Robert Nozick on John Rawls’ Theory of Justice
FEBRUARY 2, 2010
by Gabriel Hendin
John Rawls’ “original position” is a hypothetical situation in which rational parties make social decisions under a veil of ignorance, so as to prevent attributing advantages to one party over another. Rawls’ difference principle states that inequalities among humans are to be redistributed equally to benefit all. Robert Nozick disagrees with John Rawls’s “original position” and “difference principle.” Nozick believes that historical principles are required in certain moral situations and notes that their existence is impossible if individuals deal under Rawls’s “veil of ignorance.” With regards to the difference principle, Nozick argues that the rich may not wish to fully cooperate with the poor in redistributing wealth, for their natural endowments break no laws. He also states that Rawls’ difference principle is morally arbitrary in the notion of the rich wanting to help the poor. I agree with Nozick’s opposition to the original position. How could the original position always stand? If a state were to redistribute wealth, thus making a moral decision under the original position, how could the state assess each individual’s wealth and decide how to redistribute the wealth without lifting the veil and assessing each person’s social status? Similar decisions require a historical frame of reference. I disagree with Nozick’s assessment of the difference principle, for I assume that Rawls intended that this principle act only in assumedly moral societies, in which the rich would care for the poor and want to help alleviate their poverty and natural misfortune. I do not think Rawls was being morally arbitrary in assuming that in a moral society, the rich would cooperate to help the poor, instead of the poor succumbing to their inferior position. On the contrary, I think Rawls was correct in hypothetically assuming the moral, wealthier man’s decision.
A large portion of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, The State and Utopia is dedicated to refuting the theories of John Rawls. Specifically, Nozick takes issue with Rawls’ conception of distributive justice as it pertains to economic inequalities. Rawls wrote that economic inequalities should only be permitted if they are to the benefit of society, and especially if they are to the benefit of its least advantaged members; this has come to be known as “the difference principle”. Nozick believed that no one had any business “permitting” economic inequalities at all. To Nozick, as long as economic inequalities arise from voluntary exchange, they cannot be unjust. In chapter 7 of Nozick’s book, he gives an example of a world where Wilt Chamberlain becomes very rich through voluntary exchange (Nozick 160-162). The purpose of the example is to demonstrate how we can not govern economic inequality in the way that Rawls would apparently suggest without sacrificing a large amount of liberty. Much focus has been given to the enormous degree to which these two views apparently differ, but I believe that a closer examination of the Wilt Chamberlain argument shows that the two philosophers differed less in their concept of justice and goodness than is usually perceived. Contrary to popular belief, the Wilt Chamberlain example shows how voluntary exchange of the kind advocated by Nozick can lead to distributions of wealth that conform perfectly to Rawls’ criteria for economic inequalities. In order to fully explore how Nozick’s Chamberlain argument and Rawls’ difference principle interact, it is necessary to restate the example with some aspects more explicitly defined than Nozick originally made them. For simplicity, suppose that society’s wealth is initially distributed with perfect equality. This distribution will be called D1. Suppose that there are ten members of society, and each of these ten members is one of three types: Wilt Chamberlain, a basketball fan, or a non-basketball fan. Under D1, each member...
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