Nuts and Bolts 015: The Original Position

nuts and bolts Political Philosophy

In the Nuts and Bolts series I lay out some of the basic concepts thrown around in my areas of interest – philosophy, theology and biblical studies – and explain them for those unfamiliar with them.

This time I’m looking at the “Original Position,” a term that originates with John Rawls, one of the most significant political philosophers of the 20th century. Rawls, like many people in the Western democratic tradition, advanced a form of social contractarianism; the view that the principles of just government are grounded in an agreement (a “social contract”) between the governed and those who govern. Those who govern must govern according to the terms of that contract, and in fact fellow citizens should only support policies or laws that are in keeping with that contract.

But what sort of contract would that be? Is it an overtly stated contract that we all actually agree to? No. Like many other social contractarians (e.g. John Locke), Rawls realised that the types of contracts that everyone might actually agree to could be significantly flawed in all kinds of ways. We want to think of social arrangements in terms of contracts partly because it stresses the fact that each side has the power to negotiate with the other on equal footing with them. But this is often not the case. Simply out of ignorance, for example, we might agree to terms that are actually unjust to us and unfairly advantageous to others. What if members of an ethnic minority in your society were willing to agree to a social contract that, unbeknownst to them, actually had the consequence that they were exploited and seriously disadvantaged when it came to, say, employment? What if all the kind, gentle people were happy to endure conditions in, say, trade negotiations that were flagrantly unfair to them and helpful to cutthroat, assertive, dishonest swindlers? So the actual contracts that people happen to form aren’t really good enough here.

What is needed to come up with the standard of what sorts of laws and public policies are acceptable, then, is a kind of hypothetical social contract, one that we would arrive at under idealised conditions. And what sort of conditions are those, you might ask? Here is where the title of this blog comes into play: The constitutional basis of law and government in a just society, says Rawls, are those that we – or at least ideal versions of ourselves – would formulate from the perspective of the Original Position.

The original position is a thought experiment – a place where we imagine what we would do if we were gathered around the boardroom table of society to decide on the basic rules – the constitutional essentials of government that will constrain all public policy. If we take a fairly “left leaning” approach to the role of government (as it is fair to say that John Rawls did), we are primarily asking basic questions about how society’s resources are to be “divided up.” And here is the problem: How do we, as individuals with our own agendas, our own goals, our own preferences and desires, our own outlook on life and vision of “the good life,” fairly make decisions when taking on a task like this? Human nature being what it is, there will be a tendency to create social structures, laws, policies, practices, institutions, that favour people in our circumstances to the disadvantage of others. Your tax dollars for my ends. We might – intentionally or otherwise – make life worse in society for those who do not share our position in life or our interests. And so on. How do we avoid this?

One of the ways that the original position avoids this is by stripping the parties to this hypothetical contract of knowledge. People in the original position are behind a famous “veil of ignorance.” Because of the veil of ignorance, the original position “is a state of affairs in which the parties are equally represented as moral persons and the outcome is not conditioned by arbitrary contingencies or the relative balance of social forces” [emphasis added].1 The outcome is not so condition, Rawls explains, because the veil of ignorance filters out those accidental, contingent features of their real lives that woukld skew their perspective in normal decision making. To explain just what knowledge the veil of ignorance veils from us, I’ll introduce another of Rawls’s terms: The Circumstances of Justice. Justice is something that is applied to people in the circumstances in which they happen to find themselves. We might be in business, we might be an employee of a business, we might be a farmer, we might be a carpenter, we might be a stay-at-home mum, or any one of a number of other things. We might be male or female, black or white. In addition to this sort of diversity in society, says Rawls, there also exists “a diversity of philosophical and religious belief, and of political and social doctrines.”2 Surveying this list of arbitrary facts that might befall us in society including all of the above, Rawls says “this constellation of conditions I shall refer to as the circumstances of justice.”

In the original position we are aware that the circumstances of justice exist in the world that we are making decisions about, but we distance ourselves from them. We do not know what our circumstances amid the circumstances of justice will be. The veil of ignorance prevents us from knowing any facts that would unduly influence us as we make the rules, so that we have to be prepared for the rules to apply to all of us without partiality, and to nobody’s special advantage or disadvantage. So we must make decisions without knowing how wealthy we are, how attractive we will be, what race we will be – or, among other things, what religious beliefs we will hold. While one’s privately held belief system, especially if it is highly complex, is excluded from the knowledge of those in the original position, Rawls obviously cannot have people in the original position knowing nothing, so he says in the original position, “For the most part I shall suppose that the parties possess all general information. No general facts are closed to them.”3

The original position is thus set up as a hypothetical place of decision making where people are impartial and treat all parties to the social contract as equals. This impartiality is meant to be ensured by the fact that we the decision makers do not know which position in society we will fill. We do not know what circumstances of justice we will find ourselves in, so we create arrangements that do not advocate, disavow, advantage or disadvantage any of the circumstances of justice. But we do know the “general facts.”

This raises some interesting questions. Among the circumstances of justice are very different perspectives on environmental issues like climate change and the sorts of measures that are warranted to address it. But people in the original position, it would seem, cannot favour any view on the matter. Or is this the point where the lecturer pipes up and declares that his own view – you know, the one supported by the evidence – should count as “general information” that people in the original position should be aware of? What about religious views? Rawls himself clearly counted religious beliefs as belonging to the circumstances of justice, and therefore the veil of ignorance should shield us from our own religious views when making any decisions in the original position. What then of the religious view that in fact all people know that God exists and they also know some of what God requires of us? Paradoxically, it looks like Rawls wants us to imagine ourselves going into the original position assuming that this religious belief is false. These questions have been addressed by plenty of people (in fact my doctoral dissertation was devoted to addressing the implications of political liberalism for religion), and I will have more to say about that in future (and I have said it in a couple of podcast episodes already), but my point is just that the whole thought experiment that is the original position does not cleanly answer any questions. It gives rise to a whole slew of them!

That said, and although I profoundly disagree with some of the conclusions that Rawls himself drew from the exercise, I think there’s something fundamentally right about using tools like the original position. The question we should ask of ourselves and our fellow citizens when it comes to the principles of law and policy is not “what do you want for yourselves right now? More money for people in your circumstances? Better conditions for people who are in your husband’s circumstances?  Fewer opportunities for people in Joe foreigner’s circumstances? Easier access to this piece of property that you want for your project? More pay? Lower wages for your staff?” Those are not foundational questions, and we should look at those issues only after we have considered more fundamental ones. Our actual answers to those questions may well be systematically bad. We are selfish! We are ignorant. We don’t adequately consider others. We don’t always appreciate the implications of certain types of law for us. The type of compact we really want to enter as a society, then, is one where we are not biased towards or against ourselves or anyone else. It is one where we know the most important facts (and that is where the controversy properly lies), and we apply them across society in such a way that it is just too risky to disadvantage anyone, because the disadvantaged one may turn out to be us. For this reason political liberalism has been described as an exercise in cutting up the cake – without knowing which slice you were going to get! The decisions that we would, on careful reflection, make under those circumstances – in the original position – should form the basis of our society, said Rawls.

Interestingly – and this will be my parting thought – recall that in the original position when people are making decisions that will affect people in the real world, the veil of ignorance keeps them from knowing what circumstances they will find themselves in. Now – make a decision, under those hypothetical circumstances – on whether or not abortion should, as a rule, be permitted. Oh, and here’s what the veil of ignorance keeps you from knowing: In the real world in the actual circumstances in question, your circumstances of justice includes the fact that you’re an unborn baby, gestation eight weeks.

Glenn Peoples

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  1. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, 2nd ed.), 104. []
  2. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 110. []
  3. Rawls, Political Liberalism, 122. []

{ 14 comments… add one }

  • colin April 20, 2012, 4:13 am

    Hi Glenn

    Your parting shot begs the question, because the veil of ignorance doesn’t shield you from the general knowledge that you’re a person, so depending on your view, that might rule out an 8 week fetus.

  • colin April 20, 2012, 4:17 am

    Or to put it another way, in the same way that you might want to include in the pool of possible circumstances of justice that of an 8 week fetus, someone else might want to include that of a chimpanzee.

  • Glenn April 20, 2012, 8:02 am

    That’s not correct, colin. My parting shot does not beg the question, since the original position doesn’t even assume that you exist in the real world.

    (What’s more, it is literally impossible for that parting shot to beg the question, since it is not arguing for a proposition. What’s more, I have argued elsewhere that we should see ourselves in the past as an unborn child as *us*.)

  • colin April 20, 2012, 10:59 am

    “the original position doesn’t even assume that you exist in the real world.”
    So you’d be careful not to enact legislation that discriminated against fairies and elves?

    Surely the point is that you make choices as if you are real, you just don’t know who you are yet.

    “literally impossible for that parting shot to beg the question, since it is not arguing for a proposition”
    Sure. So you’re saying you weren’t making a point, just typing a string of random words. My mistake.

    “I have argued elsewhere”
    Not conclusively :)

  • colin April 20, 2012, 11:03 am

    Or is this the point where the [pro life activist] pipes up and declares that his own view – you know, the one supported by the evidence – should count as “general information”

  • Glenn April 20, 2012, 8:24 pm

    “Surely the point is that you make choices as if you are real, you just don’t know who you are yet.”

    I think it goes beyond that. Even if the society was not one that you were a part of, you could still, on liberalism, assess the justice of the system created, knowing full well that you were never going to be a part of that society.

    I’ll ignore the quip about random words – and of course you’re welcome to your opinion of the quality of arguments I have offered elsewhere, provided you took the opportunity there to explain where the argument went wrong.

    But if I follow you, colin, your comments imply that there actually cannot be a non-question begging liberal stance on abortion. Is that right? (This question is relevant because of the way that Rawls tries to solve the abortion issue, and because of the way that modified versions of political liberalism make improvements on Rawls.)

  • colin April 21, 2012, 3:53 am

    “you could still, on liberalism, assess the justice of the system created, knowing full well that you were never going to be a part of that society.”
    I’m not saying that you couldn’t make fair judgements in this case, but it seems to have nothing to do with the original position thought experiment.

    “provided you took the opportunity there to explain where the argument went wrong.”
    Well I seem to recall we had a rollicking discussion about identity and making pens from other pens. Of course in my version of events I came out the clear winner :)

    Here’s a somewhat formal description of the argument I think you’re making (though of course you weren’t arguing for a proposition at all). You’re right, it’s not begging the question.

    The general knowledge offered in the original position thought experiment specifies that I could be any human person.
    8 week fetuses are human persons
    Therefore in the original position thought experiment, I must consider the possibility that I am an 8 week fetus.
    Therefore I should legislate against abortion of 8 week fetuses.

    So my issue with this is that anyone who would grant you the premise that “8 week fetuses are human persons” would already have no problem with the conclusion, without you getting all fancy with thought experiments. So why bring it up?

  • Glenn Peoples April 21, 2012, 4:59 pm

    “it seems to have nothing to do with the original position thought experiment.”

    Don’t be too sure. Of course Rawls thought of the original position in the way I described, with people making decisions that will affect them. In – in principle – there’s nothing to stop anyone sitting down at that board table, provided they understood that they were not to favour anyone. But this question would really take us off track here (as I think the main track is the one below).

    “Therefore I should legislate against abortion of 8 week fetuses.”

    No. I mean yes, of course I think that, but no, that’s not at all what I said or meant here. You’re projecting an argument that was never made or implied. My point was to force people into the realisation that the (common but flatly wrong) assumption that liberalism by its very nature should support abortion rights is just incorrect. People who do see the unborn as counting in the measuring of consequences for people will of course reject that – and correctly so. [Elsewhere I’ve defended that view, and in that discussion, in the end your solution was to simply throw away the concept of numerical identity altogether as useless (!!!). I think that’s actually crazy as you know, but it’s not the discussion I wanted to have again here.]

    In asking why anyone should draw attention to this, you show that you apparently think it’s a fact not worth highlighting (or that you didn’t realise what I was saying because you were busy projecting an argument). But I think it’s very worthwhile indeed.

  • bethyada April 21, 2012, 7:48 pm

    Libertarianism would be consistent with some of this. Also that within the constraints of acceptable work (whatever that turns out to be), a man may expect to keep the fruit of his labour.

    On religion, he is incorrect because the assumption of no God is itself a theological position.

  • Matthew Flannagan April 21, 2012, 7:56 pm

    Has anyone noticed Rawls position involves essentially asking what laws we would come up with if we were fully informed fully rational and impartial. In otherwords, assume we have the same properties as God, what would we command?

  • Glenn April 21, 2012, 8:00 pm

    Well, Rawls also insists that we decide nothing that would disadvantage a person with one of many worldviews, sets of desires, views of the good etc. He basically asks us to assume that we’re not fully informed on those things, that we could be wrong – and so we don’t even know what we actually believe about them.

  • Glenn April 21, 2012, 8:07 pm

    Bethyada, with Rawls (and those who follow similar ideas e.g. Gerald Gaus) the devil is entirely in the assumptions. Are religious beliefs justified in the original position? I say yes of course – Rawls assumed they were not. Effectively people end up pouring all the crucial stuff into the general facts that the players in the original position should all be aware of before the thought experiment even gets off the ground.

  • colin April 24, 2012, 1:45 am

    “that liberalism by its very nature should support abortion rights is just incorrect.”
    OK, if that’s all you were getting at, then sure. I didn’t know it was an issue.

  • Glenn April 24, 2012, 7:20 pm

    colin, I think most of us (or at least, those with an interest in politics) are familiar with the notion that liberalism involves – by its very nature – things like abortion, state creation of same sex marriage, you know, things that theologically conservative Christians are generally opposed to.

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