Rawls on justice Notes for September 15

Main points

We contrasted Rawls’s theory of justice with a variety of alternatives. These included utilitarianism, a version of utilitarianism that I dubbed “Danielism,” and Nina’s view that a richer understanding of what is good or bad is needed to organize society.

For those who feel they need more, perhaps the notes for Philosophy 33 will help.

Why are they so averse to risk?

Daniel started us off by asking why the parties in the original position are so cautious. He said this because Rawls claims they would focus on the worst possible outcome. (An “outcome” is winding up in a particular social class, like the slave class, the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, etc.) They would choose the principles that yield the best worst outcome, even at the cost of passing up much greater benefits in the non-worst outcomes. The obsession with the worst that can happen struck Daniel, and many others, as excessively cautious: no one actually thinks that way, so why should the parties in the original position?

I said a couple of things in response, but I neglected one of the most important points. It is that the parties in the original position are extremely risk averse because they cannot estimate probabilities. Let me explain.

The parties have to choose between two alternatives: maximize average utility and Rawls’s principles.

They are told the possible range of outcomes for their lives under either set of principles. So they know that slavery is possible under utilitarianism but not under Rawls’s principles.

Here’s the trick. They cannot estimate how likely it is that they will wind up as slaves. It could be .9, it could be .00000000000001. So they can’t make the decision that it’s worth running a small chance of being a slave (or whatever) for a overwhelmingly large chance at a better outcome. They don’t know what the probabilities are so they don’t know that the risk they’re running is small, medium, or large and they don’t know the chances of getting the better outcome.

When you face that much uncertainty about the worst possible outcomes and the better outcomes are all at least acceptable, it makes sense to avoid the worst possible outcome.

The big question is: why are they deprived of this information in the original position?

Answer: so they won’t choose utilitarianism! Just kidding.

The reason Rawls gives is that if they knew the probabilities of winding up in different social positions, they could make unfair decisions. For instance, if they knew that their society was 90% right handed and 10% left handed, they might give special preference to the right handers, figuring that they have a 90% chance of benefiting from that rule.

Utilitarians typically say two things in reply.

  1. It doesn’t make sense to deprive them of that much information: how can they make reasonable choices? Why should we care what people who know so little would choose?
  2. They would choose to maximize average utility anyway since that follows from the decision rule of maximizing expected utility.

What is Danielism?

Not to obsess on Daniel, it’s just that was the first label that popped into my head.

Here’s the idea. Utilitarianism is criticized for allowing for the possibility of doing horrible things: slavery and other sorts of oppression of a minority for the sake of maximizing happiness, presumably by making the lives of the majority much better. Utilitarians typically note that the examples given are preposterous. Their opponents reply that it’s creepy that these things are even possible under utilitarianism. There’s got to be something wrong with a moral theory that’s willing to allow just about anything if the circumstances are right, the complaint goes.

This debate is endless.

One way of ending it is to adopt Danielism. Danielism is utilitarianism with a higher floor. You think utilitarianism is bad because it allows slavery? Fine, we’ll adopt a Danielist solution: utilitarianism with a prohibition on slavery. Does the possibility of public executions to deter crime wig you out? OK, prohibit those too. Basically, take away any of the scary things that utilitarians are thought to be willing to do. And, once they’re gone, go ahead and maximize utility using all the other available options.

That’s one of the ideas that I heard Daniel articulating. Rawls doesn’t have a good answer to it. He only asks the parties in the original position to decide between stock utilitarianism and his own theory.

Nina vs. Ben

I thought that it boiled down to this. Nina thinks that there’s no sense in picking principles for a society without asking about how they would make life better or worse. Ben thinks that Rawls said enough about what makes life good: we need primary social goods to have a good life, but there’s no satisfactory way of spelling out the value of life beyond that as it’s a matter of personal opinion. (OK, I’m really putting words into Ben’s mouth here. Maybe Nina’s too.)

You could take Anderson as an implicit critic of Rawls here. She thinks we need a much richer understanding of the nature of goods than you will find in Rawls’s account of the primary social goods. If you found Anderson persuasive, you probably will agree with this criticism of Rawls. If you thought that Anderson’s claims were too arbitrary or couldn’t be demonstrated, then you probably think Rawls has the stronger position here.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2010. It was posted September 16, 2010.
Name of website