Liberal minded thinkers are unbelievably enthusiastic about John Rawls. His acid test for deciding what is just and fair, the concept of the veil of ignorance, is a superb analytical device. Those about to enter the world, not knowing where they will end up, choose the type of society in which they will want to live.

But Rawls is very critical of utilitarianism social theory on almost every page.

To a utilitarian, especially a classic utilitarian, Rawls’ condemnations create a major problem. It was a utilitarian, Jeremy Bentham, who gave us “each counts for one and none for more than one” (quoted in Mill, 1875, Ch. 5 para. 94) on which Rawls bases his theories, and John Stuart Mill, who gave us the overriding dictates against harm in his Utilitarianism : “The moral rules which forbid mankind to hurt one another (in which we must never forget to include wrongful interference with each other’s freedom) are more vital to human well-being than any maxims, however important, which only point out the best mode of managing some department of human affairs.” (Ch. 5, para. 31). And “A person may possibly not need the benefits of others; but he always needs that they should not do him hurt.” (Ch.5, para. 31).

These are guidelines that still provide the dominant rule for ethical behaviour (Bowden 2012). But Mill, a utilitarian, also gave us basic rules for a liberal society (On Liberty, 1859). His The Subjection of Women (1869) was a call, well ahead of its time, for the enfranchisement and equal access to education for women. As the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy states: In thought especially but also in action, Mill made of the world a better place.

Rawls is not the only one who criticizes utilitarianism. Bernard Williams (1973) criticizes it for the greatest good concept – that it does not consider the welfare of minorities. The example that Williams uses is that utilitarianism requires us to sacrifice the life of one person to save the lives of many. Mill’s assertion that not harming others is more vital to human well-being than any other maximum, however, readily defeats Williams’ assertion.

A more recent set of criticisms is in Will Kymlicka’s Contemporary Political Philosophy (2002). Kymlicka’s criticisms of utilitarianism concentrate on the preference components. The originator of this version of utilitarianism was Peter Singer (1979), basing his work on RM Hare. Kymlicka puts up a series of illegal or unethical preferences, none of which were put forward by Singer, which he then attacks. Singer, who also uses the alternative word “interests” in place of personal preferences, describes his version of preference utilitarianism as “tentative” and that “it does not go as far as the arguments (in Hare)” (p.222).

Kymlicka also provides an unsourced definition of utilitarianism which states that utility gives equal weight to each person’s utility (p.12). He then makes close to a dozen negative statements on supposedly utilitarian practices, again without references. Extreme examples are “ …utilitarianism …does imply that torturing a child is less evil if the torturer shares his pleasure” ( p.29); “utilitarianism might justify… depriving disliked people of their liberty;” or “utilitarianism … allows some people to be treated as less than equals, as means to other people’s ends” (p.34). In all these cases Kymlicka provides his own versions and interpretations of utilitarianism, rather than referring to what major utilitarian philosophers actually say.

The essence of the conflict in liberal thinking, and in deciding how one might reach a conclusion, must lie therefore in assessing the validity of Rawls’ criticisms. Examining Rawls’ prescriptions is a difficult task, for they do not translate easily in practice.

A 1967 Rawls’ article attacks utility as irrational as a philosophical doctrine (p.259). He claims that utility asserts that “the welfare of many overrides the loss of freedom for some.”

“Utility is incapable of explaining the fact that the liberties of equal citizenship are taken for granted” (p. 260). Rawls claims that the most natural rival to utility is the theory of social contract. He introduces the “veil of ignorance” (although not explaining it as thoroughly as in his 1971 book) as a device which “prevents anyone being advantaged or disadvantaged by the contingencies of social class or fortune” (p. 260).

Rawls attempts to answer in his paper “whether it is possible to arrange the institutions of a constitutional democracy so that the two principles of justice are satisfied, at least approximately” (p.264). Rawls’ two principles of justice are first that each person is “to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with similar liberty for others”. The second, the difference principle, is that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage and (b) attached to positions and offices open to all” (p.60). The first is simply arguing equal rights and freedoms for all and is not an issue. In fact it echoes Bentham’s original prescription of equality for all. The second is that social and economic inequalities (e.g. of wealth and authority) are just if they result in compensating benefits, in particular to the less advantaged. Rawls, however, includes natural inequalities, such as family of birth, intelligence, personal energy, learning capabilities, etc.

This is an important issue, for one of the obvious difficulties arising from Rawls’ difference principle is the question of how it can be implemented. To achieve this objective, Rawls divides the institutions of government into four branches – the allocation branch (to keep the economy feasibly competitive); the stabilisation branch (to maintain full employment); the transfer branch (to assign weights to common sense precepts of justice) and the distribution branch which preserves just distributions of income and wealth. It operates a system of inheritance and gift taxes (p.266). His organisation of government is rather worrying, even reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1984. Research has found, for instance, that tall people earn more money than short people (Cohen 2009). Presumably an implementation of Rawls’ prescriptions would be to provide income support to shorter people, or possibly providing them with subsidised high heel boots.

Rawls eased these rather disturbing prescriptions in his 1971 book. But he does place the responsibility to bring about his ideal system of justice onto government in some form. He writes: “society shall”; “society should try to avoid”; “we need to”; “set up a just system of institutions;” “set up the social system so that.” (Rawls, 1971, pp.78-102). It is needless to point out that there are many people in our societies that would regard the implementation of Rawls prescriptions as a major infringement on their own liberties.

Rawls’ prescriptions also assume that their application takes place in one country. It is difficult to identify a way in which his theories can be implemented across national borders. Rawls in fact rejects the need to apply his prescriptions globally. So the well-to-do in the developed countries who buy a replacement organ from a poor person in India selling his kidney to feed the family are apparently not infringing Rawls’ theories. The world’s populations that live on less than $10 a day receive no help from Rawls.

One final examination is whether utility, and particularly the classic version, sets out as convincing a need for justice as does John Rawls. The answer is “almost”. For Mill: Justice is a name for certain moral requirements, which, regarded collectively, stand higher in the scale of social utility, and are therefore of more paramount obligation, than any others.”(Ch. 5, para. 39).

Paraphrasing, Mill gives five versions of justice:

Firstly, it is unjust to deprive any one of his personal liberty, his property, (etc.) which belongs to him.

Secondly, the legal rights of which he is deprived, may be rights which ought not to have belonged to him. Opinions will differ as to the justice or injustice of infringing these.

Fourthly, it is unjust to break faith with any one to violate an engagement.

Fifthly, it is inconsistent with justice to be partial; to show favour or preference to one person over another.

It is possibly this fifth version in which Mill reaches closest to John Rawls. But he does not reach to the same heights. Mill however, argues that justice is based on utility. The obligation not to harm others extends to redressing the harm suffered by others. It is a version of the Golden Rule, as Mill claims for utilitarianism.

Happiness or “care for others” is “the ethical standard” (Mill, Ch.3, para. 10). Liberal democratic societies have followed this dictate for many years. The National Disability Insurance Scheme in Australia or ObamaCare- the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in the US-are recent examples. Effective governments will apply rigorous evaluation techniques to such programs, changing them where necessary. Ineffective governments will just argue and assert. This history is sufficient to convince this writer that Rawls has reached high, but still has no answer for John Stuart Mill.