Utilitarianism v Rawlsian Principles of Justice

Laura E Fox
7 min readAug 31, 2023

Contemporary political theorists view justice as a virtue in society that upholds principles of fairness by maintaining the balance between distribution and benefits. Where truth is the first virtue of systems of thought, justice is the first virtue of societal institutions. When justice is woven into the structure of society, obligations arise to overcome societal injustices that would otherwise result in an unfair distribution of societal benefits like economic, political and class powers — it is a societal commitment to a shared agreement of justice principles. However, while justice operates as the principle of fairness, questions arise on which system is best utilised to achieve a just and fair society. Two main theories attempt to understand, define and apply the principle of justice to society: Bentham’s Utilitarianism and Rawlsian Principles of Justice. Both offer conceptions of justice and have different societal implications. This essay will discuss both theories and demonstrate their historical and contemporary application to policies affecting Indigenous Australians.

I. A Comparison: Utilitarianism and Rawlsian Principles in Indigenous Australian Policies

Utilitarianism, while focused on achieving the maximum good, has the potential to infringe upon the rights of others in pursuit of the greater good. Meanwhile, Rawlsian principles prioritise preserving rights through the Equal Basic Liberties Principle and mending pre-existing social inequalities through the Difference Principle. Where Rawls acknowledges the importance of protecting rights through societal policies, Utilitarianism allows for rights to be transactional — where rights or goods can be traded in exchange for the greater benefit of the most. This comparison of doctrines can be demonstrated by considering the case of forced cultural assimilation (the slow genocide) of Indigenous Australians in the name of colonisation.

A. Utilitarianism as a rationalisation for harmful policies

The forced removal of Indigenous children from Indigenous families to white missionaries from the 1910s-1970s was rationalised by arguing that where ‘pure blood’ Indigenous people would eventually die out, ‘mixed blood’ children would assimilate into settler society, therefore it was for the longer-term greater benefit of both the white and ‘mixed blood’ population for Indigenous children to be indoctrinated into white culture. The goal was to ‘breed out’ the Indigenous population in Australia and create a more harmonious society that aligned with the majority white community. Classical Utilitarianism would suggest that the morally right action in this situation was the one taken in pursuit of the ‘greater good’, which at the time — was the good for the dominant and more populous white colonies. The obvious problem here is the inadequate balancing of the harm caused to Indigenous Australians. And yet, while Utilitarianism does consider the impact it has on individuals by taking into account Mill’s Harm Principle, which aims at avoiding the wrongful setback of individual interests, it nonetheless still considers each person as a distinct source of value, with equal weight given to each individual. This ‘equality across all’ ideal is problematic as it falls short of considering pre-existing social inequalities. In essence, while Utilitarianism can be rationalised to justify policies that do adequately balance the rights of others — and is one that is based on achieving egalitarian values, it is nonetheless still a theory that can and has been used to justify harmful policies to marginalised groups as it has failed to take into account historical distributional injustices experienced to individuals.

B. Rawlsian principles in contemporary Indigenous discourse

Moving forward, we can observe Rawlsian principles in current policies that address economic, political and societal inequalities for Indigenous Australians. Specifically, Rawls’ Difference Principle addresses such disparities and advocates for a commitment to reducing societal imbalances by offsetting the disadvantage experienced by the more marginalised by introducing distributional inequalities to the more privileged members of society. Rawlsian principles can be observed in state actions aimed at rectifying the harm caused by colonial actions. We see this in nationwide strategies like ‘Closing the Gap’, which aim to increase access to health and community services for Indigenous Australians and create opportunities for education and employment through scholarships and affirmative recruitment policies. Rawlsian principles are at the heart, founded in concepts of liberty and justice and acknowledge that the greatest good can only be achieved once inequalities in society, such as the inequalities experienced by Indigenous Australians, have been adequately addressed. By acknowledging the economic and societal difficulties experienced by marginalised groups and attempting to remedy them, a commitment to justice is made.

II. Utilitarian Society: Core Tenets and Implications

Classical Utilitarianism is a theory that emphasises quantity over quality and is based on consequentialism, where decisions and actions are assessed on the value of the consequences — where the objective is to generate the greatest level of good for the greatest number of people. In Utilitarianism, the idea of justice is equated with bringing about the most good and — where actions are morally right if they result in the most good and where good is measured as pleasure or pain. There are four central tenets of Utilitarianism:

1. Consequentialism, where one ought to promote the overall well-being of themselves and others;

2. Welfarism, which seeks to determine outcomes based on the well-being of the individuals;

3. Impartiality, which considers that the quantity of well-being is equally valuable, regardless of whose well-being it is; and

4. Aggregationism, which is the view that the value of an outcome is given by the total of good it produces.

There are a number of variations of Utilitarianism that attempt to balance all four elements:

1. Act Utilitarianism: which is founded in direct consequentialism and is concerned with evaluating actions based on their immediate consequences, to bring about the most good in specific situations.

2. Rule Utilitarianism: which suggests that moral principles and rules ought to be established based on their overall utility, and is founded in indirect consequentialism.

3. Preference/Welfare Utilitarianism: which is centred around individual preferences and aims to achieve maximum happiness by taking into consideration the preferences of individuals, and is based on welfarism.

Other variations on Utilitarianism are based on calculating various aspects of pain and pleasure, ethics and morals. For example, Hedonistic Utilitarianism focuses on avoiding pain as the main objective, which considers the intensity and duration of pleasure and pain. While Two Level Utilitarianism combines both Act and Rule utilitarianism and suggests that moral rules generally result in maximum utility.

Each variation considers the complexities and challenges of weighing happiness and suffering in a societal context. However, implementing policies that uphold principles of justice requires an unwavering commitment to protecting the fundamental rights of marginalised groups. While Utilitarianism considers individual interests, it nonetheless still considers rights as being subject to a balancing act, as opposed to rights that ought to be absolute.

III. Rawlsian Principles: Original Position and Justice Concepts

Rawls presents us with the ‘veil of ignorance’, a thought experiment that encourages individuals to imagine themselves as public policy decision-makers with no notion of their own status or privileges in society. The ‘veil of ignorance’ is designed to promote impartiality by removing biases and self-serving interests by re-setting society back to an ‘original position’ — a space that exists prior to the creation of society. It has been found that when decisions are made behind the veil, decision-makers are not only centred on principles of equity and fairness but are more likely to stand by their decisions even after learning their assigned role in society. In this, there is a societal commitment to uphold principles where everyone has equal access to a fundamental rights and opportunities — essentially, the fundamental right to liberty. Rawls defines this goal in his two principles of justice framework:

1. Each person has the same indefeasible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties; and

2. Social and economic inequalities are to satisfy two conditions:

a. They are attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity; and

b. They are to be to the greatest benefit of the least-advantaged members of society.

In essence, Rawlsian principles highlight and uphold the value of fairness and equality in society and are designed to address social injustices and inequalities resulting from the mere lottery of birth.

IV. A Small Critique

While Rawls presents a framework for policies that begin to remedy disparities experienced by Indigenous Australians, there is an argument to be made that it falls short in addressing the historical injustices that have created generational harm. Nozick’s theory of Distributive Justice complements Rawls principles by recognising that historical wrongs should play a fundamental part in crafting policies that provide adequately measurable remedies to the harms inflicted.

V. Conclusion

When we examine how Utilitarian rationalisation has been applied to past policies of colonial Australia and compare it to current policies that uphold Rawlsian principles that aim to address existing social inequalities, it becomes evident that a society that incorporates Rawlsian principles into its foundation is significantly more just.

References

Consequentialism’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2003).

Katherine Smits, John Stuart Mill on the Antipodes: Settler Violence against Indigenous Peoples and the Legitimacy of Colonial Rule’ (2008) 54(1) Australian Journal of Politics and History 1–15

John Rawls, I. Justice as fairness (1957) 54(22) Journal of Philosophy 653–662

John Rawls, ‘The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice’ in Peter Singer (ed), Ethics (Oxford University Press, 1994) 362–367

John Rawls’, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2008)

Robert Goodin, Utilitarianism as a Public Philosophy (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995)

Robert van Krieken, The barbarism of civilization: cultural genocide and the ‘stolen generations’ (2003) 50(2) The British Journal of Sociology 297–315

Robert Nozick, Distributive justice (1973) 3(1) Philosophy and Public Affairs 45–126

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Laura E Fox

LLB (Hons) and BA (Gender Studies and Philosophy) student at the Australian National University. A collection of academic essays.