A philosophical experiment about inequality

by Ingrid Robeyns on December 3, 2018

Crossposted by co-writer Tim Meijers at Justice Everywhere

Political philosophers often engage in thought experiments, which involve putting hypothetical persons in hypothetical scenarios. However, it is often challenging to find ways to involve real, non-hypothetical, people with the questions we are dealing with, aside from the more traditional ways to engage in outreach such as debates and opinion pieces. Recently, the Fair Limits team* – which studies the plausibility of upper limits in the distribution of economic and ecological resources – attempted a new way to engage the public by making use of a participatory “veil-of-ignorance” thought experiment.

On the evening of Friday the 5th of October, the Fair Limits team contributed to the Betweter festival in TivoliVredenburgh (Utrecht, the Netherlands), which was attended by over 2000 people and celebrates science and the arts. Between concerts, lectures, and discussion sessions people could participate in several experiments.

In addition to a broader lecture that I gave (available online for those of you who understand Dutch) the fair limits project also conducted an experiment at the Betweter Festival. We asked people to imagine that they had responsibility for the wellbeing of a child. However, they didn’t know anything about the specific child: nothing about the child’s health, or its intelligence, or talents. Moreover, they had to imagine they were not taking care of the child themselves, and that they had no control over the kind of family the child would grow up in. However, they had one important decision to make: Which world will the child be born into?

After this initial briefing, people were ushered into a closed off space, where they saw visual artistic representations, made by the artist Niels Sinke, of three different worlds, each governed by a very different distributive principle: an equal world, an unequal world and a world ‘in-between’.

In the equal world, people have roughly equal economic resources, healthcare is mainly preventive and income is guaranteed. Schools and universities are state funded and of roughly equal quality, with neither extremely bad nor extremely good ones.

In the unequal world, there is extreme poverty as well as great wealth. Access to healthcare depends on your ability to buy health-insurance, if you have the means many diseases are treatable but if you do not you are dependent on charity. There are fantastic universities, hospitals and museums, but these are only accessible to those from wealthier groups.

The ‘in-between’ world has limited inequality, and healthcare is a mix of preventive and curative care. For rarer diseases people need more expensive insurance, not available to all, but the basics are covered. There is assurance against loss of income due to illness for a limited amount of time. Schools and Universities are partially state funded and of decent quality, and there are market-based elite schools for those who can afford it.

Based on these art works, and on brief written descriptions of what life is like in these different worlds, people had to make a decision: Which world would they want the child to live?

After they settled on a decision, participants had to report to “Fortuna” where they had to roll a dice and, based on the result, were given one of six cards on the table. On the card, the participants found a characterization of various facts about the child and description of how that child would fare in the different worlds. The participants read the result for their child in the world they chose out loud.
The possibilities were wide ranging, but we focused on health, intelligence, and marketable talents, as well the family and social environment the child was born into. A talented child born into a very poor family in the unequal world would not be able to develop these talents, whereas a less talented child born into a well-connected family would do well. Whether a sick child could be treated, depended on the illness, the kind of insurance, and the level of technology available in the various worlds.

Over three hundred people participated in the experiment, and 261 participants casted a vote for their favored world. Most people went for the ‘in-between’ world (136) which, of course, resembles the Netherlands (although perhaps not our world!) most closely. The equal world came in second (69), and the unequal world appealed the least (47).

After learning about the impact of their choice on the child whose wellbeing they were entrusted with, the participants were ‘debriefed’ at the exit. Why did they choose the world they chose? Are the happy with the result? Would they choose otherwise now? And, do you think the world is fair or did you just get lucky?
People offered a wide variety of reasons for their choices. Some appealed to freedom and equalities, and the way these values were embodied in the different worlds. Others justified their choices by an appeal to human psychology or tendencies that worked out differently across the worlds. Is there an incentive to be productive in the equal world? If not, would that mean everybody is better off in the ‘in-between’ world? The experiment also forced people to consider the value of public provision of goods like education and healthcare. How important is it that everybody has access? Should we aim for the highest possible quality, even if that means excluding some?

We quickly learned one weakness of our set-up. Initially, we asked people to imagine they were going to have a child. The idea was, of course, that people would feel more attached and responsible for the child and, closer to the spirit of the veil of ignorance, less willing to take on some risks that they might if they assumed they were choosing for themselves. Perhaps somewhat naively we hadn’t thought of downsides. We very quickly found out that this hit a bit too closely too home for some people. What about people who had lost a child, had wanted one and never had one, or young couples facing challenges conceiving? One of the first potential participants walked away visibly upset after we explained the idea to her, another potential participant declined, telling us that he and his partner were trying to conceive and considered the experiment potentially upsetting. Although the new formulation did visibly touch some people, probably inevitably, no other participants declined to participate.

The experiment clearly made participants think. Many started to have doubts after the roll of the dice about their choice. People stuck around for a good discussion afterwards, and several groups of friends and couples continued to discuss what the right choice was well after the de-briefing. Some people even came back later on the evening to discuss an idea they had after leaving. The set up turned out to be a great way to get people to think about what kind of society we should aim for.

Mission Accomplished!

*The Fair Limits team consists of Colin Hickey, Petra van der Kooij, Dick Timmer, Bart Mijland, Tim Meijers and myself. We also had help from three stellar student-volunteers.



Murali 12.03.18 at 11:10 am

I feel that this was a bit of a wasted opportunity because it missed out on what seems to be a live debate on distributional principles: maximin criterion and egalitarianism

The maximin criterion (or the leximin crtierion) says maximise the share of primary goods/welfare of the worst off, then keeping that fixed, maximise the welfare of the second worst off and so on. Contrast this with a more egalitarian reading of the difference principle in which an inequality would not be justified even if it did not make the worst off even more worse off and there is no more egalitarian distribution which would improve the prospects of the worst off. Consider yet a third stronger egalitarian view according to which very great inequalities may be not be justified even if those inequalities make the worst off just a bit better off. Contrast all these with some kind of weaker prioritarian or sufficientarian view


Murali 12.03.18 at 11:12 am

Sorry, forgot to add. The point being that it would have been interesting to see what kinds of intuitions about distribution people had that did not confound different potentially competing intuitions.


soru 12.03.18 at 11:55 am

I don’t understand how a world without curative health care is ‘more equal’? Healthy people are fine, those who cut themselves shaving die in pain?

Noone makes a profit out of being ill, so any amount of increased health care spending is bringing thing closer to the ideal situation of equality in which no-one ever got ill.


ccc 12.03.18 at 1:20 pm

I see meat depicted in one of the paintings but no living non-human animal in any of them. Did the written descriptions mention if the three worlds, including the supposedly equal one, include industrial scale exploitation, harm and killing of non-human animals? Or were non-humans made completely invisible in this experimental setup?


steven t johnson 12.03.18 at 3:23 pm

The moral principles in the unequal and in-between worlds were the same: Inequality is a manifestation of freedom. Offering a pretended intermediate was simply confusing the issue by allowing a pretense of fairness. The belief that inequality is due to the free exercise of different talents, creating a just world where people are at liberty to achieve, is probably a religious attitude. (Religion is largely superstition and bigotry, contrary to the PR.) Incidentally, power over other people was an inextricable part of any real world inequality, but it appears to have been conveniently omitted. One would like to think well of people but this sort of thing makes it difficult.


Yan 12.03.18 at 3:54 pm

It’s inevitable that out of lifelong cultural indoctrination they’ll overwhelmingly choose the pooridge that Goldilocks chose. I doubt there’s any effective way to present this options without their unconsciously being read as “excess, deficiency, or golden mean?”

However, one way to make this clear would be to emphasize that in reality the in-between is the median not the mode— that only on average is inbetween world not also an unequal world. The majority aren’t too well off or too miserable, but some will be, and the purpose of the veil is to force them to consider precisely the worst and best consequences of their choice, not the average ones.

It also seems like a misleading setup if you don’t include the possibility (I’m being charitable here by not saying “iron necessity”) that in-between world eventually transforms into unequal world. So they need to consider their child’s children’s likely fate, too.


Tom Hurka 12.03.18 at 3:56 pm

Was it assumed, or implicit in the descriptions, that the total economic pie to be divided up is the same in all three worlds? If so, that’s a big assumption.


Heshel 12.03.18 at 5:05 pm

Fascinating experimental design! I wonder about the choice to use visual media coupled with verbal descriptions for the outcome measure. Why not just use verbal descriptions to anchor the participants’ understanding of the outcomes they are choosing rather than also allowing the image to trigger more subjective interpretations, potentially overriding the verbal component (of which ccc’s comment @4 might be illustrative)? Perhaps the debrief revealed that participants interpreted the images as intended. In my experience the use of images like these (typically without accompanying text, but definitely verified with subsequent manipulation checks) make for better operationalizations of an experimental treatment than for outcome measures.


Omega Centauri 12.03.18 at 6:55 pm

The problem I have is that these worlds are likely perceived as economically quasi-static, i.e. as being in some sort of economic final state, so the possible effect of equality versus growth rate is eliminated. But, we suspect that some nonzero degree of inequality may be necessary to advance the average economic wellbeing over time. So given the three worlds, what is the expectation of how they will look, twenty, forty, sixty, and eighty years later (all times relevant to the lifetime of the child)?


yan 12.03.18 at 7:55 pm

Hurka @7:

“Was it assumed, or implicit in the descriptions, that the total economic pie to be divided up is the same in all three worlds? If so, that’s a big assumption.”

Yes, this is an interesting point, and raises an interesting question about how that could be corrected. On the one hand, I’m sure some would claim that, in practice, a more equal world will be economically less productive and involve a smaller pie.

However, I’m inclined to agree with the socialist tradition that if a reasonably equal world were achieved (as the thought experiment requires by hypothesis), then would only be by overcoming the inefficient anarchy of capitalist production which (if possible) would create a more efficient economy, a bigger pie.

But then perhaps it’s not an error. If, like Rawls’ veil, the goal is to reveal principles of justice rather than enlightened self-interest (in this case, extended self-interest for one’s child), then artificially imagining equal pies might be necessary.


eg 12.03.18 at 7:56 pm

@ Tom Hurka

Does the “big assumption” (as you describe it) invalidate the thought experiment in some way?

If so, how so?

If not, what are you implying?


Gareth Wilson 12.03.18 at 8:49 pm

“We asked people to imagine that they had responsibility for the wellbeing of a child…. Moreover, they had to imagine they were not taking care of the child themselves, and that they had no control over the kind of family the child would grow up in. “

If I have no control over the upbringing of a child, then I have no responsibility for their wellbeing.


nastywoman 12.03.18 at 10:02 pm

”Most people went for the ‘in-between’ world (136) which, of course, resembles the Netherlands (although perhaps not our world!) most closely”.

– which reminded me on an ”story” a Vietnamese friend of mine told me.
Supposedly a group of (Vietnamese) refugees once was asked what type of ”new home” (country) they’d prefer.

1. A country where most of them would stay ”poor” – and just a few of them would become ”very rich”.
2. A country where all of them would be ”financially ok” but none of them would ever become ”rich”.
And supposedly the Vietnamese refugees – in their majority – picked Nr.1.

And I have no idea if the story is true – but even if it is some type of a stereotypical fairy tale -(about ”Asians”) – it could ”show” how different such ”experiments” might end up in different countries and cultures – and it really would be… could we say ”interesting”? what results this type of -(predictable in the Netherlands) – experiment would bring in the US of A?
(thinking about @6 and all kind of ”lifelong cultural indoctrination(s)”)


Layman 12.03.18 at 10:19 pm

Garett Wilson: “If I have no control over the upbringing of a child, then I have no responsibility for their wellbeing.”

I think this is called a failure of imagination.


Orange Watch 12.03.18 at 11:59 pm


You may have no direct control, but this is asking the participants to influence the environment the child grows up in. It’s not impossible to think of situations where you feel engaged in the upbringing of a child – or even responsible – without having control. If you have lost or surrendered custody, this is an easy thing to imagine. You may lack control, but you can still feel invested and personally concerned. That’s what I’d imagine the design was hoping to evoke: responsibility as a voluntarily adopted obligation rather than an imposed one that you’re trying to justify disavowing.

I’ll admit your interpretation is also fairly easy to reach, though, so perhaps it’s not an ideal formulation. Still, you’re asking people to voluntarily participate in the experiment, so it’s not unreasonable to expect some buy-in.


Moz of Yarramulla 12.04.18 at 3:11 am

I largely agree with steven t johnson @ 5:

Offering a pretended intermediate was simply confusing the issue

I think it might have been better to have four options just to confuse that issue, and ideally make it more of the cliche “three options, choose any two” type triangle. Especially since there’s the implication of a static world (ie that climate change isn’t happening) and that politics is a solved problem in all three (viz, no political decisions are required/permitted), and to me that’s just fantasy.

And steven implied that the just world fallacy was also in play. Which seemed to be the case to me.

Contra soru, I read “healthcare is mainly preventive” as meaning that there was a functioning healthcare system rather than the more common underfunded post-hoc systems.

But overwhelmingly, I got the impression I’d be one of the people who would either walk away or stuck around to say “not enough information to make a useful decision”. Especially the political question, that “most equal” world would fit anything from a future Chinese “social credit score” world to an Ursula K Le Guin anarchist utopia since freedom other than economic isn’t mentioned.


Omega Centauri 12.04.18 at 3:14 am

nasty @13.
Yes. The Dutch are know to favor that sort of society. I imagine in the US it would be very location dependent, survey a Democratic stronghold, versus a Republican stronghold and I thinks the results would be very different. The experiment would have to be run in a variety of places before we could declare something universal.


Gareth Wilson 12.04.18 at 3:50 am

Perhaps it would be a better test if it was closer to how people influence the environment a child grows up in. They still make a choice, but they’re told the world is decided on a majority vote, and they’re only one of ten voters. Then run the test again, and tell the new respondents that there are a thousand voters. Then a million.


Chetan Murthy 12.04.18 at 9:30 am

nastywoman@13: I wonder if these Vietnamese refugees were from South Vietnam? Is it perhaps possible that their virulent anti-Communism affected their choices? It’s been known to happen with people from behind the Iron Curtain, too, after all.


nastywoman 12.04.18 at 10:26 am

– ”and I think the results would be very different”.

How true – as it seems to depend a lot on where one grows up -(talking about children) – and for anybody who ever has/had the chance to grow up at both places -(”the Jungle and/or the Zoo” – as Milos Foreman defined the choice so poetically) – the decisive decision for ”that sort of a society” -(the Dutch one”) – becomes more and more obvious – if one is well informed about ”that sort of a society” and doesn’t consider it some type of ”socialistic hellhole” – or ”neoliberal hellhole”?


arcseconds 12.05.18 at 12:41 am

Prompted by a discussion with a friend, who thought politics was pretty much just a matter of personal preference, I started writing a story to illustrate pretty much exactly this point, putting the reader in the head of someone in the position of choosing between two island societies, one egalitarian, structured and safe, and the other a bit of a libertarian crazy-town, some extremely rich plutocrats, a professional class, and a whole lot of impoverished people living on the edge.

I never completed it, and I suppose it might have been a bit preachy, but the point was not so much ‘libertarianism is bad’ but ‘who in their right mind would choose a society where you roll a dice and if you get a six you’re a squillionaire, a five and you have a lot of money and can do what you like, but you’re at the mercy of squillionaires, live in a personal fortress, and if you get sick for a long period of time you’re on the street, and if you roll a 1-4 you have no option but to work in a menial job which slowly does you in, or beg on the streets’ (maybe more garden-pathy than preachy, but hey, sometimes you want people to get to the garden gate).

Now I think of it, I’m pretty sure I started on this before I had even heard on Rawls…


arcseconds 12.05.18 at 4:24 am

Obviously the point here is to get people thinking about an abstract philosophical problem (Rawls’s veil of ignorance) in a way that they can imaginatively engage in.

I think it basically succeeded here. I get the impression that a lot of people aren’t even really aware that there is even a choice here, they just accept the status quo, and in developed countries often implicitly assume that all alternatives would be worse, even though among developed countries there are options that do significantly better for more people on metrics people care about.

To succeed in getting people to think about the veil, rather than something else, it has to be very simple. Introducing more elements, like realistic economics or one’s own favorite moral issue, is going to complicate matters, detract from the main point (the veil), and, importantly, turn it into something that’s either didactic (they learn about economics, from your correct economic theory, they learn about your pet moral issue) or contentious (they’re an economist too, or think they are, and disagree with your economic theory, or disagree with your pet moral issue).

And if contentious, it’s fairly likely to just end up in a familiar rut (market economy vs. ‘socialism’), where people’s minds are largely already made up, either on one side or the other, or on disengaging from the entire issue because it’s boring and they’re sick of the arguments and politics surrounding it.

So I feel some are missing the point here. It would not have been improved by including your pet issue, and of course if your pet issue has to be included, why not everyone’s pet issue? Which would just be an incoherent mess.

As far as the ‘can we really have a prosperous society without competition and reward?’ thing goes, this apparently wasn’t mentioned in the material but people came up with it anyway, so the experience design does provoke this discussion, also, illustrating that you don’t actually need to include this in the experience to spur people to think about it.

I do agree that the ‘happy medium’ thing may be an issue in this framing, but I don’t know how this could be alleviated.

I don’t really like the veil of ignorance, it seems to be trying to produce altruism out of selfishness. As a philosophical grounding for justice it’s unclear what the people behind the veil know — do they have all the knowledge and biases and cultural baggage and preconceived ideas that they do in the real world? If so, why would you expect a a radically different result than what constant general elections give you?

(Maybe lots of people are simply being selfish, and would make a different decision if they think “what if I ended up as a poor person”, so that might end up with a different result, but I think there’s an awful lot of people who buy into the just-so story “well, I’d just knuckle down and get an IT qualification and pull myself up using my bootlaces! Welfare is just providing money to lazy grifters who do amazingly well out of it!” or even “it’s a shame, but it’s better than the government interfering because the government always makes things worse”. )

If not, we seem to be dealing with strange abstractions of people. Strange abstractions can be useful, like rational economic agents or bayesian epistemic agents, or even morally perfect beings, but these all have content.

Thinking you’re dealing with a child that you can make choices of worlds for but aren’t raising I think is a useful rubric. You don’t have to work out what to do to pretend you’re behind the veil, and I would imagine it’s less tempting to think “well, obviously this child I’ve somehow had put in my care will just knuckle down and get an IT qualification!” than it is to suppose that about oneself…


nastywoman 12.05.18 at 6:02 am

– and so parents make decisions – and my parents (I say ”luckily”) – made the decision the majority of the Dutch made – in this experiment.

And so the world -(and especially my homeland) HAS to be informed that such a choice exist – and that one can make it!
-(and doesn’t have to try to ”make it there”….?)


nastywoman 12.05.18 at 6:17 am

– and about @21
”but ‘who in their right mind would choose a society where you roll a dice…

as (not only) the Vietnamese example shows – so many… people -(”refugees” – ”immigrants” – ”greencard-seekers”) – that a country – which (supposedly) is ”build on immigration” might be thinking about building a wall?

In order to keep all the people -(who are not ”in their right mind”?) – OUT


Robespierre 12.05.18 at 10:31 am

#Gareth Wilson 12:

You do have control. Over their whole world.
But thanks, deadbeat dad.


Patrick 12.06.18 at 10:36 pm

The fun thing about a legal background is that the legal field has to deal with a lot of the concepts the humanities deal with (textual interpretation, whether something is “problematic,” counterfactual reasoning), except with consequences and a measure of accountability.

Part of the resulting common knowledge of the field is this: if you give people a hypothetical scenario they don’t think is very likely, they’ll usually mentally adjust the hypothetical until what they’re imagining seems plausible to them, and answer based on that.

It takes about a year or so to drill law students until they stop doing that, and even then there’s some backsliding.


engels 12.07.18 at 12:27 am

The fun thing about a legal background is that the legal field has to deal with a lot of the concepts the humanities deal with (textual interpretation, whether something is “problematic,” counterfactual reasoning), except with consequences and a measure of accountability.

Realised this more than a decade ago during the 100th runaround of whether <i<ad hominem argumentsh are acceptable.


Orange Watch 12.07.18 at 4:54 am

The fun thing about a legal background is that the legal field has to deal with a lot of the concepts the humanities deal with (textual interpretation, whether something is “problematic,” counterfactual reasoning), except with consequences and a measure of accountability.

Ther’s true to a point. As someone with a shallow legal background and an academic background in linguistics, one of the most irritating vices I’ve encountered when talking with lawyers is the stubborn insistence of some that it’s correct (or even sensible) to parse conversational language in the same way one parses legal writing. And that’s a problem, because that’s simply not how language works. Pragmatics matters just as much in conversation as semantics and syntax; even if you don’t say something, you can very clearly communicate it.

I suppose I could more succinctly describe that vice as a fondness for pedantically clever rhetoric.


Ogden Wernstrom 12.07.18 at 4:39 pm

I hope that one of the unequal-world scenarios has the child born into a well-off, well-connected, top 1% family – and that child’s entire family is killed and eaten when the poor revolt.

Maybe that’s the depicted meat?


nastywoman 12.07.18 at 7:04 pm

”hope that one of the unequal-world scenarios has the child born into a well-off, well-connected, top 1% family – and that child’s entire family is killed and eaten when the poor revolt”.

– as if it isn’t punishment enough to be born into ”a well-off, well-connected, top 1% family ”– just think Von Clownstick.
Even have ”your entire family being killed and eaten when the poor revolt” couldn’t be as terrifying and depressing as having to exist like Baron Von Clownstick.
-(and for sure – just joking – one of these terrifying jokes Von Clownstick’s like to… crack)

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