Rawls’s Original Position as a Device of Representation

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Few thought experiments in 20th century philosophy have been as influential as the original position (OP) John Rawls introduced in A Theory of Justice to explicate his conception of justice as fairness. However, it has often been misconstrued as picturing a factual deliberation or as Rawls’s “fundamental justificatory strategy” (O’Neill 364).

To highlight the OP’s true role as an “expository device” (TJ 19) or a “device of representation” (PL 24, JFR 17), I will sketch its relation to Rawls’s larger moral theory, first in its coherentist, then in its constructivist guise. This hopefully also sheds some light on the deep connections between Rawls’s and Kant’s moral theories.

Rawls introduces the OP in order to show that the principles of justice as fairness “are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association” (TJ 10). Therefore, the OP is set up as a “hypothetical situation” (TJ 104) in which such a fair agreement could be reached:My sketch follows Rawls’s exposition in JFR, 14–24.

Free and equal citizens who have a “capacity for a sense of justice” (JFR 18) and a “capacity for a conception of the good” (JFR 19) are represented in the OP by parties–rational agents that each have “the powers of judgment and deliberation in seeking ends” (PL 50) and are “responsible for the fundamental interests of a free and equal citizen” (JFR 18).

In order to reach a fair agreement, the parties’ “point of view must be removed from and not distorted by the particular features and circumstances of the existing basic structure” (JFR 15) of society. Thus, the parties “are not allowed to know the social positions or the particular comprehensive doctrines of the persons they represent.” (JFR 15) This limitation of information is called the veil of ignorance.

On the basis of the limited information they have, the parties would agree on those principles of cooperation that fit the interests of the persons they represent best. These principles are (a) equal basic liberties, (b) fair equality of opportunity, and (c) the difference principle. (JFR 42 f.)

Because the OP models “fair conditions of agreement between citizens as free and equal, and appropriate restrictions on reasons”, Rawls conjectures “that the principles of justice the parties would agree to […] specify the terms of cooperation that we regard – here and now – as fair and supported by the best reasons.” (JFR 17)

As may already be clear from this exposition, Rawls doesn’t mean the OP to justify his conception of justice on independent or metaphysical grounds. It serves to represent and expose moral principles and convictions we already hold and aims to show how the conception of justice as fairness follows naturally from them:

We characterize the original position by various stipulations – each with its own reasoned backing – so that the agreement that would be reached can be worked out deductively by reasoning from how the parties are situated and described, the alternatives open to them, and from what the parties count as reasons and the information available to them. (JFR 17)

If the OP works as a representational and expository device in this way, it is part of a reflective equilibrium, i. e. a situation where “our principles and judgments coincide; […] we know to what principle our judgments conform and the premises of their derivation” (TJ 18).

On the one hand, the specification of the OP represents “generally shared […] conditions” (TJ 18) we presuppose when discussing possible conceptions of justice. The OP models the rationality and reasonableness of citizens, i. e. their moral capacities, and a prior understanding of what constitutes a fair agreement, to help derive principles of justice that fit these conditions.

On the other hand, the derived principles of justice fit our concrete, “considered convictions of justice” (TJ 17) – the “provisional fixed points we presume any conception of justice must fit” (TJ 18). In addition, we can derive new answers to hitherto open questions from them, e. g. about “the correct distribution of wealth and authority” (TJ 18).

Thus, “we work from both ends” (TJ 18) in balancing our principles and judgments about justice. This is how the OP fits into Rawls’s coherence theory of morality.

But Rawls also tells us that the OP has a “Kantian Interpretation” (TJ 221): It “may be viewed […] as a procedural conception of autonomy and the categorical imperative” (TJ 226).

For Kant, as humans we are at least partly defined by our capacity for practical reasoning. Morality, as expressed in the moral law and its formula, the Categorical Imperative, just is the exercise of this capacity, guaranteeing autonomy by making the law we obey the one we choose by reason alone.

The OP can be understood as explicating what it means to choose a principle by reason alone: The veil of ignorance makes sure we don’t “presuppose one has a particular desire or aim” (TJ 222 f.) when choosing principles of justice. Thus, to “act from the principles of justice is to act from categorical imperatives in the sense that they apply to us whatever in particular our aims are” (TJ 223).

This Kantian interpretation can be expanded into what Rawls calls “Kantian constructivism”: The view that moral claims are valid not if they conform to a given moral order, i. e. are true due to independently existing moral facts, but if they are, as in the example of the OP, constructed in accordance with the fundamental principles of practical reasoning.

Kantian constructivism holds that moral objectivity is to be understood in terms of a suitably constructed point of view that all can accept. Apart from the procedure of constructing the principles of justice, there are no moral facts. Whether certain facts are to be recognized as reasons of right and justice, or how much they are to count, can be ascertained only from within the constructive procedure, that is, from the undertakings of rational agents of construction when suitably represented as free and equal moral persons. (KC 307)

Following this strategy, Rawls’s constructivism derives “claims concerning social and political justice [from] certain normative judgments implicit in the public political culture of a liberal democratic society” (Street 368). Thus it is restricted to a certain area of substantive ethics.

But maybe this form of constructivism can again be expanded into a “thoroughgoing or metaethical version” (Street 369) that derives “the truth of a normative claim [from] what is involved in valuing anything at all” (Street 369)?

With this we would come full circle to Kant’s original vision, explaining how our moral judgments can be synthetic a priori by showing that they are constructed. “Can even our own most basic reasons themselves be constructed? Kant’s view […] is that they can.” (Korsgaard 324)