When Rawls develops the concept which he labels “justice as fairness.” This does not mean that a just society is one which is fair, but instead that principles of justice must be determined under conditions which are fair to all.
While fairness may not be something commonly found in the world, we can imagine what the conditions of fairness might appear like. This is what Rawls does when he introduces the original position (OP). The original position is a hypothetical situation where representatives come together to determine the principles of justice that will govern the basic structure of society (the basic structure being the political and economic institutions which impacts ones life-chances) . It is these principles that would guide the development of a constitution and further development of law and policy.
In order to ensure that these principles are chosen under fair conditions. Rawls introduces the device known as the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance prevents the participants from knowing the particulars of their own situation and standing in the world. They are unaware of their own wealth, gender, race, and geographical situation. They are essentially stripped of the knowledge that might lead than to pick principles of justice which benefit themselves or people like themselves rather than principles that benefit all and which could be accepted by all.
They are not completely ignorant for they are aware of, if not knowledgeable about a range of topics including law, economics, psychology, science, and sociology. In other words, they are aware of the facts needed to understand the human condition. They know that there is wealth and poverty but the do not know is they themselves are poor (or rich).
Susan Moller Okin argues that while Rawls’ theory is “sometimes viewed as excessively rationalistic, individualistic, and abstracted from real human beings,” it should instead be viewed as a “voice of responsibility, care, and concern for others.” We can find this to be the case in the original position. Since the parties are referred to as mutually disinterested it may seem that the construct is overly rationalistic and individualistic. However, Okin argues that this would be a misreading or misunderstanding of the original position because “Rawls does have to rely on empathy, benevolence, and equal concern for others as for self, in order to have the parties come up with the principles they choose, especially the difference principle.” Rawls addresses this when he says that the “combination of mutual disinterest and the veil of ignorance achieves the same purpose as benevolence. For this combination of conditions forces each person in the original position to take the good of others into account.”
Now Rawls emphasizes that the veil of ignorance does not impose benevolence because such a “strong condition” is not needed. Instead, what the veil of ignorance does is require the participants to consider others in their deliberation about the principles of justice. While rational self-interest plays a part in such deliberations, we are not aware of which “self” we are because of the conditions of the veil or ignorance. Okin goes as far as to say that the veil “is such a demanding stipulation that it converts what would, without it, be self-interest into benevolence or the equal concern for others” While Rawls shies away from the term benevolence, Okin argues that the veil of ignorance at least delivers a concern for others with the power of benevolence. I fully agree with Okin’s interpretation of the original position. While the original position may incorporate certain elements of rational self-interest, the primary purpose of the original position construct is to arrive at principles of justice which go beyond the mere pursuit of self interest. Since the parties are unaware of their own particular situations, the only way in which one can look after one’s own self-interest is to look after the interests of all equally.
One critique of the original position approach to determining the principles of justice is that of Michael Sandel. He questions the value of making judgments about justice, particularly if justice is the first virtue of social institutions as Rawls claims, without an awareness of the common good. Here Sandel is drawing upon Aristotle who places a major emphasis on the common good determining our political destiny. However, I think the Sandel is getting ahead of us. The principles of justice are the common good, in that the original position provides us guiding principles that are in the good of all: the common good. While justice as fairness is neutral as to the “good life,” it is heavily committed to a conception of the common good, though it does approach the concept from a different perspective.
While Rawls’ argument for a liberal democracy may not seem to have much relevance to the council is heaven, his idea of an original position does. The council in heaven, like the original position, is a gathering where the rules (and in both cases, we are talking more about broad principles than detailed rules) that govern human existence are decided upon. Additionally the participants in the council in heaven are unaware of their fortunes like those in the original position. The notable exception, at least according to traditional LDS thought, being that they would likely have been aware of our gender in the council in heaven. In the original position, the participants would be aware of gender distinctions, but for the purposes of the moral exercise would not be aware of their own.
It is unlikely that at the time of the council that we would have been aware of their geographical destination, wealth, or race (these three things all being intertwined). Along these lines, I would argue that those in the council choose agency out of principle and not out of self-interest, the type of outcome that Rawls’ original position would hope to accomplish.
In the original position, the choice is primarily between liberal egalitarianism (Rawls), utilitarianism, and other forms of social/political justice. In the council of heaven, the choice is between moral agency and moral coercion. Like most liberal theories, Rawls’ thought sides heavily with moral agency and individual freedom (usually along the lines of what is know as Kantian autonomy). As Rawls’ work develops, he distances himself from his Kantian roots, though many critics think that he falls to do so in a very significant way. However, this leads we to wonder whether the LDS idea of agency could be compatible with Kantian autonomy (a future post for sure).
Both Richard Bushman and Teryl Givens have pointed to the similarlity between the LDS conception of the council in heaven and the original position (with the veil of ignorance) of Rawls. As an LDS Rawlsian, I see the similarities. Yet, I think this lead to this question: what implications might this connection have for Mormon thought? That is where we will pick up next.