These days , in the occasional university philosophy classroom, the differences between Robert Nozick‘s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (libertarianism) and John Rawls’ “A Theory of Justice” (social liberalism) are still discussed vigorously. In order to demonstrate a broad spectrum of possible political philosophies it is necessary to define the outer boundaries, these two treatises stand like sentries at opposite gates of the polis…
John Rawls, “A Theory of Justice.” Rawls’ presents an account of justice in the form of two principles: (1) liberty principle= people’s “equal basic liberties” — such as freedom of speech, freedom of conscience (religion), and the right to vote — should be maximized, and (2) difference principle= inequalities in social and economic goods are acceptable only if they promote the welfare of the “least advantaged” members of society. Rawls writes in the social contract tradition. He seeks to define equilibrium points that, when accumulated, form a civil system characterized by what he calls “justice as fairness.” To get there he deploys an argument whereby people in an “original position” (state of nature), make decisions (legislate laws) behind a “veil of ignorance” (of their place in the society– rich or poor) using a reasoning technique he calls “reflective equilibrium.” It goes something like: behind the veil of ignorance, with no knowledge of their own places in civil society, Rawls posits that reasonable people will default to social and economic positions that maximize the prospects for the worst off– feed and house the poor in case you happen to become one. It’s much like the prisoner’s dilemma in game theory. By his own words Rawls = “left-liberalism”.
Robert Nozick, “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” libertarian response to Rawls which argues that only a “minimal state” devoted to the enforcement of contracts and protecting people against crimes like assault, robbery, fraud can be morally justified. Nozick suggests that “the fundamental question of political philosophy” is not how government should be organized but “whether there should be any state at all,” he is close to John Locke in that government is legitimate only to the degree that it promotes greater security for life, liberty, and property than would exist in a chaotic, pre-political “state of nature.” Nozick concludes, however, that the need for security justifies only a minimal, or “night-watchman,” state, since it cannot be demonstrated that citizens will attain any more security through extensive governmental intervention. (Nozick p.25-27)
” …the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.” (Nozick Preface p.ix)
- The primary difference between the two is in the treatment of the legitimacy of governmental redistribution of wealth (and even on that issue Nozick eventually flinches — see #1 below). In place of Rawls’s “difference principle,” Nozick espouses an “entitlement theory” of justice, according to which individual holdings of various social and economic goods are justified only if they derive from just acquisitions or (voluntary) transfers. No safety nets allowed (acquisitions from social programs are not just because they are funded through the involuntary transfer of wealth via taxation and are therefore taboo). No accommodations for free-riders should be made. Problem: Nozick never spells out the criteria of just acquisition.
- Nozick critique of Rawls’s rationale for his difference principle: it’s implausible to claim that merely because all members of a society benefit from social cooperation, the less-advantaged ones are automatically entitled to a share in the earnings of their more successful peers.
- Both theories jump off with a sweeping statement of the primacy of justice — Nozick more or less retained Rawls’s first principle (liberty) while rejecting the second (difference). But…
- Regarding governmental redistribution of wealth, Nozick seems to admit that his entitlement theory is insufficient to refute demands for a redistributionist state; surely some collective holdings were acquired via some original act of unjust conquest, right?. In response Nozick agrees that a Rawls-like difference principle is morally acceptable after all, what he terms “rectification,” on the premise that those currently least-well-off have the highest probability of being descended from previous victims of injustice. (Nozick p.152-153, 230-231)
- Both shared a view of political philosophy as an exercise in the production of abstract theories, with little regard for the practical grounding of justice in human nature (i.e., of conformity with the likely demands of actual human beings). Therefore both theories rate a society’s success by how closely it’s laws and procedures adhere to the model rather than whether those laws produce morally maximized outcomes. Both clearly followed Immanuel Kant‘s dictum, “let justice triumph, even if the world perishes by it.”
Some Practical Questions for Rawls:
- Does your system promote free-riders?
- Does the Leveling of society stifle competition, initiative and creative thinking?
- Does your system foster interest group politics?
- Is your state vulnerable to excessive taxation?
- Is your state vulnerable to excessive bureaucracy?
- Does accountability become increasingly difficult as your state grows?
Some Practical Questions for Nozick:
- Your libertarianism, which compares income taxation to forced labor, fails to acknowledge the need for a guarantee of some baseline level of social security and educational benefits to all citizens. Can you somehow still ensure the continued loyalty of the poor to the state?
- No federally insured bank deposits (FDIC)?
- No food and drug inspection?
- No pollution regulations?
- No enforceable labor laws – 40 hr work week for example?
- Is polygamy allowed?
- Are addictive drugs allowed?
- No workplace safety regulations or workers compensation laws?
Read The Liberal Imagination of Frederick Douglass for an excellent discussion on the state of liberalism in America today.
Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Robert Nozick. Basic Books. 1974
A Theory of Justice. John Rawls. Harvard University Press. 1971
Disclaimer: This is a forum for me to capture in digital type my understanding of various philosophies and philosophers. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the interpretations.
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John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice Essay
964 Words4 Pages
John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice holds that a rational, mutually disinterested individual in the Original Position and given the task of establishing societal rules to maximise their own happiness throughout life, is liable to choose as their principles of justice a) guaranteed fundamental liberties and b) the nullification of social and economic disparities by universal equality of opportunities, which are to be of greatest benefit to the least advantaged members of society , . Rawls’ system of societal creation has both strengths and weaknesses, but is ultimately sound.
One strength is the inherent compulsion to look after the interests of the entire society through the Veil of Ignorance. One is unable to look after the interests of a…show more content…
Rawls’ principles of justice also take individual wellbeing into account. The competing theory of the day – utilitarianism, summarized in the slogan ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’, did not consider the good of individuals in society. Rawls’ theory, however, caters not only to individuals, but also to minorities who might suffer at the hands of utilitarianism. A Utilitarian might argue that Rawls’ assured individual liberties are not conducive to the betterment of society as a whole, in that individual welfare may sometimes conflict with communal welfare. This argument is somewhat negated on consideration of the annulment of disparities, which is not only beneficial to individuals, who could potentially possess some handicap either socially, economically or physically, but also to society, as it is the meritorious individuals who induce economic and social growth. Relative wealth, health and social position are mitigated in the interests of fairness. It stands to reason that the society in question will prosper from a system of formal equality, as it encourages excellence within the community. It also stimulates competition – rational individuals will naturally want more primary goods for themselves , and will be willing to compete for these. This is vital to a healthy economy because it prevents stagnating monopolization by individuals.
One weakness in Rawls’ theory is his assumption that the individual