To decipher a moral approach to real-world problems required a system that could, in effect, step outside the real world—one that was bound not by history or sociology but by human rationality alone. Rawls described a hypothetical procedure, conducted from behind a “veil of ignorance” about one’s status in society, for deciding on its basic rules. Heads of households, he argued, should be placed in an “original position” that allowed them general facts about psychology and economic life but denied them information about the past history of their society as well as where they would themselves end up in the society they were designing. This disinterested position, Rawls argued, would allow these heads of households to formulate rules that would benefit people in a range of social positions, since they would have no clue which one they might fall into, and these rules would then form the basis for a fair and “well-ordered society.”
Of the many things that Rawls proposed in his 600-page opus, the original position is among the most hotly debated and sharply criticized. It is indeed a move that prominently displays many of the shortcomings of his approach to philosophy. Populating the original position with heads of households involved a seemingly uncritical nod toward patriarchal social relations, and the related organization of family life drew serious and sustained criticism from feminist political philosophers like Susan Muller Okin and Iris Marion Young. Philosophers attentive to race and colonialism, like Charles Mills, likewise criticized the original position’s abstraction from the history of society, which Mills argued would serve to obscure issues like racism and other forms of injustice that a theory of justice ought to respond to directly.
As a serious and committed liberal, Rawls did not position his theory as a response to the many radical tendencies of his day, because he was convinced that his position, like liberalism itself, already represented an adequate response. These challenges were, in the main, the same radical challenges that liberalism has faced since its inception. That inception did not take place in a hypothetical “state of nature” but rather in a real era of slave states and imperial conquest on a planetary scale, and it was these forces that spread its putatively universalist tenets around the world as it developed ever more incisive criticisms of injustice and inequality. That liberal vision had long been wedded to theories of property and popular sovereignty formed in response far more to imagined histories of political and economic inheritance than to the actual history that explained the distributions of income, rights, and privileges that liberalism and liberals promised to equitably manage. By every indication, Rawls really meant what he said about equality, fairness, and justice in his personal and intellectual life, though he came to a partial and selective understanding of what those things required of him and the structures around him.