Rawls on utilitarianism Notes for December 3

Main points

We talked about Rawls’s contention that the parties in the original position would reject maximizing average utility as the fundamental principle for their society.

Rawls produced a number of arguments for this conclusion, some of which are quite technical. In my opinion, they mostly boil down to one point: the parties would not be willing to run the risk of being the big losers in a utilitarian society.


I began by summarizing a section of the book that I did not ask you to read. It describes a chain of reasoning that would lead the parties in the original position to maximizing average utility if the followed it. In the parts we read, Rawls argued that they would have decisive reasons not to follow this chain of reasoning and so they have decisive reasons to reject utilitarianism.

To be specific, the parties are asked to choose between maximizing average utility and Rawls’s principles of justice. They would choose to maximize average utility if two conditions are met:

  1. It makes sense to make decisions following the rule of maximizing expected utility.
  2. They can assign probabilities to outcomes in the society they belong to.

Rawls’s chief reason for denying that this makes sense is the familiar one: it’s too risky to follow the rule of maximizing expected utility in this situation. Instead, the sensible choice is to follow the maximin rule. If they were engaged in an activity where there would be repeated plays and no particular loss would be devastating, like low stakes gambling, it would make sense to maximize expected utility. But this is a single decision that will never be repeated and that could have calamitous implications for the course of your entire life. Consequently, Rawls reasons, it makes no sense to take the riskier rather than the safer option.

He added an argument to the effect that the parties are incapable of estimating probabilities; this is the second point above. This has been a perennial thorn in my side because I can’t get a handle on what they’re supposed to be incapable of estimating. We had a very interesting discussion that only deepened my suspicions about this particular argument. My own opinion is that the parties can know that they have equal chances of being any particular person in their society and that Callum is right to say they need not know anything more in order to decide to maximize average utility (provided that it makes sense for them to follow the rule of maximizing expected utility, of course). In the end, I agree with Michael that Rawls’s main argument does not rely on anything about probabilities: the parties wouldn’t want to run the risk of personal catastrophe even if they could make probability estimates.


I said that part of Rawls’s case for the priority of liberty rests on suspicion about utility as a measure of well-being. Here’s what that means. A utilitarian assumption is that we can put all good things on a single scale: utility. Having a thriving child makes us happy and so does watching TV. Since they’re on the same scale, you could make up for deficits in the one with an excess of the other: you may be unhappy if your child is chronically ill, but that can be counterbalanced by watching enough TV. Or, if TV isn't enough, do something else pleasurable: go to the opera, drink beer, master the piano, etc. Eventually, you’ll get back to even.

This is not the way most of us think about what’s valuable in our lives. We have a hierarchy of aims, with some being of a different kind than others. I like TV as much as the next person, but I care about my child in a different way. (Utilitarians regard this fuzzy talk of ‘different ways’ of valuing things with suspicion.) I think that what Rawls was saying at the end of §28 and in §82 is that a similar point is relevant to politics. We have a hierarchy of interests, with our interest in our personal and moral self-development taking priority over other interests.** In Rawls’s lingo, we have a “highest order interest” in the development of our “two moral powers,” the powers to have a “rational plan of life” and a “sense of justice.” In later works, these are referred to as the “rational” and the “reasonable.” Since he also believed that personal and political liberty are needed for personal and moral self-development, he thought that the parties would give priority to individual liberty over other goals, such as increasing economic opportunity or wealth.

Since utilitarianism puts individual liberty on the same scale as economic opportunity and wealth, he reasoned, the parties would reject utilitarianism.

Finality and stability

In §29, Rawls advances two arguments that, in my opinion, boil down to one: finality and stability. The parties can only choose principles that are final: that was one of the conditions on the original position. Also, they would want to choose principles that are stable, meaning that people would accept them if they grew up in a society governed by them.

These considerations favor Rawls’s principles over utilitarianism because it’s possible that some people would find life in a utilitarian society intolerable. Then they would seek to change the society (contrary to finality) and, of course, they wouldn’t accept its rules (contrary to stability).

We discussed this basic point. On the one hand, utilitarians will say that they wouldn’t make life intolerable for anyone: that doesn’t make any sense if you’re trying to maximize happiness, after all. On the other hand, it’s at least possible that they would do this, which is a creepy fact about utilitarianism. On the third hand, utilitarians will insist that they’re only willing to be ghoulish when the circumstances demand it. (Rawls does something similar with his distinction between the general and special conceptions of justice.)


I ended with an observation about one of Rawls’s arguments. Rawls maintains that life in a utilitarian society would undermine the self-respect of the members of that society. This is so because they all know that they could be sacrificed for the greater overall good, undermining their sense of self-worth. Since that is so, he maintained, the parties in the original position would prefer his principles to utilitarian ones. (Officially this is connected with his claim about stability in §29.)

I think that, as a psychological matter, this is contentious. Among other things, members of the military often take great pride in the fact that they answered society’s call to put their lives at risk for the greater good.

But even granting Rawls’s psychological assumption, why would this be a problem for utilitarianism? If the knowledge that society might sacrifice its members in an emergency hurts their sense of self-respect even apart from the emergency circumstances, then a sensible utilitarian will keep the information secret.†† Or establish a policy of refusing to sacrifice people, if that’s what the numbers favor. Rawls did not consider this possibility because he required that the decision of the parties in the original position be public. So if you look at p. 158 of the revised edition (first sentence of the last paragraph), you’ll see that he defined utilitarianism as a doctrine that is public knowledge.

You can make whatever definitions you like. But we know that this is not what people who call themselves utilitarians mean by the term “utilitarianism.” They have no commitment to publicity built in to the definition of their view. Sidgwick, for instance, thought of utilitarianism as an esoteric doctrine. So Rawls was not genuinely addressing his opponents here, in my opinion.

Of course, the real issue is not definitional. It’s whether it’s important that the members of a society understand the truth about how the society is organized and, in particular, whether they understand the truth about its moral code. This has been a theme running throughout the course. We first encountered that issue with Plato and the myth of the metals. Hobbes thought the sovereign should have control over discussion, particularly of religious doctrines. But he held the optimistic view that the truth was compatible with social stability: that’s reflected in his remarks about Galileo.‡‡ See Leviathan, ch. 46, par. 42. Mill, of course, thought that knowing the truth was essential for social progress. So he thought everything should be discussed openly and broadly. Sidgwick was, characteristically, more careful than Mill, for both good and ill. And Rawls took his position on the matter for granted.

Key concepts

  1. The dispute about whether utilitarianism is too risky or not.
  2. The question about the importance of understanding your society’s moral code.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted December 5, 2012.
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