Massimo Pigliucci concisely describes the basics of ethical theory: there's contractualism, where
no contractualist really maintains that there ever was a non-social state of nature for human beings (if they did, they would be contradicted by evolutionary biologists), nor that the so-called social contract was an historical event (historians would go crazy with that one), nor that it is actually entered into voluntarily by most people (you are usually born into a society with a given contract, meaning a set of laws and customsand there's the Rawls variation, which introduces a device he calls the "veil of ignorance," where you
assume that you arrive at the bargaining table with no knowledge whatsoever of your social status, economic power, ethnicity, religion or gender. Then, asks Rawls, what kind of society would you want to set up? The answer, he argued, is a society that would guarantee maximum liberty equally distributed among its members, as well as an equal distribution of wealth and power.Contemporary America does nothing of the sort (that position is far to the left of any Democrat in office; Libertarians and Republicans need not apply).
There's a funny sort of dichotomy at work here: in the original contractualism, we are all bonded against our will to contracts that no one ever explicitly approved (but which we all purportedly would approve if we were in an imaginary situation disarmingly called a state of "nature"). In Rawls' version, we are asked what contract we would set up if we didn't know anything about our own particular qualities and abilities (his answer is a meritocracy).
One of the great principles of fairness under the rule of law is informed consent. We insist on seeing all the available information (certified by experts!) before making a medical, legal, or financial decision. Why, then, are ethics to be based on ignorance?
Is it truly impossible to reach similar ethical conclusions from a more realistic starting point--a situation in which some ethical system is in place and individuals have partial knowledge of their own status?