Nozick vs Rawls: Justice

March 7, 2019 by Essay Writer

In his famous work, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls argues that, as a consequence of his three principles of justice, people are not entitled to reap the benefits of their natural talents in such a way as does not benefit society at large, claiming that “inequalities of birth and natural endowment are deserved, these inequalities are to be somehow compensated for” (86). He introduces the principle of redress to determine this compensation. The principal of redress is not one of his three core principles of justice (it is, “a prima facie principale, one that is to be weight in the balance with others” ) however, in order to make his argument for the principal of redress more compelling he ties it in with the difference principle, the second part of the second of the three main principles of justice (86). I have included his explanation of the connection and the explication of his position in regards to natural talent in full, as its complexity and specificity resists summation without oversimplification:

“The difference principle represents, in effect, a agreement to regard the distribution of natural talents as in some respects a common asset and to share in the greater social and economic benefits made possible by the complementaries of this distribution. Those who have been favored by nature, whoever they are, may gain from their good fortune only on terms that improve the situation of those who have lost out. The naturally advantaged are not to gain merely because they are more gifted, but only to cover the costs of training and education and for using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate as well. No one deserves his greater natural capacity nor merits a more favorable starting place in society. But, of course, this is no reason to ignore, much less to eliminate these distinctions. Instead, the basic structure can be arranged so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate. Thus we are led to the difference principle if we wish to set up the social system so that no one gains or loses from his arbitrary place in the distribution of natural assets or his initial position in society without giving or receiving compensating advantages in return. (87)

Essentially, the principle of redress, which mandates that naturally talented people cannot profit off their talents in a way that doesn’t benefit society at large, is an extension of the difference principle, one of Rawls’ main arguments, because the application of the difference principle leads to the creation of a social structure that accounts for the necessity of the principle of redress. Robert Nozick, a prominent American philosopher, objects to Rawls’ assertions about the entitlement of the naturally gifted to the benefits of their talents in his work Distributive Justice, published in the Journal of Philosophy and Public Affairs in 1973. He argues that there are three types of principals of justice: those concerning how things not previously possessed by anyone may be acquired, those concerning how possession may be transferred from one person to another, and those concerning what can be done to rectify injustices that arise due to violations of the aforementioned. He goes on to classify theories of justice as a) either end-result or historical and b) either patterned or unpatterned.

Nozick argues that Rawls’ theory of distributive justice is an end-result theory – it holds “that the justice of a distribution is determined by how things are distributed (who has what) as judged by some structural principle (s) of just distribution” (50). He then argues that distribution and entitlement theories should be historical and unpatterned i.e. they should not demand that distribution resulting from just acquisitions, transfers, and rectifications take into account need, merit, or the good of society and they should account for the fact that “past circumstances or actions of people can create differential entitlements or differential deserts to things” given that “most persons do not accept [end state] principles as constituting the whole story about distributive shares. They think it relevant in assessing the justice of a situation to consider not only the distribution it embodies, but also how that distribution came about” (50-51). Evidently, in historical, unpatterned distribution theories people may indeed lay claim to the benefits of their arbitrary endowments. Nozick rejects Rawls’ argument for the necessity of the principle of redress because it is inherently not historical and therefore does not take into account factors Nozick argues are vital to consider.

In arguing that theories of distribution must be historical at the very least, if not unpatterned, Nozick undermines Rawls’ theory of distribution, especially the principle of redress, as it is fundamentally an end state theory. If one agrees that historical entitlement is relevant to discussions of distribution and wishes to take historical entitlement into account in any respect, in other words, if any historical entitlement theory is just, as Nozick argues any that result from just transfers, acquisitions, and rectifications are, then Rawls’ theory is incorrect. Rawls’ theory of redress inherently cannot be a historical theory therefore, if any historical entitlement theory is proven to be just, Rawls’ theory is proven unjust. The burden of proof is on Rawls.

The most plausible reply Rawls could make would have to rely on the ideal nature of the veil of ignorance. If all principals of justice should ideally be developed through the veil of ignorance, as Rawls argues they should be, then no historical entitlement theory could be just, as historical theories cannot be developed through the veil of ignorance. Nozick’s argument for the necessity of historical theories relies primarily on the opinion of most persons, so the most direct counterargument Rawls could make would be that public opinion cannot be allowed to determine what is just, given the human tendency to attempt to better one’s own situation at the expense of others, and that the veil of ignorance is the only way to avoid corrupt theories of “justice”. He would argue that historical theories cannot be just as they are too subjective. Rawls and Nozick fundamentally disagree in the historical vs end state theory debate and so it seems that they would eventually reach an impasse. As such, the debate goes on.

Works Cited

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971

Nozick, Robert. Distributive Justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 1 (Autumn, 1973), pp. 45-126. Wiley. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2264891

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