Rawls on consequentialism Notes for May 5

Main points

Consequentialism is the name for a class of views about morality. They all hold that the morally right thing to do is what will bring about the best consequences overall. Utilitarianism is one member of this class. It measures what is best in terms of utility or happiness.

One prominent set of objections focuses on the gaps between consequentialism and ordinary morality. This is because the actions that lead to the best consequences may be ones that are commonly regarded as immoral.

Pogge’s article tries to show that Rawls’s method leaves him in the same boat as consequentialists on three issues: natural inequalities, group inequities, and criminal justice.

Leaving the deails aside for a moment, Pogge’s article brings home for me how close Rawls’s theory is to utiltarianism.

About those cases

You all were unimpressed by the first issue, where Rawls was said to be committed to compensating people inappropriately for natural inequalities, such as looks. You noted that college admissions are influenced by lots of considerations other than the normal standards of academic aptitude or merit. So why not thrown looks in there too?

It doesn’t hurt that Pomona requires a picture with the application already. Hmm.

The second issue brings us back to my earlier point about equal opportunity. At the risk of repeating myself (again) and possibly driving Remy crazy (again?), let me do at least the former.

We know the parties are going to use the maximin rule to make their decisions: they’re going to choose the rules that have the best worst outcome. So what’s the worst outcome? It’s being in the lowest economic class.

Equal opportunity costs a lot. It will be expensive to overcome the effects of family, neighborhood, childhood peers, and the rest. That expense will benefit everyone to some extent: a society that takes greater advantage of its talented members will be better off than one that does not. But it won’t do a lot for the people who remain at the bottom: those who have few natural talents. I think they would be better off if most of the resources were saved and just given to them. If that’s right, then a society without equal opportunity but with the difference principle would have a better worst outcome than one with equal opportunity and the difference principle.

That’s my case and I’m sticking to it.

The third issue is criminal justice. There, it seems pretty clear, the parties are likely to have no problem with what we regard as excessive punishment. Of course, Rawls didn’t really address criminal justice, so it would be interesting to hear what he thought about this. Alas, we won’t know.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted May 10, 2008.
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