Economics and Philosophy

Essays

Economic Equality: Rawls versus Utilitarianism

Stephen W. Balla1

a1 California Polytechnic State University

Perhaps the most salient feature of Rawls's theory of justice (Rawls, 1971) which at once attracts supporters and repels critics is its apparent egalitarian conclusion as to how economic goods are to be distributed. Indeed, many of Rawls's sympathizers may find this result intuitively appealing, and regard it as Rawls's enduring contribution to the topic of economic justice, despite technical deficiencies in Rawls's contractarian, decision-theoretic argument for it (see, e.g., Nagel, 1973, p. 234) which occupy the bulk of the critical literature. Rawls himself, having proposed a “coherence” theory of justification in metaethics, must regard the claim that his distributive criterion “is a strongly egalitarian conception” (Rawls, 1971, p. 76) as independently a part of the overarching moral argument. The alleged egalitarian impact of Rawls's theory is crucial again in normative ethics where Rawls is thought to have developed a major counter-theory to utilitarianism (cf. Braybrooke, 1975, p. 304), one of the most popular criticisms of which has been its alleged inadequacy in handling questions of distributive justice. Utilitarians can argue, however, as Brandt recently has, that the diminishing marginal utility of money, along with ignorance of income-welfare curves, would require a utility-maximizing distribution to be substantially egalitarian (Brandt, 1979, pp. 311f., 315f.; cf. Brandt, 1983, p. 102f.). The challenge is therefore for Rawls to show that his theory yields an ethically preferable degree of equality.