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John Rawls and Utilitarianism

Heath C. Hoculock

The social contract theory of John Rawls challenges utilitarianism by

pointing out the impracticality of the theory. Mainly, in a society of

utilitarians, a citizens rights could be completely ignored if injustice to this

one citizen would benefit the rest of society. Rawls believes that a social

contract theory, similar those proposed by Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, would be

a more logical solution to the question of fairness in any government. Social

contract theory in general and including the views of Rawls, is such that in a

situation where a society is established of people who are self interested,

rational, and equal, the rules of justice are established by what is mutually

acceptable and agreed upon by all the people therein. This scenario of

negotiating the laws of that society that will be commonly agreed upon and

beneficial to all is what Rawls terms “The Original Position and Justification”.

Rawls states that for this system to work, all citizens must see themselves as

being behind a “veil of ignorance”. By this he means that all deciding parties

in establishing the guidelines of justice (all citizens) must see themselves as

equal to everyone paying no mind to there economic situation or anything else

that 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 toward

the establishing of specific laws, a rich man may propose that taxes should be

equal for all rather than proportionate to ones assets. It is for this and

similar situations that Rawls feels that everyone must become oblivious to

themselves. Rawls believes that the foundational guideline agreed upon by the

those in the original position will be composed of two parts. The first of

these rules of justice being one that enforces equal rights and duties for all

citizens and the later of the two one which regulates the powers and wealth of

all citizens.

In the conception of utilitarianism possessed by Rawls, an impartial

spectator and ideal legislator are necessary components. The impartial

spectator 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 desires

and by doing such, give each of them priority over other desires and organize

them into one system from which the ideal legislator tries to maximize

satisfaction for all citizens by manipulating and adjusting the policy for that

society. By this theory of utilitarianism, Rawls argues that the decision

making process is being integrated into one conscience and that this system

gives no mind to the individual whose rights and freedoms may be ignored because

there beliefs are not widespread. He goes on to say “Utilitarianism does not

take seriously the distinction between persons”(Singer p. 339).

Rawls argues that two principles of justice will emerge from the

negotiations of the original position: “1.each person is to have an equal right

to 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 the

positions and offices open to all.” The first of these two principles suggests

that everyone have an equal say in the election of a government official and

equal power over the policies put into effect by that official. However, the

second seems to suggest that if it benefits society, then inequalities of

political power are acceptable. Although somewhat contradictory, this seems

reasonable since getting the opinions of everyone every time an issue arose

would be, to say the least, inefficient. According to Rawls, justice as

fairness is far more acceptable than utilitarianism. An example taken from The

Encyclopedia of Political Philosophy explains two situations, one acceptable by

Rawls and the other acceptable under utilitarianism. The first states that

slavery, (if beneficial to the slave as well as everyone else), is indeed

acceptable according to Rawls. The second states that under utilitarianism, a

slaves misery would not matter since overall satisfaction is increased. It is

just this reasoning that Rawls proves his theories superior. Rawls feels that

utilitarianism does not take into account the individual and pays too much mind

to the general happiness. Rawls argues that in this case everyone would be

better off with his social contract theory rather than utilitarianism since

under his theory general happiness would still be increased, but at the expense

of no one or few. Rawls believes that the happiness of many may indeed out

weigh the happiness of the few, but to govern by this would be unfair and unjust.

I feel that Mill would disagree with Rawls’ interpretation

utilitarianism. In chapter two of Mill’s 1863 book Utilitarianism, Mill states

the following: “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote

happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the opposite of happiness”. Mill

explains that the principle of utility should only be used as a tool for

generating secondary moral principles such as, one should not lie to others so

as to preserve or increase general happiness. Mill goes on to say that we

should only go solely by the principle of utility when faced with a moral

dilemma between two or more secondary principles. For example, according to

Mill, 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 protect

by deceiving or essentially condemn by truth, then by reverting to the

principle of utility, I will do what preserves or produces the most happiness.

Rawls would state that in this case, by the standards of utilitarianism, it

would be acceptable to “condemn by truth” if that would produce the most

happiness in society. If Mill were around to hear such a statement, he would

defend his theories from sounding cold and barbaric by further defining

happiness as encompassing all that we desire including love, power, wealth, and

most importantly in this case, virtue. So although Rawls feels that by

utilitarianism to condemn by truth or protect by deception are both acceptable

and interchangeable, Mill would argue that by virtue, we would choose without

question to protect by deception. It is for this reason that I do not believe

that the fundamental error of utilitarianism as described by Rawls is as

destructive to the entire theory as Rawls makes it out to be.

It is my belief that the theories of utilitarianism proposed by Rawls do

not give proper acknowledgment of the aspects defined by mill. It seems that

Rawls 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 he

says “happiness” or “duty”. These terms are essential in understanding the

theories of Mill. To truly understand Mill, one must not fail to take in

account the many aspects of happiness as discussed before and the compulsions of

duty. Mill describes duty as containing among other things, self -worth,

sympathy, religious beliefs, and childhood recollections. To not give notice to

the true nature of these terms as described by Mill, it is not unreasonable to

expect one to come to the same conclusions regarding utilitarianism as Rawls.

Part “a” of the second principle of justice proposed by Rawls states

that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are

reasonably 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, deserve

special consideration and compensation. Second, Rawls implies that the rich

should willingly give up a portion of there wealth to the poor since they would

gain more than they gave up by enjoying the benefits of a mutually cooperative

society. If Rawls were to consider that perhaps the losses felt by the rich may

indeed outweigh the benefits felt in return and also outweigh the gain in

happiness 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 natural

asset. This would give notice to the idea of the natural lottery which implies

that the distribution of such things as wealth and education are arbitrary. If

this were the case unconditionally, then Rawls’ theory would undoubtabley hold

true. The idea that wealth is something that is only inherited and cannot be

gained on ones own would surely bring into question fairness and would most

likely end in the conclusion that all should be made equal. In the real world

however, wealth can be achieved by hard work and ambition. In this real world

scenario then, it is reasonable to believe that the poor could be poor not

because of a natural lottery, but because of there refusal to put forth the

effort to be otherwise. Thus it is also true that the rich could be rich

because of their willingness of labor. It is for these reasons that Rawls

difference principle actually has little to do with fairness. This argument

against the Theories of Rawls is supported and further explored in Anarchy,

State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick (1974). Nozicks’ objections to the theories

of Rawls include that it can’t be said how much is to be gained or lost by the

rich or the poor in a redistribution of wealth and since it is no more

outrageous to put forth an agreement that benefits the rich than it is to put

fourth an agreement that benefits the poor, then the difference principle of

Rawls is arbitrary.

Upon first exploring the original position of Rawls, one may find a

situation that closely resembles the governing body of the United States which

has proved to be successful and strong for a very long time, but as you read

into the theories of Rawls, it becomes a philosophy that resembles that of

Marxism. By this I mean that the difference principle of Rawls seems to be

similar 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 take

away from the upper class and scholarly. This is similar to the difference

principle defined by Rawls. At the time, for most of China, this seemed like a

good idea that would put everyone on an equal level. As we all know, this

system was, to say the least, very volatile and eventually failed. On the other

hand, In the U.S., a system that allows one to posses wealth that is self made

and some of what is inherited, has proved to be very successful. Our system of

government resembles the theories of Rawls in the way that for the most part,

wealth that is inherited is redistributed. This can be better explained by

examining a situation where a person generates wealth from hard work. Someone

who gains wealth on their own is entitled to there wealth as long as they came

about it honestly according to Nozick. This seems to be the case with our own

laws and guidelines of society. When this same person passes on and passes

their wealth on to the bequeathed, a portion of the estate goes to whomever the

passing arranged for. The rest however (a very sizable portion in fact) gets

redistributed through taxes and subsequently public services. This instance

would appeal to Rawls. So it seems that the most practical out come is a

hybrid of two philosophies. I agree with the original position proposed by

Rawls and that the parties involved would eventually come to a mutually

beneficial social contract. However, I must agree with Nozick that Rawls fails

to examine the true fairness of his theories. If Rawls were to consider, as

Nozick states, “the manner in which assets were acquired”, and then use this

concept to further define his second principle of justice, then he would surly

be open to far less criticism.

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