Reasoning behind a veil of ignorance

Is it possible for people to see past their partisanship? New research suggests we may have cause for cautious optimism.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.)  during the third day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) during the third day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump.Pool/Getty

Two weeks into public impeachment hearings, the country has heard a substantial amount of evidence regarding the circumstances of President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. The facts of the case are not in dispute, but their interpretation is hotly contested and is split along party lines. It’s possible that these partisan differences are driven by political calculations and intellectual bad faith, but what if we consider the possibility that people on both sides of the aisle genuinely believe in their positions? Is it reasonable to expect that the American people, or their elected representatives, will be able to see past their partisanship?

The question before Congress is whether President Trump’s actions are impeachable. Ideally, we would ask a different, less hopelessly partisan question. Namely: Would these same actions be impeachable if undertaken not by this president, but by any president, regardless of party? Decades of psychology research suggests people won’t set their partisanship aside. But two recently published papers provide some hope that we may be able to recognize our partisan biases for what they are and be persuaded to try to see past them.


As political partisans, our track record as unbiased arbiters of fact is not impressive. A paper by Geoffrey Cohen finds that even when presented with the identical policy, partisans hold opinions that are dramatically different depending on which party they believe supports the policy; how we make sense of new information is heavily influenced by our existing commitments. Our only hope to be objective is to set our partisan allegiances aside and approach questions like impeachment as if we didn’t know the president’s party. This is akin to what philosopher John Rawls described as reasoning from behind a veil of ignorance.

Earlier this month, researchers from Harvard published findings in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” that test whether asking people to consider difficult issues from behind a veil of ignorance affects their later thinking. The results suggest that we may have cause for cautious optimism.


In seven experiments, with over 6,000 participants, the researchers asked people to consider a variety of moral dilemmas. Before answering, some participants responded to the same dilemma, only from behind a veil of ignorance. In one experiment, all participants answered whether they would support a law that would require self-driving cars to swerve in order to save nine pedestrians, but at the expense of the driver’s life. Half the participants first considered the dilemma from behind a veil of ignorance. They imagined a world in which they were one of the nine pedestrians or the driver; in that world, would they want to live in a state where self-driving cars were required to swerve?

It turns out that having first considered the situation from behind a veil of ignorance makes a difference: People were more supportive of requiring cars to swerve, and that “ignorance” also more generally led them to make choices that promote the greater good. That’s promising, but it’s only a small step.

First, as a single piece of research, it is only preliminary evidence. More importantly, deep-seated partisan commitments could prove particularly difficult to set aside, and it’s not clear people are capable of doing so.

Consider a study by economists Linda Babcock and George Loewenstein in which they ask people to take one of two sides in a legal dispute. When people read the facts of the case before they learn which side they’ll be representing, they have little difficulty resolving the dispute. When they learn which side they’ll represent before reading the facts, however, it biases their interpretation and they become unshakably convinced that their side is in the right. Moreover, they are unable to set their bias aside and they insist that a neutral third party — the judge, whose opinion it is critical for them to predict — is likely to see things their way. So the idea that political partisans, whose feelings run much deeper than hypothetical litigants, will be better able to put aside their partisan beliefs may be overly optimistic.


Before abandoning all hope, there is one last ray of sunshine: It turns out that people can set aside their biasing preconceptions, but only if they really want to. A paper published in July in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that people are not incapable of setting aside their preexisting beliefs, it’s just that they often don’t want to. Why? Sometimes they believe their perspective brings them closer to the truth rather than further from it. People who intended to put their preexisting beliefs aside — or when given a compelling reason why they should — managed to do so reasonably well.

Taken together, the research suggests that getting people to set their partisanship aside and assess whether, for example, Trump deserves to be impeached, will be extraordinarily challenging, but perhaps not impossible. Critically, for the veil of ignorance to work effectively, partisans will have to try in good faith to set their preconceptions aside; in the end, that may be the greatest challenge, because that effort is bound to have consequences. One Republican congressman who tried to set aside his partisanship, Michigan’s Justin Amash, was forced out of the party.


Meanwhile, Senator Lindsey Graham, who has made no secret of his partisan fervor, seems to have misunderstood how the veil of ignorance is supposed to work and has tried to shield himself from the facts entirely.

David Nussbaum is an adjunct associate professor of behavioral science at the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago.