John Rawls was arguably the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century. His Theory of Justice is a classic. In it, he presents two principles of justice, which should guide the functioning of any society, if it is to be just. An important aspect of Rawls's argument is his attack on utilitarianism, which is the focus of this writeup. Rawls defines utilitarianism as follows:
The main idea is that society is rightly ordered, and therefore just, when its major institutions are arranged so as to achieve the greatest net balance of satisfaction summed over all the individuals belonging to it. (TJ, 22)
He presents a number of arguments against such a theory. Firstly, Rawls argues that utilitarianism cannot absolutely rule out such systems as slavery or racial segregation. It is unlikely that a utilitarian would embrace either of these institutions, but there is nothing in the moral theory to exclude them from consideration. If slavery, for instance, is to the overall benefit of society, in that the well being of the slave-owners outweighs the suffering of the slaves, then utilitarianism would be forced to accept slavery. Rawls maintains that this is a fundamental flaw in utilitarian thinking. Slavery is unjust under all circumstances, regardless of any utility calculations. It is unjust because it does not respect the fundamental rights and liberties of all individuals. Since utilitarianism allows such a trampling of individual rights, it must be discarded.
The utilitarian answer to this criticism would be that slavery or racial segregation are never efficient enough to make them acceptable from the point of view of their moral theory. Virtually all utilitarians would condemn slavery. But even though this is the right answer to the question of the justification of slavery, Rawls maintains that it is arrived at for the wrong reasons. Slavery is not wrong because it is inefficient, but because it is unjust, because it does not consider individual rights inviolable. This part of Rawls's case against utilitarianism is very strong, I think, though its acceptance is dependent on whether one takes moral intutitions as primary.
Rawls presents his theory as fundamentally different from utilitarianism. However, there are various ways in which justice as fairness does resemble utilitarianism. Both are holistic about justice, both treat moral intuitions as primary and both offer a decision procedure for determining what is just. But it seems that there are other, perhaps obvious, senses in which Rawls resembles the utilitarians. Firstly, it should be noted that Rawl's theory in no way rules out utility calculations in general. He simply maintains that such calculations may not override individual rights. Justice as fairness allows a society to be largely organized on utilitarian principles, as long as utility calculations do not interfere with the equal rights of all individuals.
Furthermore, Rawls justifies income inequalities in terms of the benefits they bring, qualifying this by insisting that those benefits extend to the least well-off. I think this is a type of utilitarian justification, the major difference between classical utilitarianism being that the calculation is limited by the principles of justice. Rawls is defining the sphere within which utilitarianism may be applied. Basic rights may not be infringed, but beyond this, utilitarianism may be legitimately applied. Indeed, Rawls himself uses an essentially utilitarian justification of income inequalities.
The original position and utilitarianism: theoretical assumptions
An important part of Rawls's critique of utilitarianism is based on the thought experiment of the original position. The original position is a version of the classical social contract idea of the state of nature, but following Kant, Rawls conceives of it purely as a hypothetical situation. Individuals in the original position are behind the veil of ignorance, and do not know their position in society or their identity; hence they are able to choose the principles of justice without prejudice. The concept of the original position warrants its own node. I will not go into further detail here. For the purposes of the present discussion it should be noted that Rawls thinks the individuals in the original position would not adopt utilitarianism as their principle of justice, but rather his formulation of justice as fairness.
I think the assumptions that Rawls makes of people in the original position are crucial. They do not know their position in society, nor the structure of that society. But there is also an implicit assumption about risk-aversion.
Rawls maintains that it is rational for people in the original position to choose his principles of justice. But reason does not exist in a vacuum. To make rational decisions, one must have goals one wishes to attain, reason being merely a technique for this purpose. One's aversion to risk is surely important in this. If one wants to avoid risk at all costs, it is definitely rational to accept Rawls's principles of justice, since under a society governed by them, even the least well-off still has basic positive and negative rights, so the gamble is not overly risky. However, if one skewes the basic assumptions somewhat, making the individuals in the original position less averse to risk, it seems entirely possible for them to choose classical utilitarianism as their principle of justice. Such persons might be willing to accept the possibility that they are part of the disadvantaged minority, since more probably they will be part of the advantaged majority, and that majority would be better off under principles of classical utilitarianism than under Rawls's principles of justice. Furthermore, if the individuals of the original position were more risk-averse than Rawls assumes them to be, then surely they would adopt communism as their principle of justice rather than justice as fairness. In this scenario, there is the least amount of risk, and also the least amount of potential gain, since everyone's relation to the means of production is exactly the same.
Experimenting with the level of risk aversion of the individuals in the original position shows that there is perhaps an element of circularity in Rawls's formulation of the principles of justice and thus of his rejection of utilitarianism. Rawls adopts assumptions about risk-aversion which makes it rational for the individuals in the original position to adopt his particular principles of justice. Perhaps the reason for adopting exactly this assumption about risk assessment by the hypothetical individuals is because it leads to Rawls's exact principles.
The original position and utilitarianism: practical application
A further complication to Rawls's critique of utilitarianism, I think, is caused by psychological problems with the original position. Even if individuals did imagine themselves behind the veil of ignorance, their answers to the question of justice might still diverge. The rich man would be much more likely to embrace classical utilitarianism even if he imagined himself behind the veil of ignorance than the poor man. This is because the rich man's actual position in society might lead him to believe that were he not to know his position, he would still be willing to take the risk and choose utilitarianism. I think there are several possible reasons for this, the most obvious being that the rich man lacks the experience of poverty, hence he may be led to believe that poverty might be something he could endure, and thus be willing to take the risk. Conversely, the poor man might well choose justice as fairness, though I think he might also opt for communism. But the poor man lacks the experience of wealth; hence he cannot give an accurate assessment of the potential gains for him were he a rich man.
I think it is obvious that one's position in society may, even behind the veil of ignorance, affect one's choice of the principles of justice in the thought experiment. Furthermore, it shows that for an accurate assessment, the hypothetical individuals of the original position should have complete, practical knowledge, rather than just theoretical knowledge of what it means to be rich, poor, powerful, oppressed and so forth. This is not a condition that Rawls specifies for the original position, and I think his attack on utilitarianism suffers as a consequence.
It seems that Rawls's critique of utilitarianism is at its strongest when it appeals to our moral intuitions, rather than when he tries to prove, as it were, that utilitarianism is wrong. I, for one, think that Rawls's position is the stronger. Utilitarianism does allow for immoral institutions. Rawls's doctrine of justice as fairness is a powerful alternative that secures basic positive and negative rights to all individuals. However, even though the overall sweep of Rawls's argument is convincing, not all of his individual arguments against utilitarianism are satisfactory.
Mendus, S., Lectures on A Theory of Justice
, University of York
Rawls, J., A Theory of Justice
, Oxford University Press