How to Make the Fairest World

The Original Position Thought Experiment

Ed Noble
Thoughts And Ideas

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Photo by Tingey Injury Law Firm on Unsplash

If one wanted to design a society which was built on the principle of impartiality, how would one go about doing so? Economists William Vickrey and John Harsanyi developed a thought experiment to answer this question called the Original Position, which was popularised by the American philosopher John Rawls in his 1971 book A Theory of Justice.

The Original Position imagines that a player is given the freedom to select any principles and structures with which to build a society, with the twist that if they were to be placed in such a society, they wouldn’t know ahead of time their position in it. Not only would you not know your initial position, but you also cannot know who you would be; your ethnicity, social status, gender, or any other factor that might determine your success would be unknown (or, as Rawls put it, behind a “veil of ignorance”).

Stripped of ideas and prejudices concerning oneself or one’s initial fortune, the experiment incentivises (or forces) the player to select principles most fairly and rationally. The veil of ignorance is the optimal theoretical equaliser because any conscious or unconscious biases need to be accounted for by the player, in case any particular individual in the new world suffers from factors outside of their control. Rawls did receive…

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Ed Noble
Thoughts And Ideas

I write about philosophy, psychology and ethics. I live and work in London, having previously studied physics. Started writing in lockdown.