The argument for Rawls’s principles Notes for April 21

Main points

We talked about why the parties in the original position would choose Rawls’s two principles of justice over utilitarianism.

Rawls’s argument turns on two propositions:

  1. It is rational for the parties to use the maximin rule.
  2. If they use the maximin rule, they will choose Rawls’s two principles.

Generally speaking, it is not rational to use the maximin rule. But Rawls thinks that the circumstances of the parties in the original position are unusual enough that it makes sense for them to use it. He gives three reasons why this is so.

  1. They don’t know the probabilities of whether a particular choice would harm or help them, that is, the real individuals they represent.
  2. They don’t care much about gains over the minimum.
  3. Falling below the minimum is unacceptable to them.

I put off the first reason for next time. I took up the second and third reasons looking first at liberty and then at economic opportunities and wealth. His case for these points is made on page 156.

Rawls has a straightforward argument corresponding to his third reason. It is that utilitarianism could allow individuals to have a level of liberty or material wealth that is unacceptably low (to them). Rawls’s two principles, by contrast, make it much less likely that this would be so.

In my opinion, Rawls’s argument would have been much easier to follow, without losing any persuasive power, if he had just stuck with this third reason and dropped the other two.

But what about the second reason?

The second reason for using the maximin rule is that the parties in the original position do not care much about gains over the minimum. It’s much harder to assess this, largely because what Rawls says in support of it largely consists in pointing to material that comes later in the book. When we read §82, we will see Rawls’s summary of this material.

Still, I think I have a plausible idea of what he had in mind, at least as far as liberty is concerned. Suppose he thought something like this. The first principle of justice guarantees as much individual and political liberty as possible. There’s no way of providing more liberty than this, so there’s no question about whether the parties might care about gains over this. The only question is whether the would want greater material wealth at the expense of some of these individual and political liberties.

However, it’s not obvious that Rawls’s first principle really does provide maximal liberty. Economic liberty, for example, will be limited. And, as Sam pointed out, every person’s rights limit some other person’s liberty. We’ll discuss these sorts of points next Wednesday, when we talk about Hart’s article.

I’m much less willing to speculate about what Rawls had in mind in saying that people don’t care much about economic gains over the minimum provided for by his second principle. As Andrew noted, people certainly seem to care a lot about having more than this minimum.

So I have questions about exactly why this second reason applies: I don’t see why it’s obvious that people care little about gains over the minimum guaranteed by Rawls’s principles.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 21, 2010.
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