University of Kansas, Spring 2004
Philosophy 555: Justice and Economic Systems

Class notes: Rawls, chapter 3: “The Original Position”

The following notes correspond roughly to what we cover, including at least a portion of what I put on the board or the screen, in class. In places they may be more or less comprehensive than what we actually cover in class, and should not be taken as a substitute for your own observations and records of what goes on in class.

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  1. preliminary considerations
    1. The original position is the specification of the initial situation that Rawls regards as philosophically favored (p. 105.3–4). Other specifications of the initial situation would not, Rawls thinks, truly reflect the moral point of view as well as the original position does.
    2. The idea is to characterize the original position so that pure procedural justice applies: whatever principles get chosen there are just because they are chosen there (p. 104.3–4). Note that this is separate from the way in which the distribution of rights and duties, and of the other benefits of social cooperation, is a matter of pure procedural justice.
    3. The alternatives among which the parties are to choose are given in a list (p. 107). This is because it would be extravagant to assume that they could think up all the possibilities from scratch (p. 106.1).
  2. § 22: the circumstances of justice
    1. The circumstances of justice are the background conditions of social life that create a purpose for a conception of justice to serve by making cooperation both possible and necessary (p. 109.5).
    2. These circumstances include both objective and subjective conditions.
      1. objective: people living together, plus moderate scarcity of material goods
      2. subjective: differing aims and values (conflict of interests), along with limited concern for others
  3. informational constraints (§ 24: the veil of ignorance)
    1. no knowledge of class, intelligence, strength, etc. (p. 118.5)
    2. no knowledge of conception of the good (p. 118.6)
    3. no knowledge of historical era or level of civilization (p. 118.7)
    4. knowledge of economics, sociology, psychology, etc. (p. 119.3)
    5. one result: “no basis for bargaining in the usual sense” (p. 120.9)
  4. motivational constraints (§ 25: the rationality of the parties)
    1. Each party aims to get as large a package of primary goods as he or she can (p. 123.6).
    2. Each party is mutually disinterested (p. 125.3; see also pp. 111.9–112.1).
      1. No party cares about promoting others’ well-being—though people may in real life, of course (p. 128.1–5).
      2. No party is motivated by envy—a desire that others should have less even if he must, too (p. 124.2).
    3. The parties want to settle on a conception of justice they can live with (p. 125.8).
  5. p. 128.9: the overall gist of the original position
  6. § 26: the case for the two principles
    1. parties’ natural starting point: equal distribution of everything (p. 130.6)
    2. why to deviate from equality (pp. 130.8–131.5)
    3. maximin rule; maximum minomorum (p. 133.2)
    4. three features justifying use of maximin
      1. no knowledge of probabilities (p. 134.1)
      2. parties care little for gains (p. 134.4)
      3. grave risks (p. 134.5)
    5. objection to maximin (p. 135.9)
    6. table showing objection to maximin (p. 136.4)
  7. §§ 27–28: the (unsuccessful) case for the average principle
    1. what the classical principle requires (p. 139.9)
    2. what the average principle requires (p. 140.2)
    3. why Rawls thinks the parties would prefer the average principle (p. 141.5)
    4. p. 142.5: This should be pi and ui, not p1 and u1.
    5. the case for the principle of average utility
    6. first objection: the parties would discount probabilities based on the principle of insufficient reason, because the decision to be made in the original position is so important: it is not a place for neutrality toward risk (p. 146.7)
    7. a second objection: the reasoning leading to the principle of average utility presupposes that the parties in the original position would be content to regard themselves as having any of the ends held by the actual people in society (p. 150.8)
  8. § 29: three advantages of the two principles over average utilitarianism
    1. The strains of commitment will be less for the two principles than for utilitarianism (pp. 153.3–154.5).
    2. The two principles will define a more stable regime (p. 154.5–155.8).
    3. The two principles will better promote self-respect (pp. 155.8–159.2).
  9. D’Agostino, “Original Position”
    1. introductory section: ‘principals’
    2. “Reflective Equilibrium”
      1. epistemological reading vs. political (practical) reading
      2. adjustment of judgments and original position
      3. par. 5, bullet 3: ‘principles’ should be ‘principals’
    3. “Pure Proceduralism”
      1. third paragraph—‘right-maker’
      2. fourth paragraph—no standard
    4. “Veil of Ignorance”: two reversals, in use of veil, relative to ideal-spectator approach
      1. less information, not more
      2. pure self-interest, not pure impartiality (“ignorance . . . expressive of the moral demand for impartiality”)
  10. Holt, “John Rawls’ Unrisky Business”
    1. maximin vs. expected-utility maximization (consider Harsanyi’s example)
    2. maximin vs. maximax