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Original position

From Academic Kids

The original position is a hypothetical situation created by philosopher John Rawls as a thought experiment. It figures prominently in his book, A Theory of Justice.

In social contract theory, persons in the state of nature agree on the provisions of a contract that defines the basic rights and duties of citizens in a civil society. In Rawls's theory, justice as fairness, the original position plays a role that is analogous to the state of nature in the classical social contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke.

In the state of nature, it might be argued that certain persons (the strong and talented) would have an advantage over others (the weak and disabled) by virtue of the fact that the stronger and more talented would fare better in the state of nature. In the original position, representatives of citizens are placed behind a veil of ignorance, depriving the representatives of information about the morally irrelevant characteristics of the citizens they represent. Thus, the representative parties would be unaware of the talents and abilities, ethnicity and gender, religion or belief system of the citizens they represent.

Rawls specifies that the parties in the original position are concerned only with citizens' share of what he calls the primary goods, which include basic rights as well as economic and social advantages. Rawls also argues that the representatives in the original position would adopt the maximin rule as their principle for evaluating the choices before them. Borrowed from game theory, maximin stands for maximizing the minimum, i.e. making the choice that produces the highest payoff for the worst outcome.

In the social contract, citizens in a state of nature contract with each other to establish a state of civil society. For example, in the Lockean state of nature, the parties agree to establish a civil society in which the government has limited powers and the duty to protect the persons and property of citizens. In the original position, the representative parties select principles of justice that are to govern the basic structure of society. Rawls argues that the representative parties in the original position would select two principles of justice:

  1. The liberty principle, which guarantees an adequate set of basic liberties (e.g. freedom of speech and conscience) to all citizens.
  2. The difference principle, which requires that social and economic inequalities be arranged so as to benefit the least well-off group in society.

The original position has been criticized on a variety of grounds. For example, it has been argued that the representative parties in the original position reflect an impoverished moral conception of the person. In addition, it is frequently argued that the veil of ignorance imposes the impossible burden that persons deliberate without the attributes that make them capable of choice. Finally, critics argue that the set up of the original position jury rigs the outcome. The debate over these objections is outside the scope of this entry.

The original position is one of the most influential ideas in twentieth-century philosophy. It has influenced a variety of thinkers from a broad spectrum of philosophical orientations.

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