The harsanyi-rawls debate

political philosophy as decision theory under uncertainty



Incerteza, Filosofia politica, Princípio da diferença, Utilitarismo


Social decisions are often made under great uncertainty - in situations where political principles, and even standard subjective expected utility, do not apply smoothly. In the first section, we argue that the core of this problem lies in decision theory itself - it is about how to act when we do not have an adequate representation of the context of the action and of its possible consequences. Thus, we distinguish two criteria to complement decision theory under ignorance - Laplace’s principle of insufficient reason and Wald’s maximin criterion. After that, we apply this analysis to political philosophy, by contrasting Harsanyi’s and Rawls’s theories of justice, respectively based on Laplace’s principle of insufficient reason and Wald’s maximin rule - and we end up highlighting the virtues of Rawls’s principle on practical grounds (it is intuitively attractive because of its computational simplicity, so providing a salient point for convergence) - and connect this argument to our moral intuitions and social norms requiring prudence in the case of decisions made for the sake of others.


Não há dados estatísticos.

Biografia do Autor

Ramiro Ávila Peres, Banco Central do Brasil

Doutor em Filosofia pela Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul. Analista do Departamento de Supervisão de Cooperativas e Instituições não Bancárias,  Banco Central do Brasil. Porto Alegre, RS. Brasil.



Adamou, A.; Peters, O. “Dynamics of inequality”. Significance, 13(3): 32-37, 2016. doi:10.1111/j.1740-9713.2016.00918.x

Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Translation: W. D. Ross. London: Oxford University Press, 1966.

Arrow, K.; Hurwicz, L. “Appendix: An optimality criterion for decision-making under ignorance”. In K. Arrow & L. Hurwicz (Eds.), Studies in Resource Allocation Processes, pp. 461-472. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511752940.015

Barros, G. “Herbert A. Simon and the concept of rationality: boundaries and procedures”. Brazilian Journal of Political Economy, 30(3), 455-472, 2010. doi:10.1590/S0101-31572010000300006

Binmore, K. G. Game theory: A very short introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Binmore, K. G. Natural Justice. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

Binmore, K. G. Rational Decisions. Princeton: Princeton University Press , 2009, 2009.

Binmore, K.; Stewart, L.; Voorhoeve, A. “How much ambiguity aversion? Finding indifferences between Ellsberg's risky and ambiguous bets”. Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, 45:215-238, 2012. doi:10.1007/s11166-012-9155-3

Bostrom, N. Superintelligence: Paths, dangers, strategies. London: Oxford University Press , 2014.

Buchak, L. “Taking Risks behind the Veil of Ignorance”. Ethics, 127(3), 610-644, 2017. doi:10.1086/690070

Bun, M.; Sarafidis, V.; Kelaher, R. “Crime, Deterrence and Punishment Revisited”. UvA-Econometrics Working Papers N. 16-02, Universiteit van Amsterdam, Dept. of Econometrics, 2016. Available at:

Cooke, R. “Conceptual fallacies in subjective probability”. Topoi 5 (1):21-27, 1986. doi: 10.1007/BF00137826

Dennett, D. C. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.

Dworkin, R. Sovereign Virtue: The Theory and Practice of Equality. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Dworkin, R. Justice for Hedgehogs. Cambridge, Massachussets: Belknap Press (Harvard University Press, 2011.

Ellsberg, D. "Risk, Ambiguity, and the Savage Axioms". Quarterly Journal of Economics, 75 (4): 643-669, 1961. doi:10.2307/1884324

Elster, J. Sour grapes: Studies in the subversion of rationality. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

Freeman, S. "Original Position" in Zalta, E. N. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available in: 2016.

Gaus, G, & Thrasher, J. “Rational choice and the original position: The (many) models of Rawls and Harsanyi”. In Hinton, T. (ed.) The Original Position (Classic Philosophical Arguments), pp. 39-58. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press , 2015. doi:10.1017/CBO9781107375321.003

Gauthier, D. Morals by Agreement. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987, 1987.

Gibbard, A. “Thinking How to Live with Each Other”. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, na Universidade da California, Berkeley, de 28 de fevereiro a 2 de março de 2006, 2007.

Gilboa, I, & Schmeidler, D. A Theory of Case-Based Decisions. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Gintis, H. The Bounds of Reason: Game Theory and the Unification of the Behavioral Sciences. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009.

Giocoli, N. “From Wald to Savage: Homo Economicus Becomes a Bayesian Statistician”. SSRN Electronic Journal, 2011.doi:10.2139/ssrn.1944218

Gray, J. "The Friedrich Hayek I knew, and what he got right - and wrong". Newstatesman online, July 31, 2015. Available in:

Greaves, H. “Cluelessness”. Proc Aristot Soc, 116(3): 311-339, 2016. doi:10.1093/arisoc/aow018

Harsanyi, J. C. "Cardinal Utility in Welfare Economics and in the Theory of Risk-Taking". Journal of Political Economy 61(5): 434-35, 1953.

Harsanyi, J. C. “Can the Maximin Principle Serve as the Basis for Morality? A Critique of John Rawls's Theory”. American Political Science Review 69: 594-606, 1975. Available at:

Harsanyi, J. C. “Does Reason Tell Us What Moral Code to Follow and, Indeed, to Follow Any Moral Code at All?”. Ethics , 96(1), 42-55, 1985. Available at:

Hayden, B. Y.; Platt, M. L. “The mean, the median, and the St. Petersburg paradox”. Judgment and Decision-Making, 4(4): 256-272, 2009.

Hirschman, A. O. The Rhetoric of Reaction. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Holton, R. Willing, wanting, waiting. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2011.

Johnson, R.; Cureton, A.. “Kant’s Moral Philosophy”. In Zalta , Edward N. (ed.), The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , 2016. Available at:

Kagan, S. “The paradox of methods”. Politics, Philosophy and Economics, 17 (2):148-168, 2018. doi: 10.1177/1470594X17717737

Knight, F. Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit. Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin, 1921.

Korsgaard, C. “The right to lie: Kant on dealing with evil”. Philosophy and Public Affairs, 15(4): 325-349, 1986. Available at:

Kronbauer, C. A.; Marquezan, L. H.; Barbosa, M. A.; Diehl, C. A. “Analysis of the effects of conservatism in accounting information after the 2011 change in the basic conceptual pronouncement.” Review of Business Management, 19(65), 453-468, 2017. doi:10.7819/rbgn.v19i65.2742

Lempert, Robert J.; Collins, Myles T. "Managing the risk of uncertain threshold responses: comparison of robust, optimum, and precautionary approaches". Risk Analysis. 27 (4): 1009-1026, August 2007. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2007.00940

Lempert R. J.; Popper, S. W.; Bankes, S. C. Shaping the Next One Hundred Years: New Methods for Quantitative, Long-Term Policy Analysis. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corp, 2003.

Lo, A. W.; Mueller, M. T. “Warning: Physics Envy May be Hazardous to Your Wealth!” SSRN Electronic Journal , 2010. doi:10.2139/ssrn.1563882

Luce, R. D, & Raiffa, H. Games and Decisions: Introduction and Critical Survey. North Chelmsford, MA: Courier Corporation, 2012.

MacAskill, W. “Normative Uncertainty as a Voting Problem.” Mind, 125 (500):967-1004, 2016.doi; 10.1093/mind/fzv169

Mandelbrot, B.; Hudson, R. L. The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence. New York: Basic Books, 2008.

Matsui, A. "Expected utility and case-based reasoning." Mathematical Social Sciences, 39(1): 1-12, 2000. doi:10.1016/s0165-4896(99)00008-6.

Milnor, J.W. “Games against nature”. In: Thrall R.M.; Coombs C.H.; Davis R.L. (eds) . Decision Processes, pp. 49-60. New York: Wiley, 1954.

Moehler, M. “The Rawls-Harsanyi Dispute: A Moral Point of View”. Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, 99(1): 82-99, 2015.doi:10.1111/papq.12140

Mongin, P, & Pivato, M. “Social Evaluation under Risk and Uncertainty.” In Adler, A. D.; Fleurbaey, M. (Eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Well-Being and Public Policy, 2016.doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199325818.013.23

Nozick, R. Anarchy, state, and utopia. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990.

Otsuka, M, & Voorhoeve, A. “Why It Matters That Some Are Worse Off Than Others: An Argument against the Priority View.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37(2): 171-199, 2009. doi:10.1111/j.1088-4963.2009.01154.x

Picavet, E.; Lafaye, C. G. “La précaution, l'éthique et la structure de l'action.” Revue de métaphysique et de morale, 4 (76): 593-609, 2012. doi :10.3917/rmm.124.0593

Pritchard, D. “Risk” Metaphilosophy, 46(3): 436-461, 2015.doi:10.1111/meta.12142

Ramsey, F. P. “Truth and Probability” in Braithwaite, R.B. (Eds.) The Foundations of Mathematics and Other Logical Essays, p. 156-198. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1931.

Rawls, J. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Rawls, J, 2005) Political Liberalism. 3. ed. New York: Columbia University Press.

Regan, D. “On Preferences and Promises: A Response to Harsanyi”. Ethics , 96(1): 56-67, 1985.doi:10.1086/292718

Savage, L. The Foundations of Statistics. 2ª Revised Edition. New York: Dover, 1972.

Schelling, T. C. The Strategy of Conflict. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Sen, A. K. “Equality of What?” Tanner Lecture on Human Values, in the Stanford University, on May 22, 1979. Available at:

Sen, A. K, 2009) The Idea of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2009.

Shrader-Frechette, K. Tainted: How philosophy of science can expose bad science. New York: Oxford University Press , 2014.

Spohn, W. “Knightian Uncertainty Meets Ranking Theory.” Homo Oecon 34, 293-311, 2017. doi:10.1007/s41412-017-0060-5

Sorensen, R. A. “Unknowable Obligations”. Utilitas, 7(2): 247-271, 1995.doi:10.1017/s0953820800002077

Straffin, P. D. Game Theory and Strategy. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America, 2010.

Sugden, R. “Ken Binmore’s Evolutionary Social Theory.” The Economic Journal, 111(469), 213-243, 2001.doi:10.1111/1468-0297.00604

Sunstein, C. R. “Political Conflict and Legal Agreement”. The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, in Harvard University, from November 29 to December 1st, 1994. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2544359

Sunstein, C. R. Infotopia: how many minds produce knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press , 2006.

Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. “Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases.” Science, 185 (4157), 1124-1131, 1973. doi: 10.1126/science.185.4157.1124

Yudkowsky, E. “Cognitive Biases Potentially Affecting Judgment of Global Risks.” In Bostrom, N, & Ćirković, M. M. Global catastrophic risks. New York: Oxford University Press , 91-119, 2008. Available at:




Como Citar

PERES, R. Ávila. The harsanyi-rawls debate: political philosophy as decision theory under uncertainty. Manuscrito: Revista Internacional de Filosofia, Campinas, SP, v. 44, n. 2, p. 89–127, 2021. Disponível em: Acesso em: 4 out. 2022.