If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Political: Original Position

Luvell introduces us to the original position -- an idea due to the most important political philosopher of the 20th Century, John Rawls. The original position is a way of thinking about what makes an institution or a society just.

Speaker: Dr. Luvell Anderson, Assistant Professor of Philosophy, The University of Memphis.
Created by Gaurav Vazirani.

Want to join the conversation?

  • male robot hal style avatar for user Wudaifu
    At , why is the word "disadvantage" spelled "distadvantage" and at , why is the word "strength" spelled "stregnth", and at , why is the word "talents" spelled "tallents"?
    (7 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user tuannb1997
    I still find some points in your video unclear ? Let's say "Justice is Fair", shall we ? Then, consider the Original Position, when all paticipants contend for their selfish interest only, and nothing else. Provided with every condition you note, what could possibly happen if one's private desire intefered with one another's - that means, there is no way for him to keep advancing without (accidentally) hurting other's benefits ? I presume it would be unfair to get him out of game for the sake of others; it would be also unfair, though, to just allow him to hurt someone else. From this point, Conflict is inevitable, and the Original Position is broken, making way for alternative forms of competition in which people destroy each other to maximize their self-satiation. This leads to my second question: is our current social status the Original Position any more, or to some extent ?
    By the way, thanks so much for the video. It's really helpful and interesting ! ! !
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user David Smith
      The idea of the original position is that it's a purely hypothetical scenario designed to force us to consider what we would do if we were totally unbiased---that is, if we didn't treat ourselves as any more important than anyone else. Our society isn't and never will be equivalent to the original position. If someone wanted to advance a certain interest of theirs, then according to Rawls, what we have to do is consider whether or not a group of rational agents in the original position would approve of a principle of justice (a general rule) that would allow for that interest to be advanced.
      (2 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ronmaessen
    I invite someone to make the content of this video a bit more complete by saying something about the role of religion in the thinking of a society whilst under the veil of ignorance. I name read somewhere that it's incompatible with Rawl's theory but I don't know too much about it, so some clarification about the importance of religion in the theory and the possible integration of it in the theory would be appreciated.
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leaf green style avatar for user Gautamkumar Dave
    what is link of political power
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • winston baby style avatar for user Acacia Erhardt
    Could this ever be applied to produce an automated judicial system? If, using software, we can control which information/data a computer takes into account, we can make the judicial system rigid and principled. Are there any philosophical issues with implementing an automated system to execute on principles that humans have decided?
    Benefits that I see include:
    - lower jail "wait time" for poor people incapable of making bail
    - appeal process in higher courts will be standardized so that there is no need to study the background of the previous judge involved with a particular case
    - quality control on corruption and systemic racism in the courtroom
    (1 vote)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user

Video transcript

(intro music) Hello, my name is Luvell Anderson, and I am an assistant[br]professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis. Today, I'm going to talk a little about an idea called "The Original Position." How would you set up a[br]society that is just? Justice is an important idea we use to evaluate our social and[br]political institutions. Things like our courts, government, educational, and economic systems. As we can see from the strong reactions of those who feel like they[br]have been treated unjustly, having just social and[br]political institutions is essential for having[br]a peaceful society. For example, African Americans[br]have held marches, endured fire hoses and death,[br]throughout various periods in U.S. history in the name of justice. Also, Tibetan monks have[br]set themselves on fire in protest of what they view as unjust or oppressive Chinese policies. So as we can see, justice[br]is an important idea. Before we discuss possible ways[br]of creating a just society, we should first have an[br]idea about what it means for a society to be just. Discussions about the concept of justice go back a long time. The ancient Greek philosopher[br]Plato, for example, described justice as an[br]internal harmony, that is, the parts of some thing, say[br]an individual or a society, being ordered in the right way. For others, justice is importantly tied to notions like equality. For example, Aristotle says[br]that justice is the equal. And others have tied justice[br]to the idea of dessert, or what someone deserves. The notion of justice[br]that we will focus on thinks of justice in terms of fairness. The famous political[br]philosopher John Rawls came up with a way of[br]developing principles of justice that distributes benefits and burdens associated with our social[br]and political practices in a way that is fair to all parties. Rawls introduces a thought experiment. A thought experiment is a device that engages our imagination to help us think about the nature of things. So in this thought experiment, Rawls imagines free,[br]mutually disinterested, and rational persons who sit down and devise principles of justice in an initial situation that[br]is structured to be fair to all the parties involved. He calls this initial situation "The Original Position." Now, what makes the situation fair has to do with the kind of considerations the representatives in[br]this original position can bring to bear when reasoning about the principles of justice. For instance, no one can[br]tailor principles selfishly to favor her particular condition. Also, Rawls does not allow things like natural fortune or social circumstances to be acceptable bases for advantaging or disadvantaging persons. A unique feature of[br]Rawls' original position is what we might refer to[br]as the epistemic constraints on the persons in the situation. The word "epistemic" here simply refers to the kinds of things a person can know. In the original position, the persons, or let's call them "agents," they know nothing about themselves or their position in society. They do not know their race, age, gender, their strength,[br]intelligence or psychology, talents, handicaps, or social standing. Nor do they know theirs views about what they find valuable[br]or important in life. Rawls refers to this condition as being under the veil of ignorance. Of course, agents in the original position aren't completely without knowledge. They know the kinds of[br]facts that are given to us by natural sciences like biology, and social sciences like psychology. Rawls believes that the[br]principles of justice the agents construct in[br]the original position, under the veil of ignorance,[br]will be fair simply because the situation[br]itself is set up fairly. Now I mentioned earlier that the agents in the original position[br]are mutually disinterested and rational. I should probably take a[br]moment to say a little more about what that means. The agents are mutually disinterested in that they are only concerned to advance their own interests. Agents in the original[br]position will not be moved to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of advantaging someone else, nor will they try to disadvantage others due to envy or hatred. And the agents' decisions[br]in the original position are rational, in that they[br]use the most effective means to achieve their goals. To wrap up: the original position is a fair situation where agents who know nothing[br]in particular about themselves, but know only general facts, agree upon principles of justice[br]that we use to decide how to set up a just society. Subtitles by the Amara.org community