John Rawls and Joseph Nozick proposed contrasting theories of social justice. Rawls focuses more on fairness based on sound moral principles; Nozick, on a more laissez faire, utilitarian principles. Rawls’ theory echoes some of Thomas Aquinas’ ideas on virtues , specifically those on justice. Meanwhile, Nozick’s theory seems to have been derived from the utilitarian ideas of John Stuart Mill and the completely, free economics ideas of Milton Freedman .
The starting point of both theories is some kind of ‘truth’. For Rawls, this concept of truth is embodied in the idea of social justice. Social justice refers to the idea of ‘fairness’. Fairness to Rawls is justice in the social sense. It applies to anything, not only to matter of income and economics. According to Rawls, social justice is attained by some kind of contract. The ‘contract’ is an agreement on certain norms of behavior or equality that every member of society must abide by. It is a shared value or virtue by people in that society. In abiding by that contract, equality can be achieved.
This sense of equality or fairness is not by any means perfect. It is an ideal state that society aims for. Reality deviates from such an ideal mainly because of differences in people’s circumstances, talent, among other things. Some people are born wealthy. Some are more intelligent than others. Some can be more talented. The opportunities are evened out for everyone by the social contract.
Society translates can translate this social into some form of government. The government provides laws in such a way that there could be equal sharing of wealth and opportunities. Government or the social contract embodies conceptions of justice that “prerequisite for a viable human community”. It aims to put some order into how people should live together. Rawls points out:
“There are other fundamental social problems, in particular those of coordination, efﬁciency, and stability. Thus the plans of individuals need to be ﬁtted together so that their activities are compatible with one another and they can all be carried through without anyone’s legitimate expectations being severely disappointed.”
For fairness to be attained, justice will have to be applied equally to everyone. No one can gain advantage by taking away wealth or opportunities from others. All laws should strive to address the common good of people. Society must also recognize that certain rights of people are inviolable. No law can curtail this right even if it is for the greater good of society.
A person’s right to life comes to mind in this regard. It is a fundamental right of everyone. This concept puts the whole idea of the death penalty into question. Would it right for society to take away a person’s life for the greater good of society? Rawls answer to that question is clearly no.
However, there are occasions when the situation offers no alternatives. The issue will become a choice of an evil and a lesser evil. “The only thing that permits us to acquiesce in an erroneous theory is the lack of a better one; analogously, an injustice is tolerable only when it is necessary to avoid an even greater injustice”
Depending on the concepts of justice that members of society have agreed upon, the distribution of wealth could vary to extremes. In utilitarian state, almost the entire wealth is controlled by the minority of the population; only the remainders of the wealth are distributed to the majority of the population. In contrast, in a controlled state, the distribution of wealth is equal. Everyone in society gets the same amount regardless of one’s status in life or abilities. In both cases, injustice is committed in some form. Thus, Rawls prefer the middle ground where some people fairly get more than others. The poor in this situation will have to be protected against getting too little that is unfair.
The state has various ways of redistributing wealth, benefits or welfare. Taxes are one way. While people find taxes burdensome, they cannot dispute it because they derive benefit from it. The benefits accruing from taxes can be fairly distributed in society. Taxes thus provide a mechanism for the distribution of wealth, thus of justice.
This position makes sense since different people would have different contributions in society. There are people after all who would need to ensure that society is run and order and everybody else’s welfare is attended to. While some people may have to be better compensated, they should not be over-compensated. This also ensures that others are not exploited and under-compensated.
Meanwhile, Nozick describes his theory as distributive justice. Wealth is distributed among members of society by voluntary exchange. There is minimal or no state control. The distribution of wealth is the result of individual decisions, valid and just actions in a free society.
Nozick’s concept of justice seems to be anchored on a person’s ability to acquire and hold wealth. He refers to a person’s portion of society’s wealth as ‘holdings’. First, every person is entitled to his holdings as long as he acquired it legitimately and in accordance with the principles of holdings. Second, a person can expand (or conversely reduce) his wealth by way of acquisitions (or selling). Third, all holdings are valid as long as their acquisition through the first two principles.
He disputes other forms of distributive justices because these are pattern—apparently meaning that some order is imposed. Totalitarian and socialist systems are such kind of distributive justice. Holdings or wealth can be distributed in various ways. It can be according to moral merits. People are ranked in society according to these merits: the higher the merits, the higher the benefits. Similarly, distribution can be patterned according to ones usefulness to society. All these are unnatural distribution of wealth for Nozick. These are forced distribution imposed by intervening body.
Nozick’s theory has several problems. First is that it is focused on economics. Everything has a value and a matter of exchange. It is hard to apply this to other concepts like human life and welfare. Everything is a matter of acquisition and exchange. Can human life thus be an object of such acquisitions? The theory seems to make slavery acceptable as long as parties concerned consent to it.
It is also hard to understand the role of the state or government in Nozick’s theory. It advocates little or no control from government. Not all behavior can be managed by holdings or exchanges or money. As Rawls suggested, a consensus of what norms members of society must live by is needed. Otherwise, there could be chaos. Everything is subject according to an individual’s judgment.
In the matter of exchange, there could also be some level of unfairness. At the bargaining table, there could be weak and strong parties. This may not necessarily be the result of coercion. Rather, there are differences in people’s education and intelligence; they could thus have differences in perception of a just value for exchange. Unfortunately, Nozick considers such transactions as just as long as the parties consented.
Another problem with Nozick’s theory is that it is very difficult to rectify holdings or wealth acquired to illegal means. For one thing, it is hard to quantify this illegally or unjustly acquired wealth. With regard to inherited or passed-on wealth, the problem is at which point in time did the unjust acquisition of holdings occurred. Surely, the holdings could have been enhanced by succeeding owners.
Still another problem is the possibility that people could acquire wealth to the extent that there would be the extremely wealthy and the extremely poor in society. As long as people have agreed to the exchanges and accrual of holdings, such a distribution of wealth is valid. It would be just according to the theory.
Rawls precisely points out this anomaly as problem with utilitarian ideas. Such a distribution of wealth can be considered just in distributive or utilitarian theories. It is a distribution of wealth that simply unjust and unfair. There can be no social justice if some members of society are pushed to extreme disadvantage. This is a matter that a just society should guard against.
Rawls tries to seek a balance among extremes. Nozick does not consider these extremes. Whatever condition society ends up in is justified and fair as long everyone has freely agreed to the exchanges of holdings.
Aquinas, Thomas. Summar Theologica. Perrysburg: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1947. Kindle.
Mill, John Stuart. Utilitarianism. London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1879. Kindle.
Nozick, Joseph. Anarchy, State and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974. PDF.
Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1999. PDF.
The Concise Encyrclcopedia of Economics. Economics, The Concise Encyrclcopedia of. Library of Economics andLiberty. Indianapolis: Library of Economics andLiberty, n.d. Web. 25 Feb 2016. <http://www.econlib.org/library/Enc/bios/Friedman.html>.