The Original Position Notes for September 26, 2012

Main points

We talked about Rawls’s idea of the original position. Some of our time was spent on technical arguments concerning estimating probabilities with no information and what Rawls meant by talking about stability.

We ended by discussing whether a thinner “veil of ignorance” would be fair.

The thin veil of ignorance

My idea was this. Rawls argues that we can move from some ideas that we are confident in to conclusions that we would not otherwise have drawn. We are confident in our ideas about fairness, we use them to construct the original position so that it is fair, and the choice of the parties in the original position tells us whether Rawls’s principles or utilitarianism is correct.

I said that I didn’t think he had shown that the veil of ignorance had to be as thick as it is in order to guarantee a fair decision. To make my point concrete, I said that I thought they could know everything about the society they’re making decisions for except who they represent.

I said that their decision would be fair because they wouldn’t know if they would be advantaged or disadvantaged by it.

Usually, the objection to this is that the parties might decide on rules that disadvantage minorities. If the risk of being in the minority is low enough and the benefits of mistreatment are high enough, this is possible. Whether that is enough to show that their decision would be unfair is an open question.

Most of our conversation surrounded the advantages and disadvantages of political theories that are timeless rather than being addressed to a particular society in a particular historical time.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2012. It was posted September 26, 2012.
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