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Robert Nozicks Responses To John Rawls Philosophy Essay

In his famous work, Anarchy State and Utopia, philosopher Robert Nozick provides a powerful response to John Rawls’ view of libertarianism as suggested in A Theory of Justice. Drawing from foundational philosophers such as Locke, Nozick’s argument emphasizes a general form of justice summarized in terms of acquisition and transfer. The right to individual liberties and the opposition to a governmentally ordered distribution are of the many fronts upon which Nozick attacks egalitarians as well as establishes his ideals. While Nozick’s arguments are well defended, the basic assumption upon which he drives his argument reveals an apparent flaw that, in the end, leads to an incomplete structure of liberalism in which all are not free as the system intends.

Nozick opens this particular work by defending his idea of a minimalist state in which a weak government is established with the sole purpose of defending its citizenry from criminalities, nothing more. This idea of a minimalist state ties in well with what Nozick believes is the essence of justice. To Nozick, property and shares are not distributed from one source such as the government. Rejecting the name of “distributive justice” which implies that all shares and property are controlled and distributed by one party, Nozick’s conception of justice arises from the aggregate of individuals’ choices through their actions of acquisition and transfer. Moreover, as “new holdings arise from voluntary exchanges and actions of persons” the resulting distribution becomes a mesh of countless “decisions… individuals are entitled to make” (Nozick 496)*1. Hence the question arises: what are the principals that entitle one to hold a certain product or share—what is justice in holdings? The answer to this question is outlined in what Nozick calls his “entitlement theory”. The theory states that in order for one to justly hold a certain share, one must be entitled to such a holding by acquiring that holding in accordance with the principal of justice in acquisition, the just “appropriation of unheld things”, or having received that holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, having acquired it (property) from someone else who was entitled to it. No holding can be justified without either of the two principles (496). Finally, any violation of the first two principals will call for “the rectification of injustice in holdings” whereby the wronged party must be compensated as “if the injustice had not taken place” (497).

Moreover, the justice Nozick alludes to allows one to have absolute ownership of his or her property. As long as the property follows the principle of “justice in holdings” one may do whatever he wishes with it and cannot be compelled to do otherwise. Since Nozick’s justice is defined as a distribution in which voluntary actions comply with the entitlement theory, any forced action such as taxation would invalidate a citizen’s property rights and hence the state’s system of justice. Nozick attacks ideas such as the “welfare-state” in so far as the forced distribution violates the rights of the owners over their property. If Nozick’s distribution were applied to society, those more affluent would be able to keep their wealth given that their wealth is a part of them. A great disparity in wealth is a foreseeable result of Nozick’s idea that people cannot be coerced into doing anything that they do not wish to do: “From each as they choose and to each as they are chosen” is Nozick’s maxim espousing an individual’s liberty of choice (501). Such ideas demonstrate Nozick’s focus on the liberty and rights of individuals as opposed to the rights of the society at large. The rights of the individual are prized above all else. Both Nozick’s conception of justice and property reflect this individualistic view of libertarianism. The justice of Nozick’s distribution does not follow a particular pattern or a set rule, but rather is the formulation of individuals’ free choices; similarly, property gained through the entitlement theory solely belongs to the individual who cannot be compelled give it elsewhere.

Nozick’s reason for championing the rights and liberty of individuals comes from the Kantian belief that people should be treated as ends and not means: in such a society “no one may abridge the liberty of another, harm the other in life or limb, or take the property from another, without that persons consent” (qtd. Christiano 492)*2. The rich are not to be treated as mere sums of money and must consent to all transactions regarding their wealth. Production and distribution are not “two separate and independent issues” Nozick says, hence “whoever makes something…is entitled to it” (501). To Nozick, questions regarding the well-being of others is hardly considered…

Furthermore, Nozick demonstrates how one can originally obtain resources without depriving others of the liberty to own such property by using what he calls the “Lockean Proviso”. While Locke had addressed original ownership by claiming that one must leave “in common, enough and as good for others”, Nozick reasons that this was meant to “ensure that the situation of others is not worsened” and hence one could leave less for others as long as others are not worsened by the now-owner’s appropriation (503). Nozick’s reasoning for neglecting Locke’s second position on this matter is well argued. It would make sense for one to take more than his fair share of land if others were unable to appropriate that land. Such an appropriation would seem advisable, Nozick argues, especially if it “increases the social product by putting (the resource) in the hands of those who can use them most efficiently” (504). And in the event that others could benefit from the land, the owner must compensate them for lost potential.

Nozick supports his entitlement theory as opposed to patterned distributions (distributions based on a set principle) found in welfare states, in part, because the entitlement theory is a historical principle rather than being an “end-result principle”. Time-slice or end result principals do not consider the “whole story” of how a perhaps unequal distribution came to be. With such a principle, “all that needs to be looked at…is who ends up with what” as opposed to what people deserve through viewing their past actions (498). The entitlement theory is founded on the justice of previous actions and ensures that whatever distribution results, no matter how unequal, is just. Nozick would argue that egalitarians using end-result principles do the opposite—creating patterned distributions, no matter how unjust, to ensure all are given equal.

Another reason why Nozick is opposed to patterned (or end-state) principles is because they “are liable to be thwarted by the voluntary actions of the individual parties” (501). Nozick points out that patterned distributions restrict peoples’ liberty of choice. This concept is illustrated by the Wilt Chamberlain example in which all people start with an equal amount of money (an egalitarian distribution) and thereafter Wilt decides to charge others a small fee for watching him play (502). Would the people be wrong in choosing to pay to watch Wilt play, even though they are undermining the egalitarian distribution by allocating a large sum of wealth to one person, Wilt, while depriving each of themselves of a little? Nozick uses this example to reinforce the idea that the liberty to do as one pleases, an essential pillar of libertarianism, cannot co-exist with patterned distributions and hence demonstrates to egalitarians that a patterned distribution cannot co-exist with libertarian values.

One of the main flaws of Nozick’s arguments is his ambiguity in the terms of justice. Nozick illustrates the principle of just acquisition and transfer, yet he does not go so far as to say what exactly this justice is. This may strengthen Nozick’s argument in that he assumes that everyone agrees to this ambiguous concept of justice, yet the argument still bears a hole in that justice is not thoroughly described. Similarly, some of the folds of Nozick’s theory of acquisition, such as the right to rectification, are barely explained. Nozick asks more questions then he himself can explain and, in effect, highlights his own argument’s folly. Since so many terms of Nozick’s argument are left largely ambiguous the practical application of such philosophic ideas is severely crippled. Moreover, although Nozick’s argument illustrating the contradictory nature between patterns and liberty emerges strong, such an argument is still deficient since Nozick assumes that all patterns are unyielding and therefore cannot co-exist with free trade and markets. Nozick neglects that fact that patterned distributions can allow for free choices up till a certain limit after which the pattern must be enforced to maintain the proper functioning of society.

Furthermore, in pursuing to maximize the individual liberty of people, Nozick casts a blind eye to the rights of others. Naturally, when the affluent acquire wealth, they deprive others of the capacity to do so. In some way, shape, or form this acquisition of property will make others worse off, though it may not be clear. Hence, considering what Nozick calls the “historical shadow” of the Lockean Proviso, all proprietors of such resources owe compensation to those who have become worse off (504). While Nozick may have intended to absolutely defend the recompense of one’s own labor, his proviso may be used to defend a welfare-like state, where “tax” may be seen as compensation so that the poor are no worse off (considering that they may have acquired the land had the affluent not).

Moreover, life naturally sets an unequal balance in that people have different talents and hence, are mostly pre disposed to a certain income. Some members of society may not receive such profitable talents and as a result may not have enough income to fulfill their rights and liberties. By amassing such wealth that draws societal privileges away from the poor, the rich may be harming others who cannot enjoy the same benefits. If these benefits, like the money for essentials, are not readily available to the poor then the rich would be forced to give to them, even by Nozick’s own standards. Nozick states that if people come to own all of a source that is essential to life, then the owners loose their right over it. This branch of the Lockean Proviso could call for a tax collection for the poor while still ensuring people’s liberty at-large.

In light of the a fore mentioned critiques of Nozick’s theory, it would be wise to modify some of the philosopher’s principles in order to better establish a libertarian society for all citizens. Though Nozick is right to pursue individuals’ liberties, a bar must be set for how free a citizen may be. One’s wealth, despite being rightfully earned, does not mean that it cannot be taken away if necessary. By taking excess money from individuals to give to the poor, people are still being treated as ends (given that the standard of society would increase and thus benefitting all members of society). A welfare-like state is a well-working version of libertarianism in that it ensures that all are capable of acting freely. For being in a society in the first place, people must pay a fee—one that is proportionate to their wealth. (Nozick does not make clear how his, albeit “minimal”, government would attain wealth for purposes of protection.) That money would go to make sure that all peoples in society can act freely. This idea is grounded on the idea that monetary constraints can prevent people from executing their essential liberties.

Overall, the rationale behind Nozick’s theory is that people, as individuals are the locus of a libertarian society. Nozick assumes that all people in society have the right to do as they please, as that is the only way to ensure that the society follows a just rule. Though Nozick’s arguments are well demonstrated, many of his fundamental theories are ambiguous and hence detract from the practicality of his argument. Modifications can be made to Nozick’s discourse so as to promote the liberty of all peoples and avoid extremes by keeping the poor’s minimum salary above a baseline that allows them to act upon all their invested liberties.

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