Original Position Fallacy
aka: Original Position Gambit

Mrs. Asimov: How pleasant it would be if only we lived a hundred years ago when it was easy to get servants.
Isaac Asimov: It would be horrible... we'd be the servants.
Conversation said to have taken place at some social function.

A situation in which Bob is in favor of some action, revolution, or social system because he assumes that he will be in the group that benefits from it.

Imagine that Bob attends a banquet for 200 people at the mayor's house. When he arrives, he is informed that they made an error when ordering the food — there is enough steak for the first 100 guests, but everyone else will have to make do with vegetables. Bob, looking around and seeing the room less than half full, says he thinks this is fair. Only afterward does he see the second dining room, filled up with people who arrived earlier, and realize that he isn't going to be in the group that gets a full dinner.

Poor Bob. He would have been wiser to remember the thought experiment from which this trope takes its name: John Rawls' "original position", which says that laws made from a position of ignorance will be good because they will try to benefit the largest number of parties — after all, when you don't know whether you'll benefit or suffer, you'll want to give yourself the best possible odds. If Bob had remembered this, he might have suggested giving out half portions of steak so that everyone could have some meat. Unfortunately, he assumed a whole steak was already in his possession and consequently ended up getting none at all.

The main upshot of this trope is to show that blind self interest is a bad thing — Bob shouldn't have been so quick to give "someone else" a steak-less dinner while blithely assuming his meal would be fine. If he is fortunate, it will turn out to be All Just a Dream, and Bob will have a second chance to approach the topic — probably with a bit more humility this time. But in many cases, it's too late for regrets: Bob has his vegetables and now he must eat them. (Some uses of this trope begin in Act 2, where Bob is now in the thick of a miserable situation and laments that he used to want this to happen.)

Of course, it is also possible that the mayor — who did know the outcome and could assign the menu options — steered Bob into making a choice that was worse for him, perhaps to damn him by his own words. Call it an "Original Position Gambit" if you will. This trope is also one of the places where Off the Table doesn't shift sympathy away from the person who refuses to re-extend the offer. ("Oh, Bob wants to make a more generous division now? Too bad.")

A character whose thinking falls into the Original Position Fallacy may start out as a Hell Seeker, end up as a Boomerang Bigot, Dirty Coward, or any combination thereof. If someone pulled the gambit version on him, it was probably a Magnificent Bastard skilled in Gambit Speed Chess. May also result in a Karmic Transformation; sometimes forms the 'twist' of a Karmic Twist Ending. Contrast Who Will Bell the Cat?, where attempts to make a change that would benefit most at the cost of a few are stalled by the fact that no one wants to be "the few."


Examples:

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    Anime & Manga 
  • In Fullmetal Alchemist, both the Emperor of Xerxes and the military leadership of Amestris fall victim to this. They both conspire with Father, the original Homunculus, to commit mass human sacrifice in order to achieve immortality; none of them realize that their immortality will consist of having their souls transmuted into a Philosopher's Stone.
  • Naruto: Danzo was all in favor of instructing his ninjas to sacrifice themselves if need be, in part because his own high rank made his chances of doing so himself extremely low. In a rare variation of this trope, he was aware of this hypocrisy and hated himself for it.
  • In Death Note, Light Yagami spends much of the series as The Social Darwinist, believing that anyone he kills with the Death Note was evil, incompetent, or for the greater good and deserved to die. When it comes time for his own death, however, he is the only character who does not die peacefully, refusing to accept his end. In the manga, at least, he screams and pleads with anyone to try to extend his own life once Ryuk writes Light's name into his own Death Note. In other versions, once he's been identified as the wielder of the Death Note, Light makes a run for it. That is, Light considers anyone who dies in his scheme to have deserved their deaths, until he gets caught in it.

    Comic Books 
  • In Chick Tracts, one of the most common types of Straw Loser is the guy who isn't afraid of hell. One variant of this is that he believes that hell exists and that it is a horrible place for the damned, but also believes that he'll be one of Satan's demons reigning in hell. Of course, his fate invariably turns out to be much crueler. (The two other main variants are those who don't believe that hell exists and those who think that it's not such a bad place.)
  • Watchmen by Alan Moore tackles this with his superheroes Rorscharch and the Comedian.
    • Both of them are Sociopathic Heroes who take on positions of Straw Nihilist and The Antinihilist respectively. They keep telling people that Silly Rabbit, Idealism Is for Kids!, that they alone know "the truth" about the absurdity and harshness of the world. Then they come face to face with someone who internalizes their sayings and decides to do something about it, and their facade of cynicism totally cracks.
    • Rorscharch earlier espoused support of Harry Truman using the atomic bombs to end World War II, saying it was a terrible act that saved millions. When he comes across Ozymandias who uses a similar justification to unleash an attack on New York, he denounces this action and states that he will expose the truth instead, only for him to be killed by Dr. Manhattan, one more body added to the pile sacrificed for the greater good.
  • Judge Dredd: The worldwide nuclear war behind most of the setting's problems was started by the American president, certain as he was that the US's radiation shields would prevent fallout from affecting them. He was disbelievingly disabused of this notion after the nukes started flying.

    Literature 
  • In one of the stories of Ooka Tadasuke, a famous Japanese judge of the 18th century, he has to divide a father's estate between twin sons. One is known as greedy and selfish; the other is known as having helped the father and for being honorable. No one can tell which son is which. Ooka picks one son at random and tells him to divide the estate using tokens representing the various assets. The chosen son starts giving himself all the money and property, and gives his brother merely the good will of the neighbors. The crowd thinks Ooka made a huge mistake until Ooka announces that he told the son to divide the estate, but that only Ooka has the power to award the items. Ooka gives the money to the honorable son and tells the greedy son that he needs the neighbors' good will more.
  • Happens quite a lot in fairy tales. The usual scenario is that at the wedding of the long-suffering female protagonist, the king will ask whoever tormented her what the proper punishment should be for a series of crimes (these crimes inevitably being the ones they did to her). The evil characters almost always fail to see the trap and callously suggest a horrible punishment (e.g. "They should be put into red hot iron shoes and forced to dance until dead"), which is promptly done to them.
    • The Goose Girl in Grimms' fairy tales ends this way, involving being dragged up and down the street in a barrel filled with nails.
  • In the first novel of the Slave World series, the heroine is horrified with how naively her colleagues embrace the Alternate Timeline world they have found. The scientists join the society, believing that they will get to be part of the aristocracy and thus accept the social order where the aristocrats have absolute power over everyone else. And yes, they do end up enslaved.
    • Zigzagged in the third novel, as Sarah seems to be falling in the same trap as her predecessors. She's actually setting herself up for permanent enslavement, although her plan is to belong to the woman she loves... who then gives her the basic "thanks but no thanks" and auctions her off to a random aristocrat... a young lady who grows to become the true love of her life.
  • Isaac Asimov was acutely aware of this phenomenon, both when selectively pining for the Good Old Days and when imagining the societies of the future.
    • The page quote above, spoken at a dinner function, was later incorporated into one of Asimov's essays as an example.
    • The short story "The Winnowing" describes a global food shortage which the World Food Council intends to remedy by poisoning the most famine-struck areas — all of them comfortably distant from their own homes — with a biological agent that would kill 70% of the population at random. Their high-minded platitudes about "the finger of God" selecting the victims evaporate when the scientist they coerced into assisting reveals that he added the agent to the sandwiches they've just eaten.
  • Discussed in Colonel Butler's Wolf by Anthony Price. Butler compares himself to one of his more liberal-minded colleagues, noting that the colleague assumes he'd have been one of the masters in the old days but prefers modern society anyway, while Butler himself thinks the old ways were better even though he knows perfectly well he'd have been one of the servants.
  • In a short story by Robert Sheckley, in an anthology compiled by Isaac Asimov, a young man, obsessed with sex, finds a magical text that will allow him to assume the job of feeding griffins, aware that griffins' favorite food is young virgins (thinking he might have some fun with offering a girl the obvious way out). It turns out that the young man is actually a virgin, and that he is not serving food for the griffin, he is the food.
  • The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman tackles this head-on. Sophie — a girl from 1960 — gets to travel back in time to 1860 and visit her ancestors' plantation. She assumes they'll recognize her as part of the family. They do, but her tan skin, frizzy hair, and lack of 19th-century manners mean they figure her mother must have been black, and so she winds up as a slave by the one-drop rule.
  • Averted in Atlas Shrugged. The population of Galt's Gulch consists entirely of people who were either wealthy in the outside world, or aspired to be. Clearly, a functioning society requires menial laborers, and some people will be at the bottom of the heap. But, unlike the Bioshock example below, everyone's presented as very happy with this system. CEOs who end up as underlings claim to be completely satisfied, as long as their boss is more skilled and qualified than they are.
  • Robertson Davies once wrote a short story (collected in the anthology High Spirits) in which a group of Toronto academics, after being bored to tears listening to a newly minted literature graduate student gush about how cool it would be to go live in the past, preceded to summon the minds of their ancestors to inhabit their present bodies. And it turns out none of them had a particularly interesting past.
  • A short sci-fi story had a garbage collector being convinced all his life that there's something wrong with the world and his position in it. One day he's visited by a being who says there's been a mistake and he actually belongs in an Alternate Universe, a Medieval European Fantasy world of brave knights, beautiful princesses and heroic deeds. The garbageman eagerly agrees to go there instead, where it turns out his job is to clean the manure out of the castle stables, and his home is a pile of straw in the corner.
  • In one of the books of Guardians of Ga'Hoole, the main character Nyroc is born to Nyra, head of the "Pure Ones", an organization of owls made up of the family tytonidae (Barn Owls) whose goal was to eliminate the Guardians of Ga'hoole and purify the owl kingdoms. One of Nyroc's friends was Phillip, a subspecies of Tytonidae called Greater Sooty Owls. When he and his father were starving, they decided to join the organization as new recruits in hopes of a better life. Unfortunately, as Phillip discovers, not only are the Pure Ones racist towards other owls but discriminate among their own kind based on feather color, with the white Tyto albas at the top of the hierarchy. Phillip (or Dustytuft as the other owls called him) ended up on the lower ranks of the social ladder, just above Lesser Sooty Owls, forced to do the most menial and worst of jobs.
  • There is a fairy tale where a lazy man hears about an island of one-eyed men, so he decides to go there, kidnap one, and make a living from The Freakshow. He didn't even consider the fact the a two-eyed man is quite the freak show for the one-eyed...
  • Shirley Jackson's townspeople in "The Lottery" are perfectly fine with the annual Lottery of Doom that will end in a Human Sacrifice (it's traditional!). Only the victim protests, and even then only when it becomes clear that her life is at stake.
  • Discworld:
    • Inverted for (pre-Ridcully) wizards and Assassins, who view their respective hierarchies as stifling and extremely unfair, but are very happy with it once they become high rankers themselves. Those who don't achieve high ranks... let's just say their complaints are unlikely to matter.
    • In The Last Continent, the Chair of Indefinte Studies darkly mutters that in "the old days" they used to kill wizards like Ridcully. The Dean points out that they also used to kill wizards like them.
  • In the Thursday Next novel One of Our Thursdays Is Missing, Thursday is trapped in the Oral Tradition aboard the ship Ethical Dilemma, which is the setting of an ethics lecture about the morality of killing or torturing one person to save a larger group. Thursday chooses to give the lecturer an aneurysm in order to save the ship.
  • One Judge Dee story has the judge attend a play, in which two brothers are complaining about their inheritance, each claiming they got shafted. The judge of the play tells the brothers to exchange lists.
  • Harry Potter:
    • Many people who joined the Death Eaters were merely in it For the Evulz, or the chance to get ahead in wizarding society, or because Voldemort's victory seemed certain (and many were half-bloods masquerading​ as pureblood). Some found out that his evil was far beyond the bullying and Muggle-baiting they were used to, some tried to claim they'd been mind-controlled the entire time and others still found themselves too deeply compromised to do anything but keep serving him.
    • The goblins welcomed Voldemort's upheaval of the wizarding world at first, thinking it the end of wizardkind's casual contempt on nonhuman magic beings. Instead, they seemed to have been reduced to menial work (quoth Griphook, who escaped: "I am no house-elf.") You'd think going with an organization that prides itself on purity of wizarding lineage would have set off more warning bells.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Lampshaded in The West Wing. After a motion to strengthen the Estate Tax / Death Tax is defeated in congress, President Bartlett muses that the problem with The American Dream is that it makes everyone worry about how they'll protect their assets once they become rich.
  • In the Doctor Who eipsode "Day of the Doctor": The Doctor (three of them actually, the War Doctor, Ten and Eleven to be exact) activate a memory-erasure device on the heads of UNIT and the shape-shifting Zygons to negotiate a peace treaty to make everyone forget who's a human and who's an alien, forcing them to consider this trope's effects, since the head of UNIT activated a bomb that would set off a nuclear warhead, resulting in the destruction of them and the Zygons, along with the collection of dangerous alien artifacts and all of London.
  • In an episode of Saved by the Bell, Zack winds up learning a lesson this way. He's allowed to choose the teams for an athletic competition, so he puts all the jock-types on one team, assuming he'll be the captain of that team, and all the nerd-types on the other. The teacher then appoints him as the captain of the nerd team, saying something to the effect of "Yes, I let you pick the teams, but I pick the captains."

    Myths & Religion 
  • In The Bible's Book of Esther, King Xerxes asks his advisor Haman what a good reward would be for someone who had done the king a great service. Haman assumes it's for him and suggests an elaborate display, with the honored person riding the king's horse, wearing the king's robe, and being led by a noble shouting "See what is done for the man the king wishes to honor!" Xerxes thinks it's a great idea — and then tells him to go do just that for Mordecai, whom Haman hates and wants to kill. And it just gets worse for Haman after that.

    Tabletop Games 
  • In Book of the Dead, a book for the New World of Darkness (mostly Geist: The Sin-Eaters and Mage: The Awakening), all the underworld realms presented are designed so the gamemaster can play them this way. It's outright encouraged in general, and one of the realms is designed so it's hard to NOT play it this way. This realm is called Oppia, and is a place of abundant soul-energy in the form of delicious food. The rulers are very generous and hospitable, and their rules seem simple enough. Sure the system runs on enslavement of souls, but those idiots are bad guests who broke the rules. Seems easy enough to accept... until you realize how very easy it actually is to break the rules. Including by accident.
  • In Dungeons & Dragons, this is a common ploy of the Lawful Evil alignment, inviting people to join a system that benefit the strong at the expense of the weak. The regular adherent is an Asshole Victim who overestimated his strength and is really unhappy with finding himself as one of the despised and exploited weaklings.
    • It's mentioned in Fiendish Codex II that this is why Lawful Evil characters often make deals with devils — they expect to swiftly take positions of power and prestige in the diabolic hierarchy after their deaths. "No tyrant looks upon a wretched lemure and thinks that this will be their afterlife."
  • In the Mutant Chronicles book Ilian, there are two short-stories on this theme. Humans who joined the cult of Ilian because they wanted to become the exploiters rather then the exploited. And of course, their futures are so bright, since Ilian will smile upon them forever... until they fail or get backstabbed by each other, that is. Suckers.
  • Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battles:
    • Many people who join Chaos cults do so in the hopes of attracting their chosen god's favor. Unfortunately for them, said gods are just as likely to ignore them, give them what they want or subject them to horrible (and/or benign) mutations.
    • 40K: The fall of the Eldar was brought about by the psychic Space Elves' continuous hedonism creating a new Chaos god/dess in the Warp. Some pleasure cults actually did their best to accelerate this process, believing they'd be rewarded with an eternity of new sensations. The Dark Eldar, are now an entire race of Klingon Promotion-enforcing combat sadomasochists who need to hide in the Webway lest Slaanesh (the hermaphroditic embodiment of excess known as She Who thirsts) devour their souls, and can emerge into realspace only long enough to conduct quick raids for slaves.

    Theater 
  • In Shakespeare's Henry V, a trio of nobles are secretly plotting against Henry when Henry brings another traitor in front of them, asking whether he should execute him or show mercy. All three say he should execute him, at which time Henry reveals that he knows about their treachery and sends them all off to be executed.

    Video Games 
  • Bioshock:
    • Invoked in the first game in one of the Apocalyptic Logs; the speaker says that when intelligent, hard-working and powerful individuals from the surface are invited to come to Rapture and help build a world of pure capitalistic freedom, they accept because they think they'll be captains of industry like they would be on the surface. They then find out that, even in a capitalist heaven, "someone needs to clean the toilets". It seems that nobody, not even Andrew Ryan fully realised that if you have an entire city comprised solely of the human race's elite, those who could be great leaders when surrounded by normal people to do the menial work won't be special any more when everyone is just as clever and driven as they are. Apparently, this unwelcome discovery contributed heavily to the people's rapid disillusionment with Rapture, and Ryan realising that there were people who could compete with him as equals helped spur an already self-centred narcissist past the Moral Event Horizon to stay on top.
    • This is also discussed in the second game where you find out the backstory of the railroad that connects the various parts of the city. Ryan and his supporters invested heavily in the railroad but it was quickly upstaged by the invention of the bathysphere and the railroad went bankrupt. Ryan's followers never considered that their own investments could go sour and were confronted by the fact that they were about to find themselves broke and on the bottom of the economic and social system of Rapture. Faced with losing his powerbase, Ryan forced a bank bailout for the railroad which saved the investors' fortunes but destroyed the savings of everyone else. Rapture's economy went into a downward spiral and which resulted in the civil war that wrecked the city.
    • While not as prevalent, the fallacy is also reflected in Bioshock Infinite regarding Comstock's flying paradise for the American People. Fink realized that none of the white, wealthy, religious patrons who'd flock to Comstock's city as "God's Kingdom" would be eager to do manual labor or menial tasks to maintain the 'heavenly' city, so he brought in "Cherubs for every chore", i.e. a massive foreign labor force that would eventually revolt and become the Vox Populi. Needless to say, this didn't end well for anybody.
  • Dragon Quest VI: One optional area in the dreamworld is a "Groundhog Day" Loop of a king who decided to deal with the threat of the Archfiend by summoning an even bigger demon to kill it. The idea that they wouldn't remain in control past the first five seconds of the ritual didn't occur to them at all. If you actually fight and defeat this demon quickly enough, it turns out the plan wasn't as stupid as it seems: the demon cheerfully destroys the Big Bad in a humiliating Curb-Stomp Battle without taking any damage.

    Real Life 
  • This is what's behind the "cut and choose" method of sharing treats. Typically, when two children are sharing a cookie or cupcake or something like that, one child divides the treat into two portions, but the other child gets to pick which portion he/she wants.
  • The kinds of people who think living in a post-apocalyptic world would be "cool" tend to use this fallacy. They assume that, in a world with no law, order, or government, they could do whatever they want and would thrive. But they fail to realize that the whole "do whatever you want" thing wouldn't just apply to themselves, it would apply to everyone else. Many think that "raiding a store" would be sufficient enough to let them live comfortably, ignoring that pretty much everyone else would be trying to raid the stores too — and without farms or other agricultural infrastructure, sooner or later the stores will just run out.

    This also presumes that they will survive to be part of the post-apocalypse in the first place. Every doomsday-prepper presumes they won't die to nuclear fire, the zombie plague, the meteor shower, the alien or demonic invasion... etc. Those who yearn for the Rapture also assume that they will be one of those taken to Heaven (especially if their confession mentions having limited seats, such as Jehovah's Witnesses). Many disaster movies don't clearly portray what you can comfortably presume are >90% human casualties.
    • Actually averted by Jehovah's Witnesses, who will cheerfully tell you that although there's only a few spots in heaven, there's an unlimited number of equally nice spots on Earth.
  • Eugenics proponents generally assume that the populations which have favorable genes are theirs and the populations which need to die off are not their own (nor anyone they know). Similarly, those who prophesy a Malthusian catastrophe unless the human population level drops (through war, pandemic, or the like) tend to assume that "those other people" will be the ones to kick off and leave room for everyone else.
  • For a variant, conspiracy theorists tend to think like this, but in the present tense. They assume that whatever chemical has been fed into the water supply, or whatever radio waves are dumbing down the populace, that they are somehow immune and therefore able to perceive the truth, and are not one of the "sheeple" that they so deride.
  • Kevin Drum once wrote on his belief that hardcore libertarianism is built on this trope.
    Drum: It's a fantasy where the strongest and most self-reliant folks end up at the top of the heap, and a fair number of men share the fantasy that they are these folks. They believe they've been held back by rules and regulations designed to help the weak, and in a libertarian culture their talents would be obvious and they'd naturally rise to positions of power and influence.

    Most of them are wrong, of course. In a truly libertarian culture, nearly all of them would be squashed like ants — mostly by the same people who are squashing them now. But the fantasy lives on regardless.
  • For that matter, any political leaning that requires either people being inherently better than others or will presumably reward those who are legitimately better will be championed by people who assume they will be the ones on top, regardless of whether or not they would actually be.
  • When people ask one another, for fun, "If you could live in any historical time period, what would it be," the question contains the assumption that the answer does not include being a peasant (who comprised vast majority of Earth's population until very recently), where living a long, exceedingly boring life full of hard labor until you die of old age is the best outcome you can wildly hope for, in pretty much all of human history.
    • This is one of the arguments made against the existence of reincarnation: it's remarkable how a vastly disproportionate number of people who claim to be able to remember their "past lives" seem to have lived exciting, colourful and varied lives among the gentry, rather than boring ones among the peasantry.
    • Ditto for anyone who asks about living in some fictional universe. Some of them seem very cool or interesting... as long as you're a member of that universe's elite or The Chosen One and/or a member of his band of True Companions. The person responding tends to forget that the chances of this are very small indeed, and for most other people in such universes, things tend to suck.
  • Indian and Chinese parents who decide in favor of the abortion of female fetuses, and try for a boy, believing that they will, in twenty years or so, be the ones who get to be paid money for their son's hand in marriage, and obtain a daughter-in-law who will work for them. What they often fail to consider is that everyone else has the same idea, leading to a scarcity of women, that might lead to their son not being able to marry at all. The governments can see where this is going, and try to counteract it, but the individual people, not so much.
  • People who like to use the phrase "You Can't Make an Omelette... without breaking a few eggs" rarely volunteer themselves to be the "eggs" to be "broken", or even consider the possibility.
  • Ayn Rand would reassure her followers who feared they were the "parasites" she railed against by telling them that because they had superior taste in reading material, they were among the "perfect producers" who would inherit the world.
  • Every politician — especially those of "family values" — who support a discriminatory policy based on 'morality', and are then caught by the public being immoral.
  • This theory is behind the quote attributed to John Steinbeck, "Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires". That is, though they are currently poor they think they'll be among the tiny number of poor people to become extremely rich somehow, and so are against things intended to help the poor that could be bad for the rich.
  • Many people support expelling immigrants in their home countries, assuming that they will get the leftover jobs. Unfortunately, not all companies are under pressure to hire natives, and many can quite easily outsource work to other countries or replace their lost workers with machinery. Not to mention that a lot of immigrants a) do jobs few people would want to do or b) are business owners and employ others, arguably increasing the total number of jobs.
  • Many anonymous Trolls defend their offensive behavior online (not to be confused with voicing unpopular but valid opinions) by claiming they're entitled to free speech. They're quick to react in horror when other people find out who they really are and exercise their right to free speech to expose them to the public.

Alternative Title(s): Original Position Gambit

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/OriginalPositionFallacy?from=Main.OriginalPositionGambit