0n Rawls and Nozick

The agenda for current philosophical work on justice was set in the 1970s by John Rawls and Robert Nozick. Nozick said, “Political philosophers now must either work within Rawls’s theory or explain why not.”  There is truth in Nozick’s compliment, yet when it came to explaining why not, no one did more than Nozick.

Rawls spent the next three decades responding first to Nozick, then to a barrage of criticism from all directions. In part because of this, no short treatment can capture every nuance of Rawls’s evolving theory.2 However, Section II of this essay offers a brief overview of Rawls, and the next four sections reflect on several facets of Nozick’s response. Section III explains why Nozick thinks patterned principles of justice are false, and what a historical alternative might look like. Section IV concerns Nozick’s skepticism about the very idea that justice is essentially a distributive notion. Section V explains the difference between being arbitrary and being unjust. Nozick accepts Rawls’s premise that the natural distribution of talent is arbitrary, but denies that there is any short step from this to a conclusion that the natural distribution is unjust. Section VI notes that Nozick also agrees with Rawls on the core idea of natural rights liberalism: namely, that we are separate persons. However, Rawls and Nozick interpret that idea in different ways—momentously different ways. The tension between their interpretations is among the forces shaping political philosophy to this day

The remaining sections of this essay are more speculative. Section VII explains how Nozick’s tale of the “experience machine” can be seen to illustrate a particular way, Rawls’s way, of failing to be serious about the separateness of persons. Section VIII revisits the Rawlsian original position, asking how we would design the thought experiment if our objective were to articulate a genuinely procedural conception of justice. I conjecture that it might end up amounting to a prescription for Nozickian utopia

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Published in: Social Philosophy and Policy
2005 22 Pages 148-177
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