What is the just way to distribute social goods? Is it just, like some have claimed, for a government to take wealth from affluent individuals and to give it to poor ones? Or is it only just, as others have argued, for a government to take wealth from individuals when they have acquired that wealth through unjust means? This question has been debated for centuries now and is sure to continue to be debated for some time to come. In the following paper, I explicate and critique the answers that two twentieth-century philosophers, John Rawls and Robert Nozick, give to this question.
Rawls’ principles of justice
John Rawls believes that humans are, by nature, self-interested and rational beings. Since this is the case, he contends that, instead of forming principles of justice that are fair, people are inclined to form principles of justice that favor themselves, often at the expense of others. Wealthy people, for example, tend to “find it rational to advance the principle that various taxes for welfare measures be counted unjust.” Poor people, on the other hand, tend to “propose the contrary principle” (607).
Given his conception of human nature, Rawls believes that the best way to choose principles of justice that are fair is to pick those principles behind a “veil of ignorance.” What he means by this is that people should determine what principles are fitting for a just society in a situation in which no one knows “his place in that society, his class position or social status,” or “his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and the like.” Since, behind this veil all people are “similarly situated and no one is able to design principles to favor his particular condition, the principles of justice are the result of a fair agreement or bargain” (606).
When put behind this veil of ignorance, Rawls believes that people will agree upon two main principles of justice: first, that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” and, second, that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage, and (b) attached to positions and office open to all.” The first principle guarantees such individual liberties as the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of thought, and so on. The second principle applies “to the distribution of income and wealth” and ensures that, although “the distribution of wealth and income need not be equal, it must be to everyone’s advantage” (607-08).
Rawls realizes that, although few would disagree with his first principle of justice, some might dispute his second principle. It is unjust, some might say, to take wealth from one who earned his wealth because he is naturally talented, or because he is a hard worker, and to give it to one who is less naturally talented, or one who is not a hard worker. Rawls responds to this criticism by claiming that one who earns great wealth because of his natural abilities does not deserve that wealth any more than one who is less talented because he cannot take credit for being born with those abilities. And likewise, one who earned his wealth because of his “superior character” does not deserve more wealth than one of less character because “his character depends in large part upon fortunate family and social circumstances for which he can claim no credit” (610).
Nozick’s principles of justice
Writing very much in the Lockean tradition, Robert Nozick asserts that all humans have certain fundamental rights, such as life, health, liberty, and property. He believes that these rights, which are intuitive to all people, cannot be taken away even for the good of society as a whole. The problem with all distributive principles of justice, Nozick writes, is that they violate some of these basic human rights and are, therefore, unjust.
Nozick begins his argument by noting that almost every “suggested principle of distributive justice is patterned: to each according to his moral merit, or needs, or marginal product, or how hard he tries, or the weighted sum of the foregoing, and so on” (614). Rawls’ second principle, of course, holds that each member of society is entitled to a certain amount of wealth and could be stated in the following pattern: to each according to his advantage. Patterned principles of justice, contends Nozick, deny people certain basic rights, as all such patterns “continually interfere to stop people from transferring resources as they wish to” (615). For example, by holding that each individual in society must live above a certain standard of living, Rawls’ principle requires that wealth often be forcibly taken from well-off individuals and given to poor ones. By forcibly transferring wealth from one individual to another, such principles infringe upon individuals’ basic rights to liberty and property.
Nozick believes that the only time it is just to forcibly take wealth from one individual and give it to another is when the first individual acquired that wealth unjustly—for example, through fraud, or coercion. In a just society, Nozick writes, one is entitled to keep his holdings if those holdings were acquired justly. As he puts it, “whether a distribution is just depends upon how it came about” (613).
Critique of Rawls’ theory
We should begin our critique of Rawls’ theory by evaluating the method he uses for determining the principles of justice, the veil of ignorance. Now, of course, Rawls would be the first to admit that this method cannot get at the “Form of Justice,” if there is such a thing. In other words, putting people behind a veil of ignorance cannot guarantee that the metaphysical nature of justice can be found. It is very possible that the true nature of justice is ‘x’ and that people behind the veil will decide that justice is ‘y’. What Rawls does believe, however, is that putting people behind a veil of ignorance will ensure that a fair society is formed. For this reason, Rawls believes that if justice is fairness (as most believe it is), then the veil of ignorance will establish a just society.
But is Rawls correct in stating that the veil of ignorance will create a fair society? The answer to this question, of course, depends on what is meant by a “fair society.” If by a “fair society,” we mean a society in which everyone is initially given an equal say in setting up the government, then Rawls’ method unarguably ensures a fair society. However, if by a “fair society,” we mean a society in which everyone continues to be treated fairly equally once the society is formed, then Rawls’ method might not ensure the creation of such a society. For example, although, behind the veil, everyone is free to choose the type of society they would like to live in, it is possible that they would agree to live in a society in which a small number of citizens benefit at the expense of everyone else. Perhaps people behind the veil would be willing to take their chances and risk living a “miserable” life for the chance, even though it is a slim one, of living a “great” one.
Rawls, of course, does not think that people would take this chance. Rather, assuming that humans are both rational and self-interested, he believes that, after doing some simple calculation, humans would settle for a “decent” life. Although humans may not be as rational, or as self-interested as Rawls believes they are, he seems to be essentially correct in stating that humans are basically rational and self-interested. A simple glance inwards and a quick look at others reveals that this is the case. Since this conception of human nature is basically true, it seems to follow that Rawls is correct when stating that people would be so turned off by the chance of living a “miserable” life that they would settle for a “decent” one—as virtually every rational and self-interested being would hate living a “miserable” life more than he would love living a “great” one.
Even though Rawls’ method seems to be effective at establishing a fair society, there are reasons to believe that people behind the veil would not entirely choose the type of society that Rawls believes they would. Yes, people behind the veil would agree with Rawls in some ways. For instance, people behind the veil would most likely establish some sort of social safety net. For example, knowing that they might be born with a serious physical or mental handicap and would, therefore, be unable to ensure themselves an adequate standard of living, it seems likely that most people behind the veil would establish a society that ensures an adequate standard of living for such handicapped individuals. But people behind the veil would probably disagree with Rawls in other ways.
For example, most people would probably disagree with Rawls’ claim that hard-working individuals should be forced to forfeit some of their wealth to indolent, yet capable individuals. Rawls argues that rational, self-interested people would agree to subsidize such lazy individuals because he holds that one’s character largely depends upon factors that he is not responsible for, such as the family and social circumstances he came from. So, according to Rawls, a man who chooses to work hard cannot be praised for working hard and a man who chooses not to work hard cannot be blamed for not working hard, as neither men freely decided to make the choices they made, but both were, in a way, predetermined to act as they did.
But most people would probably reject Rawls’ reasoning here, as most people seem to believe that, excluding people with physical and mental handicaps, people are largely responsible for their actions and cannot pass the buck, so to speak, to anyone or anything else. Countless examples could be given of individuals who came from horrendous family and social circumstances, yet “defied the odds” and became responsible, hard-working citizens. Countless examples could also be given of individual who came from great family and social conditions, yet willingly chose to “sin” and “leech off of others.” Most people behind the veil would, therefore, believe that those who are capable of acquiring an adequate standard of living, yet unwilling to do so, do not deserve to receive money from hard-working individuals.
So, in summary, we can say that, although Rawls’ method may be effective at establishing principles of justice insofar as they pertain to fairness, there are good reasons for believing that, behind a veil of ignorance, rational, self-interested people would establish principles of justice that are, at least in some ways, different than those Rawls has established. Rawls’ principles, therefore, can be said to be, at least partly, inadequate.
Critique of Nozick’s theory
Unlike Rawls, Nozick does not have a method for determining the principles of justice. Rather, he simply assumes that humans possess certain fundamental rights and that any system that violates these rights is unjust. If asked to prove that humans possess such intrinsic rights, Nozick would probably appeal to people’s intuitions. All people intuitively know, he might say, that all humans possess such rights. Of course, just because people intuitively believe something does not prove that it is true. It could probably be shown that people intuitively believe a lot of things that are untrue. Since Nozick does not establish a metaphysical basis for his principles of justice, it appears that his theory is dogmatic, and not philosophic, in nature.
However, there may be ways to save Nozick’s theory from dogmatism. One obvious way is for Nozick to accept Rawls’ method and show that, behind a veil of ignorance, people would choose to live in a libertarian society. Although this is clearly not what Nozick intends to do, for the sake of comparing the two men’s theories, we will see if people behind the veil might actually choose Nozick’s principles.
We previously saw that, behind a veil of ignorance, people might sometimes agree with Nozick’s principles and disagree with those of Rawls. For example, people behind the veil would probably conclude, as Nozick does, that it is unjust to transfer wealth from hard-working individuals to idle people who are capable of earning an adequate amount of wealth, yet merely unwilling to do so. But just because people behind the veil would often agree with Nozick, does it follow that they would choose the libertarian principles of justice that he advocates? As we will see, the answer to this question is probably “no.”
Nozick claims that people are entitled to their wealth as long as they acquire it justly. Since this is the case, it follows that Nozick would find it unjust for a government to take even a small amount of money from a rich man and give it to a poor man who, despite his tremendous effort, finds himself starving to death. This, of course, does not mean that Nozick would be against voluntarily helping the poor man, but simply that he does not think the government has a right to force the rich man to help the poor man. As we saw earlier, most people behind a veil of ignorance would agree to a society that provides some sort of social safety net—a safety net that would forcibly transfer some of the rich man’s wealth to the poor man. So, in other words, it seems likely that people behind a veil of ignorance would disagree with Nozick’s claim that people are always entitled to all of their wealth so long as it is acquired justly. People behind the veil would probably feel that a rich man’s “rights” to liberty and property ought to be violated when a poor man across town is starving to death.
Although Nozick has failed to support his theory by establishing a metaphysical basis for it and although his theory cannot be entirely supported by applying the veil of ignorance to it, there still may be one other way to save his theory and to show that it is in fact just. If Nozick could build a strong empirical case that (1) a libertarian society would create the greatest amount of wealth for the greatest amount of people and (2) that people in such a society would freely provide for the underprivileged, then he might be able to legitimately claim that his theory is just. For if Nozick could show that these two conditions would be met in a libertarian society and if people behind the veil of ignorance were convinced that such conditions would occur in a libertarian society, then people behind the veil would most likely agree to accept Nozick’s principles. Nozick’s principles could, therefore, be considered just insofar as justice is fairness. Whether such an empirical case could be legitimately made is, of course, a question that is far beyond the scope of this paper.
In conclusion, the principles of justice advocated by both Rawls and Nozick can be said to be inadequate. Neither thinker shows that their set of principles can be supported by a metaphysical standard, and there are good reasons to believe that neither set of principles can be supported by putting people behind a veil of ignorance. This, however, does not mean that neither of these thinkers has made important contributions to the field of political philosophy. Rawls’ veil of ignorance, for example, seems to be a good method for establishing principles of justice as fairness. And many of the views advocated by both men would probably be chosen behind the veil. The task, then, of the 21st-century political philosopher is to pick up where these thinkers have left off and to show what type of society people behind a veil of ignorance would actually choose. Either that, or the political philosopher must succeed where philosophers have failed for well over two thousand years, and find and prove the “Form of Justice.”