John Rawls: Two Concepts of Rules

1. Introduction

Citation Information

Allan, Leslie 2020. John Rawls: Two Concepts of Rules, URL = <>.

Publication Information

Rawls, J., Two Concepts of Rules, Philosophical Review 1955 64/1: 3–32.

John Rawls: moral and political philosopher in 1971

Professor John Rawls

John Rawls was a leading moral and political philosopher in the latter part of the twentieth century. Before his death in 2002, he left behind key writings that remain highly influential to this day, including his major work, A Theory of Justice. An early essay of Rawls that had a profound impact on my own thinking about ethics is his 1955 piece, 'Two Concepts of Rules'. In this essay, Rawls demonstrates how utilitarianism can be defended from some debilitating objections. Rawls, himself, did not subscribe to utilitarianism, being a leading proponent of social contractualism.

First, what exactly is 'utilitarianism', the moral theory that Rawls is trying to defend against objectors in this essay? Utilitarianism is one of a type of theories labeled 'consequentialism'. Perhaps the best way to understand consequentialism is by seeing how it is contrasted with opposing deontological theories. This class of opposing theories considers the moral rightness or wrongness of an action or rule as being dependent on not just the consequences of the action or rule. Unlike these duty-based theories, consequentialist theories consider the consequences of the act or rule being evaluated as the sole determinant of its moral rightness or wrongness.

Book cover: A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Utilitarianism is a particular kind of consequentialist theory. Its distinguishing feature is that it regards only one kind of consequence as being intrinsically valuable. This could be 'well-being', 'happiness', 'pleasure' or 'preference satisfaction', depending on the variant of utilitarianism. Rawls's essay focuses our attention on another aspect of utilitarian thinking. And that is whether, when we evaluate rightness and wrongness, we ought primarily to consider the consequences of individual actions or of practices and rules. The former kind of utilitarianism is known as 'act utilitarianism' (or 'direct utilitarianism'), while the latter kind is termed 'rule utilitarianism' (or 'indirect utilitarianism').

Now, act utilitarians do value the efficacy of rules as general guides to action. However, for act utilitarians, this use is secondary. Where all of the consequences of a particular action can be determined infallibly, then the consequences of the individual act must hold primacy, with any general rule being amended to take account of exact circumstances. However, as Rawls shows, this way of conceiving of rules does not avoid all of the woes of the act utilitarian.

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