Rawls’s Argument for the Two Principles

Rawls’s official argument is that the parties in the original position would prefer his principles of justice to utilitarianism. Since the decision by the parties in the original position is guaranteed to be fair, Rawls maintains, the fact that they favor his principles shows that those are the principles of justice.

Today we discussed Rawls’s case for thinking that the parties would choose his principles. Next time, we will talk about his reasons for thinking they would reject utilitarianism.

In the end, it all comes to pretty much the same thing: his case for thinking the parties would take his principles is that they would prefer them to utilitarianism.

Choosing the Best Worst

The core of Rawls’s case is that the parties will prefer his principles over utilitarianism if they look at the worst possible outcome under each set of rules. That is, they should look at the worst possible lives under each set of rules and choose the system with the best worst outcome. This is the essence of the so-called maximin rule.

To make his argument work, he needs to explain why the parties should give that much weight to the worst possible outcome. Why shouldn’t they take all of the other outcomes into account too? After all, we do not normally make decisions by comparing only the worst possible results of different choices.

Rawls maintains there are three features of the decision to be made by the parties in the original position that make it rational for them to focus on the worst possible outcome.

  1. They cannot estimate the probabilities of being in any particular social position: they don’t know how likely it is that they are in the worst position, the middle, or the top.

  2. They do not care very much about getting more than they could get in a society governed by Rawls’s principles.

  3. They find the worst position in a society governed by utilitarianism to be unacceptable.

I said we would talk about the point about probabilities next time.

I also said that I did not know how we could determine whether the second point is true. Rawls himself says that he will supply the argument for this conclusion in a subsequent part of his book. Since it is very long and relies on detailed psychological theories, we do not have the time to assess it.

I have read it and, in my opinion, the parties cannot really know that the people they represent do not care much about getting more than they could get in a society governed by his rules. There are lots of people who want lots of different things in this world. Maybe you think anything less than a state religion is intolerable; people are willing to blow themselves up for this reason, after all. Or maybe you want to be an entrepreneur who would chafe under the restrictions on economic liberty in a Rawlsian society. Everyone does care about having more than the minimum, after all. Who is to say that many people do not care a lot, especially if they think that they could make their standard of living significantly higher without the Difference Principle?

A Digression About Punishment

Chris asked a very good question: where does punishment fit in? After all, one of the worst outcomes is that you wind up in prison. Any society with a criminal justice system will have punishment. If you are trying to avoid the worst outcome, though, how could you accept that?

Rawls does not confront this question because he assumes what he calls “full compliance.” No one will break the rules so there is no occasion for criminal justice.

Of course, he is no fool. He knows that this is not how it will work. He says that he will start with principles of justice for an ideal society and then extend the theory to cover non-ideal cases. Punishment will, presumably, be covered when the theory is extended in this way. I do not know how the extension works, so I won’t weigh in on whether I think it is successful or not.

One thing that strikes me is the difference between the questions about the state that Rawls seeks to address and the ones that Hobbes and Locke took up. Locke is especially clear: political power is the power to pass and enforce laws and so political philosophy has to explain how the state has the power to punish. Punishment is front and center for him. By contrast, Rawls has little interest in the topic. How did we get from there to here? I do not know the answer to that.

The Third Point

In my opinion, Rawls’s best argument is that the parties know the people they represent would find the worst possible outcomes under utilitarianism unacceptable and that they would not find the worst possible outcomes under Rawls’s principles unacceptable.

The point is pretty simple. Utilitarianism could allow almost anything: slavery, medical experiments, summary executions, you name it. If it could be needed to bring about the greatest overall good, utilitarianism would have to be for it. So the worst possible outcome under utilitarianism will be pretty bad. By comparison, the worst possible outcome under Rawls’s principles is pretty nice: extensive protection of personal liberty, equal opportunity, and a significant guaranteed income.

Given that the choice is between utilitarianism and Rawls’s principles, why run the risk of being made a slave? That’s a pretty good question, in my opinion.

We will, obviously, return to this next time. One thing to think about is why utilitarianism would ever allow slavery or the other horrible stuff. What does life have to be like for that to be an option for a utilitarian? And how likely is that anyway?

Key Concepts

  1. Why Rawls says the parties in the original position would focus on the worst possible outcomes.
  2. Why he thinks they would prefer his principles to utilitarianism.


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