Rawls's Theory Notes for April 21

Main points

Rawls’s theory seeks to articulate a theoretically rigorous alternative to utilitarianism.

Today, we went over the motivation for the theory and the machinery that makes it up.


In Rawls’s opinion, utilitarianism has moral and social flaws.

Its moral flaw consists in its flexibility: it is willing to sacrifice individuals for the greater good in the right circumstances.

Its social flaw is that it has a tendency to esotericism. Principles of justice, Rawls thinks, play a vital social role because every member of society is aware of them and almost all strive to abide by them. Utilitarians, by contrast, have tended to assume that it would be undesirable if everyone knew what they regard as the truth: that utilitarianism is the correct view of morality and politics.

Rawls thought he could correct these two flaws with his two principles of justice. Moreover, he thought he could argue for these principles in an intellectually rigorous way. The book in which he carried this project out, A Theory of Justice, is a modern masterpiece.


This is listed in the handout. There’s too much of it. And you really only learn the material when you see how the machinery works. That happens later on. But we have to start somewhere!

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted April 26, 2008.
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