The original position is a social contract mechanism used by the philosopher John Rawls to establish the hypothetical conditions of fairness within which hypothetical participants will select the principles of justice. In many ways, the original position is cross between the state of nature found in Locke and Rousseau and Kant’s construct of the categorical imperative.
Justice for Rawls is the social virtue that will govern the basic structure of society which includes the range of economic and political institutions that impact and influence the life prospects of individuals. By keeping the focus of justice on social institutions, Rawls’ theory is more political than that of Kant. In the original position, we imagine what a group of participants would choose as the principles of justice of justice if they were unaware of their own particular situation and place in the world. These rational agents would be knowledgeable about the state of the world, but they would not know whether they themselves are rich or poor, black or white, or even whether they are male or female. Yet they would know that they could be rich or poor, black or white, and male or female. This identity-filter is what Rawls calls the veil of ignorance.
The function of the veil of ignorance is to push them toward principles of justice that would be reasonably acceptable and in some way beneficial to all. Hence, we would not choose a social arrangement that would solely or primarily benefit the rich if we knew that we ourselves could be poor or if we knew that we ourselves are likely to be poor. Likewise, we would not choose a social arrangement that heavily favors males if we knew that there was at least a 50 percent chance that we would be a female.
Rawls argues that the participants in the original position, under the conditions of the veil of ignorance, would choose two principles of justice. The first would require that all people have equal claim the basic liberties. These would include many of the liberties secured by the Bill of Rights and other amendments to the United States Constitution including the full range of civil liberties, civil rights, and political rights. These rights are universal and absolute. This heavy priority given to rights seems to also reinforce the image of Rawls as overly abstract.
The second principle has two parts. First, positions of power and wealth must be open to all. Second, inequalities of wealth are only just if they benefit most the least well off in society. This second part is known as the difference principle. While inequality is allowed in order to reap the benefits of competition and innovation, such inequalities are only accepted to the extent that they benefit everyone and not just the top tiers of the socio-economic ladder. This principle requires a robust redistribution of wealth.
The late feminist political theorist Susan Moller Okin saw great potential in the original position, often the focus of feminist criticism. 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.”
Rawls emphasized 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 of 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. 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.