Hobbes and Locke imagined a hypothetical “social contract” in which everyone accepted the chains of society as payment for the protection offered by society. Rousseau was more rigorous, and Hegel questioned whether the idea of the social contract makes sense. The question is “How come the social contract, comprised of equals, results in such great inequality?” Hegel accepted that society formed out of fear of one’s neighbor, but rejected the idea that the social contract was a rational choice among equals. This is why it was surprising when Rawls, in the second half of the twentieth century, proposed that we reintroduce the concept of the social contract into political theory.
Rawls’ social contract is unique because it requires that in order to insure society is just, the principles of society should be such that they could be agreed upon by everyone. They are in everyone’s interest. Society is inherently cooperative because we surrender our freedom for the sake of mutual advantage. The principles of a society mediate conflicts between individuals through the legal system by establishing on what basis a law is legitimate. The principles establish how social goods are distributed. Rawls’ social contract seeks to find hypothetical consensus.
In order to create principles on which everyone can agree Rawls creates a thought experiment that can be used as a tool. It is called “the Veil of Ignorance.” It gives one the ability to create the principles by which society should operate without biasing one towards one’s own conception of the good, or towards one’s own abilities. It prevents one from creating principles that give one an advantage at the cost of someone else.
Because Rawls is thorough, he is explicit about many of the assumptions he must make in order for the Veil to work, but I won’t bother you with them. Here’s what is important: Behind the Veil one does not know who one is, what their religion is, what their life plan is, what their political ideology is, what their place in society is, or what their morals are. All they know is a basic understanding of political science, physics, psychology, etc… They know humans are rational animals, and want more, not less, of social goods (like civil rights, political rights, liberties, income, wealth, self respect, etc…) if they can have them.
Given these tools Rawls believes everyone would be able to construct the same principles of society (or very similar). If one lived in a society in which everyone agreed upon the underlying principles, one would recognize that although a specific law or court decision may not be in one’s favor, the principle by which the resolution derives is in one’s favor. No matter what, society will always be better for me than the state of nature or revolution. Society will always treat me fairly, because it operates by the principles that I have concluded are in my best interest in any conceivable scenario, apart from the entire apocalyptic collapse of society.