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Social And Political Philosophy: John Rawls And Robert Nozick

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Two of the most prominent philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls (1921-2002) and Robert Nozick (1938-2002), disagreed as to how best to provide distributive justice. In philosophy, distributive justice can be defined as “The justice that is concerned with the apportionment of privileges, duties, and goods in consonance with the merits of the individual and in the best interest of society” (Merriam-Webster, 2019). Rawls’ theory of distributive justice asserts his interest in fair and equal opportunities for every individual in society; however, this essay will prove that Rawls’ argument for fair and equal opportunities does not justify his proposed need for massive redistribution of wealth. Whereas, Nozick’s proposition for a limited government provides views that are too narrow to portray an accurate representation of opportunity in society.

John Rawls, a well-known moral and political philosopher proposed the thought experiment “The Veil of Ignorance” in his book Theory of Justice (1971). Rawls describes the veil of ignorance as imagining “Every member in society agrees to voluntary and temporary amnesia. As this ‘veil of ignorance’ descends upon them, they forget who they are and the place they hold in society so that fairness to all is their main concern” (Butler-Bowden, 2019). Rawls introduced the thought experiment of “The Veil of Ignorance” to support his idea of the original position, which features in John Rawls’ social contract account of justice, “Justice as fairness” (Freeman, 2019). The overall idea of the original position is to eliminate bias and unethical decisions being made while making political decisions and to ensure equity and fairness for opportunity is delivered while creating a just society. While making decisions that could affect society, people should imagine themselves in an original position (no knowledge of their family, race, income, country of birth, etc.) and make decisions they believe would be the fairest for society. Therefore, Rawls’ veil of ignorance and original position proposition successfully helps provide a strategy for ensuring that a society has a fair distribution of opportunity for all people, in a society where race, gender, sexuality, country of birth, or income still gives each individual an equal opportunity to succeed in society.

Rawls’ expressed his ideas behind distributive justice through the concept of “Justice in Welfare Liberalism” successfully through using two principles; the principle of equal liberty and the principle of equal opportunity. The first principle regarding distributive justice, the principle of equal liberty can be explained as all people in society receiving compulsory equal rights in regard to all of society’s primary political legislation such as the constitution, government, courts, legislative system, and laws. The second principle stated in Rawls’ Justice in Welfare Liberalism, the principle of equal opportunity, proposes that inequalities in the social and economic aspects of society can only be justified when each individual has received an equal opportunity to compete or qualify for advancement in society. Advancements in society could include anything from an increase in income to a higher level of authority. Another requirement for the allowance of inequality in society was that the inequality provides benefits to less advantaged members of one’s community, however, Rawls believes it is important that society’s overall level of benefits does not begin to decline. Justice in Welfare Liberalism is a concept used to ensure that all citizens receive equal political legislation rights and provides assistance to those who are more economically or socially disadvantaged than others, while also allowing those who work harder the opportunity to advance in society, (Rawls, 1982).

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Robert Nozick (1938-2002), a colleague of John Rawls at Harvard University, agreed with Rawls on the first principle of his concept “Justice in Welfare Liberalism”, stating that citizens in society should be equal and receive as much liberty as possible, however, disagreed to Rawls’ concepts behind distributive justice as he believed that Rawls’ theory identifies as a “patterned” theory of justice. A patterned theory of justice is a theory in which states that the distribution of goods around the members of society should abide by a formula or pattern. According to a patterned theory of justice, if goods are not distributed by using the formula, then goods should be taken from those who have excess and distributed to those who are in need. Nozick argues that freedom of choice will always jeopardize a patterned society, which would then require the government to unjustly force certain affected individuals to give their goods to others in order to acquire the required distribution. To support his objection to Rawls’ theory, Nozick provided a thought experiment to illustrate his argument. To summarise the thought experiment, Nozick argued circumstances that would be considered “unjust” with a patterned theory of justice, would otherwise be considered “just” such as; suppose a famous basketballer requested that each game he played in, tickets would cost an extra 25c and he would subsequently receive the extra 25c per ticket, consumers were more than happy to pay the extra 25c purely because they wanted to see him play. However, in a patterned theory of justice, this is unjust as his other teammates are earning less money than he is. Although Nozick agrees with Rawls’ statement that all citizens should receive equality and liberty in society, he disagrees with Rawls’ distribution of wealth as he finds it too structured and calculated for it to work in a real society, (Nozick, 1974).

The problem with Rawls’ position in regard to the distribution of wealth in society is his inability to justify extensive redistribution of wealth. The propositions argued in his theory of distributive justice are too extensive and unnecessary. Redistribution of wealth in society is to the sole benefit of those with a lower income, however, in a society where a major focus is applied to equal opportunity for every individual, redistribution of wealth is taking property away from those who rightfully earned it and giving it to those who have failed to work as hard. Considering the focus of a Rawlsian society, redistribution of wealth is contradicting the right for equality by taking more goods from citizens with a higher level of wealth and less from those with a lower income. Although in the short-term redistribution of wealth can benefit society, over time the consequences can be detrimental through the extensive reliance by some on other people in society. However, the counterproposition for distributive justice proposed by Nozick declares that people should have the most amount of freedom from the government as possible, if an individual were to decide to share their goods with another individual, then that’s one’s personal choice. Nozick does not believe that a government should have the right to force citizens who have a higher level of income, to surrender their money to help those with a lower level of income, (Nozick, 1974). Although Nozick’s version of distributive justice provides citizens with a higher level of freedom, his argument that government should have limited control over society is unrealistic and unorganized whilst also denying access to the appropriate amount of opportunities to all citizens. In a society where the government has limited control and the citizens have a high level of freedom, chaos would break out and the barriers between the rich and poor would grow due to the lack of any redistribution of wealth. Without any strategies to combat rampant inequality in place, society would become chaotic. Nozick’s plan for freedom from the government and no redistribution of wealth is unrealistic. Rawls’ theory of redistribution of wealth is excessive and unfair to citizens in society with higher levels of income while also detrimental to individuals with lower incomes over time. Ultimately, neither version of distributive justice can be accepted, and a third way forward is needed.

Rawls’ argument for a fair and equal society in regard to liberty, social and economic opportunities can successfully secure comfortable places for each individual in society, however, his arguments behind distributive justice are extreme and unnecessary. On the other hand, Nozick’s proposition for a limited government with no redistribution of wealth is unjustified and chaotic while also neglecting all individuals of society the chance for an opportunity to advance. The above paragraphs have thoroughly explained the propositions behind both Rawls’ and Nozick’s views on distributive justice and have addressed the fallacies in each of the arguments. Both philosophers mentioned the importance of equality in society, however, Nozick’s plan for government would not provide each citizen with an equal opportunity to advance. Whereas, Rawls’ theory behind distributive justice was too excessive and unnecessary.

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Social And Political Philosophy: John Rawls And Robert Nozick. (2021, September 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 8, 2023, from
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