What is John Rawl’s original position? Author Timothy Hinton explains
Written by: Timothy Hinton
We talk to author Timothy Hinton about his new book, The Original Positioni in which he explores one of the most influential thought experiments of the twentieth century.
Can you explain to us what John Rawls’s original position is, and its importance to the study of philosophy?
The original position is an elegant thought experiment. In effect, Rawls invites his readers to imagine that they are temporarily ignorant about certain things, including important facts about themselves, such as how well off they are, whether or not they are especially talented, and what their core personal values – religious or otherwise – are. Readers are then to ask themselves: what principles of justice would I choose to regulate the basic institutions of my society if I did not know these things?To be a little more precise, Rawls is employing a version of the familiar idea of a social contract. The parties to the contract are choosing basic principles of justice for their society. But they are behind what Rawls refers to as ‘a veil of ignorance’: they do not know how well off they are, whether or not they are especially talented, and what their core personal values are.Rawls argues that in such a situation, given certain additional stipulations, it would be rational for the parties to choose the following two principles of justice. First, a principle that guaranteed each citizen a robust package of liberal rights to such things as freedom of conscience, freedom to vote and stand in elections, and rights to due process in law. Second, a principle that ensured fair equality of economic opportunity as well as shares of income and wealth that were maximally beneficial to people with the least amount of income and wealth.
What were the greatest challenges you faced in editing the book?
Each chapter sees a leading political philosopher tackle the ‘Original Position’ thought experiment from a different angle. Can you give us one or two examples of what the chapters explore?Jeremy Waldron examines the role of the idea of the strains of commitment in Rawls’s argument. The idea, as Waldron sees it, that Rawls has interesting things to say about “gaming morality”, that is, about the moral requirements on people who make commitments that might end up requiring sacrifices from them. Matthew Clayton’s chapter investigates how Rawls’s use of hypothetical reasoning differs from Ronald Dworkin’s. It’s striking to see the differences between these leading liberal political philosophers laid out systematically. Joshua Cohen’s chapter contains an extended examination of the kind of reasoning Rawls’s hypothetical parties employ, and he compares it to T. M. Scanlon’s version of contractualism, as well as to the notion of public reason.
Your book also looks at the relationship between Rawl’s theory and other ideas in political philosophy. How does the original position sit alongside feminism and radicalism?
Some feminists have found little that is congenial in Rawls’s theory of justice as a whole, and in the original position in particular. In her chapter, Amy Baehr examines both the advantages and the limitations of the original position from a feminist standpoint.In my own contribution to the book, I argue that Rawls’s use of the original position rests on highly controversial assumptions about history and social theory, assumptions that radicals can and should contest.
How is your book structured and how might it be useful for students?
I had two main aims in putting the book together. First, I tried to strike a good balance between material that would be useful for upper-level undergraduates, and material that would be of greater interest to graduate students and professional philosophers. Each chapter could be read profitably by people in those two groups. Second, I wanted a diversity of perspectives on the original position: some chapters are historical or comparative, while others are critical of Rawls. Yet others focus on one or another key element in the original position device.
How does your book fit with your wider academic interests and research?
I was lucky enough to have studied with Rawls while I was in graduate school at MIT, so I have had a longstanding interest in his work. Most of my published papers have been in political philosophy.
Where do you like to write?
I often deal with insomnia by writing down thoughts and ideas in the middle of the night. I then try to work these ideas out at my computer later on. I do need to write in peace and quiet. Coffee shops are lovely for coffee, but not for writing – at least in my experience.
What is the first book you remember reading?
It was one of the Famous Five books by Enid Blyton, I forget which. I wish it had been “Five Go Off on an Acid Trip” but it wasn’t .
Describe your book in three words?
A worthwhile read.