Rawls argues that we would choose option 10: the democratic conception.
Options 1–3 are incoherent. Because you can only have one dictator we would
never agree to dictatorship. Option 2 contradicts the strains of commitment, and
3 is unstable. Options 4–7 represent utilitarianism. Utilitarians hold that what we
ought to do is maximise the overall levelof well-being (or ‘utility’). They are not
concerned with the distributionof utility (although options 5 and 7 do give some
weight to individuals – they create a ‘floor’ below which nobody should fall).
Classical utilitarianism measures the level of welfare without reference to the number
of utility-generating beings (we say ‘beings’ because non-human animals might
generate utility), whereas average utilitarianism divides the level of welfare by the
number of utility-generating beings. Compare the following two situations:
(a) 2,000 units of welfare divided by 500 beings;
(b) 1,000 units of welfare divided by 20 beings.
For a classical utilitarian (a) is superior to (b), whereas for an average utilitarian
(b) is superior to (a): 50 units versus 4 units. Perfectionists (option 8) hold that
there are certain ways of life worthy of pursuit and the state should aim to bring
these ways of life about (‘to perfect’ means to complete, or bring to fruition). This
argument does not have great significance for the distribution of income, but it
certainly affects what amount of freedom we should have. Rawls argues that because
we are denied knowledge of our particular conceptions of the good we would not
opt for perfectionism; we would not, for example, choose to give a particular
religion special status. Intuitionism (option 9) entails ‘resolving’ conflicts of values
and interests on an ad hoc, case-by-case basis – we have no method for resolving
them. The aim of Rawls’s theory is to provide just such a method.
The democratic conception: the two principles of justice
Rawls argues that agents in the original position would choose the democratic
conception. He distinguishes between a special and a general conception, which are
versions of the democratic conception. The general conception is: ‘all social primary
goods... are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all
of these goods is to the advantage of the least favoured’ (Rawls, 1972: 303). Rawls
hopes that he can persuade the reader that the general conception would be endorsed
even if the special conception, as one version of it, is rejected. The special conception
consists of the two principles of justice. As Rawls’s original presentation of the two
principles was slightly confusing, we will use, in abbreviated form, his revised
version from Justice as Fairness: A Restatement(Rawls, 2001: 42–3):
- Equal liberty: each person is guaranteed a set of basic liberties.
2a.Equal opportunity: there must be equal access to jobs and services under fair
equality of opportunity.
2b.Difference principle: inequalities are only justified if they benefit the least
advantaged members of society.
(In addition to the two principles – 1 and 2a/2b – there is also the just savings
principle, which is intended to determine how much should be saved for future
82 Part 1 Classical ideas