Is Rawlss Critique Of Utilitarianism Fair Philosophy Essay

The question we are going to deal with immediately draw my attention; as Rawls work on justice not only turns out to be theoretically relevant, but even particular considering the time it was published, it results being determinant from a historic point of view.

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Indeed “A theory of justice” was written in 1971, in these years as we know cold war reached its climax and contrast between the Soviet Union and the United States was severe. These conflicts implied not only a political (and fortunately not military) conflict, but at its deepest layer a difference in ideology, beliefs, thought.

As well known the soviet model had its roots in Karl Marx’s (1818-1883) communist philosophy while the western countries found their attachment mostly in utilitarianism. These philosophies oppose in its assumptions and appear not to be compatible witch each other. What Rawls proposes us is an innovating solution to conjugate social justice and utilitarianism in an innovating if not revolutionary theory of justice. He is considered to be the father of the “third way” among a centralized economy and laissez-faire.

As previously anticipated the theory of justice also has a fundamental theoretical value as it marks the turning point in some very important and discussed conceptual differences which became part of nowadays political agenda.

Rawls famous theory of justice criticized utilitarianism at its roots. After a brief introduction about the topic of discussion, my attention is going to focus on the basic ideas of utilitarianism as it is the philosophical theory which opposes most to Rawls theory of justice.

We will then analyze Rawls attack to utilitarian philosophy as explained in his book: A theory of justice. Furthermore we will place our attention on the reasons why Rawls’s judges utilitarianism wrong, and on other arguments against it.

John Rawls’s thought

John Rawls is widely considered one of the most innovative and influential thinker of the twentieth century. Put in Amartya Sen’s words:”By far the most influential – and I believe the most important – theory of justice to be presented in this century has been John Rawls’ Justice as fairness” (Sen, 1992:p. 75)

He was born in 1921 in the city of Baltimore, made his studies in Princeton and Oxford, before becoming a professor in one of the most known universities of the United States: Harvard. He is mostly known through his famous book “A theory of justice” (1971).

The philosopher claims that justice is the first requisite of social institutions, just in the same way as the pursuit of truth is the final aim of any philosophy. His basic claim is that as a theory a needs to be discarded or at least changed in its missing parts if it is not true, in the same way institutions or laws have to be abolished or reformed if they are not fair.

He goes on saying that even if society as a whole might profit from certain institution, they cannot be accepted and left in place if even only one person gets an unfair treatment as a consequence of their operation.

“Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others. It does not allow that the sacrifices imposed on a few are outweighed by the larger sum of advantages enjoyed by many.”( Rawls, John – A Theory of Justice (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press), 1971, p 3.)

As he defined his idea about justice, he wanted to give a rational foundation to it. He wanted to ensure that his justice assumptions were rational and shared by all members of society. Given the fact that individuals are different and have different aims in life it is necessary to find some principle which could be agreed on by all members.

The way by which people could find a general agreement is very well known in philosophy and social sciences as public law. What is being referred to is the idea of original position and veil of ignorance. Part of its great success is due to the fascinating representation given by the author.

He imagines a so called original position in which the single individuals decide the rules which will govern society. What is crucial is the fact that they do this choice in absolute ignorance concerning some relevant information of their future lives in society. The agreement is so being made in a condition of a veil of ignorance. This avoids the fact that some which might be born in a very rich family would obviously be against high income taxes to transfer some wealth to the worse off. The poor one on the other hand would definitely welcome such taxes as they could profit from them. The people making the choice are thus presented as rational and not interested in others. No one could get an advantage from the choice of certain principles which would advantage a certain category, as they would not know which role they are going to have in society.

To sum up we can say that the veil of ignorance has to exclude people from the knowledge of facts which would bring them to have conflicts. Al the parties are equal in this position, indeed everyone would have the same rights in proposing rules and accepting them. The outcome of this decision leads to a fair agreement because it is conducted in fair conditions. This is the reason why this theory is known as justice as fairness.

He states that the philosopher which contributed most to the development of his theory has been Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), since Kant’s ethic is based on the personal choice of free, rational and equal individuals. Therefore he arrives to claim that the principles of justice are to be seen as categorical imperatives in the Kantian way. Indeed by categorical imperative Kant means these moral principles which are to be rationally respected and accepted from a free and rational individual. Opposed to these we find hypothetical imperatives which are the ones which aim at certain specific goals.

Concerning the principles which have to be expected from the decision take under the veil of ignorance, we should not consider them as defined principles for actions but as general guide lines for practical political decisions.

It is to be noticed that some critics might emerge at this point, authors like Sen criticized the fact that exactly these principles would emerge from the contracting under the veil of ignorance: The outcome might be a different one.

The first principle states the following:

“Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others.” (Rawls, 1971)

What is exactly meant as basic liberties has to be defined more precisely, indeed they are:

a) The active and passive right to vote; the first refers to the possibility to choose a political actor according to our preferences (what is commonly understood as right to vote). The second one (passive right to vote) refers to the fact that we have the possibility to candidate for elections and possibility be elected.

b) Liberty of conscience, which is basically the faculty to choose or decide by your own, your future life, your way of being and your own destiny.

c) Freedom of speech and assembly, so the possibility to express your own ideas and make them public even if they do not fit and are not coherent with the current political situation and its majority’s ideas. The freedom of assembly indeed refers to the possibility to arrange political assemblies to discuss political and practical issues.

d) Freedom to personal propriety, which is to be understood as the possibility to have the personal private propriety on your goods (although he states that the private propriety of means of production is not necessarily to be seen as a primary good).

e) Freedom from arbitrary arrest, which means the fact that the public power has not the freedom to arbitrary (so without a reason), arrest individuals because they might oppose or disagree with the public power itself.

The second principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that

(a) They are to be of the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society, consistent with the just savings principle (the difference principle).

(b) Offices and positions must be open to everyone under conditions of fair equality of opportunity

(Rawls, 1971, p.302)

The first part of the second principle (a) holds the idea that the first goal in a choice should be to maximize the least well off rather than to maximize in general. (Maximin) This means that arrangements which imply inequalities might only be accepted if they increase the position of the poorest too. It is well explained by this graphical representation:

C:Documents and SettingsRoberta SimeoneDesktoprawls function.jpg

This graph is to be interpreted as if there were two individuals; giving freedom to our imagination let us call them: 1 and 2.

The social utility of both is to be measured on the 45 degree line in the point of interception with the L curve. A few of them are marked in increasing utility order to give a general idea, I

Already this argument (Maximin) proves the effectiveness of Rawls’ critique to utilitarianism because it gives attention to the distribution of wealth rather than considering merely the sum of all the agents’ utilities’. This will be clear in the paragraph about utilitarianism.

The justification for this argument is due to the fact that the randomness of the condition in which one is born is not linked to a moral entitlement. For instance the financial conditions of one’s family or even the talents one has are merely casual. That is why it is right to increase first the worse off who had been unlucky in the lottery of life.


Utilitarianism was mainly born by Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) work. His biggest innovation compared to previous thinkers was to found moral philosophy on a rational basis. This reflects the theoretical innovations of his time, which is the scientific method brought by enlightenment. He therefore tried to make ethics an analytical science which can be proven by logical and mathematical principles.

This philosophy is founded on the basic idea that actions should only be judged from the value of its outcome. The key point if we assume this way of thinking, becomes to define precisely how we might value the effects of our actions. We could try to value different things which we generally assumed as good, such as happiness, satisfaction, wealth or even simple pleasure.

Not giving any value judgment about this methodology to chose the right action, it is already possible to note that this part is particularly problematic as all these things turn out to be extremely difficult (if not impossible) to measure. The general principle is the so called utility, according to utilitarian philosophers it can be measured by calculation and thus it allows us to compare between actions leading to higher and lower utility outcomes. Bentham believes it is possible to possible to calculate pain and pleasure by using equations, this should be the way to define utility according to the duration and the strength of a feeling (positive or negative). Founding this principle of utility is a general assumption believed to be true by utilitarianism, it is the fact that any activity leads to two basic feelings, which are pleasure and its opposite: pain. Judgment about how to act should only be left to these two.

In Bentham’s words: “that property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness…or…to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil, or unhappiness” (Jeremy Bentham Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation ,1789).

As we saw in this paragraph this basic understanding of utilitarianism does not allow us to go beyond a personal, individualistic judgment. How should indeed society’s utility be considered? The definition of utility states that it should be considered compared to the part whose interest is concerned. If we consider society as the interested party which might be society’s interest? In this philosophy social utility is simple: the sum of all individuals’ utilities.

(As we saw, Rawls position criticizes exactly this simplicity by which utilitarianism simplifies individuals and the general social utility. Which effectively is a fair argument against it).

An individualistic approach by which each person maximizes its own utility does not appear to be compatible with collective utility. The way utilitarian philosophers think that it is possible to enforce public interest is trough legislation as a tool, the law should define the principles society wants to respect and the actions which maximize social utility. A well planned legislation will lead to harmonize individual interest to social one by making obedience to laws more convenient than breaking it. This means that the expected utility of committing an action against the law should be lower than the possible advantage to commit a crime. Indeed Bentham tried to find a way to define particularly the penal code, in this way anyone would know the punishment applied for breaking the law which would be leading to a lower utility than respecting it.

To give another graphical representation to be compared to the Rawlsian one we can have a look at the following graph:

C:Documents and SettingsRoberta SimeoneDesktopUtilitaut.jpg

Again we have our 1 and 2 (individuals) determining social utility, the parallel lines have again a slope of 45 degrees – this time turned through 90 degrees. The social utility is on the interception where the two individual ones cross. We can note the fact that even if one has all and the other any (interception between x axis – u1 – and W1) we still stay on the same social utility: W1.

Critical points in utilitarianism

Utilitarianism was all but left without critics, already Bentham’s successor John Stuart Mills (1806-1873) who was the second innovator in utilitarianism started to criticize different approaches and assumption used by Bentham. Indeed Bentham’s approach used to be focused on the theory by which the public actor should act. Mills on the other hand was focusing more on the personal morality of actions. Compared to Bentham he assumes an approach which is more internal, he tries to focus on the psychology of the agent. Here we find the first critic to utilitarianism; Mills believes utility maximization assumption to be too narrow to explain agents’ choices.

An interesting critique is the one moved by Bernard Williams (1929-2003) it is well explained by an anecdote by Williams himself known as Jim and the Indians:

“Jim finds himself in the central square of a small South American town. Tied up against the wall are twenty Indians, in front of several armed men in uniform. A heavy man in a sweat-stained khaki shirt turns out to be the captain in charge and (…) explains that the Indians are a random group of inhabitants who, after recent acts of protest against the government, are just about to be killed to remind other possible protesters of the advantage of not protesting. However, since Jim is an honoured visitor from another land, the captain is happy to offer him a guest’s privilege of killing one of the prisoners himself. If Jim accepts, then as a special mark of the occasion the other Indians will be let off. Of course, if Jim refuses, there will be no special occasion, and the captain will do what he was about to and kill them all. (…) The men are against the wall and the other villagers understand the situation and are obviously begging him to accept. What should he do?”

(B. Williams, ‘A Critique of Utilitarianism’ in Smart & Williams, ‘Utilitarianism: For and Against’, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1973)

Since utilitarianism only considers the utility of the outcome of an action there is no choice. It is much better in terms of general utility to kill only one person rather than having 19 others been killed. This would simply be better because utilitarianism considers that each one counts for one and only one. What Williams argues is different: that it is not the same consequence if a person is killed by my direct action or if he is killed because of my indirect behavior, which in this case would be an act of not taking participation. Killing actively one person would not preserve our personal moral integrity because indeed we would have killed a human being. This would harm our own personal moral integrity even though it might be a better outcome in terms of social utility. That is the reason why this objection is known as the integrity objection.

Rawls critique

Rawls position is deeply against utilitarianism, as this philosophy is accepting to give up individual interests for majority’s ones. The utilitarian assumption that individual interest might be given up for society, is criticized even if the sacrifice of someone’s interest might lead to greater efficiency. For Rawls it is more important to ensure justice before efficiency. It is claimed to be wrong if the majority would get an advantage but the one who has to take the sacrifice is the worst of, and this is unjust.

Accordingly, in a just society we have to assume equal citizen rights, which again according to him are an absolute right under any circumstance. The only admissible injustice would be the one which would prevent a worse injustice.

The first critical point of utilitarianism he identifies is the fact that it tends to make the individual disappear. Utilitarianism has a very narrowed view of human beings only considering its utility, to the point that once the individual utility is calculated there is no other relevant information concerning the person. This kind of reduction leads utilitarianism to be a philosophy which is indifferent to identity and individuality of people.

Further, another critical point is the one concerning distributive justice, utilitarianism tries to maximize the social outcome as a whole, what it still fails to take into account is the distribution of that utility.(As explained by the second graph). If we abstract and consider wealth as utility it does not make a difference it one individual has a lot and most others only a little: the general sum of all the utilities is still maximized. Between two actions, one leading to a utility of six for the first individual and an utility of one for the second, and another leading to three for each ,utilitarianism would choose the first because seven is greater than six. This is because all what matters is the sum of utility, although this leads to profound injustice.

Finally he claims that each desire is to be calculated and compared to other desires although they might differ in their nature, what is to be understood as a qualitative versus quantitative difference.


What Rawls criticized in utilitarianism appears to be right for general principles of social welfare. Utilitarianism has to be awarded with the innovation to apply rationality to moral philosophy. Although it forgets the distribution of wealth problem.

This latter one appears to be the most effective critique to utilitarianism. It is undeniable that the utilitarian view – of each individual maximizing its own utility as he best believes also implies a higher grade of freedom of choice. This choices should thou be made in a way which is not interfering with social purposes. An action should not only be valued from the utility it brings to the single individual but society as a whole. Because in the end even the single individual is staying in society and thou being influenced from the status quo he stays in. Social welfare is not only profiting the ones who directly gain from it but the whole system’s stability. Injustices are the seed of contrasts, the French aristocrats living the French Revolution might agree with this view.

Not only is the critique effective but also fair on a moral basis. Society should not be led by individualistic principles, such an assumption would mean to put social morality on the same layer as individual one. But societies emerged from collaboration between individuals – to achieve something more. This is the reason why the state should try to be better than individuals particularly concerning morality.

On the other had it has to be stated that utilitarianism has the great advantage of being practical and effective to apply. The use of calculation implies an incredible advantage in terms of efficiency in decision-making.

Further it is not clear why the two principles of justice should necessarily emerge from the original position, this is basically the critique moved to Rawls by many, among them Amartya Sen. The idea is that other principles might emerge from the choice made under the veil of ignorance.