Up@dawn 2.0

Monday, April 25, 2016


Ian Law section 4

We lament living in a world of unfairness. Some succeed while others fall behind. The wealth gap is ever-widening. Social Justice seeps into our everyday conversation as we look to those who can potentially reorder our society to be less partial and more egalitarian. But while we may “feel the Bern” the problem of tackling the sinews of civilization may be intractable. One person who may have come to a solution is the philosopher John Rawls. In his Theory of Justice, he outlines a thought experiment called The Original Position which he hopes can bring a new sense of justice to the world.

The original position is Rawls’s name for the hypothetical “primitive” state of man before civilization existed. At this point, people are essentially free, but must come together to found a society that includes everyone. Humans have to work out exactly how society will function and to whose benefit. The obvious problem is that everyone will tend to create laws favorable to him- or herself Rawls’s attempt to contend with this propensity was dubbed the “Veil of Ignorance.” In order to circumvent the bias inherent in creating one’s ideal society it would be necessary to be blind to the position one would occupy in that society. As Rawls said, “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 were poor, he would most likely propose the contrary principle.” He goes on: No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.” Lacking this insight into one’s own fate, one needs to design a system of justice that will work in the favor of anyone, regardless of what position they occupy. In Rawls’s view, constructing society in this blind manner will lead lead to “Two Principles of Justice.” First, everyone will achieve the maximum amount of liberty possible without infringing on the liberty of others. Second, everyone will have an equal chance at improving their lot in life regardless of where they start.

When these principles are put into practice, it is hoped, what will result is a restructuring of society so that critical goods—those that everyone needs—will be distributed more fairly. No one will go without. Inequality will not be eliminated entirely, but increases to those at the top can only be implemented if they directly benefit those who have the least. Rawls believes, however, that constructing a universal regime would impossible. No single state can rule the world as it would either be despotic or else subject to fractious disputes. Thus, distributive justice must be brought about in each country individually to insure that everyone is free of tyranny and that international conflict is relegated to history.

This is an interesting thought experiment, but asking people to actually ignore everything they know about their own lives to blindly make new laws is unlikely. People will continue to choose policies that they believe will help themselves. It may be possible through virtual technologies to induce such a state, but would that have any effect on the real world. In Part Two, I’ll introduce a recent video game that has something similar to a “Veil of Ignorance.”


  1. Excellent intro to Rawls, Ian!

    "People will continue to choose policies that they believe will help themselves." But doesn't reading Rawls challenge at least the more thoughtful people to justify doing that, and perhaps to realize they can't?

    "It may be possible through virtual technologies to induce such a state, but would that have any effect on the real world" - seems like it would, as the line between real and virtual continues to blur. I look forward to your next installment!

  2. P.S. I love the Dilbert cartoon!