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Comparison Of John Rawls And Robert Nozick Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 1599 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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There is a joke about a Private in the U.S. army who went to a psychiatrist to be cured of an apparent inferiority complex. It goes like this: Private Milton went to psychiatrist and complained: “I have an inferiority complex.” After studying his case the doctor said, “Nothing I can do for you. In the Army, privates don’t have an inferiority complex, they’re just inferior” (Wilson, p. 15). Given, this is not a very funny joke, but it is moderately funny, and can be used to show the tension or ambivalence which we have toward other human beings. On one hand, we can feel that there is some basic human equality. Famous sayings like ‘All men are created equal’ and others like it have shown this (Wilson, p. 16). If we agree with that statement then we may also agree that talents, skills, and merits should not be tallied up to create a worth or value of individuals. On the other hand, we can also feel that certain people are inferior: those who are incompetent, unintelligent, lazy, and socially intolerable. Some may see these kinds of people as, not just being ‘no good at anything,’ but ‘no good’ in general (Wilson, p. 16). Both of these feelings are very apparent in our society, and most arguments about equality can be reduced to the expression of these two moods. In political philosophy, these sentiments can be compared to the attitudes of John Rawls and Robert Nozick. By comparing the views of both Rawls and Nozick we can come to understand their differences as well as similarities, and ultimately draw closer to a conclusion on how we can determine what people deserve in society. While there are flaws with both theorists, I will show how Nozick’s flaws are the most evident and potentially hazardous to society if applied.

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John Rawls

Most of those who are familiar with distributive justice know about the American Political Theorist named John Rawls. He was educated at Princeton University and published his most significant work in 1971, entitled ‘A Theory of Justice’ (Brown). The purpose of Rawls work was to bring together two fundamental political philosophies: libertarianism and egalitarianism. While those on the egalitarian side insist that wealth should be redistributed, libertarians say that such a redistribution of goods will lead to individual freedoms being attacked (Brown). Rawls’ theory attempts to resolve this division by meeting the libertarian demand, for the most part, to respect personal freedom, and meeting the egalitarian demand of equality regarding economic redistribution (Corlett, p. 2). Rawls’ theory is hybrid one, bring together what are often considered conflicting institutions about justice. A major part of way Rawls’ theory is so notable is because he grounds it in the social contract tradition of political philosophy (Corlett, p. 2). His principles are chosen by the individual, but that individual is required to be under a ‘veil of ignorance.’ He argues that in order to find the basic principles of a society, each of us need to imagine that we know nothing about our own social class or amount personal talent or wealth (Brown). From this ignorance we are able to produce the basic, fair principles about how our society should be run. Rawls argues that not knowing our position in society leads to us to be concerned for the equally of everyone. We should therefore be most concerned for those who are least fortunate in society, because it could be possible that we could be the worst off along with them (Corlett, p. 2). Thus, whenever you change society you have to make sure that things will improve for the people on the bottom.

Rawls’ theory has uniqueness to it that many others do not contain. What is so appealing about Rawls’ theory is that it is so practical. If successful, it gives the individual the choice produce principles of justice that are unbiased and fair. These principles can then become the foundation for the basic structure of an efficient and just society. Instead of the utilitarian method which places the moral obligation on the individual to maximize the greatest happiness of the whole, Rawls provides a purely objective way of making moral decisions, one that avoids the many problems of the utilitarian system (Corlett, p. 2).

Robert Nozick

One of Rawls’ critics was a man named Robert Nozick, who in the early 1970s published a critical reply to Rawls theory. In his book, ‘Anarchy, State and Utopia’ he argues that Rawls views on liberty and the Difference Principle contradict each other (Corlett, p. 4). Nozick claimed that any government that forcibly taxed rich people and redistributed their wealth to help poor people was directly violating the liberty of the rich. Nozick argued that governments had no right to infringe on the rights of individuals by taking their money and giving it to others. This was especially the case if people’s wealth had come to be through hard work or natural talent (Brown). Nozick believes the individual should make the decision of whether or not to help the least advantaged in society; the state should not to impose an obligation to do so. For Nozick, when the state taxes the individual in order to provide goods and services for the least advantaged class, it is a form of theft by the state against the individual. The state should thus be a minimal one. That is, its purpose should be to protect the rights of individual persons, nothing more. What rights do citizens possess in the minimal state? Nozick, following Locke, states that citizens of the minimal state have the rights to life, liberty, and property (Brown). Moreover, the state needs to be limited to protecting individuals against the violation of these rights (Brown). Nozick felt strongly about individual liberty, and advocated a minimal state that upheld the law but did nothing to redistribute wealth.

Why Rawls is the Better Choice

While political theory battles might not be as exciting as other battles, the debate between Rawls and Nozick is an important one none the less. These opposing views have created some of the most fundamental bases for differences in political parties. These differences are most apparent in the United States; with the Democrats traditionally advocate wealth redistribution and the Republicans usually pushing for tax cuts and less government interference. Unfortunately, Nozick’s ideas seem to be gathering more and more support in the years since his critique of Rawls (Brown). For example, poverty and unemployment seem to be viewed as a deserved outcome and success viewed as being gained through hard work and superior talent. This seems to be an ever more continuing characteristic of American politics; moving further and further away from Rawls’ welfare state toward Nozick’s extreme individualism. This philosophical shift has been relentless. As a result, many recent American policies have been sold using the ‘user-pays’ mentality that Nozick championed; why should people be forced to pay taxes for things that benefit others (Brown)? As a result we are forced to pay for private for health care whilst the government attempts to dismantle Medicare. We make payments to fund our own retirement and we may be asked to pay more for the public transport we use. I feel this anti-redistribution attitude can easily result in a deeply selfish society where individuals are encouraged to consume rather than to care about others. Furthermore traditional rights, like health care and education, are gradually transformed into commodities which individuals must pay for. What’s more, there are good reasons to oppose Nozick’s direct philosophy. If you don’t redistribute wealth then you get vast economic differences between rich and poor. These differences themselves lead to a denial of liberty. The poor don’t have the freedom to live where they want, they can’t afford legal representation, and children from poor families are unable to pay for a good education. All of this further entrenches the gap between the rich and poor. As we all know, the stability of a society depends on the extent to which its members feel that they are being treated justly (Velasquez). If they come to feel that they are subject to unequal treatment, social unrest is certainly near. The members of society depend on each other, and will only continue to preserve civil harmony if their common social institutions remain fair (Velasquez). Moreover, human beings are all equal in this respect: they all have the same dignity, and deserve to be treated as equals. Whenever individuals are treated unequally on the basis of characteristics that are arbitrary and irrelevant, their basic human dignity is violated.

Work Cited

Brown, Lachlan. “Rawls-v-Nozick: Liberty for All, or Just the Rich?” Sydney Morning Herald –

Business & World News Australia. 9 Oct. 2003. Web. 25 Oct. 2010.

Corlett, J. Angelo. Equality and Liberty: Analyzing Rawls and Nozick. New York: St. Martin’s,

1991. Print.

Velasquez, Manual. “Justice and Fairness.” Santa Clara University. May 1990. Web. 27 Oct.

2010. .

Wilson, John. Equality. New York: Hutchinson, 1966. Print.


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