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 complained about our ordinary 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.

The most important features of the original position

The features of the original position are listed in the handout. These are the very most crucial points.

  1. The parties only care about the people they represent. (Strictly speaking, they care about the next two generations as well, but let’s not speak strictly right now.)

  2. The parties are behind the veil of ignorance. They do not know anything that would enable them to estimate the probability of being helped or hurt by any decision they have to make.

  3. The only thing the parties know about what makes life good for the people they represent is that they need primary social goods. Primary social goods are things that are necessary for any rational plan of life. Rawls thinks that liberty, opportunities, wealth, and a sense of self-worth are all primary social goods (§11, §15).

  4. The parties know the people they represent have psychological limits. They have a sense of justice, meaning they are capable of complying with social rules, but they are also subject to the strains of commitment, meaning that they will not comply with rules that prevent them from satisfying their most important interests.

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 illustrated this by saying they could not know the probability of being right handed. If they knew that there was a ninety percent chance of being right handed, they would gang up on the lefties. That is not because they have any animus towards the left handers. It is just that this is what the rules tell them to do. The rules say they care exclusively about the people they represent. So if there is a gamble that makes sense with nine to one odds, they would take it. Of course, rules that favored right handers over left handers would be unfair. So Rawls prevents the parties from making rules like that by depriving them of any knowledge of how likely it is that they would represent right handers.

Two from Will

Will had two pretty good points. First, he noted that Rawls tells the parties to assume that there will be full compliance with the principles they choose, provided those principles do not run afoul of the strains of commitment. That means they have no reason to consider the question of punishment. Now, as Josh noted, Rawls relaxes the assumption of full compliance later in the book. He thinks you can start with the ideal case of full compliance and then work out how to handle non-compliance later. So he is not assuming that there will be a society of angels and it may well be highly illuminating to start with an ideal case and work your way back to a more realistic one. But it is nonetheless true that punishment occupies a much less significant place in his theory than it does in, say, Locke’s theory. Locke thinks the whole point of political philosophy is to explain how the state comes to have the power to punish. Hobbes is less explicit about it, perhaps because he thought it was incredibly obvious, but he had a similar opinion. Rawls’s mind, however, is elsewhere. I do not know how to explain how we got from there to here.

Second, Will asked me after class how Rawls decides what principles to give to the parties in the original position. Here is what that question means. The parties are going to be asked to compare Rawls’s principles of justice with utilitarianism. But why did he choose those two views to compare? Why not two different theories? Or three, four, or five others? Why aren’t they looking at libertarianism, communism, or conservatism?

Here is how I think Rawls would have answered that question. The original position is a method for settling questions about principles of justice. If you have two sets of principles and you want to see whether one is better than the other, submit them to the parties in the original position and see what the answer is. The method is perfectly general and could, in theory, accommodate any combination you like.

Rawls himself only employed this method to make one comparison, namely, the comparison between his principles and utilitarianism. As you can see, making that comparison involves a lot of work; I shudder at the thought of what a more comprehensive book would have looked like. But others could use the method of the original position to make any comparisons they like.

Key concepts

  1. The original position
  2. The veil of ignorance


Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


There was a handout for this class: 23.RawlsOriginalPosition.handout.pdf