Rawls against utilitarianism

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 choose utilitarianism. In the parts we did 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, in the parts we did not read, Rawls argued that the parties in the original position would choose to maximize average utility only if two conditions are met:

  1. It is rational for them to maximize their 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: maximizing expected utility is too risky 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 for them to maximize expected utility. No loss would wipe them out and they will come out ahead in the long run. But the parties in the original position have to make a single decision that will never be repeated and that could have calamitous implications over the course of their entire lives. 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. I have come to the conclusion that the wording in A Theory of Justice is misleading and that the real idea is better expressed in a different publication.

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


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 is what that means. A utilitarian assumption is that we can put all good things on a single scale that they call utility. Having a thriving child makes us happy and so does watching TV. Since they’re on the same scale, you could compare them and even 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, read Jeremy Bentham, etc. Eventually, you’ll get back to even.

This is not the way most of us think about what is 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. They note that I sometimes watch TV when I could be doing things for my child’s future. They say that shows that I make trade-offs between TV and my child’s future, so I must be able to compare them.)

Leaving the utilitarians to one side for a moment, I think Rawls was trying to make a similar point about politics at the end of §28 and in §82. 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.” 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. It simply does not fit the values that, he asserted, people have. Rawls would tell the parties in the original position these things about our values and they would use that as a reason to reject utilitarianism.

This is the sort of argument that Samuel criticized earlier. If Rawls is telling the parties in the original position that they value something other than happiness or utility, then the original position is not a fair test between utilitarianism and Rawls’s principles. Rather, the original position has been structured so that utilitarianism is guaranteed to lose.

That might be the correct answer. Rawls may well be right that we have these higher order interests and that utilitarianism is wrong about our fundamental interests in life. My point is about the nature of his argument. If the idea is that utilitarianism is wrong in holding that happiness is what is good for us, then the original position argument is irrelevant. The parties in the original position do not decide what is good or bad for us. They are told what is good or bad for us and then they have to choose principles that will serve the interests they are told we have. If we tell them that they have non-utilitarian interests, then will choose non-utilitarian principles. But all the work in the argument will come from our decision about what to tell the parties in the original position rather than from what they choose.

Finality and stability

In §29, Rawls advances two arguments that, in my opinion, boil down to one. These arguments appeal to what Rawls calls finality and stability. Finality means that the parties can only choose principles that are final: that was one of the conditions on the original position. Stability means that they can only choose principles that they would accept if they grew up in a society governed by them. That is also one of the conditions on the original position. (These conditions are listed in a handout.)

Rawls claims that these considerations favor his principles over utilitarianism because it is possible that some people would find life in a utilitarian society intolerable. If that happened, they would seek to change the society (contrary to the finality condition) and, of course, they would not accept its rules (contrary to the stability condition). The parties must avoid rules that would fail either condition, so they would reject utilitarianism. But the reason why a utilitarian society would fail the conditions is the same one Rawls had used before: someone in a utilitarian society could be a big loser and find life as a loser intolerable.

We know how the argument will go from the utilitarian side. 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. If you pressed them, utilitarians would admit that it is at least possible that they would be willing to make life intolerable for some people. But, they would say, this would happen only in dire conditions, when life was bound to be intolerable for some people anyway.

Key concepts

  1. The dispute about whether utilitarianism is too risky or not.


There was a handout for this class: 24.RawlsVsUtilitiarianism.handout.pdf