The Original Position and the Council of Heaven I

As a political philosopher, I often feel lost in the deeper and more detailed discussions about scripture, doctrine, and the ancient world. However, the pre-existence, particularly the concept of a council in heaven is of direct interest to me and my own political theory. Let me explain:

I am an ardent disciple of 20th century moral and political philosopher John Rawls. He is famous and influential for his theory of social justice as outlined in the seminal works A Theory of Justice (1971) and Political Liberalism (1993). For Rawls social justice is the first virtue of social institutions. His theory is interested in the just arrangement of what he calls the “basic structure,” which for him is government and economic institutions. This includes not just the standard political institutions, such as courts and legislatures, but also markets.

Rawls develops a concept which he labels “justice as fairness.” This does not mean that justice means that all things are fair, but instead that principles of justice must be determined under conditions which are fair to all.

While fairness may not be something commonly found in the world, we can imagine what the conditions of fairness might appear like. This is what Rawls does when he introduces the original position (OP). The original position is a hypothetical situation where representatives come together to determine the principles of social justice that will govern the basic structure of society. It is these principles that would guide the development of a constitution and further development of law and policy.

Now in order to ensure that these principles are chosen under fair conditions. Rawls introduces the device known as the veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance prevents the participants from knowing the particulars of their own situation and standing in the world. They are unaware of their own wealth, gender, race, and geographical situation. They are essentially stripped of the knowledge that might lead than to pick principles of justice which benefit themselves or people like themselves rather than principles that benefit all and which could be accepted by all. They are not completely ignorant for they are aware of, if not knowledgeable about a range of topics including law, economics, psychology, science, and sociology. In other words, they are aware of the facts needed to understand the human condition. They know that there is wealth and poverty but the do not know is they themselves are poor.

From this construct, Rawls says that the participants in the original position would choose two principles:
1. Equality of basic liberties (a full range of basic civil and political liberties similar to those found in the Bill of Rights and the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments of the US Constitution.
2. a. Office are open to all
b. Economic arrangements must benefit all with the only acceptable inequalities of wealth be those that most benefit the least well off (this is know as the difference principle). This principle ultimately calls for and requires a radical for of economic and social equality.

While Rawls’ argument for a liberal democratic welfare state (I prefer to think of it as a liberal socialist democracy) may not seem to have much relevance to the council is heaven, his idea of an original position does. The council in heaven, like the original position, is a gathering where the rules that govern human existence are decided upon. Additionally the participants in the council in heaven are unaware of their fortunes like those in the original position. The notably exception being that they would likely have been aware of their gender. However, it is unlikely that at the time of the council that they would have been aware of their geographical destination, wealth, or race (these three things all being intertwined). Along these lines, I would argue that those in the council choose agency out of principle and not out of self-interest, the type of outcome that Rawls’ original position would hope to accomplish.

In the original position, the choice is primarily between liberal egalitarianism (Rawls), utilitarianism, and other forms of social/political justice. In the council of heaven, the choice is between moral agency and moral coercion. Like most liberal theories, Rawls’ thought sides heavily with moral agency and individual freedom (usually along the lines of what is know as Kantian autonomy).

Rawls’s idea of the original position and the veil of ignorance forms the basis for his grand moral and political theory. The question then is whether the concept of a council in heaven can serve as the basis for a Mormon political (social contract) theory. I think it does. More to come.

About Chris Henrichsen

Chris Henrichsen has moved Approaching Justice off of Patheos. Find his latest posts and the new Approaching Justice. Thanks!

  • John C.

    Chris, I am glad that you finally made it here. I am curious about your assertion regarding people in the council of heaven being bound by a veil of ignorance regarding their eventual embodiment. How do you fit this with the LDS theology (folk or otherwise) of foreordination?

  • Mogget

    Hey Chris,

    I wondered when you were going to pop up here! Good to see you, man.

    Here’s my question: Was John Rawls the guy who wrote the Fourth Gospel, the Epistles, or Revelation?

    Oh wait…. Second try.

    Did John Rawls think that folks who knew their own status were unable to make a good social contract? Or were they just unwilling?

  • Chris H.

    John: I do not necessarily assume that those in the council of heaven are bound by a veil of ignorance per se. However I do not think that those in the council are aware of such things as there wealth, geographical location, or race. Based on such statements as the Proclamation on the Family I would assume that they are aware of their gender if gender is a central part of who we are spiritually. However, wealth, race, and our geographical locations are not of spiritual significance. Along these lines I would reject the idea that those born in the US. (or in other locations where the Church is abundant) are somehow there because they were somehow more valiant in the pre-existence. While we now reject the false claim that blacks were denied the priesthood because they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence (an idea which was nothing other than ad hoc justification for an unjustifiable policy), we should also reject the idea that some of us are in privileged positions in this world because of our actions in the pre-existence. Much of what Rawls tries to do is undermine the idea that some deserve to be more well off and others deserve to be disadvantaged. I think that his project can be applied to the council and out position here on earth.

    As for foreordination, I do not think that being ignorant of ones social status would be relevant when in comes to one being foreordained to be a prophet or a great high priest. Maybe I am just a bit confused about the whole idea of foreordination, but it seems to me that ones foreordination would be somewhat vague in order to ensure that individuals have agency and are tested.

    Mogget: Rawls thinks that people in general would be willing to enter into the kind of contract that he envisions because such a conception of justice would benefit everyone. However, not all would be willing to give up there privileged status. Hence we see Hummers and starvation in the same country. BTW, a purpose of the veil of ignorance is that if forces the participants to consider that they could be rich or poor, black or white, or male or female. The idea is that you would not choose principles if favor of male priviledge if you knew that you might actually be a women.

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  • Random Leaf

    This argument seems contrived and stretched. It also requires a complete and total disregard for other scriptures – in context of society and time.


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