Fairness and the Original Position

Fairness, justice, and John Rawls are regular topics of conversation on this blog. The application of Fairness is a bit of a preoccupation for me, whether it’s through taxation, healthcare, or voting rights. But I want to digress, for a moment, on issues of policy and talk about an important concept for Rawlsian Justice: The Original Position.

The Original Position Defined

See, for Rawls, Justice is contractual, part of a hypothetical social compact, not one that we have engaged in, but the one that we would engage in if we bothered to sit down and talk about it. For Rawls, “Justice” is the set of principles that would come out of such a hypothetical discussion.

The most important part of the Original Position is what Rawls calls “the Veil of Ignorance,” which is a pretty cool band name. Behind the Veil, I am said to know everything about the world, but nothing about my place in it. I know that there is inequality, pain, suffering, and violence; I know that some people have much, and some very little; but, importantly, I don’t know how much I have.

I like to use the following example: I am in charge of setting up a dinner party. Each table place will receive a set amount of food that I am able to determine beforehand (it’s a weird dinner party). But the seating arrangements are totally random, including mine. Since I don’t know where I’m going to sit, it’s in my best interest to make sure the portions are equal on every plate.

Rawls thinks of this in terms of “distribution of inequalities,” or the benefits and burdens of society. For Rawls, that’s what Justice is all about–a distributive system.

The Veil of Ignorance is the reason why I am not going to suggest any policy or principle that will only benefit the wealthy (like a flat tax); for the same reason, I am not going to suggest any policy or principle that will only benefit the poor (like a highly-burdensome income tax). Rather, I’m going to advocate for a policy of distribution that gives the most help to those with the least at the lowest cost to those with the most.

Hypothetical Proposals

My first proposal would be very simple: I would want to be left alone to do my own thing. I would want to have total freedom to do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, with no interference from anyone else.

This wouldn’t fly, obviously, because everybody else would want the same thing. So we’d have to hammer out a compromise, which, according to Rawls, would look like this:

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for others. 

I might put it another way, which I would call the Principle of Fairness: No person shall take any action that affects another person in such a way that, were your positions reversed, you would not have that action affect you.

If this sounds familiar, it’s basically the Golden Rule. Maybe you’ve heard of it.

There’s something electrical about that. Kind of radical, almost, because of the implications. It means that it doesn’t allow for utilitarianism, because there’s no way to allow for the many to benefit off of the suffering of the few. It means that driving a car is a violation of this principle, because it’s contributing CO2 that’s going to damage a poor farmer’s harvest (depends on where you’re going, I guess, but we can talk about that later).

Justice, Defined

So if Fairness is about our interactions, what’s Justice?

Justice is a complicated word to get a handle on. It’s a distributive system. It’s a retributive system. It’s a scheme of principles. It’s the rule of law.

Which is it?

An image that’s been useful to me is something I heard from a theology professor during my school days. Jesus, as we know, was sent to justify us. By that, the professor explained, we could understand it in terms of the margins on a Word document. The text can be justified, he explained. It can be made straight.

So that’s justice, in a nutshell: making things right. 

In that way, we recognize that we only need Justice because the Original Position recognizes that we are not entering into a contract based on how we believe the world should be, but how it is right now, with the same level of inequalities. All Justice is Restorative Justice. All Justice is Redistributive.

So maybe we can think about Justice as the System by which Fairness is guaranteed in the presence of inequalities. 

Or maybe Justice is the Process by which competing claims are resolved Fairly. 

Or maybe Justice is the System whereby the Burdens & Benefits of society are distributed Fairly. 

Bringing It All Together

If we were to bring all this together, we’d have something like this: in the Original Position, we’d want an assurance of Fairness (because we all want two things: to do whatever we want and to be left alone, and Fairness is the conduit between those two occasionally contradictory principles) and of Justice (because we’d want a system in place to ensure Fairness).

That’s enough for now–as usual, a hastily written, poorly edited summary of a much smarter man’s philosophy. But hopefully we can refer back to this in the future.



Categories: Dispatch, Uncategorized

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