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September 17, 2012 | by  | in Opinion |
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On the original position; not the missionary

Politics is a messy business. Hackery, scandal and irrelevancies tend to dominate the headlines while the tricky and detailed discussion about policy often shrinks into the background. A simple reason explains much of this: the vested interests that all individuals bring to the process. As a result gridlock tend to be the order of the day and so it is difficult to be enthused by the grinding mediocrity that constitutes everyday political debate. If this embittered view has any truth about the social issues of the moment, then it would probably be even more true about the way in which society considers basic questions of political justice. Sloganeering tends to trump sober discussion, much to the chagrin of those with a desire for something more.

Ever since the pioneering work of John Rawls, philosophers have tried to abstract away from this mess. He asks us to imagine that society comes together to discuss really basic question of how it should be structured. This is called the original position, a setting in which the contours of the social contract are to be agreed upon. The special feature of this is that the participants are behind what Rawls dubs the ‘veil of ignorance’, a special kind of cloaking device which prevents them from knowing facts about their station in society. The idea is that you should have all potential biases stripped away, so things like your gender, income, race, talents, and background won’t influence your take on what society looks like. Behind this veil, Rawls reckons that the agreement that these quasi-citizens reach would truly be fair, and their conclusions should be the basis of our real-life theories of justice.

Though this sounds all very pure and enlightening, but the central problem is whether you trust these veiled figments of our imagination. If we are supposed to strip away all the specifics of our personality, then the risk is that our that our conclusions will just avoid the specific problems that need to be confronted. The original position might sound like a philosopher’s fantasy, but perhaps the only way to deliver real political conclusions is to get down and dirty in the real world.

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