Albert Einstein made some of his most important discoveries by engaging in thought experiments. For instance, as a teenager he imagined himself chasing a beam of light and what he would observe while traveling next to the beam of light. The chasing a beam of light thought experiment led to the development of special relativity.
While the vast majority of us are not geniuses like Einstein, we can all use thought experiments to leave our own perspective and view the world differently.
One very useful thought experiment is the veil of ignorance developed by philosopher John Rawls. Here’s how it works: “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.” Source.
A simple hypothetical with two versions shows how the veil of ignorance works. Consider that you are responsible for cutting a pizza into slices that will be shared among you and five strangers. In the first situation you get to pick the first slice. In this situation imagine the temptation to cut a slice that is bigger than the others – at least a bit – because you choose first. In the second situation you pick last. Now your motivation is to make the slices as equal as possible. From this simple example you can see how change in perspective changes motivation.
The veil of ignorance is especially powerful when considering social fairness issues. For example, when considering potential changes to the health care system I should set aside my current situation (having good employer-provided health insurance, a concierge doctor, good overall health and access to world-class medical institutions). Instead, Rawls’s theory suggests that I should imagine myself in an initial position where I don’t know what my future situation will be with respect to the health care system: I don’t know whether I’ll have employer provided health insurance (or any insurance), or a regular doctor, or good health, or access to care. Based on that thought experiment, what is the best healthcare system if I take myself out of my actual situation?
Another example: How would our views of social policy change if every five years we magically switch bodies and living situations with a random other person in our country? This is an interesting situation to really stop and think about. I might end up female, or non-white, or working manual labor without much education. Or, I might end up as a small business owner or a farmer. I might be an artist, or a doctor, or a truck driver. The possibilities are endless. This thought experiment is even more interesting if the random switch occurs with anyone on the planet – not just another American.
Using the veil of ignorance thought experiment from time-to-time can make us more empathetic and more cognizant of the luck that many of us have experienced in our lives (for me – being born an upper-middle class, white male in the United States during the last third of the 20th century).