Justice: Rawls and Nozick

In philosophy, a question that has been asked is what counts as a just society? In this tutorial, we will be covering distributive justice, which is how a just society would distribute the goods. Two competing ideas will be discussed. One will be from John Rawls and the other will be from Robert Nozick.

Rawls’ difference principle

First we will be discussing Rawls’s difference principle. This will be done by explaining how the difference principle relates to distributive justice, and how the difference principle compares to competing principles.

Rawls’s difference principle is described as “Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit to the least advantaged” (J. Wolff, 1996, pp 174). Wolff writes that Rawls comes to this principle through a thought experiment called the ‘hypothetical contract’. The hypothetical contract is to imagine that if you were able to control the distribution of goods in a society, and you held no foreknowledge of what kind of position you would hold in this society; how would you distribute the goods that would be the most rational way? This also described as the original position (1996, pp 169-173).

An example of the difference principle through a hypothetical contract is to imagine pizza cut up into 2 large slices and 4 small slices, and prior to receiving a slice you do not know if you are overweight or malnourished. According to the difference principle, you ought to give the larger slices to the malnourished and the smaller slices to the overweight.

From the original position of not knowing your status in society when deciding on a principle; which is described as ‘the veil of ignorance’, Rawls encourages the individual to act in the most rational way according to their personal interests, which would be to apply the difference principle. If someone were more of a gambler, they could wish for all the goods to go to one kind of person and hope that they would turn out to be that person; but that would be irrational since it is of high risk.

An application of a Rawlsian view would be a progressive tax system instead of a flat tax, since the more wealthy pay more than the less wealthy, since it applies the difference principle.

Nozick’s taxation as forced labour

Now we will discuss Robert Nozick’s position. Contrary to Rawls, Nozick, according to Lessnoff (1999), believes that the state should hold a Kantian view of ethics, which is that we have a categorical imperative to treat people not as a means to an end, but ends in themselves, which is to say we cannot infringe on a person’s rights even if it creates a greater good.

From this, Lessnoff (1999) writes that Nozick believes that humans who attain wealth legitimately have a right to it and the state cannot take it away to give it to someone else. This is why he views taxation as forced labour, since it means you are giving away some of your hours worked which is not your choice. However, Nozick only applied this to taxation spent towards things like welfare. He did believe in taxation for services that helped maintain property rights, such as the police force. This political view is commonly known today as libertarianism.

Nozick in his “Anarchy, State and Utopia” uses a thought experiment involving Wilt Chamberlain (a famous basketball player in Nozick’s time). Chamberlain and all of his fellow players get the same salary. However, Chamberlain demands all spectators to give an extra 25cents into a box with his name on it to watch him play. And they all do. Nozick says Chamberlain is entitled to that money, since it was willingly given to him and is in no way obligated to share those additional earnings.

I highly recommend the books below if you want more information regarding the Rawlsian and Libertarian view of redistributive justice.

Nozick: https://amzn.to/2wN1fcJ

Rawls: https://amzn.to/2wQvijM

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I am currently completing my honours degree in Philosophy.

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