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Rulemakers Beware: Tables to Turn Tomorrow

An essay by Eric Zorn, 9-9-97, on John Rawl's "original position".

John Rawls' "Original Position" is either a profound and complex philosophical concept or a hell of a good parlor game, maybe a little of both.

Here it is: Imagine that those who govern and guide the world have decided to allow you to select all the principles--the procedures, laws, customs, rights and duties--that will apply to everyone and every institution from now on. What an opportunity! Cut taxes on your income group! Turn the precepts of your religious faith into law! Enact your party's platform and disenfranchise your ideological foes! Ban all vices except yours! Make life more difficult for those you do not respect!

But then, just as your fantasy has reached full flower, comes the second part, the "veil of ignorance" caveat: Make any changes to society you want, but know that tomorrow morning you will wake up as someone else.

You may be rich or you may be poor; young or old; male or female; healthy or sick. You may be married or single; gay or straight; an employee or an employer.

Will you live in the city, the suburbs or a small town? Which of dozens of possible ethnic groups will you belong to? Which faith will you subscribe to, if any?

No one who performs this thought experiment is to know "his place in society, his class position or social status," wrote John Rawls, the 76-year-old retired Harvard University philosophy professor who proposed it in his 1971 book "A Theory of Justice." "Nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like."

Suddenly the task of rewriting the rules becomes knottier. The idea of "self-interest," the engine of our political and economic system that results in partisans advocating virtually all of the propositions in the third paragraph above, disappears. In its place comes the idea of "fairness," virtually the only guiding principle that a person who has reflectively placed himself in Rawls' Original Position could sensibly follow.

The implications of this idea and dense arguments about it can and do fill books. There is a "humongous Rawls industry" in academia, as Purdue University political scientist Michael A. Weinstein has written, and religious ethicist Elizabeth Carpenter, who recently completed a dissertation on Rawls at the University of Virginia, says it's "simply astounding" how many different fields of study wrestle with the idea of this man, who is undeservedly obscure outside of scholarly circles.

"He's extremely humble," said University of Chicago Law Professor David Strauss. He is a former student of Rawls, who is convalescing from a serious illness and was unavailable for comment. Strauss said, "I'm sure he's never given even a thought to trying to popularize his work or go on the talk-show circuit."

What Strauss said he likes about the exercise of the Original Position is the same thing that drew me to it--the way it advances on Golden Rule.

"Too many people say, for example, 'Sure, I'll do unto others as I would have them do unto me. Let's all take the college board exams and the highest scorers get all the advantages. I'll apply that rule to everyone equally,' when they know they're good at taking tests and have had the benefits of a good education," said Strauss. "Rawls makes you step back from that in a `there but for the grace of God go I` sort of way and discount your own attributes, many of which, after all, are yours arbitrarily."

I wanted to turn this hypothetical situation and the ponderous philosophical debates that spring from it into something punchy for a speech I delivered last spring to a conference on peace. I came up with "Do unto others as though you might be them," a slightly ungrammatical formulation I floated as "The Platinum Rule."

It's a mental discipline, trying to see public issues and private dilemmas not from one other person's point of view but from a variety of possible points of view; to walk a bunch of miles in a lot of different shoes. The implications are debatable, and it may well be impossible, as some of Rawls' critics have pointed out, to divorce yourself from your morality and personal experiences and still make coherent judgments.

But in this week in which selflessness and virtue are so much in the news, I thought it worth pointing out an interesting way of considering such things, if only as a diversion at the next party you attend.

[Original essay at http://www.ericzorn.com/columns/ethics/]

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