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:
- Reasons why the parties would choose his principles of justice.
- 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. 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.
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,
Inequality in jobs and wealth is allowed only if:
There is equal opportunity for the best positions.
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
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
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
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.
They cannot estimate the probabilities of being in any particular
They do not care very much about getting more than they could get
in a society governed by Rawls’s principles.
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
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
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
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.
Rawls believes that the parties in the original position would choose
to maximize average utility only if two conditions are met:
- It is rational for them to maximize their expected utility rather
than following the maximin rule.
- They can assign probabilities to the possible outcomes of their
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.
These are the points you should know or have an opinion about from
- Why Rawls says the parties in the original position would focus on
the worst possible outcomes.
- Why he thinks they would prefer his principles to
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
to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with
the just savings principle, and
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:
a less extensive liberty must strengthen the total system of
liberties shared by all;
a less than equal liberty must be acceptable to those with the
Second Priority Rule (The Priority of Justice Over Efficiency and
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
an inequality of opportunity must enhance the opportunities of
those with the lesser opportunity;
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
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
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.