Marking 20 years
of bold journalism,
reader supported.
BC Politics

Thinking Fairly About BC’s Referendum on Proportional Representation

Look to Dr. Who and American philosopher John Rawls’s theory of the ‘original position.’

Stephen Tweedale 4 Jul

Stephen Tweedale studies at Simon Fraser University and blogs about politics and philosophy at Popcorn Machine.

The Zygons’ home world has been destroyed — collateral damage in the apocalyptic Time War — and the shape-shifting aliens need a replacement. Planet Earth seems to fit the bill. It’s already inhabited, of course, but the Zygons can blend until they’re ready to strike. UNIT, a top secret branch of the United Nations tasked with defending Earth from all manner of cosmic dangers, discovers the invasion and reacts swiftly to counter the Zygon threat. In the struggle to come, the stakes are victory or death — there’s nowhere for either side to retreat.

Enter the Doctor, a peace-loving alien time traveller — friend to humanity, indirectly responsible for the destruction of the Zygons’ original home, and absolutely determined to avert the looming genocidal conflict. With the (physically indistinguishable) leaders of humanity’s defence and the Zygons gathered together in a secure compound under the streets of London, the Doctor zaps their brains with a selective memory-erasing device normally used by UNIT to preserve its secrecy. “For the next few hours,” he announces, “no one in this room will be able to remember if they’re human or Zygon.” The humans and Zygons are about to negotiate the most perfect treaty of all time — and the key to perfect negotiation, the Doctor declares, is not knowing what side you’re on.

As TV critics and philosophers both remarked at the time it aired, this scenario from the 50th anniversary episode of the science fiction show Doctor Who could easily have been inspired by the “original position,” a celebrated thought experiment proposed by the American political philosopher John Rawls. There are no aliens or secret UN agencies in the original position, but there is a magic memory eraser, and it's used for basically the same purpose. Rawls called it the veil of ignorance, and he thought it was essential to creating a truly fair democracy.

It could also help us decide how to vote in B.C.’s upcoming referendum on electoral reform.

Principles of social justice

Former U.S. president Bill Clinton once remarked that Rawls “helped a whole generation of learned Americans revive their faith in democracy itself.” But although Rawls argued that we ought to have faith in democracy as a realistically achievable ideal, his assessment of states that purport to have achieved that ideal was harsh. “All existing allegedly liberal democracies are highly imperfect,” he told students of his famous course on the history of political philosophy at Harvard, “and fall far short of what democratic justice would seem to require.”

Once an aspirant to the Episcopal priesthood, Rawls served as an infantryman in the Second World War and saw heavy fighting in the Pacific theatre. By the end of the war, however, Rawls had abandoned his formerly orthodox religious faith. “How could I pray,” he wrote in a posthumously published autobiographical essay, “and ask God to help me, or my family, or my country, or any other cherished thing I cared about, when God would not save millions of Jews from Hitler?” Rawls opted to pursue graduate studies in moral and political philosophy. Although he described himself as “no longer orthodox,” the unifying theme in much of his subsequent work has seemed to some of his colleagues as religious in nature. Given our manifest propensity for great evil, how can we sustain the belief that human existence is worthwhile? This belief can only be sustained, Rawls thought, if humans are at least capable of achieving just, peaceful and democratic relations amongst themselves. The task to which he set himself, then, was to discover principles of justice that we can all endorse and achieve.

These principles of social justice, Rawls argued, are principles that everyone would hypothetically agree to under fair conditions as the basis for the major political and economic institutions that collectively form a society-wide cooperative structure. And for this kind of agreement, fairness requires ignorance of one’s actual life circumstances.

If we faced the choice of principles with full knowledge of our particular circumstances (class position, natural talents, affinity for a religious or secular conception of the good life, etc.) we might be able to capitalize on arbitrarily distributed advantages to force agreement on principles of justice that are especially favourable to ourselves — or we might not be able to come to any agreement at all. If the arbitrary distribution of advantages determines the selection of principles of justice, then this selection will itself be arbitrary. Fairness, then, requires that the particular circumstances of the parties to this hypothetical agreement should be concealed from them by a “veil of ignorance.” Behind this veil, we possess only general facts about human nature and society. Everything else is hidden.

Given that the stakes are so high, Rawls argued, the rational choice from behind the veil of ignorance is to make sure that the least advantaged group gets as good a deal as possible. So under fair conditions, we would ultimately agree on principles guaranteeing a set of equal basic liberties and real equal opportunity for all, as well as a strict limit on economic inequality (permitting only those inequalities that are of greatest advantage to the least advantaged members of society). Once these principles have been agreed upon, the veil gradually rises, revealing more about the circumstances of the society we inhabit but still concealing our identities from ourselves and each other. As the veil rises, we apply the principles of justice in light of this new knowledge to the drafting of a constitution and to the design of major economic and social institutions.

This idea of an imaginary perspective shaping our practical deliberations about how to live together has a long history in moral and political philosophy, taking various forms such as the Golden Rule, the Confucian concept of shu and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. Even though the original position is completely imaginary, Rawls suggests that it nevertheless represents a perspective or manner of thinking that we can take up at will and use to evaluate the degree to which our societies are just. “Purity of heart,” Rawls writes at the end of A Theory of Justice, “if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view.”

Applications for BC’s referendum

Rawls didn’t provide a detailed blueprint of the institutions that would satisfy the principles chosen in the original position. That’s a job for social scientists and for the public at large, he thought, not for philosophers. In any case, it seemed most probable to him that many different institutional arrangements could potentially satisfy the requirements of justice; the appropriate institutions for any given society will depend on facts about its particular political culture and history, and on empirical questions which philosophers are not best qualified to answer. What he did make clear, however, was that major reforms would be needed wherever the principles of justice were taken seriously.

Rawls was especially concerned about the ways that existing democracies deprive people of the fair value of their political liberties. America’s laissez-faire campaign finance regime provides an especially dramatic example; the importance of money in the political process gives the wealthy’s interests disproportionate weight, making a mockery of the ideal of democracy as a process of public deliberation among equals and turning elections into little more than slugging match between rival factions of plutocrats. When the political liberties are not given their fair value, unjust economic inequality is easily translated into political inequality. The domination of politics by wealthy, self-interested elites, in turn, further deepens and entrenches economic inequality, creating a vicious cycle.

Although B.C. has taken steps to curb the influence of money in politics, we still face the question of whether our political liberties are given their fair value under the current political system, or whether remaining systemic defects may also function to reduce their worth. In fact, this is precisely the charge that proponents of proportional representation have made against the first-past-the-post electoral system. To many, it seems manifestly unfair that a party can win a majority of seats with a minority of votes, that two parties with roughly equal levels of support can be rewarded with such wildly different levels of representation in the legislature, or that a party with substantial support can be completely shut out.

A common response to these complaints is simply to deny the relevance of support for parties altogether (see, for example, independent political journalist Dale Smith’s defence of first-past-the-post in his book The Unbroken Machine). Under first-past-the-post, the response goes, general elections just involve a series of local elections, each of which is decided by plurality (i.e. the candidate with the most votes wins); there is no separate general election in which votes are cast for parties, and thus no such thing as “parties’ share of the vote.” And if there is no such thing as “parties’ share of the vote,” then there can be no disproportionality between the composition of the legislature and the parties’ share of the vote.

This response is not very satisfying, to say the least. After all, what’s really at issue is whether the electoral system should make the popular vote relevant to the composition of the legislature. But defenders of first-past-the-post have a point too. If first-past-the-post doesn’t purport to assign any significance to the popular vote, then supporters of PR have to find independent grounds to claim that disproportionality is unfair. And appealing to people’s intuitive sense of what is fair won’t do the trick, because it seems that people’s intuitive sense of fairness leads them to completely different conclusions about this question.

First-past-the-post vs PR

This is where the original position can help. Instead of asking directly which electoral system seems more intuitively fair, Rawls’s method invites us to take a step back and consider which electoral system it would be rational to choose under the fair conditions created by the veil of ignorance. If you didn’t know your own political leanings, your demographic profile, the relative importance you assign to geographic versus party-based forms of representation, or how much you value diversity in the political arena, which would you pick?

First-past-the-post favours larger parties and penalizes smaller ones, rewards parties whose support is geographically concentrated and shuts out those whose support is geographically diffuse, strictly limits the number of parties in the legislature, and according to its own supporters, emphasizes geographic representation to the total exclusion of party-based representation. This makes first-past-the-post a rational choice if you can be assured that, when the veil of ignorance is lifted, you turn out to have stable preferences for the kind of party that does well under first-past-the-post, a less diverse legislature, and the form of representation that first-past-the-post encourages. But the point of the veil, of course, is that there are no such assurances.

If you choose first-past-the-post and you turn out to prefer a smaller party with more geographically diffuse support, or you like having more viewpoints represented in the legislature, you’ve gambled and lost big — you won’t have the same kind of real opportunities for effective political participation that many of your fellow citizens have. Your political liberties will be deprived of their full worth.

But suppose you choose some form of proportional representation. If the veil lifts and you turn out to be a small-party supporter, then all is well — you’ve achieved the best outcome you could have hoped for. But even if you turn out to be a large-party supporter, the outcome ought to seem satisfactory. Your side will still have the edge, and enjoy a degree of influence commensurate with its popular support. By choosing differently, you could have gotten a better outcome for yourself, but to do so would have involved taking an unacceptable risk.

Under fair conditions, then, it would be irrational to choose first-past-the-post, and rational to choose some kind of PR. If, all things being equal, we have good reason to do what is rational to do, and no good reason to do what is irrational to do, then we would have good reason to choose PR in the original position. And if we would choose PR in the event that the circumstances of the choice were fair, it seems reasonable to say that some form of PR is the fair choice under the real circumstances we find ourselves in.

The decision to change our electoral system is not to be taken lightly, and to cast an informed vote, conscientious citizens will dedicate a fair amount of time and attention over the coming months to learning about the different systems on the ballot and the arguments for and against them. But as Rawls argued, some kinds of information can skew our judgment — consciously or not — to favour our narrow self-interest at the expense of the paramount political values of justice and fairness. In this one respect, one might say the less you know, the better.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

  • Share:

Facts matter. Get The Tyee's in-depth journalism delivered to your inbox for free

Tyee Commenting Guidelines

Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.


  • Be thoughtful about how your words may affect the communities you are addressing. Language matters
  • Challenge arguments, not commenters
  • Flag trolls and guideline violations
  • Treat all with respect and curiosity, learn from differences of opinion
  • Verify facts, debunk rumours, point out logical fallacies
  • Add context and background
  • Note typos and reporting blind spots
  • Stay on topic

Do not:

  • Use sexist, classist, racist, homophobic or transphobic language
  • Ridicule, misgender, bully, threaten, name call, troll or wish harm on others
  • Personally attack authors or contributors
  • Spread misinformation or perpetuate conspiracies
  • Libel, defame or publish falsehoods
  • Attempt to guess other commenters’ real-life identities
  • Post links without providing context


The Barometer

Are You Concerned about AI?

Take this week's poll