'Social Justice' has only relatively recently become of significant interest to political philosophers. It is a very modern concept to suggest all human beings are of equal moral worth and until the publication of John Rawls' 'A Theory of Justice' most governments followed Utilitarian principles. Utilitarianism emphasises the wellbeing of society over the individual, a fact both Rawls and Robert Nozick, his main competitor, both find serious fault in as this does not recognise the separateness of individuals.
Simply because a society is efficient does not mean that it will be just, the example of Nazi Germany best demonstrates this. The natural differences between humankind should be reflected in how society treats them and a state has responsibility to ensure the welfare of its citizens. We can contrast the approaches of both Rawls and Nozick in relation to their concepts of social justice, how benefits and resources should be distributed in order to achieve the most morally right and just distribution.
Nozick's work was developed in main as a response to or critique of Rawls and so this essay shall address the Rawlsian concept of justice first, Justice is Needs. Rawls' work is most heavily associated with his version of social justice, the belief individuals should not suffer from circumstance beyond their control i. e. those born least socially or genetically advantaged. Equally he strongly argues we should also not benefit from talents and assets which we do not deserve. Such advantages are 'arbitrary from a moral point of view' and are simply based on luck.
'The greater advantages he could achieve with his national endowments' are unjust in his view (Rawls 1972:104). The basic social structure must therefore be altered to compensate for the 'natural and social lottery', in favour of the handicapped and the poorer social groups. He allows the existence of inequalities as long as they benefit the least advantaged – 'Just and only just if they work as part of a scheme to improve the expectations of the least advantaged members of society' (Rawls 1972:75).
His is a non-welfarist distribution of primary social groups as it is to objective standards, Justice according to 'needs' (Roemer 1998:164). To prove his theory he uses a hypothetical situation, placing oneself in the original position – a position of complete ignorance, in which he believes all rational human beings would act in their own interest and choose the distribution which maximises the position of the least advantaged, i. e. the minimum position in society. Humans are rationally self interested so a broadly egalitarian distribution of wealth is what most people would regard as 'fair' (Heywood 1994: 230).
Hence Rawlsian justice is also called 'Justice as Fairness'. There are however, several glaring flaws in Rawls' theory, many of which Nozick leaps on. As his is an end-state theory, where a positive outcome i. e. an improvement to the distribution is all that matters, Nozick criticises this for failing to take into account how this came about. Rawls arguably places too much emphasis on outcomes, for example robbery at gunpoint versus gift giving, for him there is no distinction as long as the outcome is positive (Roemer 1998:205).
Nozick also takes great issue with the patterned nature of Rawls' distribution – whereby the justice of a distribution is determined by set structural principles (Goodin & Petit 2001:205) – and claims it cannot be realised without continuous interference in peoples lives, using his 'Wilt Chamberlain' example to demonstrate this (Goodin & Petit 2001:209). In his view patterns disrupt liberty and are liable to be thwarted by people's voluntary actions. However O'Neill criticises this statement and shows there are many patterned and end-state systems which remain very stable in the face of voluntary transfers (in Paul 1981:320).
Hayek similarly objects to patterning and declares 'all attempts to impress upon society a deliberately chosen pattern of distribution, whether it be on order of equality or of inequality' to be infringing liberties (1960:87). Nozick also believes Rawls does not take into account the separateness of persons as he does not recognise the necessity of individual talents. Having natural talents does not directly violate anyone else's entitlement or rights (Goodin & Petit 2001:237) and Rawls' also ignores the possibility of freely chosen effort, attributing these again to familial and cultural influences (Roemer 1998: 173).
Kymlicka asks the question 'what if I were not born into privileged social group or with special talents but still managed to secure a larger income than others', would Rawls still wish this income to be redistributed? (2001:57). Finally Dworkin, and many others, are suspicious of Rawls' difference principle and question whether or not Rawls' presumed outcome would necessarily occur. As his proof is solely hypothetical this is a serious weakness of his argument (Dworkin 1977:151). So after examining and analysing 'Justice is Needs' we shall now move onto 'Justice is Entitlement'.
Nozick, as a 'right liberal', was strongly committed to ideas of self ownership and a laissez faire state, as is reflected in his theory. Whether or not a distribution is just depends on whether it follows his three specifications: Principle of Acquisition – how individuals can acquire the rights to objects which were previously un-owned, Principle of Transfer – how people can acquire property rights and finally the Principle of Rectification – how historical injustices should be rectified. Here we can see how Nozick diverges from Rawls in his emphasis on the historical background of a distribution.
In his view justice should unconcerned with size of individuals entitlements, more how he came about them. Individual's entitlements are achieved through hard work and exercise of skills. Rewards such as income and success will be according to merit, not needs such as Rawls asserts. He also differs from Rawls by including luck as a legitimate means of acquiring assets as in his view people are entitled to their natural talents, therefore any holdings that flow from them become their entitlements (Nozick 1972:149).
Cohen agree with this assessment as he believes every person to be morally the rightful owner of himself and so having a right to use their powers to their own benefit as long as they do not harm others. (Cohen 1986:109). Recognising self-ownership is crucial to treating people as equals (Kymlicka 2001:106). Nozick approves of the development of an equality of opportunity to ensure that people's fate is the result of their own choices and that whatever success we achieve is deserved (Kymlicka 2001:55).
Unequal income in this sense could be considered fair as the greater success is merited. Rawls himself also acknowledges that common sense suggests income and wealth should be allocated in accordance with moral desert and Cohen declares this to be a naturally just distribution. Nozick believes his theory to be the most morally principle due to its un-patterned nature and we could argue that most people agree with the concept of justice as desert, that talented, hardworking people deserve more than untalented ones feckless ones (Swift 2001:39). Is Justice therefore Entitlement?
Unfortunately, as with Rawls, Nozick's distributive justice is also highly flawed. The un-patterned nature of the distribution means that Nozick objects completely to any form of state intervention, citing involuntary appropriation of an individual's entitlement as unjust and claiming redistributive taxation as being akin to forced labour. In his view a redistributive state is unjust as uses people as means to others ends, therefore rejecting their individual liberties.
However this means there would be no welfare state, no public health care, or education as would involve coercive taxation. He is unconcerned with maximising social welfare and equality; indeed he views being handicapped simply as being bad luck, possibly unfair but not unjust. As long as peoples property rights are respected then whatever distribution occurs, however unequal it may be, is just in his view(Swift 2001:34). This one could suggest is too extreme a viewpoint.
Whilst concepts such as distribution by merit appeal one would insist that surely it is unfair for the naturally disadvantaged to starve simply as they have nothing to offer others in free exchange? In Nozick's system any redistribution of wealth from rich to poor would simply be as an act of private charity undertaken through personal choice, i. e. far less likely to happen. Ryan argues that Nozick's defence of his own theory rests primarily on his critique of his competitors (Paul 1981:325) and in many ways we can see this to be true.
He fails to show how individuals can become entitled to full control over previously un-held resources (O'Neill, in Paul, 1981:305) and fails to see the morally invalid nature of appropriating what had been public land. As Gibbard says if land is appropriated then surely individuals no longer have a right to access the land, if the world is jointly owned then surely this act would only be morally permissible if all others agree to give up land? (1976). So is Nozick's distribution more legitimate and inline with our intuitions that Rawls redistribution?
On first glance one would say yes, justice as entitlement and merit is correct. However what would be created would be a highly unequal form of capitalism where no redistributive taxes would occur unless all agreed to them (Roemer 1998:205). The state should act to benefit all of society and it is plain this distribution would not do this. At the same time Rawls also is quite unsatisfactory and penalises people unnecessarily by forcing them to compensate for others problems, so in effect using people as means. One could therefore argue that Justice is neither Entitlement or, indeed, Need.