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 new law, economic system, revolution, etc. because he assumes he will be in the group which benefits from it.

Imagine that Bob longingly reads the description of an aristocracy in Plato's The Republic, where the people are sorted into three classes based on their inherent abilities (described in the book as a soul of gold, for the rulers; silver, for the soldiers; and bronze or iron, for the common working classes). Bob, naturally, imagines that he must have a soul of gold and would be placed in his rightful position as a philosopher king. But if circumstances somehow bring his dream to life, Bob gets a jarring surprise — he is placed among the bronze/iron souls, fated to serve those who are judged innately superior.

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 the only just laws are those made from a theoretical position of complete ignorance about who will benefit and who will suffer from them. No one in the original position would ever want to instate Plato's aristocracy, after all, since it says only a few will rule and most will serve.

If Bob 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 made his bed and now must lie in it.

If another character actively manipulated Bob into his predicament, this trope could be called an "Original Position Gambit".

A character doing the Original Position Fallacy may start out as a Hell Seeker, end up as a Boomerang Bigot or both. 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.


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  • 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 female protagonist (usually the maltreated good daughter of a bad family), the king will ask whoever tormented her (the stepmother, the stepsister, etc.) the proper punishment for a series of crimes (these crimes inevitably being the ones they did to the protagonist). The evil characters, who invariably fail to see the trap, 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.
  • 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.
  • Debated in the book SS-GB by Len Deighton. SS Standartenfuhrer Oskar Huth states that when he figured out that the Nazi party was going to be in power, he decided that the only position that was acceptable to him was in the ruling class. Strength determined your status in Nazi life and he was going to be on top, regardless of the cost.
  • Invoked in one of Isaac Asimov's essays, quoting a dialogue at a social function. See page quote above.
  • 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. CEO's 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 at listening 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...

    Live Action Television 
  • 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 Doctor Who 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.

    Religion and Mythology 
  • 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 (or benign) mutations.

  • 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 
  • Invoked in BioShock 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 "someone needs to clean the toilets". It seems that nobody, not even Andrew Ryan fully realised that if you have an entire city comprised entirely 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.

  • 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.
    • As do most proponents of eugenics throughout history. They always presume that the favorable genes are the ones they themselves possess.
    • 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.
  • 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, 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.
  • Indian and Chinese parents who decide in favour 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 omelet without breaking a few eggs" rarely volunteer themselves to be the "eggs" to be "broken", or even consider the possibility.

Alternative Title(s):

Original Position Gambit