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Rawls and Bentham

May 19th, 2003

Rereading what I said earlier about Rawls and utilitarianism, I think it needs a correction. Rawls really is proposing something different in its approach from classical utilitarianism. In particular, his approach focuses attention on the idea that we might want to pay attention to things like the relative position of different individuals in society rather than simply aggregating utilities across individuals. The most popular way of making this operational has been with social welfare weights that depend on an individual’s rank-order according to some welfare measure. I’m very attracted to this idea, partly because it’s analogous to an idea I developed in the theory of choice under uncertainty called rank-dependent (expected) utility.

Confusion arises with Rawls’ treatment because the maximally risk-averse (or inequality-averse) form of rank-dependence is maximin, just ‘as it is for expected utility. There’s a nice paper on this by Udo Ebert ‘Rawls and Bentham reconciled? in Theory and Decision 24, 215?223.

The other issue is whether you view rank-dependent models of this kind as being alternatives to utilitarianism or generalisations/variants. In the theory of choice under uncertainty, some people (including me) like to talk about generalised expected utility theory while others talk about non-expected utility theory.

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  1. May 19th, 2003 at 12:58 | #1

    Rawls cannot be rationalised as a utilitarian – he is a Kantian which entails recongnising the seperateness of persons, an inviolable personal sphere and treating persons as ends in themesleves rather than means to an end.

    I suggest
    – Kantian-Rawls in the personal sphere
    – Machiavelli-Bentham in the political sphere

    The personal sphere requires micro knowledge and is more subjective (choice of spouse) than the political sphere, hence Kantian contractarianism makes sense here.

    The political sphere requires macro knowledge and is more objective than the personal sphere (choice of allies), hence Machiavellian utilitarianism rules.

    The major dispute bw the two schools is now in the of international politics, a domain of anarchy where norms are not universal, rules are mutable and there is no generally recognised Leviathan to act as executive.

    Utilitarians are necessarily machiavellian in the political sphere – individual persons can be treated as means to collective ends. This follows from the coercive nature of political action, where Peter is necessarily robbed to pay Paul. (politics here includes the general sphere of social distribution – thus modern management remuneration commmittees are political: they rob workers and share holders to pay bosses)

    There are few things a machiavellian utilitarian will not do, principally because the era of totalitarian genocide and fundamentalist appocalypse was not anticapated by Kant and requires emulation of enemy tactics to prevail.

    Thus units of a withdrawing army may be sacrificed as rear guards, social classes may be partially expropriated, messianic sects may be banned, spies & traitors may be assasinated, cities may be bombed from the air
    - all these crimes can, and are, carried out under the rubric of machiavellian utilitarianism.

    There are some things a Kantian will just not do. Rawls, a veteran of Okinawa, sought a Kantian solution to these deformations in “The Law of Nations”. However, his attempt has failed, as 911/WMDs has made security of the state an issue of social survival.

    If you can’t stand the machiavellian heat, don’t go into the utilitarian kitchen.

  2. cs
    May 21st, 2003 at 09:55 | #2

    Well Jack, that seems to have cleared the room!

    What about reading the earlier exchanges before weighing in next time.

  3. cs
    May 22nd, 2003 at 00:42 | #3

    I notice Prospect has picked up a similar theme: “Kant and Mill in Baghdad”, by John B. Judis.

  4. cs
    May 22nd, 2003 at 23:12 | #4

    I see that Martha Nussbaum has also had a fresh pick here.

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