The original position

Notes for September 26

Main points

I used a fanciful example to show how Rawls’s original position works.

Democratic theocracy

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:

  1. The people they represent are members of a religious minority and are prevented from practicing their religion as God commands by an intolerant majority that governs their society.
  2. The people they represent are the members of a religious majority and are prevented from practicing their religion as God commands by the principles of justice that govern their society.

And, I said, I didn’t see how the parties could know which outcome is worse.

Implications for Rawls

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.

  1. This understanding of human nature is very close to the one Mill used in his arguments for liberty. That’s interesting.
  2. I am not at all sure that people really do have the values that Rawls’s conception of the person attributes to them. I do not know how much value we put on having the capacity to revise our understanding of what is good in life. I am sure it is valuable but I am not sure how much other valuable things we would give up to preserve it. (Think about the ways of living that you regard as abominable. How much would you pay to keep those as live options just in case you change your mind?)
  3. In particular, I am not sure that those who are opposed to liberalism share this understanding of human nature and their values. If liberals wish to show that they are mistaken in rejecting liberalism, they will have to show that Rawls’s description of our nature is more accurate than competing descriptions.
This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, & Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2013. It was posted September 26, 2013.
Freedom, Markets, & Well-being