Nozick on hypothetical histories

Nozick devotes the last subsection of Chapter 9 of ASU (pp. 292-294) to the problem of “hypothetical histories.” Here, he poses a crucial question (p. 293): “How should hypothetical histories affect our current judgment of the institutional structure of society?” This hypothetical history question is especially poignant because both John Rawls and Robert Nozick use this device–hypothetical histories–to build their theories of justice by which to evaluate the structure of North American society today: Rawls’s is the original position; Nozick’s, the dominant protection association. Nevertheless, Nozick’s answer to his hypothetical history question is less than satisfying. (See, e.g., David Johnston, The Idea of a Liberal Theory, Princeton U Press (1994), p. 56, n. 36, available here.) In fact, his analysis of the relation between hypothetical and actual histories ends up falling into a vicious circle!

According to Nozick, a hypothetical history can be just or unjust, and similarly, so too can an actual history be just or unjust. In both cases, whether a hypothetical or actual history is just or unjust depends entirely on whether the rights of individuals are respected in the hypothetical or actual societies corresponding to each type of history. Here, however, is where Nozick’s analysis becomes circular, for there is no universal agreement on what rights individuals are entitled to. Furthermore, different hypothetical histories can yield different conclusions about what these individual rights are or whether these rights even exist at all. Exhibit A: the debate between Rawls and Nozick! Recall that Rawls’s hypothetical history consists of persons in the original position bargaining over the principles of justice behind a veil of ignorance (see A Theory of Justice), while Nozick’s hypothetical history consists of the rise a dominant protection association and its transformation into a minimal state. (See Part I of ASU.) Both sets of hypothetical histories, however, produce different theories about what is just or unjust.

To sum up, both Rawls and Nozick present compelling and thought-provoking hypothetical histories, but their hypothetical histories yield different theories of justice. So, for my part, I would pose a different question. I would ask, what makes a particular hypothetical history such as Rawls’s or Nozick’s better or worse than another? In any case, this post concludes our review of Chapter 9 of ASU. We will proceed to the last chapter of Nozick’s book, Chapter 10, in the next day or two.

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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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