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Can the Maximin Principle Serve as a Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls's Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 August 2014

John C. Harsanyi*
University of California, Berkeley


It is argued that Rawls does not offer a viable alternative to utilitarian morality. It is shown that the maximin principle would lead to absurd decisions. Thus, it is unfortunate that Rawls bases his theory on the assumption that the maximin principle would serve as decision rule in the original position. The present writer has shown (prior to Rawls's first paper on this subject) that we can obtain a highly satisfactory theory of morality, one in the utilitarian tradition, if we assume that in the original position expected-utility maximization would be used as a decision rule. Rawls's theory is unacceptable because it would force us to discriminate against the legitimate human needs of all individuals enjoying good fortune in any way— whether by being relatively well-to-do, or by being in reasonably good health, or by having good intellectual ability or artistic talent, etc.

Book Reviews and Essays
Copyright © American Political Science Association 1975

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1 Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

2 See Wald, Abraham, Statistical Decision Functions (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1950)Google Scholar; Hur-wicz, Leonid, “Optimality Criteria for Decision Making Under Ignorance,” Cowles Commission Discussion Paper, Statistics #370 (1951, mimeographed)Google Scholar; and Savage, Leonard J., “The Theory of Statistical Decision.Journal of the American Statistical Association, 46 (03, 1951), 5567CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3 See Radner, Roy and Marschak, Jacob, “Note on Some Proposed Decision Criteria,” in Thrall, R. M., Coombs, C. H., and Davis, R. L., eds., Decision Processes (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1954), pp. 6168Google Scholar.

4 See, e.g., Savage, Leonard J., The Foundations of Statistics (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1954)Google Scholar.

5 See Harsanyi, John C., “Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-Taking,” Journal of Political Economy, 61 (10, 1953), 434435CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility,” Journal of Political Economy, 63 (08, 1955), 309321CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6 Rawls, John, “Justice as Fairness,” Journal of Philosophy, 54 (10, 1957), 653662CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Justice as Fairness,” Philosophical Review, 67 (04, 1958), 164194CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The 1957 paper is a shorter version of the 1958 paper with the same title.

7 In cases where a more specific principle is necessary, Rawls favors the lexicographical difference principle: In comparing two possible societies, first compare them from the point of view of the worst-off individual. If they turn out to be equally good from his point of view, then compare them from the point of view of the second-worst-off individual. If this still does not break the tie, then compare them from the point of view of the third-worst-off individual, etc.

8 This argument of course presupposes the possibility of interpersonal utility comparisons, at least in a rough and ready sense. I shall discuss the possibility of such comparisons in Section 8 on page 600.

9 Harsanyi, “Cardinal Utility …,” and Harsanyi, “Cardinal Welfare. …”

10 My equiprobability assumption obviously can be regarded as an application of the principle of indifference. But it also has another possible interpretation. It may be regarded as an expression of the purely moral principle that, in making basic moral value judgments, we must give the same a priori weight to the interests of all members of the society.

11 Following Carnap, by logical probabilities I mean subjective probabilities completely determined by symmetry considerations (if appropriate symmetry postu-lates are added to the standard rationality postulates of Bayesian theory).

12 See footnote 4.

13 As defined by von Neumann, John and Morgenstern, Oskar, Theory of Games and Economic Behavior, 2nd ed. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), pp. 1531Google Scholar.

14 Harsanyi, “Cardinal Welfare. …”

15 This statement would admittedly require appropriate qualifications if the psychological laws governing people's utility functions were found to be probabilistic, rather than deterministic. But this would not affect the basic validity of my analysis, though it would necessitate its restatement in a more complicated form.

16 For a more detailed discussion of the epistemo-logical problems connected with interpersonal utility comparisons, see my 1955 paper cited in footnote 5.

17 Ramsey, Frank P., “A Mathematical Theory of Saving,” Economic Journal, 38 (12, 1928), 543559CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

18 Downs, Anthony, An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957)Google Scholar.

19 Rawls, John, “Some Reasons for the Maximin Criterion,” American Economic Review, 64, Papers & Proc. (05, 1974), 141146Google Scholar.

20 Arrow, Kenneth J., “Some Ordinalist-Utilitarian Notes on Rawls's Theory of Justice,” The Journal of Philosophy, 70 (05 10, 1973), 255Google Scholar.

21 Arrow, p. 259.

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