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

  • John C. Harsanyi (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 August 2014

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.

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Leonard J. Savage , “The Theory of Statistical Decision.Journal of the American Statistical Association, 46 (03, 1951), 5567

John C. Harsanyi , “Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-Taking,” Journal of Political Economy, 61 (10, 1953), 434435

Cardinal Welfare, Individualistic Ethics, and Interpersonal Comparisons of Utility,” Journal of Political Economy, 63 (08, 1955), 309321

John Rawls , “Justice as Fairness,” Journal of Philosophy, 54 (10, 1957), 653662

Justice as Fairness,” Philosophical Review, 67 (04, 1958), 164194

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

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

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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
  • URL: /core/journals/american-political-science-review
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