Arguments 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 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 follow the rule for making decisions under uncertainty that tells 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.

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. Here, utilitarians can become frustrated with Rawls. They think that he has tried to make them look bad by describing what they would do in conditions of great scarcity or some other emergency. But, they note, his own theory explicitly assumes that there will not be great scarcity and that people will comply with the rules. The point is not that he is making unrealistic assumptions. It is that he develops his theory for a specific set of circumstances but criticizes utilitarians for what they would recommend in very different circumstances. This strikes utilitarians as an inappropriate comparison. Rawls, of course, does not see it that way.

There are some other, more complicated, points between Rawls and the utilitarians as well. Audrey noted that Rawls’s point about stability relies on the assumption that the people in our society will know what the rules of justice are. Rawls’s thought is that if they knew that they could be sold out under the utilitarian standard, they would be less willing to abide by the rules. Rawls stipulated that the parties have to think this way by imposing what he called a publicity condition on the decision made in the original position. But, as Audrey said, utilitarians do not think publicity is terribly important. They would be happy with telling the public that the society is not run on utilitarian principles even if, in fact, it is.

Key concepts

  1. The dispute about whether utilitarianism is too risky or not. That is the whole ball of wax.


Rawls, John. 1999. A Theory of Justice. Revised edition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


There was a handout for this class: 25.RawlsVsUtilitiarianism.handout.pdf