Political Philosophy Fall 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. 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.

What are Rawls’s Principles?

In a nutshell, Rawls has two principles of justice, one of which has two parts.1 The first principle says that everyone has to have the same basic liberties. The second principle concerns inequalities in things like jobs and material wealth.

  1. Equal basic liberties such as “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).

  2. Inequality in jobs and wealth is allowed only if:

    1. There is equal opportunity for the best positions.

    2. The Difference Principle is satisfied, meaning any remaining inequalities make the worst off class as well off as it can be.

Each principle takes priority over the next: a society cannot sacrifice liberties for the sake of economic gains and it cannot compromise on equal opportunity for the sake of increasing the standard of living of the worst off class.

Rawls modifies and amends his principles of justice throughout the book. His final statement is on the long side so I will put it at the bottom of this page.

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 Rawls’s society. Given these kinds of examples, I do not see how the parties in the Original Position could know that they people they represent do not care about gains above the minimum.

The Third Point

I am putting off the first point for next time. And I am telling you that we cannot evaluate the second point. So 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 straightforward. 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.

The Final Statement of Rawls’s Principles

Here is the final statement of Rawls’s principles, with all qualifications included (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.

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.

Note on “Lexical Order”

Rawls says that his principles of justice are ranked in “lexical order” (sometimes he says “serial order,” it is the same idea). If you look it up, you will see that the word “lexical” means “of or relating to dictionaries,” which is not terribly helpful.

The idea Rawls is trying to express is that individual liberty should take priority over equal opportunity and equal opportunity should take priority over the difference principle.

Say you assign the letter “A” to individual liberty, “B” to equal opportunity, and “C” to the difference principle. Dictionaries arrange words in alphabetical order. In alphabetical order, “ABC” will always come before “BBBCCC” even though there are more Bs and Cs in the second.

To put it his terms, the first principle of justice (which concerns individual liberty) has to be satisfied before a society considers equal opportunity (the first clause of the second principle) and opportunities have to be equal before a society tries to satisfy the difference principle (the second clause of the second principle).

There is a qualification concerning the priority of the first principle, which protects individual liberty, over the second, which concerns economic opportunities and resources. Rawls is willing to relax this requirement for societies where the “effective establishment” of individual liberty is so difficult that individual liberties could not be “enjoyed.”

It is only when social circumstances do not allow the effective establishment of these basic rights that one can concede their limitation; and even then these restrictions can be granted only to the extent that they are necessary to prepare the way for the time when they are no longer justified. The denial of the equal liberties can be defended only when it is essential to change the conditions of civilization so that in due course these liberties can be enjoyed. (Rawls 1999, 132).

I wish that he had gone into more detail about what he had in mind. I assume his thought is that people who live in very poor societies might reasonably prefer economic growth to, say, the right to vote. (This, of course, assumes that non-democratic government would do a better job of delivering economic growth than a democratic one.) Rawls is willing to concede this possibility, but he insists that individual liberty can be given up only for the sake of greater individual liberty down the road. He is not willing to allow a society to trade in the rights of its members for wealth alone and he is not willing to allow a permanent loss of individual liberty.


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

  1. Yes, it would be easier to say he has three principles, but he says two so that is what we are going with.↩︎