American philosopher John Rawls in his “original position” political philosophy developed a method of determining the morality of political issues now known as ‘The Veil of Ignorance’.


The theory is based upon the following thought experiment: people making political decisions imagine that they know nothing about the particular talents, abilities, tastes, social class, and positions they will have within a social order.  When such parties are selecting the principles for distribution of rights, positions, and resources in the society in which they will live, this “veil of ignorance” prevents them from knowing who will receive a given distribution of rights, positions, and resources in that society.


So how does the Veil of Ignorance work? Let say for a proposed society in which 50% of the population is kept are below poverty line poor, it follows that on entering the new society there is a 50% likelihood that the participant would be below poverty line poor too.  The idea is that parties subject to the veil of ignorance will make choices based upon moral considerations, since they will not be able to make choices based on their own self- or class-interest.  The veil serves to render obsolete those personal considerations that are morally irrelevant to the justice or injustice of principles meant to allocate the benefits of social cooperation.


“no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like”

                                John Rawls


Now while this is kind of interesting what implications might the Veil of Ignorance have on governance?  Quite often individual on Boards and in decision making functions rightfully bring with them a background and are there to represent a particular segment of the community.  However, Boards have a range of legal and fiduciary duties including the duty to act bona fide in the best interests of the company or organisation and the duty to exercise powers for proper purpose.


Sitting on a Board is hard as it is only natural that you have your personal views on a topic, or your views may be influenced by a group that you may also be part of.  But in a Board meeting you must act in the best interest of the company and with proper purpose.  This is where the method of the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ might be useful.


A topical issue now in Australia is around marriage equality.  There have been several companies coming out (excuse the pun) in support of marriage equality, as well as several high-profile people and organisations publicly opposing marriage equality.  So, the question I wondered was how did the Boards or the individuals determine their position and did they use the ‘Veil of Ignorance’ method?  If they did the question might be something like this – if I did not know if my child was going to be straight or gay, removed my own sexuality from the decision-making process and therefore removed all my self-interest or group interest and removed my personal consideration, how would I vote on marriage equality?  Then we would need to consider the Board talks with one voice, so we would need to ask this question as a collective Board. 


Easy to say but hard to implement the Veil of Ignorance but it is a concept worth considering especially in situations where the matter at hand and the decision are highly emotive and which has personal ramifications.  So, at your next Board meeting when there is a highly emotive issue explain the Veil of Ignorance to your fellow Board members and have a go – you might just find it reduces the tension as individuals can internally rationalise or justify their decision better and feel more comfortable with their decision and the decision of the collective, unified Board.


Stephen Barnes is the Principal Consultant at Byronvale Advisors.