The Original Position Notes for November 28

Main points

We started today’s class with some discussion of the original position that carried over from the last class. Then we turned to the official topic for today as listed in the syllabus: the reasons why the parties in the original position would choose Rawls’s principles.

We’re discussing Rawls’s official argument for his principles of justice. Rawls imagines the parties in the original position choosing between his principles and a version of utilitarianism. In §26, he gives the reasons why they would choose his principles. In §§28–9, he gives the reasons why they would reject utilitarianism.

The division is a bit artificial as the case for his principles relies largely on saying that the parties in the original position would find them preferable to utilitarianism. The positive and negative sides of his argument aren’t really separable, in other words.

Fairness and the veil of ignorance

We started with a belated answer to a question Dylan posed last time: why does Rawls think he had to exclude information about a society’s level of economic development from the parties in the original position?

I said that I thought the answer was that Rawls was worried about the possibility that the the parties would be able to estimate the probability of winding up in a particular class. If they could do that, they might come up with rules that favored some classes over others.

I added that it wasn’t obvious to me that this sort of thing would be unfair: if everyone agrees, knowing that they might end up in the less favored class, that’s a good reason for thinking the decision is fair.

This led us to a discussion of the level of abstraction that we want in a theory of justice. There is no clear answer here.

On the one hand, the idea of a theory of justice that would apply to all societies across time is hard to swallow. What are the members of a hunter gatherer or feudal society are supposed to do with Rawls’s principles? Voting and equal opportunity, for instance, are important for us, but pretty remote from their lives.

On the other hand, we want out theories to provide some critical distance from our own values. We would like to be able to use them to settle questions about what our values really ought to be. And it’s entirely appropriate to want to use them to explain why we think our ways of living are superior to those of our predecessors. If we want to accomplish those aims, we will need a theory that abstracts from the values and circumstances that are peculiar to our own time.

Why would the parties choose Rawls’s principles?

Rawls argues that the parties would choose his principles if it made sense for them to follow what he called the maximin rule. It does not usually make sense to follow this rule. But, Rawls argues, it does make sense for the parties in the original position to do so.

He gave three reasons for thinking that. I said we would discuss the first next time. I said that I thought the third was the main one and the second was less impressive. The third reason why the maximin decision is appropriate is that falling below the minimum would be unacceptable.

The parties are asked to compare Rawls’s principles, which rule out slavery among other things, and utilitarianism, which doesn’t. So they have to ask themselves whether they could accept a society in which slavery, among other things, is acceptable. If the answer is “no,” then Rawls’s third condition applies.

We will continue this next time, when we look at the reasoning that leads the parties away from utilitarianism.

Key concepts

  1. The relationship between fairness and the veil of ignorance.
  2. The maximin rule.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 29, 2012.
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