26 April 2009

Rawls and Nozick

I was busy writing my paper for political philosophy, and didn't even notice that I never posted anything here. Before I get back to that paper (as all I've got now is a rough draft), I figured I'd mention the topic a bit here. Rawls and Nozick are our last two philosophers for political philosophy. Rawls is, arguably, the most significant political theorist of the 20th century. He developed an entirely novel social contract theory, based not on presuppositions about how the State of Nature would or would not have looked, but based on what he terms the Veil of Ignorance. Nozick was a colleague of Rawls with very different political views. His response to Rawls seems to be inadequate, but there's a bit of a complication. Rawls published his book first. Nozick published a response. When Rawls' book was translated into German, he updated it to account for Nozick's criticisms, but the updated version was not published in English for many more years. So it's possible that Nozick's criticisms were adequate to the original version of Rawls' ideas, and Rawls simply fleshed them out/adapted them in reponse. As Pelletti said, to do it completely right, we'd need to read the first edition of Rawls, then read Nozick, then read the final edition of Rawls, but we just didn't have the time in that class.

Rawls works from what he calls the "original position," where a group of people have come together to come up with the founding principles of their society under a "veil of ignorance," whereby they know none of their own particular attributes. They know that they are people, that they have characteristics, that they have a notion of 'The Good' (someone explain to me why this translates as "a plan for their life," as I don't get it), and they know that to realize their plan they will need access to at least some resources. They also have access to all general knowledge, including historical information, but they don't know their own place in history nor their own geographical location.

I was skeptical of Rawls' conclusions at first, but I think that he's right that people would seek a system where, no matter who they wound up being, they would have a shot at carrying out their life's plan. So they would seek to "maximize the minimum," i.e. make sure that the people who were worst off in the system were as well off as possible. Rawls works out three principles (with two of them grouped together) to describe how this might be done:

1. Liberty Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all.
2. Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged to that they are both:
(a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged. Difference Principle
(b) attached to offices and posistions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity. Fairness of Opportunity Principle

~Rawls, Theory of Justice, 266

Now, Rawls wants to exclude probability calculations altogether, but I think there is one probability calculation that would have to be made in his original position. These people have access to all historical data, so they would know that the vast, vast majority of people throughout history have been the "least advantaged," the poor, the serfs, the slaves, etc. Not knowing who they were, they would know that there was a very large chance that they were in one of these disadvantaged classes. They would also know that, even if they happened to be in one of the advantaged classes, there would still be a chance of falling down into the disadvantaged class. Thus I think it likely that, were Rawls principles presented, people who really thought about them in the original position would accept them. They seem to give the disadvantaged classes the best chance for a decent life.

Nozick takes an entirely different tack in Anarchy, State, and Utopia. He wants to argue for a "night-watch state," where the only function of the government is to protect property rights. He goes through some rather impassioned rhetoric of the "taxation is theft" variety, but never actually explains why property rights are to be held sacrosanct rather than some other set of rights. It didn't help his case that he utilized Locke's theory of property, which Locke grounded in biblical assumptions about the world. Yes, people use Locke without accepting that grounding, but then it's unclear that Locke's idea is grounded at all. But even if we assume that a coherent theory of property acquisition can be worked out, it's clear that modern society does not meet Nozick's criteria for a "fair property distribution." Nozick's suggestion of some sort of recompense to those whose property was taken unfairly seems unworkable, too, since (a) we don't know about all the unfairness that went on; (b) we don't know how much would have worked out differently had the unfairness not occurred; (c) it's likely that many of the victims are dead, so we'd be compensating their descendants; and (d) it's not clear that taking recompense from people whose own property acquisition was fair (but the property was previously obtained unfairly) would actually be just.

But on to Nozick's criticisms of Rawls. Nozick assumes that there is such a thing as a "correct" property distribution (one that has come about through fair acquisition), and then concludes that since the original position is extremely unlikely to produce that distribution, the original position must not itself be fair. He also tries to argue that the difference principle might be used in questionable ways, and that it is an end-state distribution; however, the questionable uses would be taken care of by the Liberty Principle (which Rawls considers to be the first and most important consideration), and while the difference principle puts a constraint on the "end-state distribution", it itself is not an end-state distribution, any more than Nozick's constraint of "fair acquisition" on the end-state makes his view an end-state distribution. Essentially, Nozick misses that liberty comes first in Rawls' view, and then, if there are things that the liberty principle doesn't settle, the difference principle can be applied.

I will admit that as Rawls describes it, his principles come across as a bit too cold and calculating. I think that's more a problem with his writing style than with the ideas themselves. For instance, Nozick criticizes Rawls' contention that, in a family, members should act to improve the lot of the family member who is worst off, and as Rawls words it, the example does fall flat. However, Nozick's idea is even worse, as it would seem to indicate that family members had no obligation whatsoever to their fellow who was worse off. Perhaps "maximizing" the position of the one who's worst off might be too stringent a condition (among other things, how would you know when there was no more room for improvement?), but ignoring your own brother/sister/cousin because you have a right to your own property is surely worse. And I think, in practice, Rawls' ideas would lead not so much to concern about "maximizing" the minimum, but more in the direction of "making the minimum not an entirely awful place to be." Perhaps with a few generations of that attitude, we would manage to maximize the minimum, but even improving the minimum would be a worthy goal.

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