Original position

Original position

The original position is a hypothetical situation developed by American philosopher John Rawls as a thought experiment to replace the imagery of a savage state of nature of prior political philosophers like Thomas Hobbes. In it, the parties select principles that will determine the basic structure of the society they will live in. This choice is made from behind a veil of ignorance, which would deprive participants of information about their particular characteristics: his or her ethnicity, social status, gender and, crucially, Conception of the Good (an individual's idea of how to lead a good life). This forces participants to select principles impartially and rationally.

In social contract theory, persons in the state of nature agree to 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 the role that the state of nature does in the classical social contract tradition of Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and John Locke. The original position figures prominently in his book, A Theory of Justice, and it is one of the most influential ideas in twentieth-century philosophy.[citation needed] It has influenced a variety of thinkers from a broad spectrum of philosophical orientations.

As a thought experiment, the original position is a hypothetical position designed accurately to reflect what principles of justice would be manifest in a society premised on free and fair cooperation between citizens, including respect for liberty, and an interest in reciprocity.[1][2]

In the state of nature, it might be argued that certain persons (the strong and talented) would be able to coerce others (the weak and disabled) by virtue of the fact that the stronger and more talented would fare better in the state of nature. This coercion is sometimes thought to invalidate any contractual arrangement occurring in the state of nature. In the original position, however, representatives of citizens are placed behind a "veil of ignorance", depriving the representatives of information about the individuating 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. As a result, they lack the information with which to threaten their fellows and thus invalidate the social contract they are attempting to agree to.


Nature of the concept

Rawls specifies that the parties in the original position are concerned only with citizens' share of what he calls primary social 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 least advantaged position. Thus, maximin in the original position represents a formulation of social equality.

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. Each citizen is guaranteed a fully adequate scheme of basic liberties, which is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all others;
  2. Social and economic inequalities must satisfy two conditions:
    • to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (the difference principle);
    • attached to positions and offices open to all.

The reason that the least well off member gets benefited is that it is assumed that under the veil of ignorance, under original position, people will be risk averse. This implies that everyone is afraid of being part of the poor members of society, so the social contract is constructed to help the least well off members.

Recently, Thomas Nagel has elaborated on the concept of original position, arguing that social ethics should be built taking into account the tension between original and actual positions.


The concept of the original position was first used by the Hungarian economist John Harsanyi.[3] Harsanyi claimed that a person in the original position would maximize his or her expected utility, rather than choosing minimax. This led him to endorse utilitarianism.


In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Robert Nozick argues that, while the original position may be the just starting point, any inequalities derived from that distribution by means of free exchange are equally just, and that any re-distributive tax is an infringement on people's liberty. He also argues that Rawls's application of the maximin rule to the original position is risk aversion taken to its extreme, and is therefore unsuitable even to those behind the veil of ignorance.

In Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong, Iain King argues that people in the original position should not be risk averse, leading them to adopt the Help Principle (Help someone if your help is worth more to them than it is to you) rather than maximin.[4]

See also


  1. ^ John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 1971. ISBN: 0-674-00078-1
  2. ^ John Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2001.
  3. ^ Harsanyi, J. (1953) "Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-Taking", Journal of Political Economy 61(5):434-5
  4. ^ 'How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time, Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong', ed 2008, pp77-78

Further reading

  • Ken Binmore, Natural Justice, Oxford University Press, 2005.
  • Samuel Freeman, The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, Cambridge University Press, 2002.
  • Thomas Pogge, Realizing Rawls, Cornell University Press, 1989.

External links

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