Original Position Fallacy

The opposite of the golden rule, and why it's relevant now

Had a discussion with a friend about this concept regarding its connection to a completely unrelated topic. Still, I felt like some of the main points were worth reiterating here in light of recent events.

Picture that Kyle invited to a big party for 100 people at some influencer’s house. When he arrives, it’s revealed that there’s been a mistake with the DoorDash order: There’s enough of the burrito bowls for the first 50 guests, but everyone else will have to make do with a salad. Kyle looks around the room, and see that the place is still well under half-full, and say “that sounds fair” to the host. Of course, once Kyle goes into the second room, and sees it full of the 50 guests that arrived earlier, does he realize he’s in the group that won’t get the full meal.

This is a simplified example of the Original Position Fallacy in action. A person supports some kind of policy, action, or revolution because they assume they’re either A) in the group that will benefit from it, or B) not in the group that will suffer from it. When used as a literary device, this is often used to compount a character’s suffering with the knowledge that they supported the measure when they thought someone else would be hurt. Indeed, you can think of the Original Position Fallacy as the opposite of the Golden Rule.

You’ve probably seen this fallacy in action among certain communists, neo-reactionaries, and a few libertarians. Many of these often support a massive upheaval to the social order, believing of course that they would inevitably survive (or even thrive) afterwards. Many modern communists forget that in many revolutions, large groups of supporters suddenly found only too late that the revolutionaries considered them in the class of the “bougie” instead of the true “proletariat”.

I’ve personally met many libertarians that believed that if only the government got out of their way, they could finally thrive. Of course, few give thought to any possible negative outcomes of reduced regulation (like Pan-Am, which was famously doomed when the airline industry was deregulated) or possibilities of being crushed by far more ruthless competitors. Many also seem to forget even recent times in their lives that they’ve had to rely on some kind of safety net, and don’t consider what might happen if that net were no longer there.

The Neo-reactionaries are an interesting bunch that desire a return to monarchies and autocracies, away from democracy. Few of them consider that they might end up outside a given autocrat’s favored inner circle, or that technology has not stopped modern monarch’s courts from being snake pits.

More recently, this seems to be a fallacy present in many people’s thinking regarding the recent COVID-19 outbreak. A few politicians and pundits have expressed that avoiding lockdowns to prevent an economic downturn is worth it even if many people die. While many have been voicing this viewpoint from the relative safety of quarantines, many of them are also still in the high-risk groups for COVID-19 (i.e, old, overweight, and male). Not only has the virus been able to kill suprisingly young and healthy people, but outbreaks like this also tend to come in waves as measures are periodically relaxed when deaths go down, and tightened again as they go up.

The philosopher John Rawls suggested that the only truly fair laws are those created behind a hypothetical veil of ignorance; a veil that blinds one to where they would stand in the new situation. While there are many valid criticisms to this framework, it has unique relevance in this pandemic. The pandemic has taken many of our predictive models of the future, and completely shattered them. Entire fortunes have been wiped out (so much for portfolio theory). Sports seasons have been cancelled (bet nobody’s March Madness brakcet predicted this). Even American conservatives have been warming up to the idea of emergency universal income (i.e., we’re really getting into “Hell freezing over” territory).

The point I’m trying to make is that even if you only have your own self-interests at heart deep down, you should at least acknowledge that the future is far too uncertain for you to be mentally throwing anyone under the bus. After all, your guarantees that you won’t be under the bus with them are getting shakier by the day.


Cited as:

@article{mcateer2020opf,
  title   = "Original Position Fallacy",
  author  = "McAteer, Matthew",
  journal = "matthewmcateer.me",
  year    = "2020",
  url     = "https://matthewmcateer.me/blog/original-position-fallacy/"
}

If you notice mistakes and errors in this post, don’t hesitate to contact me at [contact at matthewmcateer dot me] and I would be very happy to correct them right away!

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