The Veil of Ignorance is, of course, the gedankenexperiment proposed by moral philosopher John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice. Just in case you've not come across it before, it goes like this:
"Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance . Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the "real world", however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other."
The point of which, of course, is to force people to consider what is actually fair for everyone rather than concluding, for example, that the particular group into which they happen to have been born should enjoy exceptional privileges. It is generally assumed that from behind the Veil of Ignorance, for example, no-one would think it either right or - more importantly - prudent to create a social contract in which 1% of the world's population controls 50% of its wealth because their chances of being born into the 1% are, well, calculably slim. It is only as a consequence of being born into the 1% that one starts to think of rationalisations for this state of affairs and work to defend this status quo.
Or so the theory goes. The problem that currently occurs to me with this particular thought experiment is that people play the lottery. Millions of people play the lottery. Indeed, disproportionately, poor people play the lottery, accepting a roughly 1 in 14,000,000 chance of being catapulted into the ranks of the rich. People actually seem to like little gambles that will take them from a very likely lifetime of want to the tiny chance of riches.
And so I wonder, after Jack Nicholson in the eponymous film - what if this is as good as it gets?
What if, taking as read Rawls's Veil of Ignorance and the Original Position...what if humanity's incredible propensity to gamble, to "risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss", shows to us that, given the chance to remake the social contract from that Original Position, most people would actually go for broke and take the extraordinary risk of designing a system which gives a tiny handful a life of (let's face it) idle luxury even if the trade-off was the far greater likelihood of miserable poverty?
Today's hypothesis is therefore that the staggering popularity of lotteries at which participants stand, realistically, zero chance of winning indicate that even from behind the Veil this is where we'd end up. The veil of ignorance is possibly no route to a fairer social contract at all.