Political Philosophy Spring 2021

Arguments Against Utilitarianism


We will talk 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 his 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.

In our discussion, I want to spend a decent amount of time considering what a utilitarian would say in response to Rawls. I think it is a very close call, for what it’s worth.

Why Might the Parties Choose Utilitarianism?

I am going to summarize 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.

So, back to the part you did not read. There, Rawls says that the parties in the original position would choose utilitarianism if they based their decision on maximizing their expected utility, that is, 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.

Here is an example of how something like an original position decision could lead to a utilitarian answer. Consider self-driving cars. Suppose a self-driving car comes on a situation where it can either crash the car, possibly killing the driver, or run over five pedestrians. We can program the car to save the person in the car or to save the greatest number.

What do you think you would choose if you were in the original position and had to come up with rules for self-driving cars? Bonus question: what do you think people will choose when they buy these cars for themselves?


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.

How do you think utilitarians would respond? That’s what we will spend most of our time talking about.

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