Political Philosophy Spring 2021

The Argument for Rawls’s Principles


Rawls’s official argument is that the parties in the original position would prefer his principles of justice to utilitarianism. (I put the full statement of Rawls’s principles of justice at the bottom of this page.) Since the decision by the parties in the original position is guaranteed to be fair, Rawls maintains, the fact that they favor his principles over utilitarianism is a reason why you and I should also prefer his principles over utilitarianism.

Today we will discuss 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. I am going to tell you up front that, in the end, it all comes to pretty much the same thing. The argument is going to be that utilitarianism is too risky when compared with Rawls’s principles.

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.

  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.

We will talk about the first point, the one about probabilities, next time. So let’s put that to one side for now.

What about the second point? We don’t have the material to evaluate it. Here is what I mean. Suppose we ask how the parties in the original position could know that it is true. Rawls 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 I did not find it persuasive. We know that everyone cares at least a little about getting more than the minimum: the things they get are primary social goods and, by definition, these are things that everyone wants. 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? There are lots of people who want lots of different things. For example, maybe you would be willing to give up some political power for the sake of economic gains. You might think that privacy is more important than unrestricted free speech or vice versa. Maybe you want to be an entrepreneur and you would chafe under the restrictions on economic liberty in a Rawlsian society. Given these kinds of examples, I don’t see how the parties in the Original Position could know that they people they represent don’t care about gains above the minimum.

The Third Point

If I’m putting off the first point for next time and I’m telling you both that we cannot evaluate the second point and that I don’t think it’s very good, what are we going to talk about? You guessed it: the third point!

Rawls’s best argument, in my opinion, 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 not so bad: 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? I think that’s a pretty good question.

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 it that this would happen?

Main Points

These are the points you should know or have an opinion about from today’s class.

  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.

What are Rawls’s Principles?

Rawls modifies and amends his principles of justice throughout the book. This is his final statement of what they are (Rawls 1999, 266).

First Principle of Justice

Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.^[By “basic liberties,” Rawls means “political liberty (the right to vote and to hold public office) and freedom of speech and assembly; liberty of conscience and freedom of thought; freedom of the person, which includes freedom from psychological oppression and physical assault and dismemberment (integrity of the person); the right to hold personal property and freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure” (Rawls 1999, 266, 53)

Second Principle of Justice

Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both:

  1. to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and

  2. attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

First Priority Rule (The Priority of Liberty)

The principles of justice are to be ranked in lexical order and therefore the basic liberties can be restricted only for the sake of liberty. There are two cases:

  1. a less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of liberties shared by all;

  2. a less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the lesser liberty.

Second Priority Rule (The Priority of Justice Over Efficiency and Welfare)

The second principle of justice is lexically prior to the principle of efficiency and to that of maximizing the sum of advantages; and fair opportunity is prior to the difference principle. There are two cases:

  1. an inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of those with the lesser opportunity;

  2. an excessive rate of saving must on balance mitigate the burden of those bearing this hardship.


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