Original position

A visual depiction of philosopher John Rawls' hypothetical veil of ignorance. Citizens making choices about their society are asked to make them from an "original position" of equality (left) behind a "veil of ignorance" (wall, center), without knowing what gender, race, abilities, tastes, wealth, or position in society they will have (right). Rawls claims this will cause them to choose "fair" policies.

The original position (OP) 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 the original position, 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: their 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.

As a thought experiment, the original position is a hypothetical position designed to accurately 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.

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 Rawl's 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. It has influenced a variety of thinkers from a broad spectrum of philosophical orientations.


The concept of the original position was first used by the Hungarian economist John Harsanyi.[3] Harsanyi argued that a person in the original position would maximize their expected utility, rather than choosing minimax.

Nature of the conceptEdit

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.

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.

Recently, the original position has been modelled mathematically along Wright-Fisher's diffusion, classical in population genetics.[4] The original position has also been used as an argument for negative eugenics.[5]


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.[6]

In Liberalism and the Limits of Justice[7], Michael Sandel has criticized Rawls's notion of a veil of ignorance, pointing out that it is impossible, for an individual, to completely prescind from her beliefs and convictions (from her Me ultimately), as is required by Rawls's thought experiment. More recently, the psychological implausibility of Rawls's theory has been highlighted using possible worlds, in a paper [8] which stresses some problematic points of Rawls's proposal.[original research?]

See alsoEdit


  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): 434–35
  4. ^ Mostapha Benhenda A model of deliberation based on Rawls’s political liberalism Soc Choice Welf (2011) 36: 121–78
  5. ^ Shaw, David (2006). Genetic Morality. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang. p. 147. ISBN 3-03911-149-3. What Rawls says is that “Over time a society is to take steps to preserve the general level of natural abilities and to prevent the diffusion of serious defects.” The key words here are “preserve” and “prevent”. Rawls clearly envisages only the use of negative eugenics as a preventative measure to ensure a good basic level of genetic health for future generations. To jump from this to “make the later generations as genetically talented as possible,” as Pence does, is a masterpiece of misinterpretation. This, then, is the sixth argument against positive eugenics: the Veil of Ignorance argument. Those behind the Veil in Rawls' Original Position would agree to permit negative, but not positive eugenics. This is a more complex variant of the Consent argument, as the Veil of Ignorance merely forces us to adopt a position of hypotethical consent to particular principles of justice.
  6. ^ How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time: Solving the Riddle of Right and Wrong, ed 2008, pp. 77–78
  7. ^ Sandel, Michael (1982). Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge University Press.
  8. ^ Cipriani, Enrico (2015). "A modal account of the initial position". Austrian Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences. 9–10: 55–8.

Further readingEdit

  • 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 linksEdit