Writing from the Original Position Behind the Veil of Ignorance
John Rawl’s Theory of Justice Applied to the Problem of What to Write About
I have been thinking and writing about writing a lot these days. Mostly it has been in response to other articles I have come across which suggest various ways you can become a more popular or successful writer. As is my usual m.o., I have taken some of these articles to task with satirical replies that attempt to illustrate with humor just how ridiculous such advice typically is. An example of one of the satirical pieces and one with a (slightly) more serious tone are linked below to give you a sense.
I Don’t Want to Write Articles That People Want to Read
I’d Much Rather Make Them Uncomfortable
How to Write and Publish Articles That No One Will Ever Notice
Simple Techniques for Creating Content That’s Impossible to Find and Boring to Read
These advice articles are easy targets and I am sensitive to the criticism that what I offer is nothing but negativity. What positive advice can I give? What actual (non satirical) suggestions do I have? The answer to both questions is not much and almost none, but recently I began to think about the problem of what to write about from an unusual and perhaps novel perspective. This different way of approaching writing takes as its framework John Rawl’s legendary theory of justice (as is the case with many/most philosophical or sociological ‘theories’, it is not a theory in the scientific sense. In structure it may be seen as a hypothesis or series of hypotheses, however no data exists or was generated in support of them. If such a thing would even be possible is a matter of debate. In this article I will use the terminology of “theory” as that is how Rawl’s describes it in the title of his famous work, and how it is referred to in academic and public circles) and uses two key components of that theory as its jumping off point.
I should start with an apology to any Rawl’s superfans or actual philosophers who may have clicked on his link simply because of the association with his name. I will absolutely give only the most cursory of descriptions of his ‘theory’ and most likely will say things with which you do not agree or which are plain wrong. Sorry about that, but such is the nature of ‘philosophical’ discourse on social platforms such as medium. In any event you can’t say I didn’t warn you. Actually, now that I think about it, it really isn’t very different from the nature of philosophical discourse in academic philosophy and the primary philosophical literature, but I digress.
One of the cornerstones of Rawl’s theory of justice is a sort of thought experiment he conducts in which he asks us to consider how one might go about constructing the most just society if starting from scratch. What process could we use to maximize justice and thus minimize the chance of any one person or group being favored over any other in a society? In other words how could we ensure the most fair society. Ultimately this is a decent way to summarize Rawl’s theory, justice as fairness (Rawl’s actually published another book with that very title). Through examination of justice as fairness we see that justice is fairness. They are one in the same thing. Sounds straightforward enough but the the tough part comes in defining what is fair and how to maximize the probability of fair outcomes for all.
Rawl’s ask us to imagine a starting point for our discussions of this most fair society which he dubs the original position. In the original position all people (including yourself) exist behind a veil of ignorance and know nothing about the sex, particular social standing, class, race, creed, nationality, individual tastes or anything about any other person. The theory contends that not knowing one’s ultimate position in society would lead to the creation of a just system, as the decision-maker would not want to make decisions which benefit a certain group at the expense of another. Hopefully you can see why this would be the case. The decision-maker could theoretically end up in either group. This idea has been around philosophy for quite a long time and many philosophers who write or think about society in terms of social contracts have used variations of the theme in their writings. Ultimately the question can be boiled down to something like the following. How would a person in such a position, knowing they are going to have to live in a society with other people about which he/she knows nothing construct laws that would result in him or her having an equal opportunity at success and/or at not getting screwed over? In my view Rawl’s took the idea the furthest and the answers he gives are many and fascinating. They are not however relevant to the point of this article which was to ask how we can apply this mode of thinking about justice or other moral questions to thinking about (and practicing/doing) writing.
Therefore I ask you as a writer to imagine yourself in a sort of writer’s original position behind a similar but more specific veil of ignorance. In this specific case your (and everyone else’s) ignorance is limited to knowledge of what any other person wants/likes to read about and/or what any other person wants/likes to write about. You (and presumably others) want to live in a society with interesting things to read but you have no idea what interests others. You (and presumably others) also want to write interesting things for other to read. You can assume that all other readers/writers exist behind this same veil of ignorance. The question for you to answer is what then should you write about in order to maximize the chances that others will be interested in reading what you have written, and to maximize the chances that you will be interested in reading what others have written? Again, the important point here is the assumption that nobody has any idea what interests any other person/writer/reader may have. No writer knows what any other person wants/likes to read and no reader knows what any other person wants likes to write about. All are equally ignorant of each others interests in the areas of writing and reading.
At this point you might be thinking to yourself, but Dan this is the situation I am in currently, I have no freakin clue what other people are interested in writing about and even less clue about what they might be interested in reading about. If that is the case then you can stop reading this article right now as you have arrived at (or maybe never left) the writers original position and this technique will be of little help to you. Of course, it will probably be of little help to anyone so you are welcome to continue on. After all, just because a particular bit of advice is unhelpful does not mean it can’t be interesting. That said I would argue that even though you might believe you are ignorant of those things you really are not. In fact I don’t think it is possible to exist in society today (except perhaps as a totally isolated hermit) and not get at least some sense (even subconsciously) of the things that people like to read. See all things Stephen King for one example of this.
My point here is not really to suggest that you can use this technique to determine what to write about out. By now it should be obvious that no such wisdom is forthcoming. However, I do hope that my little thought experiment based on a thought experiment made some sort of an impression. Perhaps made you think a little bit about why you choose to write about particular topics and not others. Maybe even, hopefully even, made you worry less about what others think or care about your writing, and made you ask yourself why you really want to write, why you really want to be a writer. Nobody can answer that question but you.
You could go the selfish route and only write about the things that interest yourself. Obviously this would be great for the few other people that are interested in reading and perhaps writing about similar things but not so great for the vast majority of others that could give two shits about that stuff. .
Am I going to answer that question for you? That would be nice wouldn’t it but no, I will not nor could I possibly hope to