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