The original position

The original position is the central device in Rawls’s theory of justice so we spent the class session talking about all of its features.

Why the original position is so important

Rawls thinks that utilitarianism is objectionable because it does not give enough weight to individual rights. This is a familiar criticism that is not unique to Rawls. Rawls also believes that the utilitarians were correct when they said that their critics hold unsystematic and occasionally contradictory opinions about justice and individual rights.

So his first task is to show that we can think about rights and justice in a systematic way. And his second task is to show that justice, properly understood, is superior to utilitarianism.

Rawls uses the original position to accomplish both of his goals. We will ask what principles the parties in the original position would choose to govern their society. The fact that the parties in the original position would say that the principles of justice are X, Y, Z or that Rawls’s principles are better than utilitarianism is supposed to be a reason for believing that these things are true. That is the theory of A Theory of Justice.

So we had better understand what the original position involves.

Our discussion

The features of the original position are listed in the handout. Our discussion touched on specific parts. We talked about what Rawls meant and why he made the choices that he did.

For example, Samuel was interested in Rawls’s reasons for telling the parties in the original position to try to get the most primary social goods for the people they represent. Primary social goods are resources like liberty, opportunities, wealth, and a sense of self-worth (§11, §15). (No, I don’t understand how a sense of self-worth is a resource like wealth either.)

According to utilitarians, primary social goods like wealth are not what is ultimately good in life. What is ultimately good is happiness. So, from their perspective, the parties should be told to write the rules so the people they represent are as happy as possible. By telling the parties that they only care about primary social goods, isn’t Rawls setting up the original position in a way that guarantees the parties reject utilitarianism?

I tried to explain what Rawls was thinking. I said that Rawls thought that happiness is neither society’s business nor its problem. It can’t intrude into your life to make you happier than you want to be (“you would really be better off dating someone else, you know”) and it isn’t society’s problem if you aren’t happy with your share of resources (“we know that you are unhappy about not being able to afford weekly opera tickets, but society only owes you a fair share, not necessarily one that makes you happy”).

That said, Samuel has a good point. These sorts of considerations aren’t supposed to drive the argument. The argument is supposed to be driven by what the parties in the original position would decide. For that to work, the original position has to be neutral between Rawls’s principles and utilitarianism. And it sure does appear that the original position is not neutral here. Nice observation!

How thick does the veil need to be?

One of the most important features of the original position is the veil of ignorance. The decision is supposed to be fair because the parties do not know who they represent. In fact, they know almost nothing about their society.

I asked how far this had to go. Couldn’t they know, say, the relative numbers of left and right handers? If they did, they might decide to devote unequal resources such as desks to right handers on the grounds that there are more of them. So long as they don’t know whether they are right or left handed themselves, that seems fair to me.

Rawls, of course, is worried that the righties might gang up on the lefties. They might, say, deprive the lefties of the right to vote given that they have a ninety percent chance of being righties themselves. Rawls thinks that would clearly be unjust. To avoid this kind of injustice, he isn’t willing to allow any information in to the original position that could be used by the parties to favor one group over another.

Key concepts

  1. The original position
  2. Primary social goods vs. utility (happiness)
  3. The veil of ignorance


There was a handout for this class: 22.RawlsOriginalPosition.handout.pdf