So, I’ll admit it, I kinda sorta love Rawls.
The whole idea of the veil of ignorance / original position is simple and beautiful in and of itself. Imagining a time in which you don’t know your OWN situation — i.e. your own privilege. Then constructing principles to guide behavior that are acceptable to rational and self-interested persons. Pretty danged perfect in some ways. It seems to me the best use of a thought experiment…
Sure, you can do the trolly discussion… all you want, BUT — it’s kind of a silly thought experiment — and it doesn’t get to the heart of what an ethical theory is supposed to do like the original position does with Rawls.
The first principle grants liberty to the extent that the same liberties can be enjoyed by all persons. Mostly this is taken to refer to political liberties, but it can also include social liberties — SO, if — for example — gay folks would like to get married, they should be permitted to do so under the first principle. This is what is often called a “negative” right – -in that it’s the right to be left alone to accomplish what you’d like to.
The second principle is about equality — and it has two parts. The first requires that all persons have equal opportunity, in that basic things like gender and skin color don’t dictate what sort of opportunities are available to you. The second part requires that INEQUALITIES be tolerated ONLY when they are to the advantage of those who are the least well off. Another way to read this part of the second principle is asking if removing that inequality would help or harm the persons who are benefiting the least from the system?
An example would probably help here — IF there is a situation in which one person has a lot of money, AND that person employs a lot of otherwise poor people in his business, IF it would be the case that taking that business away from him in taxes would mean that the poor people would lose jobs etc.. THEN, the difference in wealth is acceptable. Contrast this with someone of equal net-worth who hides their money in holes in the back yard, only spending it on very selfish things — that person wouldn’t be morally permitted to keep their wealth because their having the wealth in the first place isn’t to the benefit of those who are least well-off.