Which is the most appealing Nozick’s entitlement theory or Rawls theory of distributive justice? The defence of liberal ideologies emerged not long after the Second World War, prior to this there had been little faith in liberal values during the 1920’s and 1930’s, however after the war there appeared to be a renewed defence for liberal thinking ranging across a variety of ideological theories. To the present day these liberal perspectives continue to influence political thinking with regards to rights, equality and freedom.
This rapid revival of liberal ideologies highlights the diverse and contradictory parts associated with liberal ideas and so we are left with two very influential theorists in liberal political philosophy yet with very conflicting theories. These theorists are famously known as Robert Nozick and John Rawls. There are a number of diverse views on economic or distributive justice, some claim that goods should be distributed equally or shared based on a principle of need that is to say who needs these goods more.
Other views claim goods should be distributed according to labour, merit, and effort which determine who is entitled to them. John Rawls argues that the economy should be designed in such a way that those ‘worse off’ in society should benefit as much as possible, so inequalities would exist but everyone in society benefits from this. Rawl’s therefore approves of more state involvement as this would mean distributing resources by means such as taxation to those in society who justly deserve to receive them.
Nozick argues however, that Rawl’s description is not neutral by this he means to discuss distributive justice presumes that resources are readily available in society ready to be justly distributed by the state however realistically in society there are individuals and associations of these individuals in the natural world and what these individuals produce, therefore one should not treat the production of goods and how they are distributed as separate matters they should be addressed together.
This essay will assess both theories of Robert Nozick and John Rawl’s and discuss which is the most appealing and why. The work of John Rawls has received a huge amount of recognition and respect through his writings in ‘Theory of Justice’ (1971). 1 Rawls was a moral and political philosopher who analysed and explained human judgements of injustice and justice. His work offers a guiding principle and a different perspective into human behaviour in society.
He examines the nature of individuals and their associations with justice while comparing it to other individuals leading to the overall moral nature of individuals. For Rawls, society is one that is shaped by both peace and conflict of interests, peace because social cooperation offers the opportunity for individuals to live a better life than they would have if they had to live alone. Society is shaped by conflict of interests because every individual has a preference for a larger share from the fruits of cooperation than a smaller one they are more likely to achieve alone.
The concern with distributive justice is implemented to compensate the misfortunate in society. Some people are lucky enough to have more than others and it is the responsibility of everyone in society to distribute the goods that arise from the metaphorical lottery that is life as we know it. Rawl’s theory of distributive justice introduces the ‘original position’ associated with Reflective Equilibrium where individuals reflect and revise their beliefs to enquiries whether moral or non moral and to assess what is just.
So Rawl’s ‘original position’ is simply a hypothetical thought experiment that encourages one to imagine a scenario where we is unaware of what our position is in society or what our idea of the ‘good’ is before making a decision. Although it could be said that every person in society makes decision based on their positions, Rawl’s idea encourages one to agree to principles without being biased in our views to religion, economic difference and so on.
Rawl’s therefore claims that principles of justice are chosen under a ‘veil of ignorance’ where individuals would make a decision while not knowing their place in society, for instance in class, and social status. In addition individuals also do this without knowing their natural assets such as strength, intelligence, and abilities. This ensures that nobody has either an advantage or disadvantage in the choices they make by the outcome of certain social circumstances or through natural chance.
The good involved in distributive justice concerns only those that can assume everybody in society will want these rights, liberty, income, wealth, and power. 8 So Rawls claims that we can only agree to an equal distribution when there exists a level of inequality that will advantage everyone. Rawl’s proposes two principles of justice, 1) the ‘equal liberty principle’ that guarantees that every person has an equal entitlement to a fully adequate set of basic rights and liberties with a similar scheme of liberties for all.
This is needed to allow the fundamental interests of free and equal citizens to protect their opportunity to exercise their own wills on how to live their lives. 2) social and economic inequalities are be created so that they satisfy two conditions, a) they must appeal to the greatest benefit to least advantaged in society and b) they must be attached to offices and positions open to everybody under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. 7 Under the proposed system the first principle takes priority over the second.
According to Rawl’s these principles therefore result in what he describes as justice as fairness. The ‘equal liberty’ principle’ takes priority over the ‘difference principle’ as it would not be just to place limits on liberty for the sake of greater economic good or advantage to society. 9 In other words Rawl’s views individuals as an end in themselves not a means to an end. The work of Robert Nozick is more famously known through his writing of Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) where he argued for libertarianism, for a free market economy, absolute property rights and a minimal state.
The premise that Nozick begins with his theory arise is through the idea that every person has rights and no groups or person can change that without violating their own rights. However he also makes it clear that anarchism is not the end result. Instead of focussing on how to redistribute wealth and resources within societies like Rawl’s does, Nozick focuses on how people come to acquire property, in other words acquire wealth and resources. His main ideas are shaped around a minimal state and private property rights.
He defends the idea of a minimal state and suggests it should only exist to enforce justice and natural rights through the means of courts and police authorities. It is these functions and these functions only that should determine state power and anything else would exceed its power. 2 In addition to this he asserted that with rights to life and to liberty people can come to gain rights of property. This leads to one asking on what grounds does anyone have right to a property and how is this morally justified, should it be distributed to those who deserve it, to those who need it the most?
Nozick provides an alternative he believes this to be entitlement, for example if you take a person who inherits a large sum of money who already has lots then some might argue that this person does not necessarily deserve this money and more so does not need it. Nonetheless we would be inclined to say that this person is entitled to this money even if they already have a lot and may not deserve it, it is still rightfully theirs. It is this point regarding entitlement that Nozick bases his argument for property rights. He believes it is how a person comes to obtain holdings that determine whether or not they are entitled to them.
In modern times it is common for modern states to implement policies that promote justice by the distribution of wealth and income from its citizens. When compromising this to a minimal state it would be unable to take these policies and implement and so Nozick is faced with a dilemma, it raises the question over the possibility of creating a minimal state that ignores distributive justice, or accept distributive justice and thus give up the notion that minimal states is accountable and so Nozick provides a third alternative to establish an account of distributive justice to which justice can be given under minimal state involvement.
This is known as the entitlement theory. 15 Nozick’s entitlement theory has three important principles that determine how people acquire property, a principle of justice in acquisition, to assess how one comes to hold goods initially. A principle of justice in transfer to show how holdings can be transferred from one person to another. A principle of justice in rectification explains how to sort out holdings that are unjustly acquired or held. The third principle would not be needed if the world was entirely just but it is not, people steal and defraud, so it exists to rectify any violations to the first two principles.
Therefore a distribution is just if the person who holds the goods is entitled to them by the principles of justice in acquisition and transfer, or by the rectification of injustice principle as specified by the first and second principles To explain this further for you could hypothesize where an individual has a distribution (D1) and if they opt to move to an alternative distribution, distribution (D2) then by observing justice in transfer then D2 will also be just. In addition he claims that even if D2 is patterned in respect to equality factors such as power, need and Rawl’s difference principle this is irrelevant. 5 Nozick explains this in more depth through is popular Wilt Chamberlain example. Wilt Chamberlain was a famous American basketball player who was very popular and in demand, Nozick asks us to imagine if Chamberlain was asked to sign a contract enabling him 25 cents from each ticket sold from his games. In one season one million people attend and so this makes him $250,000. This amount is substantially more than other players on the team earn and more than the average income.
However Nozick stresses this transaction would be just because those who paid for the tickets gave their money voluntarily.. Nozick stresses the entitlement theory is about respecting individual’s natural rights, specifically to property and self ownership. That people are entitled to chose what they want done with what they own because they are autonomous and each person is a separate being and that has to be respected. He argues that by taking property away from individuals in order to redistribute it for a ‘greater good’ violates their rights.
For instance through taxation of Wilt Chamberlain’s income and redistributing the money to his fans who are the ‘worse off’ then violates his rights to the money. According to Nozick what people receive is usually a consequence of what they have produced and what they produce is usually a consequence of what they expect to receive. Nozick ideas is heavily inspired by John Locke’s theory of acquisition, who views property rights in terms of an unknown object being created through the mixing of someone’s labour with it.
This view is easily held with Nozick’s second ‘transfer’ principle however there are some problems when addressing the first principle of acquisition, how one acquires the holdings. For instance how does ones labour determine what property they are entitled to? 2 Nozick’s theory is therefore extremely controversial, if some of his ideas where put in practice his theory could then be responsible for justifying large inequalities in the distribution of property within society. People might own property and have wealth they do not necessarily deserve while also ignoring those who in society who are ‘worse off’.
The entitlement theory is historical, in other words in order to determine whether distribution is just it is measured by how it came about in the past. 14 This theory contrasts with Rawl’s theory that applies a current time-splice principle that proposes that justice of distribution is determined by who has what. An example of this would be that a utilitarian person who judges two different distributions and assesses which has the greater amount of utility, if the amounts are the same then there would be rules in place to select the more equal distribution.
This therefore determines who ends up with what when comparing two sets of distribution. The historical approach Nozick offers however considers how one came to acquire holdings, how previous actions and circumstances of individuals can determine different outcomes. Rawl’s ideas contrast further with Nozick’s views on property rights, under Rawl’s distributive theory as the entitlement theory allows natural talents and chance to determine outcomes which produces unjust inequalities in the ownership of property. In addition Rawl’s claimed that people do not have rights before deciding on the ‘principle of justice’ so you could say Wilt Chamberlain should then not have the right to the money his natural talents bring him, only the right to a share according to the principles that define distributive justice. Nozick on the other hand would argue that each person’s talents and strengths belong to them and so people should have the right to keep whatever it is these abilities do for them. To redistribute what one earns or gains would undermine that person’s liberty.
In further comparison to both theories Rawls is appealing because when hypothetically thinking about the two separate individuals, one born into a ‘rich’ life and the other a ‘poor’ life, the person born into a rich life is likely to be blessed with educated and capable parents and the person born into a ‘poor’ life is likely to be cursed with non educated and incapable parents. So from the very beginning people are born with unequal life expectations due to the initial circumstances they can be faced with.
Rawl’s theory therefore addresses these inequalities and given time through distributive justice the least well off individual should benefit as much as possible. According to Rawl’s distributive justice theory people don’t deserve natural assets; through his principle ‘s he rejects the idea of rights before the principle of justice as this principle is responsible for assigning rights, therefore people are only entitled to make claim on rights once the principle of justice is acquires. Some might argue that justice is given when individuals receive what they may have a right to, in other words people have a right to what they deserve.
It is this idea the Nozick examines through is theory on entitlement which contrasts significantly to Rawl’s theory. 14 Nozick argues that people should be entitled to and deserve natural assets, for instance if person a person deserves A then anything produced from A means they deserve B. Therefore an individual’s holding comes from ones natural assets and people should be entitled to their holdings. When overlooking any presumptions with regards to equality if someone deserves to have a holding then they should be entitled to it. 4 Rawls on the other hand would argue that individuals do not deserve their natural assets Rawls view appears to be that one where everyone would have some entitlement to natural assets and where no one would have their own claim and so he describes it as ‘collective assets’ where everyone receives a share of the benefit. Nozick clearly indicates that people should be allowed to keep their own property and holdings where as Rawl’s stresses that any assets should be a distributed collectively and that everyone is equally entitled.
In conclusion both theories are strikingly different to each over in style as well as substance. Nozick’s entitlement theory has great initial credibility and offers an appealing argument for the acquisition of justly held goods, through his principles of acquisition, transfer and rectification he offers a plausible method for why people should be entitled to outcomes from their natural assets such as ability, talent and knowledge. In his popular Wilt Chamberlain example he expands on this theory further, to which Will Chamberlain should be entitled to his earnings and not taxed to benefit the ‘worse off’.
In another example highlighting those who inherit large sums of money or property, it is unlikely that anyone would question this entitlement even if that person does not deserve it or needs and indeed if there were other people in society who would benefit from it more. Unfortunately Nozick’s principles fail to acknowledge the huge property and wealth inequalities that could arise if his theory was applied to society. Not every person inherits large sums of money or is born into a rich capable family and for that reason it fails to acknowledge some areas of injustice.