Utilitarianism and the original position Notes for April 27

Main points

Rawls has three reasons why parties in the Original Position would prefer his two principles of justice over average utilitarianism, a principle that would require the society to maximize average utility or happiness.

One of these arguments seeks to undercut the main reason the parties might have for choosing average utilitarianism. The other two involve trying to show that the parties would choose Rawls’s principles of justice in order to avoid results that they would find unacceptable.

Why average utilitarianism?

I began by laying out reasons why the parties in the original position might choose average utilitarianism. I say “might” becuase there is a plausible case for saying that this is what they would do. Rawls, however, argues that this plausible case is misleading and that they would choose his principles instead. So “might” seems right.

Why not plain utilitarianism?

There are really two questions here. First, why are we talking about maximizing average utility? Why aren’t we talking about maximizing utility, period? (The second question is: why might the parties choose average utilitarianism?)

The reason can be found in Sidgwick.

“a further question arises when we consider that we can to some extent influence the number of future human (or sentient) beings. We have to ask how, on Utilitarian principles, this influence is to be exercised. … for if we take Utilitarianism to prescribe, as the ultimate end of action, happiness on the whole, and not any individual’s happiness, unless considered as an element of the whole, it would follow that, if the additional population enjoy on the whole positive happiness, we ought to weigh the amount of happiness gained by the extra number against the amount lost by the remainder. So that, strictly conceived, the point up to which, on Utilitarian principles, population ought to be encouraged to increase, is not that at which average happiness is the greatest possible,—as appears to be often assumed by political economists of the school of Malthus—but that at which the product formed by multiplying the number of persons living into the amount of average happiness reaches its maximum.”** The Methods of Ethics, IV.1.2, ¶ 3–4.

In other words, there is a difference between maximizing average utility and maximizing utility, period. The latter view is committed to increasing the population, even at the cost of lowering average utility while the former is not. It might recommend an extremely crowded and consequently unhappy world, like the one portrayed in the movie Soylent Green.

Rawls assumes that if the parties had to choose between plain old utilitarianism and average utilitarianism, they would prefer the latter. So that is the version of utilitarianism that he has the parties compare with his two principles of justice.

Why they might pick average utilitarianism?

So now we have one question answered. Here’s the second question. Why might the parties in the original position choose average utilitarianism?

The answer is that they would choose average utilitarianism if the following conditions were met:

  1. They adopt a particular rule for making decisions under uncertainty: maximize expected utility.
  2. They assume the probability of being any particular person (outside the Original Position, in the real world) is equal to the probability of being any other person.

The handout shows how this combination would lead to average utilitarianism.

Why not average utilitarianism

Rawls denies that the parties in the original position can assign probabilities. They have as much reason to assume the the probabilities of being any particular person are equal as they do for assuming they are unequal.

If he’s right about that, the parties cannot perform the calculations needed to use the maximize expected utility rule. As we know, Rawls thinks that leaves the maximin rule as the one that they should use. We also know that the maximin rule would not lead them to choose utilitarianism.

We had a lot of trouble with this. Fowler and Andrey argued that the parties have to know that their chances of being any particular person are equal to their chances of being any other person. I didn’t get their point until Josh explained that the parties know that everyone has one representative in the original position. Even I can figure out the math there! And if I can do it, the parties in the original position would be able to as well.

Here is what I think happened. The argument for average utilitarianism assumes that you can assign probabilities to being any particular person. Rawls tried to dispute that as follows:

“The first difficulty with the average principle I have already mentioned in discussing the maximin rule as a heuristic device for arranging the arguments favoring the two principles. It concerns the way that a rational individual is to estimate probabilities. This question arises because there seem to be no objective grounds in the initial situation for assuming that one has an equal chance of turning out to be anybody.”†A Theory of Justice, p. 168.

That is what Andrey, Fowler, and Josh questioned. The parties don’t have to assume that they have an equal chance of turning out to be anybody, they know that!

But I think Rawls really had something else in mind. It is that the parties can’t estimate the probability of coming out with a disastrous outcome. They don’t know the probability that a utilitarian society would consign them to something awful like slavery. This isn’t because they can’t estimate the probability of being any particular person. It’s because they don’t know enough about their society to guess how utilitarianism would work for them. Here’s how he put the point in a later publication.

“Since the maximin rule takes no account of probabilities, that is, of how likely it is that the circumstances obtain for their respective worst outcomes to be realized, the first condition [under which it makes sense to use the maximin rule] is that the parties have no reliable basis for estimating the probabilities of the possible social circumstances that afect the fundamental interests of the persons they represent.”‡‡ Rawls, Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, (Harvard UP, 2001), p. 98.

See the difference? The first quotation is about the probability of being any particular person. The second quotation is about the probability of an outcome happening to you.

Of course, you can hear utilitarians screaming already. “They don’t know it because you deprived them of any knowledge of their society! If they knew how their society actually works, they would know the probabilities are incredibly small! Why does it make sense to rely on decisions reached in ignorance?”

Which isn’t to say they’re right to scream. It’s just to say that this is what they would scream.

Avoiding unacceptable consequences

The other two arguments against utilitarianism both turn on the following assumptions:

  1. The parties have to avoid choosing principles that they might find unacceptable in the real world, outside the original position.
  2. Some people would find it unacceptable to live under utilitarianism.

Rawls has two ways of showing that the first condition is satisfied. First, since the parties’ agreement in the Original Position is final, they know that they can’t go back on it once they get to the real world. Second, they regard what Rawls calls “stability” as an important criterion for choosing principles. Principles are “stable”, according to Rawls’s use of the term, if people who grow up in a society governed by them tend to accept and follow them. Since the parties regard stability as important, they want to avoid principles that people would find unacceptable.

In other words, the first point really relies on the second, that some people would find life in a utilitarian society unacceptable. So off we go to point number two.

There are also two arguments for the second point, that some people would find it unacceptable to live under utilitarianism. They both turn on the possibility that some people would lose out when everyone’s interests are aggregated together. In other words, they turn on the possibility that the way to maximize average utility across a whole society will involve leaving some with significantly less liberty, opportunities, or wealth than others have.

Rawls contends that people would find losing out in this way unacceptable. From their point of view, the fact that the society is maximizing average utility would not make up for their losses. Furthermore, Rawls asserts, the possibility that the society might allow some members to lose out would cause its members to lose self-esteem. By contrast, people living in a society that guarantees the highest available minimum would have their self-esteem bolstered by the knowledge that the other members of their society care about them.

Of course, utilitarians will be unimpressed. Suppose Rawls is right and people find it unacceptable to lose out in these ways, such that they will be desperately unhappy or even rebellious. Well, that’s a good utilitarian reason to avoid having anyone lose out. Utilitarians are all about increasing happiness, after all, and assaulting peoples’ self-esteem or pushing them to regard social life as unacceptable are very strange ways of maximizing happiness.

The argument between Rawls and the utilitarians thus ultimately comes down to some pretty fine points. The utilitarians will emphasize their ability to cope with disasters, cases where suspensions of the normal rules of justice are needed. Rawls will emphasize the publicity condition in order to show that utilitarians can’t give people the kind of security that his principles can. However, as Fowler noted, utilitarians reject the publicity condition. Remember when Sidgwick described utilitarianism as an esoteric doctrine?§§ Esoteric: intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialized knowledge or interest. (New Oxford American Dictionary). That’s a way of rejecting the publicity condition.

So Rawls needs to show they’re wrong to reject the publicity condition. It’s not enough just to insist that it’s one of the features of the Original Position. It is a feature of the Original Position, of course. But an argument framed by conditions that utilitarians reject won’t be enough to show utilitarians that they are wrong. It may be enough to show non-utilitarians why they reject utilitarianism, though.

Neglected alternatives

Rawls’s single-minded focus on presenting an alternative to utilitarianism is a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, he certainly didn’t cut any corners in examining utilitarianism. On the other, non-utilitarian alternatives are left out.

We saw this when talking about libertarianism. It isn’t even considered by the parties. (Though you can see why the parties might have the same reasons for rejecting libertarianism as they have for rejecting utilitarianism: they don’t want to risk an unacceptable result like abject poverty.) Nor do the parties consider less egalitarian views than Rawls’s. For instance, I suspect that most of us believe that something like the following is more plausible than Rawls’s two principles (this is very rough).

“Society should guarantee a minimum standard of living for its members; their material well-being relative to one another is much less important than the absolute well-being of those at the bottom. It should invest significant resources in trying to equalize opportunity, but equal opportunity is just one goal of social policy among others, albeit a very important one. So it could be permissible to leave significant inequalities of opportunities in place. Finally, it should give a list of individual liberties great, but not absolute, weight.”

Has Rawls given reasons to prefer his principles of justice over something like these? No. This alternative wasn’t ever compared with his principles in the Original Position.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted May 12, 2009.
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