John Rawls and Utilitarianism

Topics: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, Original position Pages: 6 (2041 words) Published: October 8, 1999
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, 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...
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