I used a fanciful example to show how Rawls’s original position works.
The original position works by asking the parties to compare principles of justice in pairs. Rawls’s contention is that it would be rational of them to choose the principles that have the best worst outcomes.
I said that I thought this worked pretty well when the parties were asked to compare Rawls’s principles of justice with utilitarianism. The worst off person under Rawls’s principles has less utility than he otherwise would. The worst off person under utilitarianism suffers from religious persecution. Rawls asserts that it would make no sense to risk suffering religious persecution for the sake of gaining additional utility (above what is guaranteed by Rawls’s principles). That seems right to me.
But suppose the parties in the original position are asked to compare Rawls’s principles with ones that allow the majority to establish a theocracy. The worst outcomes are:
And, I said, I didn’t see how the parties could know which outcome is worse.
I would like to emphasize that this is not the sort of thing that Rawls used the original position to handle. He used it to compare his theory with utilitarianism.
So why did I make the comparison anyway? I wanted to do two things. First, I wanted to show how original position arguments work. If you want to deploy one in your thesis, the trick is to compare the worst possible outcomes of the policies or principles you are considering.
Second, I wanted to explain where some of the newer parts of Rawls’s theory are coming from. He frequently refers to a conception of persons as free and equal (see pp. 18–19, for example). That conception of persons does a lot of work for him. For example, the parties are told that they represent people who prize arriving at their own views of the good life and who want to be capable of revising their views if they see fit. That is why the parties would probably reject my “democratic theocracy.” They are told that, for the people they represent, being locked into a particular religion is a horrible thing since it prevents them from revising their understanding of what is good in life. That may well lead them to say that the worst off person under a democratic theocracy (the member of the persecuted minority) is worse off than the worst off person under Rawls’s principles (the member of the frustrated majority).
I leave you with three thoughts about this.