Rawls on utilitarianism Notes for April 26

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.

Why average utilitarianism?

I began by laying out reasons why the parties in the original position might choose average utilitarianism. I say “might” because 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, if you’ll pardon the pun.

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 might they 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.†† Note to Michael: I changed it so maximin and expected utility get different results.

Why not average utilitarianism?

We talked about three arguments Rawls made. The first concerns probability.

Specifically, 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.

This argument was only a qualified success. As you can see on the second page of the handout, Rawls restated the point thirty years later. As restated, the point is that the parties can’t estimate the probability of a disastrous outcome. So, Rawls asserted, it makes much more sense for them to choose conservatively rather than risking disaster by following the rule that tells them to maximize expected utility.

The second and third arguments also turn on the claim that it’s possible to be wiped out in a utilitarian society. The second argument is that the parties have to regard the rules as final; this is a stipulated feature of the original position. But if they pick utilitarianism, they might find that they are big losers and that it would be difficult for them to comply with the rules if they are big losers. So, knowing that the rules are final, they will opt for Rawls’s rules, which are easier to comply with. The third argument is that Rawls’s rules do a better job of preserving self-respect than utilitarianism does. If people know that their society might abandon them in order to promote the greatest overall good, that will lower their self-respect. They will find it easier to maintain their self-respect in Rawls’s society, since it will never abandon them to slavery or some other disastrous position.

In short, everything pretty much comes down to the proposition that utilitarianism could leave individuals in an unacceptable position, such as slavery, dire poverty, or lacking basic political liberty. That’s what drives all of Rawls’s major arguments against utilitarianism.

Is it true?

On the one hand, it’s true that individuals are not sacrosanct for utilitarianism. It’s logically possible that a utilitarian society would sacrifice individuals for the greater overall good. That’s a creepy fact about utilitarianism.

On the other hand, it’s surprisingly difficult to come up with a plausible case in which two things are true: (1) it really would maximize utility to sacrifice some individuals and (2) this is obviously the wrong thing to do.

The cases in which utilitarians are most likely to sacrifice individuals are emergencies. But then it isn’t obvious that they would be wrong. Think of a ticking time bomb that will blow up a city, a military draft to stave off invaders, triage in the emergency room, and so on. Is there any way to avoid sacrificing individuals in these cases? If not, it’s no good to say that individuals are sacrosanct. What should we do?

Do Rawls’s principles have anything to say about emergencies? Perhaps not, in which case utilitarians may object that the comparison is inappropriate. If so, do they leave us incapable of saving the city and so on? Or if they let us do the grim thing that’s needed to save the most lives, what happens to the objection against utilitarianism?

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 26, 2010.
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