Social And Political Philosophy: The Ideas Of Rights And Justice

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Political and social philosophy examines the ideas of rights and justice. Distributive justice is defined as “a concept that addresses the ownership of goods in society” where it is assumed “that there is a large amount of fairness in the distribution of goods”. Robert Nozick criticized John Rawls’ theory of distributive justice as using government too forcefully, but this criticism fails to acknowledge the benefit of lessening the often harsh lottery of life. Nozick’s argument will be dismantled by Rawls' veil of ignorance thought experiment and welfare liberalism's approach to justice.

John Rawls, an American political philosopher, produced his theory of justice which involves a society that holds equal basic rights as well as an egalitarian economic system. His thought experiment, the veil of ignorance, helped to envision a more just and fairer society without forms of bias and prejudice. The experiment unfolds as everyone agrees to temporary amnesia and a hypothetical veil of ignorance is thrown onto them. People forget their current position in society such as their race, age, job, and essentially who they are. This results in fairness being their primary concern in creating a just society (Bowdon, 2013). As people are generally biased and place their own well-being before anyone else’s, they are more likely to create a society that would benefit them but maybe unfair to another group of people. An example of this is a person creating a society where tax policies can be opposed because they know they are currently rich. As the chances of being born into a good position with economic or social advantage are slim, Rawls’ thought experiment gives everyone a chance to succeed no matter the position they are born into. Thus, the veil of ignorance provides a strategy that allows people to be rid of their biases and prejudice. As a result, this rewards society with fairness and an equal chance at social and economic success.

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Rawls proposes two main principles, which were formed from his veil of ignorance thought experiment, to help form a just and fair society. These include the principle of equal liberty and the principle of equal opportunity which also covers his different rule. The principle of equal liberty relates solely to the political constitution, allowing for everyone to obtain the most amount of basic political rights and freedom. This is only considered just if everyone else receives the same freedom and rights. Examples of obtainable rights are freedom of speech and thought. The principle also disallows prejudice against peoples’ rights based on their nationality and background. Rawls’ second principle of equal opportunity, covering his difference rule, allows for everyone to have the fairest chance of securing a job that they are qualified for. This is with disregard of race, gender, wealth, and other inequalities or advantages that some people are naturally born with. This would support schools to hand out free education to provide everyone with the opportunity to be educated. The difference rule solely relates to the economic institution where people can have their inequalities. These inequalities must contribute “to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged members of society”, which can come in form of taxing more to those with higher pay wages to be distributed to those with less. However, it should not go past the point where overall society benefits begin to decline. Rawls argues that inequality will push people to work harder and contribute more to create a productive society. Therefore, Rawls’ two principles of equal liberty and opportunity (which contains his difference rule) allow people to be politically equal and economically different so long as the inequality benefits those in need.

Rawls’ theory of distributive justice was criticized by Robert Nozick, a well renowned American philosopher, as he argued that Rawls advocates a ‘patterned theory of justice. According to Nozick, a patterned theory of justice is one that distributes goods based on a pattern or formula (Valasquez, 2011). He argued that peoples’ free choices will always disrupt any pattern that society establishes which would lead to some individuals being forced to give up their goods to re-establish the pattern. Additionally, Nozick argued that Rawls is using the wealthier individuals as a means to maintain a patterned society and is giving the people in need greater privileges. He also argued that “people are entitled to keep what they earn” (Velasquez, M, 2011) so he proposed a thought experiment that supports his claim. A shortened version goes as followed; a famous basketball player charges an extra 25 cents per ticket for the tournament, and for that 25 cents to be transferred to him. One million people show up. This means that his earnings are higher than all the other players, as he has accumulated $250,000 alone from the contract. According to a patterned theory of justice, his pay would be unjust as it is not fairly distributed. Nozick argued that the basketball fans willingly chose out of their free will to pay the famous player 25 cents as they wanted to see him play, thus the famous basketball player earned it fairly. Overall, Nozick objects to Rawls’ difference rule, as it is too structured and calculated as people should be entitled to keep what they earned fairly.

The problem with Rawls’ theory of distributive justice is that he uses government too forcefully by unnecessarily re-distributing goods to those who have not earned them. Rawls’ principle of equal opportunity allows people to secure jobs that they are qualified for. Automatically this means that society would also have to provide free education to allow for an equal chance to succeed. The issue is that people become less inclined to earn money because they are aware that at the end of the day, they are cushioned by the government. However, it is absurd to abuse people’s rights of entitlement by redistributing portions of their money to people who have not worked hard enough to deserve it. This is given that they were provided with the same education and opportunities to secure ‘desirable’ and higher-paying jobs. However, this excludes individuals who are physically and mentally incapable of qualifying for higher-paying jobs. Re-distribution of wealth can come in forms like taxing, where some of the money given goes to the government to give to others through the welfare system. People can commit welfare fraud by giving “misleading information such as reporting less income than they earned. Ultimately, Rawls’ difference rule contradicts his quest for equal opportunity. On the contrary, Nozick’s view of government is too limited. He advocates for equal rights for every individual and places emphasis on the entitlement of wealth, however, he fails to see the overall picture. People are born with forms of social and economic advantages and disadvantages. With no equal opportunity principle pushed forward by Nozick, some individuals may not be able to afford the education to be able to qualify for a job they desire. With no re-distribution of wealth in the long run it may cause economic segregation where groups are divided politically, academically, and socially. This would cause an unproductive and undesirable society. Rawls’ outlook on distributive justice allows the people who have not worked hard enough to benefit from the earnings of those who have good jobs. On the other hand, Nozick’s strategy for the lack or re-distribution of wealth is unrealistic. Neither Rawls nor Nozick presents a strong argument and a better theory is still needed.

Overall, Robert Nozick criticizes John Rawls as using government too forcefully, but this criticism fails to acknowledge the benefit of lessening the economic and social disadvantages that people are born with. The paragraphs above have explained the claims behind Rawls’ and Nozick’s outlook on distributive justice. As both Rawls and Nozick have explicitly mentioned the importance of equal political rights in society. Rawls’ theory of distributive justice ultimately causes social and economic problems of allowing people to reap the benefits of other people’s hard work. While Nozick’s strategy of lack of re-distribution causes detrimental effects of economic segregation. Another proposal is necessary as Rawls and Nozick do not present strong arguments.

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Social And Political Philosophy: The Ideas Of Rights And Justice. (2021, September 20). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 15, 2024, from
“Social And Political Philosophy: The Ideas Of Rights And Justice.” Edubirdie, 20 Sept. 2021,
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