John Rawls is widely recognized as one of the most important critics of utilitarianism. In some respects he is; utilitarianism per se became much less popular in analytic philosophical circles after the publication of Rawls’s work. Yet in another respect, Rawls’s work is fundamentally a continuation of the utilitarian project – softening John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism in something very much like the way that Mill had softened Bentham’s.
Bentham’s philosophy is undisputedly utilitarian to the core: all that matters is the greatest pleasure of the greatest number. Mill recognizes that such a philosophy entails some seemingly unpalatable logical consequences: frivolous entertainments like push-pin (we have far more examples available to us now than Mill did in his time) are valued as much as great poetry. And so Mill winds up introducing a distinction of quality between “higher” and “lower” pleasures, a criterion which can’t really be derived from the principle of greatest pleasure for the greatest number. That is to say that in order to soften the disturbing consequences of a fully utilitarian view, Mill introduces non-utilitarian criteria into utilitarianism without realizing it. Few would dispute that Mill remains basically a utilitarian – just a watered-down utilitarian.
My contention here is that the same thing applies to Rawls. Mill is aware that he remains basically utilitarian, but is unaware of the non-utilitarian nature criteria he adds to Bentham. Rawls, by contrast, is fully aware that he’s adding non-utilitarian criteria to Mill, but is unaware that he remains basically utilitarian. The non-utilitarian addition, comparable to the higher/lower pleasures distinction, is the condition that a just society must always respect basic rights – that this is a perfect duty, in Kantian terms, one which cannot be overridden.
But that’s a relatively small part of what Rawls is up to. It’s just a boundary condition – a limit beyond which one’s actions cannot go. But where does one go within those limits? To the maximin principle, maximizing the well-being of the person worst off in society. But given utilitarian assumptions and an informed understanding of human psychology, that’s exactly what a utilitarian would do. Empirical studies of happiness typically indicate that an amount of money made by very poor people adds much more to their happiness than the same amount of money made by relatively wealthy people. An informed utilitarian, in practice, is going to want to raise the well-being of the worst off. And both Rawls and utilitarians think of well-being in primarily material terms, making sure that the worst off have more stuff. They also take the further step of trying to quantify this well-being, in terms that economists can measure; the economic graphs and charts that line A Theory of Justice are direct descendants of Bentham’s hedonic calculus – by way of the economic theory that Bentham influenced and Rawls replies to.
And that’s just the particular policy implications of the two modes of thought. There’s a much broader connection as well: for both, the most important element of ethics is political action. Rawls focuses single-mindedly on institutions; he tries to say as little as he possibly can about individuals’ “comprehensive conceptions of the good,” while still elaborating a detailed conception of a good government. Utilitarianism, by contrast, is a system that aims to expound both the individual good and the good for institutions – but the nature of that good is one that inherently privileges institutions over individuals. For institutions, in nearly all cases, can accomplish far more, create more total benefit, than individuals acting alone. If one must act to bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number, one will need to do it in political institutions. So Rawls and the utilitarians share both this overarching concern with politics and institutions, and a general conception of what it is those institutions should do. In these respects I think it’s quite fair to say that, just as Mill shared Bentham’s essential concerns while smoothing out his theory’s rough edges, so Rawls has smoothed out Mill while preserving the essentials of Mill’s utilitarianism.