Is the original position a fair choice situation for the selection of principles of justice?
Rawls claims that whatever principles of justice the parties in the original position rationally choose, we have reason to endorse.
Is Rawls right in this claim? In your exposition, make sure to address the following two questions:
(i) what are the main elements of the original position;
(ii) what is the point of the original position according to Rawls?
In your argumentation, discuss whether the original position is a reasonable device for selecting principles of justice.
1. The Liberty Principle
(1) First Principle: each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of basic liberties for all (Liberty Principle)
(2) Second Principle: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are
(a) attached to positions and offices open to all, under conditions of fair equality of opportunity (Fair Equality of Opportunity Principle); and
(b) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (Difference Principle).
The basic liberties
• political liberty (the right to vote, and run for and hold office).
• freedom of expression and assembly.
• freedom of conscience and thought.
• freedom of the person (freedom from psychological oppression and physical assault).
• the right to hold property.
The first principle does not consider all interference to be a limitation of our freedom.
The inclusion of political liberty means that the list is not limited to negative liberties.
The right to hold property does not entail a right of self-ownership with full benefit rights.
Justice requires that the basic liberties of all persons are to be equal.
2. Fair Equality Opportunity
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are attached to positions and offices open to all, under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.
Consider a year’s worth of newborns (more than 700.000 babies in the UK in recent years). Even a just society will contain positions of greater and lesser income, status, and power. Which differences between these babies can justly affect their chances of obtaining positions of greater income, status and wealth?
(1) Gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation. Fair equality of opportunity holds that these factors should not affect people’s chances.
(2) The level of wealth, power, and status of the baby’s family. Fair equality of opportunity holds that these factors should not affect people’s chances.
(3) The baby’s talents and motivation. Fair equality of opportunity holds that these factors may affect people’s chances.
Equally talented and motivated individuals should have an equal chance of obtaining positions of income, wealth, status, and power.
3. The Difference Principle
Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged.
• The difference principle does not require simple equality: it is possible that allowing inequalities will lead to overall gains in economic productivity, and those gains can be distributed towards the worst off.
• Inequalities can be used to incentivize greater productivity. The talented or more productive earn more, not because they deserve greater rewards, but in order to maximize the position of the worst off.
(1) The difference principle applies to the basic structure of society; we do not need to look at individual assets to see if some can be given to the worst off.
(2) Just institutions give rise to legitimate entitlements. If you acquire a greater share of resources through effort and greater talent, within a just society, then you are entitled to those resources. This is not because you your efforts and talents make you more deserving.
(3) Rather than the popular ideal of meritocracy, Rawls’s principles capture the idea that in a just society, the distribution of talents and ambitions is a shared resource. In a just society, the greater talents and ambitions of others are not a reason for envy.
(4) The worst off are not those who cannot participate in social cooperation (given equality of opportunity), nor those who choose not to participate. Think of the worst off as the working poor and the involuntarily unemployed.
4. The Original Position Argument
Why accept Justice as Fairness? Rawls appeals to the idea of the social contract. Think of the principles of justice that should organize a society as the outcome of a fair and rational agreement between the members of that society.
First Proposal: the correct rules are those that it would be rational for all individuals to agree to.
Problem: such an agreement would reflect existing inequalities in bargaining power.
Solution: specify a fair bargaining situation, such that what it would be rational for the parties to that situation to accept, we have reason to believe is just.
The Original Position
• The parties choose principles of justice, from a list of available options.
• The parties are assumed to be rational.
• The parties are situated behind the veil of ignorance; they lack knowledge of: their race, gender, economic status, natural talents, religious views, conception of the good, generation.
• The parties choose the principles that maximize their expected share of primary goods. primary goods are things one wants more of rather than less, whatever one’s particular conception of the good: rights, liberties, opportunities, income and wealth, the social bases of self-respect.
Background idea: the parties are represented as free and equal persons, engaged in a fair system of social cooperation.
Rawls’s central arguments:
(1) The parties in the original position would rationally choose Justice as Fairness
(2) The conception of justice that the parties would rationally choose is the conception of justice that we have reason to accept.2