Rawls versus utilitarianism in the light of political liberalism

The critique of utilitarianism forms a crucial subplot in the complex analysis of social justice that John Rawls develops in his first book, A Theory of Justice.1 The weaknesses of utilitarianism indicate the need for an alternative theory, and at many stages of the argument the test for the adequacy of the new theory that Rawls elaborates is whether it can be demonstrated to be superior to the utilitarian rival. The account of social justice shifts in the transition to Rawls’s second great book, Political Liberalism. The account of what is wrong with utilitarianism undergoes revision as well. In this essay I examine both the initial critique of utilitarianism and its transformation in Rawls’s later writings. To anticipate my conclusion: Rawls’s proposal that we should maximin rather than maximize leads to an interesting standoff. The argument for maximin is not compelling, but straight additive maximization of the utilitarian sort is revealed to be merely one possible function among many, any of which (for all we know) correct morality might instruct us to maximize. Rawls further urges that utilitarianism goes astray in taking the maximandum, the thing to be maximized, to be utility rather than primary social goods. The argument for primary social goods is not compelling, but it does not follow that utility alone is to be maximized. The espousal of the ideal of legitimacy in Political Liberalism does not affect these conclusions, and the arguments..
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