Political Philosophy Fall 2019

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. This is the other side of the argument from last time. Last time, he said that the parties would prefer his principles to utilitarianism. This time, he’s saying that they would reject utilitarianism in favor of Rawls’s principles.

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.

We ended the class by considering what a utilitarian would say in response to Rawls. My goal was to get the class close to a tie because I think it is a very close call. As it happens, we split right down the middle. Success!

Why Might the Parties Choose Utilitarianism?

I began by summarizing a section of the book that I did not ask you to read (we are reading too much of this extremely dense material as it is). This section describes a chain of reasoning that might 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.

The parties in the original position would choose utilitarianism if they based their decision on maximizing their expected utility, the product of the probability of an outcome and its value; see the handout for an example of how decisions based on maximizing expected utility work.

To see the point, consider self-driving cars. Suppose a self-driving car comes on a situation where it is going to kill five people standing in the road and the only alternative is to crash the car, possibly killing the one person inside the car. We can program the car to save the person in the car or to save the greatest number.

If you were in the original position and had to come up with rules for self-driving cars, you would choose the program that saves the greatest number rather than the program that will save the driver. That is because, in the original position, you are trying to do as well for yourself as possible and you don’t know who you are in the real world. In the case at hand, you are five times more likely to on the road than you are to be in the car. So saving the greatest number has the higher expected utility for you.

The case for thinking the parties would choose utilitarianism rests on treating the choice of rules to govern a society as being similar to the choice of rules to govern a self-driving car. Utilitarians think this is obviously true while Rawls thinks it is false.


Rawls believes 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 rather than following the maximin rule.
  2. They can assign probabilities to the possible outcomes of their choices.

Rawls’s chief reason for denying that this makes sense is the familiar one: maximizing expected utility is too risky for this particular choice. Instead, the sensible choice is to follow the maximin rule in this particular case.

If the parties were engaged in an activity where there would be repeated plays and no particular loss would be devastating, like low stakes gambling, then 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 decision that will never be repeated and could have calamitous implications. These are the rules that will be in place for your whole 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. 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 that their chances of being any particular person are equal to their chances of being any other person. 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. Given that they do not know the probabilities, Rawls thinks it would be foolish of them to risk a social system like utilitarianism that could, conceivably, allow slavery.

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 the handout on the original position.)

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). By the rules governing the original position, 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.

Would the Parties Reject Utilitarianism?

Rawls’s chief argument is that utilitarianism is too risky. A society governed by utilitarian principles could possibly do something horrible like instating slavery. By contrast, a society governed by Rawls’s principles cannot do such a thing: it has to guarantee equal basic liberties for all, equal opportunity, and the difference principle.

Utilitarians should start by saying that they would not do anything horrible. That doesn’t make any sense if you’re trying to maximize happiness, after all. Who would ever think that slavery is a way of making people happy? You can go through his arguments and make the same point. For instance, as Katya said, it’s hard to see how utilitarianism would lead to the problems of instability or finality if it is competently administered. If a policy would make people so unhappy that they would reject the social rules, utilitarians wouldn’t implement it. The point of utilitarianism, after all, is to maximize happiness not to spread unhappiness.

But suppose you pressed them with a real or hypothetical example in which doing something horrible really did bring about more utility overall than any available alternative? For instance, Kyle gave us the case of the involuntary organ transplants. Here a doctor realizes that one patient in the hospital could serve as an organ donor for five others who will die without immediate transplants. Five is greater than one, so a utilitarian doctor should kill the one patient to save the five other patients.

As Keegan pointed out, there are problems here. Among other things, people would not be willing to go to the hospital if they thought they might be chopped up like this. That can’t be good for maximizing utility. But suppose it was kept a secret and all the other facts lined up so that killing the one patient really did maximize utility. Utilitarians would say that’s the right thing to do.

At this point, I shifted the discussion back to slavery, which is the example Rawls uses (Rawls 1999, 137). Utilitarians would have to admit that it is at least possible that they would be willing to enslave some people. But, they would say, this would happen only in dire conditions, when life was bound to be intolerable for some people anyway. Suppose there is some catastrophe that can only be addressed by something like a military draft. There is a foreign invasion or a deadly epidemic that can only be contained if the government forces people to do things for the good of the whole. If the alternative is catastrophe, and you said it was, then, a utilitarian will say, it only makes sense to institute the draft or whatever form of slavery or forced labor is necessary. Why wouldn’t the parties in the original position see it that way too? They don’t want to be wiped out in a catastrophe, after all.

At this point, things become murky. Rawls tells us that he instructs the parties in the original position to come up with principles of justice for a society whose members are in what he calls the circumstances of justice. This means that they live in a world where material goods are only moderately scarce: people can live at peace with one another by obeying simple rules, much as Hume described. They are supposed to assume that they are not threatened with catastrophe that pits each of them against the other.

Utilitarians will object that Rawls tries to make them look bad by describing what they would do in conditions of great scarcity or some other emergency. But 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 unbalanced comparison.

Rawls, of course, does not see it that way. He sees utilitarianism as being too reckless with individual lives. They are willing to sacrifice anyone in the right circumstances. The fact that this would mostly happen in extreme circumstances is not relevant, in his opinion. The fact that they might do it even without an emergency is enough for Rawls. He thinks that the parties in the original position would not be willing to accept the risk of being the ones who are sacrificed.

Which is it? I will let you decide.

Main Points

There is really only one question: is utilitarianism is too risky for the parties in the original position 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