How useful is Rawls’ Original Position for theorizing about a just society?

A Discussion

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2018 5 Pages

Politics - International Politics - General and Theories


How useful is Rawls’ Original Position for theorizing about a just society? Discuss.


The original position (“OP”) is an essential component of John Rawls’s account of justice as presented in his seminal A Theory of Justice. In this essay, I claim that 1) Rawls OP is (at least in societies shaped by an individual conception of personhood) more useful for theorising about a just society than utilitarianism; 2) the OP fails (like other methodologies) to be useful for universally valid theorising about a just society; 3) for a society shaped by a communal conception of personhood, utilitarianism is as good as the OP for theorizing about a just society. To do so, I first present Rawls’ OP. Then I point out why the OP is more useful than utilitarianism when theorising about a just society. Third, I briefly mention a common objection against the OP and defend it against it. Finally, I present what I call the wake-up argument and its implications for theorising about a just society behind the veil of ignorance.

The Original Position

Rawls’s OP is meant to be an impartial and fair viewpoint which should be adopted when figuring out fundamental principles of justice. The OP’s main feature is the veil of ignorance.[1] It entails that in the OP, nobody knows about his or her place in society, class, social status, talents, abilities, particular psychology or conception of the good.[2] It is from this point of view that the parties participating in the OP deliberations are shown a list of conceptions of justice from the tradition of western political philosophy.[3] The list includes perfectionism, intuitionism, several forms of utilitarianism, justice as fairness, rational egoism and some mixed conceptions combining different elements of these.[4] Furthermore, they know […] all kinds of general facts about persons and societies, including knowledge of the relatively uncontroversial laws and generalizations derivable from economics, psychology, political science, and biology and other natural sciences. They know then about the general tendencies of human behavior and psychological development, about biological evolution, and about how economic markets work, including neo-classical price theory of supply and demand. […] [T]hey also know about […] the desirability of the ‘primary social goods’ that are needed by anyone to live a good life and to develop their ‘moral powers’ and other capacities.[5]


[1] Freeman, Samuel. 2014. “Original Position.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/original-position/.

[2] Rawls, John. 1999. “A Theory of Justice. Revised Edition.” Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 137.

[3] SEP, OP.

[4] ToJ, 107.

[5] SEP, OP.


ISBN (eBook)
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476 KB
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Institution / College
London School of Economics
High Merit
Rawls Justice Veil of Ignorance Original Position




Title: How useful is Rawls’ Original Position for theorizing about a just society?