The social contract theory of John Rawls challenges utilitarianism by pointing out the impracticality of the theory. Mainly, in a society of utilitarians, a citizen’s 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 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 their 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, 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 slave’s 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 outweigh 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 their 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 undoubtedly hold true. The idea that wealth is something that is only inherited and cannot be gained on one’s 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 their 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 their 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 outcome is a hybrid of two philosophies.

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William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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