Rawls on utilitarianism

Notes for April 24

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.

What’s the connection to justice?

I started by trying a better answer to a question Sean asked last time: why does the fairness of the decision made by the parties in the original position show that what they decide on is justice? It’s a really good question since the connection is not obvious.

What I came up with was this. People in our society disagree about what justice is. I used an example of taxation. Some people think that equal taxation means flat rates, with everyone paying the same rate and the rich paying more than the poor. Others think it means progressive rates, with the rich paying a higher percentage of their income than the poor and, of course, even more than the poor. Their differences of opinion usually line up with their interests: the rich favor flat rates, the poor favor progressive rates.

There is no way of proving that one or the other is making a mistake. So we’re in the sort of situation that Mill described in chapter V of Utilitarianism. We have a bunch of conflicting opinions about justice and no way of resolving them. Mill proposed utilitarianism as the solution.

Rawls proposed approaching the problem by asking what would make the choice between the contending opinions fair. His idea was that if we could get interests out of the equation, we would be able to decide which side was right. Anyone who objected afterwards would, presumably, just be saying that he doesn’t like being the loser. That’s not a compelling argument.

The original position is supposed to be the mechanism that eliminates interests and other sources of unfairness. The idea is that the parties are set up to make a fair, unbiased decision. Then we ask them to compare Rawls’s principles with utilitarianism. The one they choose is the one that unbiased observers would prefer. Their preference is compelling evidence that what they choose is the right set of principles.

That’s the idea. And it’s not a bad one at all!


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. The back of the handout gives two passages from Rawls. The first is almost certainly wrong: the parties know the chances of being any particular person are equal to the chance of being anyone else. The second makes sense, though: they cannot estimate the probability of being in any particular circumstances. So if they choose rules that allow slavery, they do not know how likely it is that they will wind up as slaves.


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.

We ended on this point, with Jiacheng and I saying that we were not convinced that the utilitarian’s endorsement of slavery was necessarily so bad. Our idea was that they would accept slavery only in real emergencies. To illustrate the point, I gave the example of a military draft. That represents a significant limit on individual liberty, to say the least. But many societies employ it because they think they need to do so to prevent disaster. By the same token, utilitarians say that they would be willing to employ slavery (or any of the other awful stuff) only to stave off disasters.

Key concepts

  1. The dispute about whether utilitarianism is too risky or not.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted April 25, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy