial spectator, with the idea of the supremacy of public utility and the feeling of sympathy towards other people, performs acts favoring public utility instead of self-profit. Rawls asserts that this will not create impartiality but rather impersonality. “The classical view results, then, in impersonality, in the conflation of all desires into one system of desire” (Rawls, p. 188). “The fault of utilitarian doctrine is that it mistakes impersonality for impartiality” (Rawls, p. 190).
Rawls says that if we interpret Mill’s ideas, two different views can be drawn. First, we can claim that this impartiality requires individuals to be complete altruists[7]. Because, contrary to the idea of the veil of ignorance in the impartial spectator idea people are aware of their profits, their identity but they sympathetically choose to act according to public utility. Secondly, utilitarianism also includes the idea that self-profit is based on public utility. In other words, people with their reasoning realize that their maximum self-benefit could be in the public utility. So, in a sense these impartial agents are not altruists but instead rational egoists that are aware of searching their own benefits in the public utility. “Thus we arrive at the unexpected conclusion that while the average principle of utility is the ethic of a single rational individual who tries to maximize his own prospects, the classical doctrine is the ethic of perfect altruists” (Rawls, p..189). Rawls would claim that there is a serious contradiction in utilitarian view. At one side, you exalt people for their impartiality and altruism but on the other side, you claim that their self-profits are based on the functioning of the public utility system. So, this contradiction may create confusions in the application of utilitarianism in a society. There can be two interpretations of this view. Individuals should act for the public utility for their own benefits in an egoist way but if people realize that this system does not necessarily satisfy their needs, what should they do? Let us assume that citizens accepting utilitarianism as complete altruists so, how they will act in an election? If all people will act for the sake of others how decisions will be taken in this society? Furthermore, will these decisions be beneficial for the society or individuals? And the most important is it possible for people to act always as complete altruists?
We also see the clash of two views in this discussion. Rawls’ natural right theory gives more importance to humans’ natural rights whereas in Mill’s utilitarian idea the well being of the society prevails over natural rights. Rawls’ main critic towards this view will be that utilitarianism measures people’s values according to their thoughts, their status and do not really care about the preciousness of human life. So, in order to satisfy most of the people in a country you may have to kill minorities living in this country. Does really satisfying majority of people in conformity with justice? However, Mill would answer that thinking of the well being of more people at the expense of sacrificing some people’s rights would be a more humane, more just theory. Let us think of a situation in which a previously convicted rapist is about to be drowned in the sea. This person is known to be a rape addict and very dangerous for young women. In this case, Mill’s impartial spectator would probably not help the rapist and would watch his drowning. He would make a calculation in his mind and realize that this person can cause more damages to public utility if he continues to live. So, the life of the rapist would not really important for impartial spectator, he would act according to utilitarianism principle and let the rapist to die. Contrary to impartial spectator, free and rational agents living in the veil of ignorance would put themselves in this rapist’s position and would immediately help him to be drowned. No matter what crime he had committed before or he will commit in the future, Rawls’ free and rational agents would give importance to the life of a human being. This is a clear difference between utilitarianism and natural right theory, utilitarianism measures people’s values according to their thoughts, acts whereas natural right theory always concerns about the preciousness of human life. This is also caused by the fundamental difference between natural right theory and utilitarianism. Utilitarianism deals with the consequences of actions and has a teleological[8] understanding. However, natural right theory is more deontological[9] in the sense that it does not give too much importance to consequences and tries to form universal values, rights that are inviolable.,
Now, I want to manifest my own ideas related to the topic. Rawls is right to say that there is a contradiction in utilitarian approach. Utilitarianism contains both ideas of sympathy and impartiality and the presence of self-benefit in the public utility. These two views when they come together in a single theory create contradictions. A person could not be an altruist if he/she accepts the utilitarian principles because he/she believes that his/her maximum profit can be provided through utilitarianism. Likewise, a person could not accept utilitarianism for maximizing his/her own benefit if he/she is an altruist. However, in my opinion impersonality problem is not only valid for Mill’s theory but also for Rawls’ theory. How can Rawls claim that people living in the veil of ignorance and not knowing their profit are not impersonal too? Then, Mill’s idea of the importance of wisdom may take place: It is better to be an egoist knowing the realities and self benefits to be a disinterested citizen living in the veil of ignorance and not being aware of his/her profits, identity. As far as I am concerned, the veil of ignorance idea could not be adapted to today’s world because people are raised in an informative society and they are too much aware of their identities and profits. In today’s competitive society less people would try to put him or herself in others’ positions. So, again in order to make Rawls’ theory available we need to teach people that their maximum benefit resides in the continuity of a tolerant, free social life in which individuals do not care about others’ profits but instead think of their profits.
I think Mill’s opinion could be more realistic if we solve the problem of contradicting ideas and prevent utilitarianism to violate basic individual rights for the sake of public utility. It is a fact derived from the sciences dealing with human nature (psychology, sociology, social psychology etc.) that human beings cannot be complete altruists. Even if they act in a totally altruistic way, how we can be sure that behaving in this way is not an egoist action of this person for feeling well? In my understanding, justice can be drawn with the mixture of these two opposing ideas. People should be thought to contribute to the overall happiness but the state should at the same time create a liberal, peaceful environment in which individuals are free to choose their own lifestyles. The state mechanism should be arranged according to prevent and punish people who spoil the privacy and untouchableness of social life but people not contributing to the well being of society should be somehow left behind of the society. No one should have the luxury not to contribute to the production and well being of society just because of his/her parent’s money. We do not have to right to kill or imprison these people but these people should somehow be left in behind in the eyes of the society. However, this should never be made to discriminate or externalize these people.
Humans’ seek for the ultimate right base for justice will continue as well as human life and civilization on earth. In my opinion the important is to prevent inequalities especially economic inequalities while trying to make people as free as possible. I think all people living on our world with a great luxury should be ashamed of children dying in wars and of famine in many countries. If we have minds and intelligence why we do not use it for other people too? For a more peaceful, safe world let us look over and judge ourselves as impartial spectators…


· Rawls, John, 1971, “A Theory of Justice”, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press
· Mill, John Stuart, 1991, “On Liberty and Other Essays”, New York: Oxford University Press
· The Dictionary.com, http://www.dictionary.com (for definitions)

[1] Justice: Conformity to moral rightness in action or attitude; righteousness.
[2] John Rawls: American political philosopher whose A Theory of Justice (1971) revived the social contractarian tradition by arguing that all members of society would support the same principles of justice under conditions that guarantee impartiality.
[3]John Stuart Mill: British philosopher and economist known especially for his interpretations of empiricism and utilitarianism. His many works include A System of Logic (1843), Principles of Political Economy (1848), and The Subjection of Women (1869).
[4] Social Contract: An agreement among the members of an organized society or between the governed and the government defining and limiting the rights and duties of each.
[5] State of nature: A wild primitive state untouched by civilization.
[6] Veil: Something that conceals, separates, or screens like a curtain.
[7] Altruism: Unselfish concern for the welfare of others; selflessness.
[8] Teleological: The study of design or purpose in natural phenomena.
[9] Deontological: Ethical theory concerned with duties and rights.
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