Rawls vs. Nozick The Necessity of Liberty

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The Necessity of Liberty

In political philosophy, there is no greater question than the proper relationship between the state and the individual. John Rawls directly addresses the issue in his famous work A Theory of Justice, in which he offers a comprehensive argument for an active welfare state. Robert Nozick, his colleague at Harvard, responded only a few years later with Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a work focusing not on a specific formulation of distributive justice, but rather whether any such formulation is possible. Each author develops principles of justice with implications for the role of government. Rawls offers a framework based in the context of social contract theory that appears both logical and egalitarian; his conclusions appeal to both intuition and reason almost inescapably. However, Rawls fails to show an appreciation for the fundamental tension between liberty and equality, and it is a flaw that Nozick duly exposes in his retort.

Rawls begins with a Kantian statement that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole can override (670).” However, he quickly rejects the premise by declaring “no doubt [these propositions] are expressed too strongly (670).” In the beginning, Rawls acknowledges the tension between an individual and society as a whole. The principles of justice, within his theory, are the principles that best reconcile the interests of the two parties. Society is described as a “cooperative venture for mutual advantage,” although “it is typically marked by a conflict as well as by an identity of interests (670).” Conflict occurs because humans are self-interested. “Social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts,” but “persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits produced by their collaboration are distributed (670).” While society makes each individual member better off, they are constantly competing for the spoils of their cooperative efforts.

Necessarily, “a set of principles is required for choosing among the various social arrangements which determine this division of advantages (670).” This set of principles, which decides how goods are to be distributed, represents the principles of justice for Rawls. Proper principles must proceed from a position of fairness and equality: “they are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association (672).” Rawls terms this the original position, from which any reasonable person would derive the same principles of justice. Each member of society must enter the original position behind a “veil of ignorance,” meaning “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength and the like (673).” In other words, anything that can produce inequality is unknown to the social contractors. Every individual agrees on a set of principles when they are blind to their own advantages, therefore they agree with each other on an equal basis. Rawls points out that under these circumstances, society’s member “are autonomous and the obligations they recognize self-imposed (674).” Any free, rational, self-interested human would choose the same principles if placed in such a scenario, he believes. Based on these presumptions, he deduces a precise formulation of the principles.

The first of the two is stated as follows: “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others (677).” Consistent with most other social contract theories, Rawlsian citizens guarantee the basic liberties of others so long as their own basic liberties are guaranteed in return. Secondly, according to Rawls, “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 (677).” This second principle offers something much more unique and controversial. Section A requires any disparity in wealth or income to be for the good of society as a whole, while section B demands equality of opportunity. The latter is a right familiar to modern, Western democracies, and Rawls carries it over into his principles. No one knows what position they hold behind the veil of ignorance, therefore everyone would agree to leave them open to all upon leaving the original position. Section A, however, requires additional justification. As long as everyone is ignorant of themselves outside the original position, “it seems reasonable and generally acceptable that no one should be advantaged or disadvantaged by natural fortune or social circumstances in the choice of principles (675).” This is because “no one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society (683).” Inequality leading from natural talent or previous social endowment is unearned; hence any advantage to the individual must also be to everyone’s advantage. Otherwise, no one would agree to it under the terms of the original position.

Rawls claims that this implies a more general conception of justice: “all social values—liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect—are to be distributed equally unless and unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone’s advantage (678).” This is merely a more concise version of the two principles of justice stated above. He goes on to say that “the general conception imposes no restrictions on what sort of inequalities are permissible; it only requires that everyone’s position be improved (679).” Rawls call this the difference principle, holding that inequality is allowed only in instances when the least advantaged benefit more from the status quo than from increased equality.

Importantly, the two principles of justice are prioritized, chiefly because “it is possible, at least theoretically, that by giving up some of their fundamental liberties men are sufficiently compensated by the resulting social and economic gains (679).” In adhering to the second principle, society can easily violate the first principle, which protects the individual. To avoid this, Rawls gives the first principle ultimate authority over the second, because it represents a more important social good than the second. Without such a provision, it is conceivable that slavery, or something close to it, could be justified in the name of social welfare. Obviously, no one would agree to this when in the original position. Despite giving the first principle precedence, Rawls is criticized by Nozick for infringing on the freedom of each person. The tension between individual liberty and social equality leaves A Theory of Justice open to criticism.

Nozick, like Rawls, opens his discourse with some thoughts on Kant and, again like Rawls, comes to the conclusion that Kant needs to be diluted in order to apply to political philosophy. Nozick comes to the conclusion that the categorical imperative should be stated as “minimize the use in specified ways of persons as means,” rather than never simply as a means (699). Concerning everyday transactions, “it is sufficient that he other party stands to gain enough from the exchange so that he is willing to go through with it (699).” A person may be used as a means only when he allows himself to be used as a means. The right of an individual to choose the direction of his own life is inviolable. Nozick then asks rhetorically, “But why may not one violate persons for the greater social good (699)?” This cannot be done simply because there is no such thing as a social good, according to Nozick. Instead, “there are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others uses him, and benefits others. Nothing more (699).” No entity exists to represent society as a whole; society is merely an aggregate of individuals. Social goods, social welfare, or social justice are all bogus terms used to justify coercing individuals to benefit each other. This, in effect, forces someone to be used as a means to further the good of others. However, Rawls argued that from the original position, a rational person would freely choose the second principle stated in A Theory of Justice. If an individual chooses to be used as a means, it is no longer a violation of the watered down categorical imperative. Therefore, Nozick must show that not all people would choose to submit to a greater social good.

Moving on to distributive justice, he states that “there is no central distribution, no person or group entitled to control all the resources, jointly deciding how to be doled out (700).” Distribution has to arise from something; Nozick points out that, as with individual transactions, distribution results from choice. “What each person gets, he gets from other who give to him in exchange for something, or as a gift…The total result is the product of many decisions which the different individuals involved are entitled to make (700).” Assuming a free society, every member uses each other to their own ends in accordance with the liberty they have to do so. For example, a man buys a hot dog. He is hungry, so he values the food more than the hot dog. The vendor values the man’s money more than he values the hot dog. Both enter the transaction freely, and both gain from it because they satisfy their own ends as well as the ends of the other. In effect, each individual in the transaction agrees to be the means of the other. Whether or not the distribution resulting from these transactions is just seems to be in dispute by Rawls.

Nozick needs to make another move to show why such a distribution need not, and should not, be rectified. Here he introduces his own principles of justice, which are much less specific than those of Rawls, called principles of holdings. “If the world were wholly just,” they would read as follows: first, “a person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding;” second, “a person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding, is entitled to the holding;” third, “no one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2 (701).” By these principles, a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to that distribution. Obviously, this implies very little, particularly when compared to Rawls. This is intentional. Whereas Rawls wanted to govern society directly with his deduced principles of justice, Nozick is merely concerned with identifying a just or unjust distribution. The specifics of the principle of justice in original and in transfer are unimportant, he only cares that “a distribution is just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means (701).” Nozick wants to say that “justice in holdings is historical; it depends upon what actually has happened (701).” Solely the historical nature of the principles is significant, because therein lies the difference between he and Rawls.

In order to illustrate the importance, Nozick describes the type of principles that Rawls advocates. Rather than historical, they are “current time-slice principles of justice [that] hold that the justice of a distribution is determined by how things are distributed as judged by some structural principle(s) of just distribution (702-703).” The context of the situation is unimportant when compared with the need for redistribution, under current time-slice principles. Rawls, along with welfare economics in general, bases his arguments on such structural, historically ignorant grounds. In fact, he argues that this is beneficial, because ignorance leads to equality and fairness in the original position. Nozick directly challenges this assertion, claiming instead that “most persons do not accept current time-slice principles as constituting the whole story about distributive shares (703).” The distribution itself does not necessarily reflect justice; whether this distribution is deserved should also be taken into account. Even if one were to consider current time-slice principles over iterations in order to give an individual now to make up for having less at an earlier date, this eventually runs into the same problem as single time-slice distributions. End-result principles, as Nozick calls them, apply unhistorical principles of distribution to a time sequence. But there will always be at least some historical information concerning “past circumstances or actions of people [that] create differential entitlements or differential deserts to things (704).” For example, a prisoner is in jail for a reason; any rational person would agree that this must be taken into account. If Rawls is acceptable and true, everyone would agree to rationally abandon the historical context for the sake of equality, and that this decision would be morally acceptable.

An internal and external criticism of Rawls then arises. Nozick explains the internal criticism. “Almost every suggested principle of distributive justice is patterned: to each according to his moral merit, or needs, or marginal product, or how hard he tries, or the weighted sum of the foregoing, and so on (705).” The pattern represents the basic criterion for distributing social goods. Within Rawls, the pattern is represented by the second principle: any inequality must benefit everyone, and there must be equality of opportunity. However, recall that Rawls also prioritized the first principle ahead of the second principle. He recognized that without inviolable basic liberty, no one would submit himself to society. Nozick exploits the contradiction between these two desires by explaining that liberty disrupts any patterns of distribution, using the example of Wilt Chamberlain (707). Suppose, as Nozick describes the situation, that the original distribution is Rawls’ distribution, giving to the least advantaged. Wilt Chamberlain, however, has decided to place a personal charge of twenty-five cents on every ticket sold to his team’s games. People wish to see him play basketball, and willingly pay the twenty-five cents, thereby disrupting the original distribution. If the people were entitled to the money under Rawls’ interpretation, they are also entitled to pay Wilt Chamberlain for his basketball abilities, acting of their own accord. The end-state principle embodied by Rawls claims that Wilt would have to return the money to society, for surely basketball does not override another individual’s right to wealth and income. In addition, it was natural talent that enabled him to play basketball so well.

At this point, the external criticism of Rawls must be introduced. Granted, in the original position Wilt Chamberlain would be ignorant of his height and hand-eye coordination, as such he could possibly agree to give up the benefits of these advantages. It must be pointed out though, that Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest of all time, was cut from his high school basketball team the first time he tried out. Talent and the subsequent hard work that he put in cannot be differentiated in any objective manner. Differentiating between natural advantages and the fruits of an individual’s labor is impossible. No rational individual would agree to sacrifice his own hard earned income to another simply for the sake of equality. Society would be plagued by the free-rider problem as individuals took advantage of others’ productivity, without having to provide anything of their own. This is the historical context that the second principle of A Theory of Justice fails to account for and, in doing so, violates the basic precepts that Rawls established.

The alternative proposed by Nozick could still be construed as consistent with much of Rawls’ analysis. However, it would exclude the second principle because of its conflict with the first. Nozick, citing F.A. Hayek, contends “that in a free society there will be distribution in accordance with value rather than moral merit; that is, in accordance with the perceived value of a person’s actions and services to others (705).” This is an eloquent statement of the hot dog example. An individual receives his share of the distribution in accordance with what he provides to other individuals. Liberty and choice are the central themes of this pattern, because in a market system every person is free to make whatever transactions he deems necessary. The more an individual does to serve the ends of others, the greater the share of the distribution that individual will receive. Nozick gives a maxim to represent his distributive justice: From each as they choose, to each as they are chosen (707). By eliminating the second principle of Rawls, the preceding logic in A Theory of Justice is all but flawless. It provides for a distribution based on the first principle, that of inviolable liberty.

Cohen, Mitchell and Nicole Fermon, eds. [i:61e2a47679]Princeton Readings in Political Thought[/i:61e2a47679]. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Article name: Rawls vs. Nozick The Necessity of Liberty essay, research paper, dissertation