Nozick’s Knockout

In boxing, a knockout is any legal strike or combination thereof that renders an opponent unable to continue fighting. Keep this definition in mind, for Nozick will deliver the closest thing to a knockout by the end of Chapter 7 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Thus far, however, Nozick has restated Rawls’s theory of justice and has tried to refute (with limited success) the difference principle, Rawls’s main contribution to social contract theory and to political philosophy generally. The next three subsections of Chapter 7 of ASU (pp. 213-227), by contrast, restate and respond to Rawls’s critique of libertarianism. Nozick’s response to this critique will set up a one-two combination and knockout of Rawls.

But first things first. What is Rawls’s argument against libertarianism? In brief, his critique is that the set of holdings or distribution of wealth in a purely libertarian society will depend in large part on “social contingencies” and on the initial distribution of “natural talents and abilities” among the members of this society. (Rawls, 1971, p. 72.) In other words, some people will be smarter than others. Some will be more artistic than others. Some will be born into wealthy families. Etc., etc. But according to Rawls, such a state of affairs is unfair. Why? Because these social and natural contingencies are determined by accident or luck, not by merit, and are thus, in the words of Rawls, “arbitrary from a moral point of view.” (Ibid.)

After summarizing Rawls’s critique of libertarian outcomes (Nozick, 1974, pp. 213-216), Nozick devotes the next two subsections of Chapter 7 (pp. 216-227) responding to Rawls’s argument. In summary, even if it were true that differences in natural assets are random and thus morally arbitrary, Nozick shows that there is no logical connection between this claim (the notion that differences in natural assets are morally arbitrary) and the conclusion that differences in holdings arising from differences in natural assets are unjust. Rather than repeating all of Nozick’s elaborate reasoning (a tedious chore, to be sure), we will instead focus on Nozick’s best argument against Rawls’s critique of libertarian outcomes.

Here, then, is Nozick’s best argument (p. 226, emphasis added): “Whether or not people’s natural assets are arbitrary from a moral point of view, they are entitled to them, and to what flows from them.” In other words, Nozick draws a sharp distinction between justice and morality, i.e. between a person’s entitlements (what he is to entitled to do with his natural assets as a matter of justice) and his moral deserts or moral deservingness (what he is entitled to as a matter of morality). According to Nozick, regardless whether natural talents and abilities are morally arbitrary or morally deserved, people have a natural right to exploit their natural assets, “even if it’s not the case they can be said to deserve them ….” (Nozick, p. 225.)

But it is not until the last subsection of Chapter 7 (pp. 228-231) that Nozick delivers a powerful one-two combination against Rawls. First, Nozick rightly calls Rawls out for regarding the distribution of natural talents and abilities as a collective asset. Although Nozick concedes (p. 228) that “[p]eople will differ in how they view natural talents as a common asset,” collectivization is a very dangerous slippery slope. Next, Nozick speculates that Rawls’s critique of libertarianism and his theory of justice are motivated by envy. And even if he were not so motivated, Rawls commits the common fallacy of treating life as a zero-sum game. In reality, however, that some people are able to “get more” because of their natural talents does not mean that others must “get less”.

To sum up, whatever one can say in defense of Rawls, Nozick’s anti-envy and anti-collectivization arguments win the day! But then something strange happens. On the very last page of Chapter 7 (p. 231), Nozick concedes that past injustices might, in fact, justify massive schemes of redistribution under his (Nozick’s) third principle of justice: the principle of rectification. It sure sounds like the rest of ASU is going to be a wild intellectual ride! We will turn to Chapter 8 at the start of next week.

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About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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