The Original Position and the Council of Heaven I

The Original Position and the Council of Heaven I January 14, 2006

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.


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