Random position ethics?
December 27, 2009 12:13 PM   Subscribe

Please help me remember the name (and proponents and critics) of a specific ethical principle.

The details may be off but I think it was formulated roughly like this:

Premise: From among all the members of a given kind of society, imagine that your position in that society was assigned at random.

Principle: Behave in a way that promotes the kind of society where you would be most comfortable with being randomly assigned to.

I remember this being described in a speech or a panel discussion I watched on the internet, most likely as part of one of the Beyond Belief meetings, but I just can't find it. I also remember that the person describing it argued that there was some kind of a fundamental flaw in the principle.
posted by Anything to Religion & Philosophy (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Sounds like you're referring to John Rawls' Veil of Ignorance.
posted by Rangeboy at 12:18 PM on December 27, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: That sounds right. Thank you very much!
posted by Anything at 12:21 PM on December 27, 2009

That sounds a lot like a specific application of Rule Utilitarianism.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:33 PM on December 27, 2009

Rawls's Veil of Ignorance and Original Position. It's a thought experiment designed to encourage Kantian or deontological intuitions in political philosophy. You might want to look at articles on the categorical imperative.

I'm not sure what the fundamental flaw would be, but the one I've heard cited most often is due to Robert Nozick: Rawls assumes that participants in the original position would only be rational if their risk function is highly risk-adverse, but this is wrong; no particular risk function is determined by rationality. Everyone in the original position might like gambling, for instance, and think that it's worth possibly being a slave for a shot at being a titan.
posted by painquale at 12:40 PM on December 27, 2009

Response by poster: With the help of the answer, I now also found the video clip I mentioned: Here's Paul Churchland on John Rawls and why he's not a Rawlsian, and here's the blog post, with a brief response to Churchland's argument, via which I found it.
posted by Anything at 4:49 PM on December 27, 2009

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