Rawls [2], “Two Concepts of Rules,” (1955)

In this essay Rawls introduces a distinction between justifying a practice and justifying particular actions within a practice.  The distinction is important, for it shows how utilitarians might rebut the common criticism that they are committed to endorsing acts like punishing the innocent and breaking promises when doing so will maximize the good.  The main idea is that utilitarianism offers a justification of practices, and particular actions are justified not by appealing to utility but rather by appealing to the rules of the practice.  So there is a utilitarian justification for having a ‘punishment practice’ in which only the guilty are punished, and, indeed, for having a punishment practice in which utilitarian considerations do not enter into decisions about who should be punished.  Similarly, there is a utilitarian justification for having a ‘promising practice’ in which the obligation to keep one’s promises is not dependent on considerations of the utility of keeping one’s promises.  Utilitarianism has seemed so implausible to many because they have mistakenly construed it as a justification of actions and not practices.

At first glance Rawls’s position might seem like a version of rule-utilitarianism, but it is importantly different from this view and, I think, intuitively more plausible.  The rule-utilitarian suggests we should perform those actions which, as a rule, maximize utility, and as a rule (in general) punishing the guilty and keeping one’s promises maximize utility.  This view has always been open to the charge of irrelevance–why should we perform an action we know is sub-optimal just because it is usually better to perform that action than not?  Rawls’s way of defending utilitarianism avoids this objection, albeit by making utilitarianism a less comprehensive engine of justification.

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3 Responses to Rawls [2], “Two Concepts of Rules,” (1955)

  1. Josh says:

    David –

    This is definitely a nice project – probably also has the advantage of being much more doable and understandable to outisders than mine is.

    One essay I think you might miss with that book is “Social Unity and Primary Social Goods,” which I remember being really helpful to my understanding of the Rawlsian “apparatus” (even it is a rather unwieldy one, with many rather ineloquent abstract noun phrases such as “the basic structure as subject” or “the political conception of the person” and so on and so forth).

    Keep the updates coming,

  2. David says:

    Thanks, Josh. “Social Unity and Primary Goods” is included in Rawls’s Collected Papers. It was published in 1982, which means I should get to it sometime in July!

  3. Lime says:

    It has been years since I read Two Concepts of Rules, though I see it cited fairly regularly. Of course, Rawls ultimately rejects utilitarianism as “failing to recognize the seperateness of persons.” I am always struck when I go back to TJ (1) how prominent Sidgwick is in his thought and (2) just how dedicated Rawls is to address and even praise his utilitarian interlocutors. One explanation for this focus is that at time Anglophone moral philosophy was an either/or between utilitarianism and intuitionism. Just as important, probably, is that like utilitarian economists, Rawls clearly views justice in a holistic manner, focusing on the likely results of changes to social institutions. They are playing the same game, as it were, in a way that both libertarians and communitarians regard as fundamentally flawed. Fortunately, Rawls moves on to them next…

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