John Rawls (1921 – 2002) is one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. In his classic work of high liberalism, A Theory of Justice (1971), he devised one of the greatest thought experiments in the history of political philosophy. The experiment postulates a hypothetical social contract using the device known as the veil of ignorance.

Imagine being gathered together, before our birth, in an original position of equality, without any knowledge of the circumstances into which we are going to be born. What is hidden from us is who we are going to be: whether we are going to be rich, impoverished, healthy, unhealthy, what sort of parents we might have; nor would we know anything about our society, how schools would perform, how hospitals would function, or how the police and judicial system might treat us. In this abstracted state of ignorance, what would we agree to as our fundamental principles of justice? According to Rawls, we would choose two principles.

The first principle is that every person would enjoy an equal right to the most extensive system of basic liberties. This is the liberty principle. No rational person would want to take the chance of being part of an oppressed or despised minority. Instead, from an original position of equality we would decide to respect fundamental rights and basic liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of conscience. This rejection of utilitarian principles reflected the key importance Rawls attached to respect for individual dignity and the worth of each and every individual.

The second principle addressed social and economic inequalities. What would we agree to if we had no idea whether we were going to be rich or poor, clever or foolish, healthy or unhealthy? The answer is that any inequalities in society should be arranged so as to provide the greatest possible benefit to the least advantaged and offices and positions should be open to everyone under conditions of ‘fair equality and opportunity’. This qualified principle of equality was described by Rawls as the ‘difference principle’: only those social and economic inequalities will be permitted that work to the benefit of the least well off. Thus, pay differentials are permissible if they work to the advantage of the most deprived. Fairness may require inequalities and inequality is justified but only if the worst off benefit. The radical claim is that what matters most in society is the position of those at the bottom.

Rawls’ father was a lawyer and his mother was an activist for female suffrage who, in 1920, played a part in the enactment of the Nineteenth Amendment in the US Constitution granting all American women the right to vote. As a child he witnessed the shocking inequalities of American life and the arbitrariness of suffering when two of his brothers died of illnesses which he had suffered and which, he claimed, they had caught from him. As a young man he saw active service in the Pacific as an infantryman. During this time he experienced severe trauma and lost his religious faith. He was inspired to follow an academic career with a mission to change an obviously unjust world though the power of ideas.

A modest and kind man, with exquisite manners (there is a famous story that as a professor during a doctoral viva he positioned himself directly in front of the sun to ensure that one of his nervous young candidates could be spared the glare and could focus on the defence of her thesis), Rawls wrote Theory of Justice at a time of civil rights marches and anti-war protests in an attempt to find shared values and a consensus that would avoid the conflicts prevalent in democratic politics.

The veil of ignorance is a beautifully simple experiment. Which sane person behind the veil would really want to take the chance of being among the least well off with access to substandard healthcare, inadequate housing, poor education, and an unfair legal and political system? But Rawls does not advocate an equal distribution of income and wealth, or formal equality at the expense of liberty: with equal liberty for all and fair opportunities, the difference principle is intended to maximise the overall chances of a decent outcome for any single individual.

Rawls also has something relevant to say about conservation and global warming. According to Rawls a society would not be just if it consumed all its resources to the detriment of future generations. Behind the veil of ignorance a choice would be made to agree to a just savings principle, that is what each generation is required to conserve for use by future generations.

Rawls’ brilliant work allows us to think objectively about what the basic structure of a fair society might look like and how we might take steps to bring an end to civil conflict and political divisions.

On 12 December you could do worse than vote for Rawls. That is if you can find him or her. Of course you could try a little thought experiment and ask yourself: how would I vote if I were ignorant of my personal circumstances?

Vote for Rawls!