Political Philosophy Fall 2022

Rawls and Utilitarianism


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.

There are two sides to Rawls’s case:

  1. Reasons why the parties would choose his principles of justice.
  2. Reasons why the parties would reject utilitarianism.

As it happens, these are two sides of the same coin. In a nutshell, they would find utilitarianism too risky. Of course, almost any risk might be worth taking if the alternatives are bad enough. But, Rawls maintains, the parties will find his principles acceptable and so they will not want to run the risks that come with utilitarianism.

What are Rawls’s Principles?

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, even for 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.

I am going to go over the first point a little later in the notes.

The second point is, basically, that they would find life in a society governed by Rawls’s principles to be acceptable. I am not sure how the parties could know this since the veil of ignorance prevents them from knowing what the people they represent want. They know that they want “primary social goods,” that is, things that are useful for any rational plan of life, like freedom and money. But beyond that, they do not know anything about what the people they represent want in life. So how can they know what those people would find satisfactory? The idea is really better expressed in the third point, namely, that compared with utilitarianism, life under Rawls’s principles looks acceptable.

Rawls’s best argument, in my opinion, is the third point: the parties know that 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.

The Case Against Utilitarianism

That was Rawls’s argument for his two principles. Here is the argument against utilitarianism.

I am going to summarize a section of the book that I did not ask you to read. 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. If you were in the original position and charged with adopting rules for self-driving cars, you would choose to save the pedestrians in this kind of case. Why? Because that rule is five times more likely to benefit the person you represent than the rule favoring the driver: there are five pedestrians and only one driver.2

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. I have to confess that I do not know what he had in mind since it seems obvious to me that they can do exactly that. 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. I think the first is 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, however, makes sense. 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.

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.↩︎

  2. I should say that Rawls’s theory has nothing to say about this kind of case. Rawls tells the parties that they are in what he calls the circumstances of justice, meaning that everyone benefits from the adoption of rules, much as with Hume’s theory of conventions. In a case like this, someone is going to lose and the rules just determine who it is. That means the driver and pedestrians are not in the circumstances of justice. And since the parties in the original position can only make decisions for people who they know are in the circumstances of justice, they cannot say anything about what to do.↩︎


There was a handout for this class: 25.RawlsVsUtilitiarianism.handout.pdf