John Rawls and UtilitarianismHeath C. HoculockThe social contract theory of John Rawls challenges utilitarianism bypointing out the impracticality of the theory. Mainly, in a society ofutilitarians, a citizens rights could be completely ignored if injustice to thisone citizen would benefit the rest of society.
Rawls believes that a socialcontract theory, similar those proposed by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, would bea more logical solution to the question of fairness in any government. Socialcontract theory in general and including the views of Rawls, is such that in asituation where a society is established of people who are self interested,rational, and equal, the rules of justice are established by what is mutuallyacceptable and agreed upon by all the people therein. This scenario ofnegotiating the laws of that society that will be commonly agreed upon andbeneficial to all is what Rawls terms “The Original Position and Justification”.Rawls states that for this system to work, all citizens must see themselves asbeing behind a “veil of ignorance”. By this he means that all deciding partiesin establishing the guidelines of justice (all citizens) must see themselves asequal to everyone paying no mind to there economic situation or anything elsethat they could keep in mind to negotiate a better situation to those qualities.For example, if everyone in this society has an equal amount of influence towardthe establishing of specific laws, a rich man may propose that taxes should beequal for all rather than proportionate to ones assets. It is for this andsimilar situations that Rawls feels that everyone must become oblivious tothemselves.
Rawls believes that the foundational guideline agreed upon by thethose in the original position will be composed of two parts. The first ofthese rules of justice being one that enforces equal rights and duties for allcitizens and the later of the two one which regulates the powers and wealth ofall citizens.In the conception of utilitarianism possessed by Rawls, an impartialspectator and ideal legislator are necessary components. The impartialspectator is one who rational and sensitive to all of the desires of society.The impartial spectator must feel these desires as if they were his own desiresand by doing such, give each of them priority over other desires and organizethem into one system from which the ideal legislator tries to maximizesatisfaction for all citizens by manipulating and adjusting the policy for thatsociety. By this theory of utilitarianism, Rawls argues that the decisionmaking process is being integrated into one conscience and that this systemgives no mind to the individual whose rights and freedoms may be ignored becausethere beliefs are not widespread.
He goes on to say “Utilitarianism does nottake seriously the distinction between persons”(Singer p. 339).Rawls argues that two principles of justice will emerge from thenegotiations of the original position: “1.
each person is to have an equal rightto the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others,2.social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a)reasonably expected to be everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to thepositions and offices open to all.” The first of these two principles suggeststhat everyone have an equal say in the election of a government official andequal power over the policies put into effect by that official. However, thesecond seems to suggest that if it benefits society, then inequalities ofpolitical power are acceptable. Although somewhat contradictory, this seemsreasonable since getting the opinions of everyone every time an issue arosewould be, to say the least, inefficient. According to Rawls, justice asfairness is far more acceptable than utilitarianism. An example taken from TheEncyclopedia of Political Philosophy explains two situations, one acceptable byRawls and the other acceptable under utilitarianism.
The first states thatslavery, (if beneficial to the slave as well as everyone else), is indeedacceptable according to Rawls. The second states that under utilitarianism, aslaves misery would not matter since overall satisfaction is increased. It isjust this reasoning that Rawls proves his theories superior. Rawls feels thatutilitarianism does not take into account the individual and pays too much mindto the general happiness. Rawls argues that in this case everyone would bebetter off with his social contract theory rather than utilitarianism sinceunder his theory general happiness would still be increased, but at the expenseof no one or few.
Rawls believes that the happiness of many may indeed outweigh the happiness of the few, but to govern by this would be unfair and unjust.I feel that Mill would disagree with Rawls’ interpretationutilitarianism. In chapter two of Mill’s 1863 book Utilitarianism, Mill statesthe following: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promotehappiness; wrong as they tend to produce the opposite of happiness”. Millexplains that the principle of utility should only be used as a tool forgenerating secondary moral principles such as, one should not lie to others soas to preserve or increase general happiness. Mill goes on to say that weshould only go solely by the principle of utility when faced with a moraldilemma between two or more secondary principles. For example, according toMill, I should protect my neighbor from harm and I should not deceive another.So if one wishes to harm my neighbor and it is within my power to either protectby deceiving or essentially condemn by truth, then by reverting to theprinciple of utility, I will do what preserves or produces the most happiness.Rawls would state that in this case, by the standards of utilitarianism, itwould be acceptable to “condemn by truth” if that would produce the mosthappiness in society.
If Mill were around to hear such a statement, he woulddefend his theories from sounding cold and barbaric by further defininghappiness as encompassing all that we desire including love, power, wealth, andmost importantly in this case, virtue. So although Rawls feels that byutilitarianism to condemn by truth or protect by deception are both acceptableand interchangeable, Mill would argue that by virtue, we would choose withoutquestion to protect by deception. It is for this reason that I do not believethat the fundamental error of utilitarianism as described by Rawls is asdestructive to the entire theory as Rawls makes it out to be.It is my belief that the theories of utilitarianism proposed by Rawls donot give proper acknowledgment of the aspects defined by mill.
It seems thatRawls takes too literally the cut and dry’ definition of utilitarianism by Mill.I don’t believe that Rawls explores exactly what Mill is trying to say when hesays “happiness” or “duty”. These terms are essential in understanding thetheories of Mill. To truly understand Mill, one must not fail to take inaccount the many aspects of happiness as discussed before and the compulsions ofduty. Mill describes duty as containing among other things, self -worth,sympathy, religious beliefs, and childhood recollections. To not give notice tothe true nature of these terms as described by Mill, it is not unreasonable toexpect one to come to the same conclusions regarding utilitarianism as Rawls.Part “a” of the second principle of justice proposed by Rawls statesthat social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they arereasonably expected to be everyone’s advantage.
Rawls refers to this portion as”the difference principle”. The difference principle implies two things. First,that those who posses fewer natural assets such as wealth or education, deservespecial consideration and compensation.
Second, Rawls implies that the richshould willingly give up a portion of there wealth to the poor since they wouldgain more than they gave up by enjoying the benefits of a mutually cooperativesociety. If Rawls were to consider that perhaps the losses felt by the rich mayindeed outweigh the benefits felt in return and also outweigh the gain inhappiness of the poor, then I wonder how solid he would feel his argument is.Rawls bases his difference principle on the assumption that wealth is a naturalasset. This would give notice to the idea of the natural lottery which impliesthat the distribution of such things as wealth and education are arbitrary. Ifthis were the case unconditionally, then Rawls’ theory would undoubtabley holdtrue. The idea that wealth is something that is only inherited and cannot begained on ones own would surely bring into question fairness and would mostlikely end in the conclusion that all should be made equal. In the real worldhowever, wealth can be achieved by hard work and ambition.
In this real worldscenario then, it is reasonable to believe that the poor could be poor notbecause of a natural lottery, but because of there refusal to put forth theeffort to be otherwise. Thus it is also true that the rich could be richbecause of their willingness of labor. It is for these reasons that Rawlsdifference principle actually has little to do with fairness. This argumentagainst the Theories of Rawls is supported and further explored in Anarchy,State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick (1974).
Nozicks’ objections to the theoriesof Rawls include that it can’t be said how much is to be gained or lost by therich or the poor in a redistribution of wealth and since it is no moreoutrageous to put forth an agreement that benefits the rich than it is to putfourth an agreement that benefits the poor, then the difference principle ofRawls is arbitrary.Upon first exploring the original position of Rawls, one may find asituation that closely resembles the governing body of the United States whichhas proved to be successful and strong for a very long time, but as you readinto the theories of Rawls, it becomes a philosophy that resembles that ofMarxism. By this I mean that the difference principle of Rawls seems to besimilar to the redistribution of wealth that took place years ago in China.Marxists in China thought it better to put the power in the proletariat and takeaway from the upper class and scholarly. This is similar to the differenceprinciple defined by Rawls. At the time, for most of China, this seemed like agood idea that would put everyone on an equal level.
As we all know, thissystem was, to say the least, very volatile and eventually failed. On the otherhand, In the U.S., a system that allows one to posses wealth that is self madeand some of what is inherited, has proved to be very successful. Our system ofgovernment resembles the theories of Rawls in the way that for the most part,wealth that is inherited is redistributed.
This can be better explained byexamining a situation where a person generates wealth from hard work. Someonewho gains wealth on their own is entitled to there wealth as long as they cameabout it honestly according to Nozick. This seems to be the case with our ownlaws and guidelines of society. When this same person passes on and passestheir wealth on to the bequeathed, a portion of the estate goes to whomever thepassing arranged for.
The rest however (a very sizable portion in fact) getsredistributed through taxes and subsequently public services. This instancewould appeal to Rawls. So it seems that the most practical out come is ahybrid of two philosophies. I agree with the original position proposed byRawls and that the parties involved would eventually come to a mutuallybeneficial social contract. However, I must agree with Nozick that Rawls failsto examine the true fairness of his theories. If Rawls were to consider, asNozick states, “the manner in which assets were acquired”, and then use thisconcept to further define his second principle of justice, then he would surlybe open to far less criticism.