The Mormon Rawls Project: The Original Position and the Council in Heaven I

Authors note: The following is the second in my Mormon Rawls Project Series. It is also the expansion of my first ever post here at FPR.

When Rawls develops the concept which he labels “justice as fairness.” This does not mean that a just society is one which is fair, but instead that principles of justice must be determined under conditions which are fair to all.

While fairness may not be something commonly found in the world, we can imagine what the conditions of fairness might appear like. This is what Rawls does when he introduces the original position (OP). The original position is a hypothetical situation where representatives come together to determine the principles of justice that will govern the basic structure of society (the basic structure being the political and economic institutions which impacts ones life-chances) . It is these principles that would guide the development of a constitution and further development of law and policy.

In order to ensure that these principles are chosen under fair conditions. Rawls introduces the device known as the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance prevents the participants from knowing the particulars of their own situation and standing in the world. They are unaware of their own wealth, gender, race, and geographical situation. They are essentially stripped of the knowledge that might lead than to pick principles of justice which benefit themselves or people like themselves rather than principles that benefit all and which could be accepted by all.

They are not completely ignorant for they are aware of, if not knowledgeable about a range of topics including law, economics, psychology, science, and sociology. In other words, they are aware of the facts needed to understand the human condition. They know that there is wealth and poverty but the do not know is they themselves are poor (or rich).

Susan Moller Okin argues that while Rawls’ theory is “sometimes viewed as excessively rationalistic, individualistic, and abstracted from real human beings,” it should instead be viewed as a “voice of responsibility, care, and concern for others.” We can find this to be the case in the original position. Since the parties are referred to as mutually disinterested it may seem that the construct is overly rationalistic and individualistic. However, Okin argues that this would be a misreading or misunderstanding of the original position because “Rawls does have to rely on empathy, benevolence, and equal concern for others as for self, in order to have the parties come up with the principles they choose, especially the difference principle.” Rawls addresses this when he says that the “combination of mutual disinterest and the veil of ignorance achieves the same purpose as benevolence. For this combination of conditions forces each person in the original position to take the good of others into account.”

Now Rawls emphasizes that the veil of ignorance does not impose benevolence because such a “strong condition” is not needed. Instead, what the veil of ignorance does is require the participants to consider others in their deliberation about the principles of justice. While rational self-interest plays a part in such deliberations, we are not aware of which “self” we are because of the conditions of the veil or ignorance. Okin goes as far as to say that the veil “is such a demanding stipulation that it converts what would, without it, be self-interest into benevolence or the equal concern for others” While Rawls shies away from the term benevolence, Okin argues that the veil of ignorance at least delivers a concern for others with the power of benevolence. I fully agree with Okin’s interpretation of the original position. While the original position may incorporate certain elements of rational self-interest, the primary purpose of the original position construct is to arrive at principles of justice which go beyond the mere pursuit of self interest. Since the parties are unaware of their own particular situations, the only way in which one can look after one’s own self-interest is to look after the interests of all equally.

One critique of the original position approach to determining the principles of justice is that of Michael Sandel. He questions the value of making judgments about justice, particularly if justice is the first virtue of social institutions as Rawls claims, without an awareness of the common good. Here Sandel is drawing upon Aristotle who places a major emphasis on the common good determining our political destiny. However, I think the Sandel is getting ahead of us. The principles of justice are the common good, in that the original position provides us guiding principles that are in the good of all: the common good. While justice as fairness is neutral as to the “good life,” it is heavily committed to a conception of the common good, though it does approach the concept from a different perspective.

While Rawls’ argument for a liberal democracy may not seem to have much relevance to the council is heaven, his idea of an original position does. The council in heaven, like the original position, is a gathering where the rules (and in both cases, we are talking more about broad principles than detailed rules) that govern human existence are decided upon. Additionally the participants in the council in heaven are unaware of their fortunes like those in the original position. The notable exception, at least according to traditional LDS thought, being that they would likely have been aware of our gender in the council in heaven. In the original position, the participants would be aware of gender distinctions, but for the purposes of the moral exercise would not be aware of their own.

It is unlikely that at the time of the council that we would have been aware of their geographical destination, wealth, or race (these three things all being intertwined). Along these lines, I would argue that those in the council choose agency out of principle and not out of self-interest, the type of outcome that Rawls’ original position would hope to accomplish.

In the original position, the choice is primarily between liberal egalitarianism (Rawls), utilitarianism, and other forms of social/political justice. In the council of heaven, the choice is between moral agency and moral coercion. Like most liberal theories, Rawls’ thought sides heavily with moral agency and individual freedom (usually along the lines of what is know as Kantian autonomy). As Rawls’ work develops, he distances himself from his Kantian roots, though many critics think that he falls to do so in a very significant way. However, this leads we to wonder whether the LDS idea of agency could be compatible with Kantian autonomy (a future post for sure).

Both Richard Bushman and Teryl Givens have pointed to the similarlity between the LDS conception of the council in heaven and the original position (with the veil of ignorance) of Rawls. As an LDS Rawlsian, I see the similarities. Yet, I think this lead to this question: what implications might this connection have for Mormon thought? That is where we will pick up next.

19 replies »

  1. This is a fascinating post. I think that when I investigated the church in the first place, that the divine council and the notion that we knew the potential risks in this world and chose to come here for the opportunities to grow was one of those ideas that really struck me as profound. It seems to me that we would not have opted into a world that did not offer the best potential for the most people regardless of position, rank or place of birth. That’s why the notion that those who never hear of christ are condemned is absurd. Why would we want to be in such a world and why would a perfect designer create the world in such a fashion. The LDS view on this makes so much more sense.

  2. Paul here is the quote from Bushman:

    “Terryl Givens, who some of you know because of his book By the Hand of Mormon, about the reception of the Book of Mormon down through the last century and a half, is writing a book on premortal life. And Joseph Smith and Mormons are going to get about half a page. He’s gone back to the very beginning and found that through human history, in order to understand the meaning of life, you had to postulate where we came from. What were the conditions under which human life emerged? Even a very secular liberal like John Rawls, who is probably the preeminent spokesman for liberal political philosophy in the twentieth century, has as his key idea that we were all in heaven. There was a time before when it was proposed to us as intelligences that we would be sent to earth and here take our place. And the way he turns it into a liberal position is that no one in this preexistence world knew where he would be placed. They might be the poorest of the poor in a remote part Africa or they might be the richest of the rich on 5th Avenue in Salt Lake City-not Salt Lake City [audience laughter] it’s in New York. Not only would we not know in advance, in the covenant he postulates we made was that all of us, we’ll agree to go down there taking our chances, but only on the provision that those who get the better deal will take care of those who get the worse deal. And that’s the basis of his liberal philosophy.”

    The transcript of the full speech can be found above (I have added the hyper-link to original text). Bushman is also describing the context of Givens’ comment which is has book on the idea of pre-mortal existence in Western thought. I have not read it yet (waiting for my birthday next month). However, I heard Givens give a forum on the topic at BYU-Idaho last school year. He mentioned Rawls during the Q and A session. I followed up on his point briefly during the same session.

  3. Daniel Ortner,

    Thanks for your kind words. I am going to comment further soon on how this influences my interpretation of Mormon Thought.You might also find the Givens’ book interesting. His lecture on the topic really was quite interesting.

  4. It should be noted that neither Givens of Bushman says much on Rawls, but there comments help motivate me to tackle the topic, one which I have been playing with for a decade.

  5. What does Rawls have to say about a unanimous agreement to the original position. In the council in heaven, a third of the spirits opt out and are cast out. Doesn’t Rawls claim that if given the original position, all would come to the principles he lays forth starting in ToJ?

  6. Emma,

    Good point. They way that I look at it follows two paths of thought. First: the idea of agency has grasp on us not because everyone in the council accepted agency but because everyone who came to earth accepted it. Second, following the thinking of more Political Liberalism than TJ, we can likely view those unwilling to accept agency as unreasonable. Therefore, not everyone might actually accept the principles, but everyone reasonably could. Something like that (this obviously needs further explanation but this is the best I can do via smartphone tonight).

    Thanks for bringing this up. I will have to give it additional thought.

  7. Hey Chris,
    Interesting topic. Have you submitted your proposal yet? My goal is to have mine in by December, but it’s slow going.

    I’m curious to know what you will do with the concepts of foreordination and merit based placement on earth. With forordination we have the idea of “I was *supposed* to be born at this place and this time for this purpose. And then there’s the idea of having merited a certain (favorable) placement on earth because of preexistent valiance. In direct contrast to your thesis, I’ve heard many LDS use these concepts to justify earthly inequality (and I’m not even talking race). I personally have problems with that line of thinking, but it definately is part of LDS thought on the preexistence, especially given the scripture regarding “many noble and great” spirits.

    I’m going to go even further to play devil’s advocate here. Is there anything in LDS thought to suggest the council in heaven was concerned with ensuring a just distribution of wealth and power? It seems the frightening thing about the LDS version is the great risks involved in heading to earth. Could we argue that it was Satan’s followers who wanted to plan against the risks in advance by ensuring a coercive equality? Does this resemble the Rawlsian view?

  8. Heh, somewhere in the 6th paragraph I was thinking that I would comment on how one could make a case that the council in heaven almost fit the bill for the original position.

    And yes, that does indicate that I’d already forgotten the title of the post.

    Great stuff, Chris!

  9. Sheldon,
    The point of the original position/veil of ignorance is not establishing the just distribution of wealth or power for its own sake. The point is that a relative just distribution of wealth is a byproduct of individuals trying to maximize their own utility from the OP/behind the V of I.

  10. Brad,
    Right. I was just wondering if Chris would expand on discussing the similarities and differences between the Mormon use of the idea of preexistence and Rawls use of the idea. That’s probably for one of his future posts.

    Beyond the idea of “people existing before the world,” I’m straining to see similarities. It seems Rawls hypothetical OP people and our preexistent spirits are up to completely different things in that state. Furthermore, the states of ignorance that the veil is veiling are exactly opposite. Rawls has the veil drawn across the future, and for us the veil refers to our ignorance of the preexistence. In fact, we believe we knew a lot more in the preexistence about our future earth life than we currently know about the preexistence. The ignorance is definitely retrospective, not forward looking.

    I think there’s a lot of cool stuff for this project, I’m just curious to see where Chris take is from here.

  11. Sheldon,

    Let me see if I can cover all of your points. Thanks for bringing them up. I will brake this up into multiple comments for organization purposes.

    “I’m curious to know what you will do with the concepts of foreordination and merit based placement on earth.”

    I am not completely sure about foreordination. I tend to view the idea of the noble and greats one found in Abraham as referring to those who have become knows as the noble and great one in our earthly narrative and do not think that they must be viewed as somehow more noble and great in the pre-existence. This is not to say that we did not come here for a purpose, but I also think that is largely a shared purpose.

  12. As for the idea of merit-based placement on earth, I completely reject it. All who came to earth existed with God and sided with him in the council (this ties into my response to Emma above). Those who claim that they where born in the US, in the Church, or in wealth because of some sort of valiance in the pre-existence are looking for reasons to be prideful about things which they have no evidence of actually having done. I tend to think that we come here with equal more worth. This could be explained further I am sure. Rawls reject the idea of desert. In other words, he rejects the idea that somehow some people deserve their place in society or wealth (either positive or negative) because of some moral or natural reason. This is actually the area that first attracted me to Rawls (it is also similar to Nibley’s critique of 1970s and 1980s greed which I came across after Rawls). This ultimately is very much at the heart of Rawls’ view of distributive justice.

  13. “Is there anything in LDS thought to suggest the council in heaven was concerned with ensuring a just distribution of wealth and power?”
    No. The point is that the council and the original position both seek to establish (rather abstract) principles that govern aspects of humen existence. In addition, both represent a form of philosophical constructivism since we either do not remember the event, or it is hypothetical. Yet, the construct is used as a form of moral justification. As to the idea of just distribution or equality, the Book of Mormon does that for me (more later).

  14. “It seems Rawls hypothetical OP people and our preexistent spirits are up to completely different things in that state.”

    I am not denying that they have major differences. However, in form, they have similarities. In addition, Mormons think of the council, and rhetorically use it, in a way very similar to the way that Rawlsians use the Original Position.

  15. “Rawls has the veil drawn across the future, and for us the veil refers to our ignorance of the preexistence. In fact, we believe we knew a lot more in the preexistence about our future earth life than we currently know about the preexistence. The ignorance is definitely retrospective, not forward looking.”

    This is important and I am glad you brought it up (not bad for an English major). I am assuming that the participants in the council in heaven may have known about the condition of earth existence. However, I do not think at the time of the council that they knew where they would place in those conditions. They chose agency without knowing whether they would be rich or poor, powerful or oppressed, or even when they would come to earth. They may have known about these hardships but I do not think they would known exactly what particular hardship they themselves would face. This is similar to the veil of ignorance in the original position in that the participants are not completely ignorant; instead they are ignorant of their own particular station in life. The veil, as we call it, that keeps us from recalling the preexistence is not a big part of my argument, though it might connect LDS thinking to early forms of social contract thinking (Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau) whereby an actual contract is entered into by citizens long ago which we have no record or knowledge of actually happening. That will have to wait for a future day.

    It is fun to get this out. I have been thinking about this stuff forever. Sheldon, and everyone else, please ask follow up questions or clarification questions. I am also up for advice on ways to better articulate some of these LDS themes.

  16. Thanks for the replies, Chris. Interesting stuff. I don’t have a lot of time to reply right now. But I think this is good:

    “Yet, the construct is used as a form of moral justification.”

    I think one of the powerful things about the preexistence is how it functions as theodicy. I remember on my mission a guy said “How can God hold me responsible; I didn’t ask to be born.” Which then prompted a discussion of the preexistence. There is something about the idea of participating in the plannng and purposes of earth life that make the whole program more palatable and justifiable. It seems Rawls was tapping into that same need for preexistent choice and planning as a way of envision a more just society. It beats the secular and traditional Christian notion of having been created at birth and thrust into a mess with no choice or concept regarding what we were getting into.

  17. You wrote: However, I do not think at the time of the council that they knew where they would place in those conditions. They chose agency without knowing whether they would be rich or poor, powerful or oppressed, or even when they would come to earth.

    How does this work with the idea of foreordination? I copied this from the True to the Faith manual:
    Jesus Christ was foreordained to carry out the Atonement, becoming “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world,” (Revelation 13:8; see also 1 Peter 1:19–21). The scriptures tell of others who were foreordained. The prophet Abraham learned about his foreordination when he received a vision in which he saw “many of the noble and great ones” among the spirits in the premortal spirit world. He said: “God saw these souls that they were good, and he stood in the midst of them, and he said: These I will make my rulers; for he stood among those that were spirits, and he saw that they were good; and he said unto me: Abraham, thou art one of them; thou wast chosen before thou wast born” (Abraham 3:22–23). The Lord told Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). John the Baptist was foreordained to prepare the people for the Savior’s mortal ministry (see Isaiah 40:3; Luke 1:13–17; 1 Nephi 10:7–10).

    The doctrine of foreordination applies to all members of the Church, not just to the Savior and His prophets. Before the creation of the earth, faithful women were given certain responsibilities and faithful men were foreordained to certain priesthood duties. As people prove themselves worthy, they will be given opportunities to fulfill the assignments they then received.

    Doesn’t that argue against the point you were making?

  18. Emma,

    No it does not. I am not arguing that the council and the original position are the exact same things, instead I am arguing that they are similar forms of philosophical justification. I partially address your point in #12 (as well as 13, 14, and 15. However, knowing that they had a religious calling does not mean that they knew they “would be rich or poor, powerful or oppressed…” Additionally, there is no way to know (I do not think so, at least) whether said foreordination took place before or after the council. I am also assuming (and we will likely part ways) that the concept of the council and these verses about foreordination are very much symbolic.

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