PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday April 18, 2003

[3.] The Original Position.


Rawls belongs to the social contract tradition of political philosophy (along with Hobbes and Locke, among others). But the contract, consent, or agreement with which his theory begins is not an agreement to leave the state of nature and enter into civil society.


Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. (TJ p.11; Cahn p.1038)


So Rawls begins by considering an initial agreement into which individuals living outside of all social institutions would enter in order to establish such institutions. He calls such a situation the Original Position-- the principles of social justice are those that would be chosen by people in this situation.


People in the Original Position are:


1.       behind a Veil of Ignorance. This is the position that we would be in if we were stripped of certain knowledge, viz. knowledge about our particular personalities and positions in society. Imagine that we don't know any particular feature about ourselves (sex, race, intelligence, talent, etc.). We still have knowledge of humans in general and of these general differences; we just don't know which particular classes we belong to.


Among the essential features of this situation is that no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does any one know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance. (TJ p.12; Cahn p.1039)


2.       rational, in that they use the most effective means to reach their goals.


3.       mutually disinterested, in that they take no interest in the well-being of other people.


4.       equal, in that they "all have the same rights in the procedure for choosing principles; each can make proposals, submit reasons for their acceptance, and so on." (JT p.19; Cahn p.1042)


The principles of justice are those that would be chosen by people in the Original Position, people in a position of ignorance with respect to their own circumstances. They are the principles that people in the original position would want to guide society once the veil of ignorance is lifted. Rawls describes the principles of justice as:


those which rational persons concerned to advance their interests would consent to as equals when none are known to be advantaged or disadvantaged by social and natural contingencies. (JT p.19, Cahn p.1042)


The idea behind using the Original Position to identify principles of social justice is this: If you don't have knowledge about what your own particular personal characteristics are, then you cannot set up institutions to protect the interests of those with whom you share those characteristics.


An example from Rawls:


if a man knew that he was wealthy, he might find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust; if he knew that he was poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle. To represent the desired restrictions one imagines a situation in which everyone is deprived of this sort of information. One excludes the knowledge of those contingencies which sets men at odds and allows them to be guided by their prejudices. (TJ 18-19; Cahn 1042)


This is the role that fairness plays in Rawls' theory: "the principles of justice are agreed to in an initial situation that is fair." (TJ 12; Cahn 1039). This is why he calls the theory "Justice is Fairness."




[4.] The Principles of Justice.


[4.1.] Not Utilitarianism.


Before noting what principles would be chosen in the OP, Rawls claims that the principle of utility would not be chosen:


Off-hand it hardly seems likely that persons who view themselves as equals, entitled to press their claims upon one another, would agree to a principle that would require lesser life prospects for some simply for the sake of a greater sum of advantages enjoyed by others. Since each desires to protect his interests, his capacity to advance his conception of the good, no one has a reason to acquiesce in an enduring loss for himself in order to bring about a greater net balance of satisfaction. the principle of utility is incompatible with the conception of social cooperation among equals for mutual advantage. (TJ p.14; Cahn p.1040; emphasis added)[1]


[1] Rawls also considers, and rejects, the following theories are acceptable principles of justice:


intuitionism: (1) there is more than one basic general moral rule; (2) sometimes these moral rules conflict with one another (e.g. "Do not lie"; "Do not harm innocent people" -- sometimes in order to avoid harming an innocent person, one must lie); (3) there is no method of more general principle we can use to decide which moral principle is more important; (4) we instead must rely on our intuition to judge in each case which rule to follow and which to break. Proponent of this view: G. E. Moore.

perfectionism: the good (that which has intrinsic value) is "the realization of human excellence in the various forms of culture" (JT 25; Cahn 1045). For this reason, society ought "to arrange institutions and to define the duties and obligations of individuals so as to maximize the achievement of human excellence in art, science, and culture." (JT 325) Proponents of this view: Aristotle, Nietzsche. [Important: this is not the same as the perfectionism that is found in Plato's political philosophy!]


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