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

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