Explain and evaluate Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument.
In Robert Nozick’s famed Anarchy,State, and Utopia Nozick uses the example of a basketball player who becomes considerably richer than the rest of the population to demonstrate that liberty is incompatible with any patterned theory of distributive justice. This argument, if successful, would be a considerable challenge for Rawls because his theory prioritises liberty in his conception of justice but also requires some redistribution of wealth (as determined by ‘the difference principle’). If Nozick is right that a patterned theory (of which ‘the difference principle’ is one) is incompatible with liberty then the Rawlsian project collapses into a libertarian theory because the first principle (liberty) must be favoured over the second redistributive principle. First I will argue that the Wilt Chamberlain argument is not question-begging because it assumes self-ownership and not absolute property rights (the latter is what the patterned theory must deny) and attempts to derive the latter from the former. Second I will argue that interpreting liberty as self-ownership does entail the incompatibility of liberty and a patterned theory as long as we do away with a Lockean proviso on initial acquisition.
Nozick categorises theories of distributive justice by two classifications. The first classification is whether a theory is historical or ahistorical which is the distinction between whether a theory takes into account past actions/events/circumstances (historical) or not (ahistorical). The more important distinction that Nozick makes between varying theories of distributive justice is between patterned and unpatterned theories. A patterned theory of justice is one in which distributive shares are determined or correlated with some variable. For example a utilitarian theory of justice would be a patterned theory of justice because it would distribute social goods according to how much utility they promote. An unpatterned theory would not determine who is to get what by reference to some variable in the world. The best (and seemingly the only) way to interpret an unpatterned theory of justice is to not determine who is to get what but by what means who can get what; we may call this a procedural theory of justice. Nozick’s argument against patterned theories of justice is that they are incompatible with liberty and uses the example of Wilt Chamberlain to argue for this point.
In an imaginary world we assume a patterned theory of justice. Although it doesn’t (and shouldn’t as the example is meant to show that all patterned theories of justice are incompatible with liberty) matter which patterned theory we choose we will assume an egalitarian theory. So in the initial situation (from here on D1) we assume that the social goods in society have been distributed equally. In D1 Wilt Chamberlain, a famous basketball player, strikes an agreement with his club that for every ticket sold he will receive 25 cents (Nozick 1997:208). As a result of this Wilt Chamberlain becomes very wealthy and so upsets the patterned theory because society becomes more unequal (from here on D2). About this case Nozick can be interpreted as arguing the following:
- Ex hypothesi in D1 each person is justly entitled to their share of goods. This entails that no person in D1 has a claim of injustice against any other person(Nozick 1997:208-9).
- If everyone is entitled to their goods then they are to be at liberty to do with them whatever they want i.e. they have absolute property rights.
- An egalitarian principle denies that each is to be at liberty to do as they wish with their goods because it upsets the patterned theory of equality (as it does in D2).
- Therefore an egalitarian principle of distributive justice is incompatible with liberty.
- As there is no good reason to think that any other patterned theory of justice cannot be upset by liberty then any patterned theory of justice is incompatible with liberty.
The essential point that Nozick is trying to make is that if each person is entitled to their goods in D1 then how can it be possible for an unjust situation to occur in D2 after each person voluntarily gives money to Wilt Chamberlain in order to see him play? As Nozick puts it, how can an unjust situation arise from people transferring their money to Wilt when each customer ‘had no claim of justice on any holding of the others before the transfer’ ?(Nozick 1997:209). An initial objection may be that in society people will always freely trade (i.e. not have their property taken coercively in order to maintain a distributive principle) in accordance with that distributive principle. This objection misses the point because all Nozick is trying to show is that a patterned theory of justice is in principle incompatible with liberty. That is, any patterned theory of justice doesn’t necessitate a respect for liberty.
A more serious problem for Nozick arises in trying to establish (2) because it seems to beg the question against the patterned theorist. For exactly what the patterned theorist denies is that each individual has absolute property rights over the goods that have been distributed to him. When goods are redistributed after D2 in order to correct the unpatterned distribution that Wilt and his customers caused then this is not a violation of Wilt’s liberty because he had no absolute rights over his goods. If he had no absolute rights over his goods then when ‘his’ goods are taken from him then Wilt cannot complain that his liberty has been violated. His liberty to do with his goods as he wishes is only his right to do with his goods as he pleases and if he has no absolute rights over his goods (which is exactly what the patterned theorist denies) then his liberty has not been violated under any circumstance in which it is taken e.g. not violated when in accordance with the patterned theory. In order to establish the incompatibility of liberty and any patterned theory non-question-beggingly then Nozick must give independent support for absolute property rights. Nozick does give independent reasons for absolute property rights and these are not reasons that the patterned theorist necessarily denies. Whilst the patterned theorist necessarily denies absolute property rights they don’t necessarily deny the principle that each person is the owner of their own bodies i.e. the principle of self-ownership. Even if Nozick fails in his attempt at this he has not begged the question against the patterned theorist because the denial of self-ownership is not what the patterned theorist has denied in the Wilt Chamberlain argument, rather, what he has denied are absolute property rights. If self-ownership does entail absolute property rights then the patterned theorist must, by modus tollens, deny self-ownership as they necessarily deny absolute property rights. But you don’t beg the question against an opponent by asserting a conditional that entails the denial of your opponent’s point otherwise all of philosophy would be question-begging! Rather Nozick has provided a new argument and it is for the patterned theorist to deny this in order to deny the Wilt Chamberlain argument.
If Nozick is to demonstrate that liberty is incompatible with any patterned theory then in order to avoid begging the question Nozick must give independent support to the idea of absolute property rights. If people are forbidden from exercising their right to property (e.g. their right to keep their property despite it being incompatible with a pattern) then we may say their liberty has been violated just as we say that a person whose right to speech has been violated has also had their liberty violated. So conceived liberty is just a collection of rights;we are at liberty to do something so long as we have a right to do that thing and no-one prevents us from exercising that right. An example that supports this conception of liberty is given by Ryan (Wolff 1992:93) where we would think it absurd to say that a professor’s liberty has been violated by him being prevented from transferring his tenure to his children. We think that his liberty hasn’t been violated because he had no right to transfer his tenure in the first place. Therefore our liberties are dependent on our rights. Liberty is violated when a right is violated and if people’s right to property is absolute then taking it from them without their consent violates their right to that property and so their liberty too. When we say that property rights are absolute we do not mean that people have the right to use their property literally however they want for that would give people a right to throw their spears at somebody without provocation. Rather we mean that people may use their property however they wish as long as they don’t interfere with others using their property as they wish and crucially that they may use their property despite it not maintaining a patterned distribution. Can Nozick give independent support for absolute property rights (and not merely postulate them)? His attempt at this starts with the thesis of self-ownership (Kymlicka 2002:107):
6. Persons have the right to decide how they use their bodies as long as they don’t interfere with anybody else using their body.
Self-ownership is essentially an absolute property right to your own body; we are to be at liberty to use our bodies in any way we wish as long as we respect the like rights of others. Self-ownership seems intuitively a very plausible starting place for any normative theory. If it is denied then either other people have a claim on our bodies or nobody has a claim on our bodies or their own bodies. If people don’t have the right to decide what they should do with their bodies then in what sense is slavery wrong (slavery that is better than no slavery, to cut short the utilitarian response)? Self-ownership seems to have enormous explanatory power for our moral intuitions as it explains why slavery, murder, rape, kidnapping and almost any other use of force is seen as wrong. An initial implication of this is that it would be wrong in a world where people are born with different numbers of eyes to take, without consent, people’s eyes in order to achieve a more equal distribution of eyes (Cohen 1995:70). This is one way in which a patterned theory would violate rights and thus liberty but Nozick wants to take aim at all patterned theories not just some. For example Rawls’ patterned theory would guarantee the right to freedom of speech and freedom of thought which are both guaranteed by self-ownership. Nozick wants to attack the Rawlsian redistribution of private property (i.e. property that is not identical to your own body) and show that violations of these private property rights (and thus liberty) is tantamount to denying self-ownership.The point is as follows:
7. If (6) is true then anyone can gain an absolute property right to any part of the world as long as they don’t worsen the condition of others.
(7) follows from (6) because (6) implies that we may do anything we wish as long as we don’t interfere with others doing what they wish. It doesn’t matter exactly how we acquire a piece of property only that it seems we must use our bodies. For how else could something that was not originally ours become ours? If this is the case then we may acquire property because we acquire property through the use of our bodies and we have the right to use our bodies as we want. The clause in (7) is introduced in order to try and stop the acquisition of property which deprives another of that right to it. For when we acquire a piece of land then it comes ours and it is up to us if others are to be able to use it and thus no-one else can have a say over how that piece of land is to be used. Nozick thinks this is acceptable as long as we hold a proviso on exactly when we may acquire a piece of land. We may only acquire a piece of land if the acquisition of that piece of land materially worsens the conditions of anybody else who would use that piece of land. We only worsen the condition of others if they have less of what they need than if we had not acquired the piece of land that we did. For example we may not take the only full water hole in an area and deprive others of the water in it because we are clearly worsening the conditions of others. He doesn’t specify exactly what happens to someone’s property once the Lockean proviso is violated just saying that there become ‘stringent limitsâ€¦on what he may do with his “property”‘(Nozick 1974:180). He seems to doubt that we could even call it that person’s property. If the argument is successful it will show that people can gain absolute property rights and thus that patterned theories are unjust because they involve violating those property rights and thus liberty in order to maintain a pattern.
The problem with the above argument is that the self-ownership thesis does not entail (7). Specifically it doesn’t entail the Lockean proviso and the proviso seems completely ad-hoc. If Nozick admits that our ability to acquire property is dependent on how it affects the materials that others can have access (and thus their welfare) to then how is this different to weakening the property rights in order to achieve greater utility via a patterned theory? Nozick’s proviso seems arbitrary in that he gives no reason why we should select his Lockean proviso over another. If we should limit the acquisition of property because of its harmful effects on others then why shouldn’t we accept another Lockean proviso such as one that maximises the welfare of others? I believe that Nozick specifically selects that principle because of his interpretation of ‘interfering’ in (6). For he wants to forbid acquiring property when that interferes with others acquiring property. This seems to be a mistaken interpretation of the interfering which seems to be essentially depriving another of a negative liberty rather than a positive liberty. The distinction between positive and negative rights is essentially the distinction between what others have a duty to do and what they have a duty not to do. For example my right to not be killed is a duty that others have to not murder me and so is a negative duty whilst my ‘right’ to an education is generally conceived as a duty that my lecturers have to come and lecture me about distributive justice. So I have a negative right if I have a right that people don’t do something to me whilst if I have a positive right I have a right that someone provide something to me. ‘Interfering’ is naturally construed as violating negative rights such as when we say that ‘people have a right not to be interfered with’. So we should interpret the self-ownership thesis as saying that we may do as we want with our bodies (including using them to acquire property) as long as we don’t stop others using their bodies as they wish (including them acquiring property). So our negative right to use our body as we wish is somebody else’s duty to not stop us from using it as we wish. We do not have a positive right to use our body as we wish and thus nobody has a duty to help or assist us in someway of using our bodies as we wish. This means that we have the negative right to acquire property and so everybody has a duty to restrain from stopping me acquiring property unless in doing so I am violating the negative right of someone else to acquire or maintain property. When I acquire property it does stop others acquiring property but this is ‘nothing to the point, since you had no right to that plot’ (Narveson 1987:62). For nobody had a right to that piece of land until I got there and it became mine and when it becomes mine then nobody may violate my right to that property. So Nozick makes the mistake of assuming that by acquiring a piece of land I am interfering with somebody else’s right to that piece of land. But in actual fact I am not violating anybody’s right to that piece of land because I only have the duty of not violating anybody else’s right to property but nobody had a negative right to that piece of property because it was me who first acquired it. So self-ownership guarantees that I may acquire property using my body and that I may acquire property as long as I don’t interfere with the property rights that others already have and as ‘interfere’ is violating a negative right we don’t interfere with someone else acquiring property by acquiring that property because they had no positive right to a piece of land rather only the negative right that someone else not stop them acquiring a piece of land. Thus self-ownership does not require a Lockean proviso in order to acquire property because the mere depriving someone of a piece of land doesn’t constitute interference. The implications for the Wilt Chamberlain case is that each person acquires a right to that piece of property and that we may use our property in anyway that we wish as long as we don’t violate the negative rights of someone else to their property. In the Wilt Chamberlain case nobody is violating anybody else’s right to property by buying tickers because nobody is stopping anybody else using their property as they wish and therefore the redistribution to maintain the pattern violates the negative rights of Wilt to his property. As we have identified the violation of a right as correspondingly the violation of a liberty then it can be said that redistribution violates the liberty of Wilt by violating his liberty to do with his property as he wishes.
In conclusion it seems that the Wilt Chamberlain argument does provide a good argument to show why patterned theories of justice are incompatible with liberty. We first identified that the violation of a right to do something is best described as the violation of a liberty to do something. Then we argued that in order for Nozick to avoid begging the question against the patterned theorist he must give independent support to the idea of absolute property rights which give somebody the right to use their property even if it upsets a distributive pattern. Nozick tries to argue for absolute property right from the basis of self-ownership which is the idea that each person is to have the right to use their body as they wish (which includes using it to acquire property rights) as long as they don’t interfere with others using their bodies as they wish. Nozick’s Lockean proviso on acquisition is not entailed by self-ownership because interference is defined only as the negative right to acquire property and we are not violating somebody else’s right to that piece of property by acquiring it because they only had the negative right of the opportunity to acquire it and not the positive right to somebody else not taking it for themselves. As self-ownership guarantees that people may acquire and use property as they want as long as they don’t violate the negative rights of others to their property then the taking of Wilt’s property (his money) is a violation of his absolute property rights and is therefore a violation of his liberty.
Nozick,R., Anarchy,State, and Utopia 1974
Wolf,J., Robert Nozick: Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal State 1991
Cohen,G.A., Self-ownership,freedom and equality 1995
Narveson,J., The libertarian idea 1987
Kymlicka,W., Contemporary political philosophy 1990
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