John Rawls and the Original Position
The political philosopher John Rawls17 provides an explanation of what it means to be just and fair in our relation to others in society. At the core of his explanation is what he calls the original position, which is a thought experiment that proposes a condition in which people are free, equal, rational, and are able to make choices about the principles that would guide their lives. The central feature of the original position is the veil of ignorance. Rawls seeks to establish a society guided by “a fair system of cooperation between free and equal persons.”18 The goal of the idea of the original position can be understood in the following question: How can different racial, ethnic, cultural or religious groups approach their society in order to ensure that they and others have a fair access to its material and intangible resources? Rawls argues that those who speak on behalf of such groups, when engaging in deliberations about their society, should operate behind a veil of ignorance of the “social positions or the particular comprehensive doctrines of the persons they represent.” The veil of ignorance should prevent them from knowing people’s “race and ethnic group, sex or various native endowments such as strength and intelligence, all within the normal range.”19 The veil of ignorance effectively removes any bargaining advantage between different parties. When this becomes the case, Rawls argues, ideas of justice taken from all traditions of philosophy, when presented to citizens, will enhance the interest of their parties, and would impel them by reason to opt for “equal basic rights” and “equal opportunities for all,” thus making any social contract possible.
Rawls’s conditions are, of course, hypothetical and have been criticized as far-fetched. Moller okin argues that he takes for granted the sexism inherent in societies in which he intends his contract to apply.20 She wonders whether his theory of justice applies to women. Martha Nussbaum suspects that Rawls’s idea ignores a community’s duty to encourage different human capabilities, which are best demonstrated in the workings of the family. Rawls’s theory tends to take the parochial nature of the Western nuclear family as the norm of social interactions. In other societies, the family is more community-oriented and functions more on principles of mutual support than on those of contracts.21 Alasdair MacIntyre raises questions about the place and needs of the community in Rawls’s world.22 Like Kant, Rawls privileges reason, which, as we have already seen, is disembodied.
It is true that Rawls operates on a hypothetical basis. For instance, how can whites in America, who have been in positions of political, cultural, and economic power, ever pretend not to know the social situations of the people they represent in the struggle for the resources of the country? How can blacks not bring in the facts of history? How can men in Igbo society pretend not to know the interests of the group they represent in matters of purely patriarchal importance? As Nkiru Uwechua Nzegwu aptly argues:
the weakness of this abstract experience is that the others whose bodies have been the target of stigmatization and are given to monthly hormonal cycles cannot easily imagine away features that are constitutive of their body. The mere idea of a removal of these stigmas does not mean that the individual automatically enters a prestigmatization phase.23
In my view, the importance of Rawls’s thought lies precisely in its hypothetical nature. The original position invites us to imagine an ideal situation “that is fair to the parties as free and equal, and as properly informed and rational. Thus any agreement made by the parties as citizens’ representatives is fair.”24 Applied to patriarchal systems, it invites men and women to imagine a situation in which every member of society is treated equally and fairly regardless of gender.
A further thought experiment helps elucidate Rawls’s point. If, as zygotes in the womb, ignorant of the conditions of our future lives, we were asked to imagine a society in which we all would be born, what would that society be? We would most likely imagine an equitable society where justice, fairness, love, and consideration for the weak would reign. This is largely because human beings tend to think of their own interests. But these interests are tempered if they, through a simple act of switching perspectives, imagine themselves in the position of the weak. We would most likely opt for a society of fair-minded people free of bias, because we might be in disadvantaged positions. We might be born blind, crippled or deaf. In her feminist writings and in her utterance that all fair-minded people should be feminists, Adichie demands such a simple act of perspective-switching; she demands that we don a veil of ignorance.
My interest in the original position has less to do with its implication for Rawls’s social contract theory than with its social and moral implications. The degree of an individual’s feeling of fairness is proportional to one’s relation to others in general. The original position evokes Adam Smith’s
“impartial spectator,” who arrived at his impartiality by an act of sympathy, imagining himself in the position of others.25 Putting ourselves in the position of others allows us to judge their actions as if we were those persons, yet we retain the knowledge that we are not those persons. The advantage of these dual perspectives allows us to weigh situations critically and in a much more balanced way than we could have done from our perspective alone. In other words, we enter into a contract with others, and that contract is moral more than it is social or political.
In many ways, Martha Nussbaum’s notion of empathy, Rawls’s hypothetical world, and works of fiction have one thing in common: they engage the imagination. Following Aristotle’s explanation, tragedy is different from, and even richer than, history because it imagines what is possible based on what is real.26 This, I think, is what Adichie seeks to capture with her injunction on her audience to dream, and to imagine a fairer world. Of course, we acknowledge the gap between ideal and reality. But it is precisely this gap that the imagination seeks to bridge.