Compare Rawls and Nozick

8 August 2016

The two most significant philosophers on the principles of society structure are John Rawls and Robert Nozick. John Rawls’ ideas of a fair and just society are based on two main principles. These two principles make up his system of justice and incorporate welfare liberalism. In the first place there is Rawls Liberty principle. This principle can be explained as each individual having the right to equality within their society. Allowing basic equality in society such as the right to vote, freedom of speech and freedom to choose a religion is how western society is today.

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Secondly there is his Difference principle. This principle describes how the disadvantaged can take advantage of opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable to them. It also demonstrates how economic differences can be minimised within society. For example all people within a society have a conscience and can help those less fortunate as they may one day find themselves in a similar position (Kukathas, & Pettit, 1990). On the other hand Robert Nozick has a different view of the structure of this type of society. Nozick believes in extreme individualism.

This can be interpreted to mean that the poor make a choice to be poor and the rich should not have to fund them for their choices. Nozick believes the government is only in existence to assist with keeping society safe (Schmidtz, 2002). I will argue in this essay that John Rawls’ system of justice is a more equal and humane way to live within any society. I would agree with Rawls’ theories that every person is equal and the prosperous should support the less advantaged. According to Baldwin, Rawls says “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions”.

He explains that a society that he imagines is “a self sufficient association of persons” and constitutes “a cooperative association for mutual advantage” (Belshaw, & Kemp, 2009, p. 35). The key word in this quote for me is “cooperative”; the society of which Rawls dreams is one of a voluntary nature, where the individual can make a choice regarding their inclusion. This is a world I would like to live in, where every person is involved of their own free will and is willing to aid and support the community for the advantage of all participants.

Rawls’ Liberty Principle ensures each individual has equal entitlements to basic liberties. This principle is fundamental in designing the political constitution. It ensures the basic rights of each individual. The central position of the Liberty Principle evolves from individuals holding a moral point of view. This can be seen in discussions on land rights, gay marriage, universal healthcare, feminism and unionism. An example of this can be seen in Maio’s (2002) article where he argues on the ethical responsibilities of society in regards to cognitively impaired persons.

He argues that society has a duty to support and provide adequate healthcare to this disadvantaged group. According to the liberty principle we as a community has a responsibility to ensure ongoing support towards their efforts towards recovery. Rawls’ Difference Principle describes how we all need to look at society from a “veil of ignorance “and to have no previous knowledge or judgements. From this position Rawls believes if we know nothing about our social class, current wealth or talents we arrive at a basic structure of society.

For example a person’s race, gender, religion or class of origin should not be considered; this will allow for equality and fairer choices for all. From this point Rawls believes all individuals should be prepared to support the disadvantaged to feed and house themselves; this will then ensure their own protection within their society should they ever require it. Rawls believes that reasonable people will understand this and to maximise their own potential will promote a state of welfare. A welfare state ensures the growth of each society through the protection and equality of those less fortunate (Wenar, 2012).

However other philosophers such as Clarke and Nozick disagree with Rawls’ theories. They believe in a minimal state. This is a state where there is no redistribution of wealth and the government is only responsible for keeping people safe. Unlike Rawls, Nozick believes that people should be able to accumulate success and fortune through hard work. He doesn’t believe that these people should have to help others less fortunate than themselves. As cited in Schmitz, (2002, p. 34) Nozick is quoted as saying “Individuals have rights”.

This is a controversial statement by Nozick adhering followers to his theories yet repelling others who perceive it as shallow. I don’t believe he is talking about moralistic rights; his beliefs relating to ownership rights show that if a person works the land, they can then own it. This is extremely controversial subject especially if we relate it to colonisation of Australia. John Locke argues in his Second Treatise on Government, that when a person works, then his labour automatically entitles him to ownership of the land. Thus, the object becomes the property of that person.

This is evident during the settlement of Australia when the new Australians colonised Aboriginal land and continues to be evident with the discussion around Aboriginal land rights (Kolers, 2000). Rawls’ system of justice is a philosophical basis for a just and fair society. Everyone is equal and entitled to the same opportunities. The background of individuals is not influential in their status or the opportunities available to them. It incorporates the need for everyone within the society to look out for each other formulating a safe and supportive environment aiding all participants irrelevant of age, gender or religion.

This idea is unlike Nozick’s theory where each individual can earn as they wish without any responsibility to other individuals or society in general. To further support Rawls’ argument, in which he believes in a fair and just society, is the discussion around the current healthcare system which supports members equally within the society. A Health system based on Rawls’theories would also benefit individuals, families and the community as a whole, allowing choices and based on proven positive outcomes.

This healthcare system takes into consideration cultural diversities and is easy to navigate supporting people to achieve maximum health potentials. Although Rawls does not directly talk on this subject other philosophers such as Ronald Green argue that affordable healthcare is a basic right within the original position (J Med Philos. 1983). I feel this is evident in the health systems in Australia today where all people can access a high level of public health care even if they are financially disadvantaged.

On the other hand, Nozick’s extreme individualisation does not advocate supporting the disadvantaged within the current healthcare system. Nozick encourages people to work hard to pay for their own health care. With this theory the more economically stable people are; the better the healthcare they can afford. However, this leaves me with questions; who aids the aged, the frail and the disabled? Will this way of thinking enhance the gap between the rich and the poor? (Brown,2003). I agree with Rawls that the kind of society Nozick suggests is open to, as cited by Brown (2003) as “breeding a selfish society where individuals are encouraged to consume rather than care for their fellow humans”. If each individual is preoccupied only with themselves and how much wealth they can accumulate then this could become competitive leaving little or no time to be concerned for others (Brown, 2003). In conclusion, I believe this is a very complex topic that will be debated often throughout political history. I feel Rawls’ Theory of Justice is sound and moral. I agree that we should, as a society, be responsible for those less fortunate than ourselves.

Although I can see the merits in Nozick’s theories and fully comprehend the issues of a person being able to work hard to better themselves, I don’t believe it answers the question of how the community supports the disadvantaged within our society. I am also left questioning whether communism is a direct supporter of Rawls’ theories, even after comprehensive readings on the two philosophers and their opposing theories. Since the theories of Justice in context are sound and moral and Rawls looks only to minimise the gap between the rich and the poor then the question remains as to why we still have social class differences.

I feel that the weakness with Rawls’ theory is that the advantaged within our society may hold resentment towards the disadvantaged. Nozick believes that the disadvantaged in society have made conscious choices that result in their shortcomings. This age old debate will continue swinging from Rawls’ ideals of welfare liberalism to Nozicks’ individualisation’. I feel the answer lies in a compromise. However this appears to be extremely shallow on Nozick’s behalf.

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