Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Rawls and "Classical Utilitarianism" (I)

The subject of Rawls' responses to utilitarianism is worth an extended discussion and is one to which I will return in more detail in a subsequent posting. In this one, however, I want to assess merely the description that he gives in the fifth section of the first chapter of A Theory of Justice. I looked at the first four sections of this chapter in a previous posting and will continue to explore this first chapter here.

Rawls opens this section by mentioning that there are many forms of utilitarianism and that he has no intention of surveying them here as it is rather his point to make the contrast between utilitarianism and contractarianism his major focus. However, there is a specific model that is the basis of the treatment Rawls gives here of utilitarianism and this is the work of Henry Sidgwick. (Interestingly, Sidgwick also features in the Lectures on the History of Political Philosophy where it is again the Methods of Ethics that is taken as central despite Sidgwick having written specifically on political philosophy in other works.)

Bearing in mind the Sidgwick reference is of some interest in understanding the picture that Rawls goes on to provide of "classical utilitarianism" since the device used in presenting this picture is very much that of viewing it as a "principle of rational prudence applied to an aggregative conception of the welfare of the group". This way of seeing "classical utilitarianism" is of a piece with Sidgwick's suggestion that the three methods of ethics are intuitionistic common sense, utilitarianism and egoism. It is a contention of Sidgwick's that egoism is a central ethical doctrine and, indeed, one that stands in a tension with universalistic notions of ethics (such as is given in the principle of utility) that is difficult to satisfactorily resolve. So seriously did Sidgwick take egoism that he did indeed wish to show that utilitarianism is a doctrine that can accommodate it and still retain its universalistic formulation.

So, in thinking of the principle of utility in terms of rational prudence Rawls follows Sidgwick pretty closely though it is not, perhaps, obvious that other utilitarians (such as Mill) would have been so sympathetic to the appeal to egoism. After presenting "classical utilitarianism" in this way Rawls goes on to discuss the contrast between the right and the good that I gave attention to in a posting some time ago. Here Rawls argues that the structure of ethical theories can be seen in two distinct ways depending on how one views the relationship between the "right" and the "good". What Rawls terms the "simplest" way is adopted by theories he views as "teleological". In such theories the good is defined independently from the right which ensures that the good is given a specific content and after this has been done the right is subsequently defined simply as that "which maximizes the good".

Note that the way Rawls has defined this "teleological" approach is not merely through two steps but that the second step gives its definition of the "right" purely through a maximizing procedure. In giving this account of "teleological" theories Rawls is open that he is repeating the view of them given by Frankena, a view that is not entirely convergent with that of C.D. Broad and diverges considerably from the schema of ethical theories given by Sidgwick. In understanding "teleological" approaches to ethics in the way he does Rawls effectively conflates them with consequentialism, a conflation I have questioned elsewhere.

For the sake of this posting I won't reopen the difficulty of sustaining this conflation of teleology with consequentialism but simply assume that Rawls' procedure here is alright. The point he makes concerning this kind of "teleological" approach is that it embodies a particular kind of conception of rationality. In this conception, however, are built again some specifically Sidgwickian notions such as the conception that the "good" indicates something picked out intuitively by "common sense morality" and that the step towards universalisation occurs by means of the aggregative approach of maximisation. Different "teleological" theories adopt different standards in relation to the intuitive view of the good on which they rely which is the basis of Rawls' very sketchy and brief discussions of perfectionism. 

Now the important move in Rawls' response to "classical utilitarianism" is the claim that it does not matter on this view how the sum of satisfactions "is distributed among individuals" any more than it matters for it how any particular individual distributes their satisfactions over time. This again, is a specific view of Sidgwick although naturally there are many echoes of this claim amongst later utilitarians (such as Parfit). The point of making this aspect of the utilitarian approach so prominent is to suggest that it naturally works by adopting for society as a whole the "principle of rational choice for one man". Given that Rawls earlier defined the "original position" in terms of a choice problem and that he also indicated the importance of rational choice in doing so it is not the emphasis on rational choice that he can be about to object to. And nor does he do so. It is rather the attenuation of its claim in terms of its being understood through the prism of single individuals extended to the social whole so that there is no special basis either for social principles that are distinct from those that might apply to individuals on the one hand or any specific attention to distinct claims of individuals on the other. As Rawls powerfully puts it: "separate individuals are thought of as so many different lines along which rights and duties are to be assigned and scare means of satisfaction allocated in accordance with rules so as to give the greatest fulfilment of wants".

All decisions thus become understood in terms of efficiency of outcome with the result that no theory of justice is plausible in these terms. But the root of the point is that utilitarianism, thus conceived, "does not take seriously the distinction between persons". As will be discussed in subsequent postings, there are some interesting replies from utilitarians to this attack. Further, there is a lot more to be said about the pervasive nature of Rawls' engagement with utilitarianism but for the purposes of this posting the key point is that the entire construction of Rawls' attack is based very largely on viewing the utilitarian doctrine through the prism of Sidgwick's attempted synthesis between the principle of utility and the egoist principle. A utilitarian who rejected this conception of Sidgwick's might well feel that the characterisation of their doctrine was far from being accurate and since Rawls disclaims here any attempt to deal with the intricacies of utilitarianism in favour of presenting a kind of ideal type of it the key point is whether this "ideal type" is one that best represents the aims of the theory. This question will be part of what will have to be assessed in looking further at Rawls' conception of utilitarianism and utilitarian conceptions of Rawls.


Anonymous said...

thanks for the help with my paper

Gary Banham said...

No problem: glad it helped!