Robert Nozick: The Anti-Rawls


Anarchy, State, And Utopia by Robert Nozick is a book of many questions… with very few answers.

Nozick spends a lot of time coming-up with extreme situations and outcomes which would seem to undercut liberal political ideas, especially those put-forth by legal philosopher, John Rawls.

For example, a fundamental principle of Rawls is that a political system should be set up so that the people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder are as well off as possible.  Nozick, countering the suggestion, asks us to imagine a world wherein some are born eyeless, but they COULD see if only they were given a fresh pair of working eyes.  Says Nozick, “an application of the principle of maximizing the position of those worst off might well involve forceable redistribution of bodily parts” […] “or killing some people early to use their bodies in order to provide material necessary to save the lives of those who otherwise would die young.  To bring up such cases may sound slightly hysterical.”


Nozick doesn’t do himself any favors by setting himself up as the man to take down Rawls.  This is unfair to Nozick, and perhaps, upon reflection, why I find myself judging his work so harshly.  I suppose Nozick’s book is deeper and more thought-provoking than most political books.  Yes, absolutely.  I can give him that.  And yet, by attempting to go toe-to-toe with a giant, he highlights the fact that his book and Rawls’ book, A Theory Of Justice, are playing ball in different leagues.  I guess I should not fault a high school football team for losing a game to the Dallas Cowboys… but that’s exactly the judgment Nozick invites.

Philosophically, besides the justice-philosophy of John Rawls, Nozick spends many pages kicking Utilitarianism about the shins.  Again, his style and tone does nothing to convince one that the philosophical ideas he is attacking are wrong-headed… merely that they are imperfect.  He can offer nothing substantial to replace the ideas he pummels.  Nozick is really good at asking snarky questions (he must ask HUNDREDS in the book!)– but without providing many answers.

One of the cornerstones of Rawls’ impressive philosophical edifice is the Difference Principle.  In Rawls’ own words, the Difference Principle declares that… “social and economic inequalities (for example, inequalities of wealth and authority) are just only if they result in compensating benefits for everyone, and in particular for the least advantaged members of society.”  To Nozick, this translates into a society that demands “great inequalities in order to achieve SLIGHT benefit for the worst-off representative man.”
Nozick rightfully calls Rawls out for switching back and forth in his text between the worst-off person and the worst-off group.  Nozick claims that Rawls sometimes wishes to avoid the idea of the worst-off person because that could mean advocating a society based, in Nozick’s words, on “how the unhappiest depressive fares.”  But even switching to the worst-off group doesn’t save the Difference Principle from some bizarre applications.  For instance, Nozick (whose examples sometimes shock a bit) wonders aloud if the Difference Principle should be interpreted to mean that all Society is to be built around the well-being of “alchoholics, or the representative paraplegic.”

Or, in another typically Nozickian example, Nozick asks us to imagine a situation in which the lives of young people with a certain disease could be saved by killing off the older people and using them for parts.  It would be only fair under Rawls’s system, contends Nozick… after all, the old folks already HAD their lives.  Are not the dying young people worse off, and thus in need of redistribution?

Nozick thinks it’s no more fair for the least well-off to demand to get as much as possible than it is for the most well-off to demand the same.  Notice here how Nozick has just ever so slightly tweaked Rawls’ Difference Principle.  Taking Rawls’s idea that people should not benefit from a certain measure unless the lives of the least well-off are simultaneously improved, Nozick twists the wording to come up with the demand to get as much as possible.  Great philosophical victories are often based upon subtle restatements of the opponent’s position.  But, let us grant the re-statement and follow Nozick’s argument…

Nozick asserts that Rawls is going against his own stated principle that the State should not try to distribute rewards by “moral desserts.”  Nozick believes that there is an assumption here that the people at the top grabbing all they can somehow don’t “deserve” their excess– which is a value judgment expressly denied legitimacy in Rawls’s system of justice.

Nozick is convinced that some people, possessing superior “talents and abilities” are greater assets to society than others (I don’t argue that point).  And, wrongly I believe, he assumes that the people perched atop the socio-economic pyramid are all giving, talented pillars of the community.  In his view, the folks at the top (obviously the most able and talented we have) have ALREADY given back to the community by sharing their abilities.  He then asks… “is it the extraction of even more benefit to others that is supposed to justify treating people’s natural assets as a collective resource?”  Citing Kant, he hints that treating “people’s abilities and talents as resources for others” is tantamount to treating people as a means to an end, and not– as Kant directs– as ends in themselves.  The activities of talented go-getters, says Nozick, already provide society with positive externalities for which they remain uncompensated.  No need to take even more away from them.

Nozick also criticizes Rawls for not addressing the fact that some people at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder have, well, made some bad choices that put them there.  “Notice,” writes Nozick, “that there is no mention at all of how persons have chosen to develop their own natural assets.  Why is that simply left out?”  Nozick thinks this is because Rawls is wrongly blaming society– and not the individual– for the trajectory of an individual’s life.  Asserts Nozick, “so denigrating a person’s autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self-respect of autonomous beings.”

—   —   —   —   —

Unlike Rawls, Nozick doesn’t offer us a complete, amazingly thought-out system of justice.  And he never comes close to capturing my imagination like Rawls did with his work.  Also unlike Rawls, Nozick doesn’t move gracefully from logical point to logical point, building a towering philosophy brick by solid brick.  Instead of depth of insight, Nozick paddle-boats over the surface of political thought.

If Rawls has built a royal road to justice… Nozick merely succeeds in going behind him and pointing out the potholes.

Basically, Nozick does not make an argument– not a logical, philosophical, high-minded argument at least.  Listing, as Nozick does, numerous bizarre scenarios and extremely rare outlier cases does not a logical argument make.  It’s more like tossing an armful of arrowheads at someone.  This approach may scratch, but it is doubtful that such a manner of refutation would ever truly pierce the heart of anyone.   At best, Nozick shows us that Rawls’ proposed system of justice is not an infallible one, that it has problems– maybe even gaping holes.

Nozick’s arguments– no, not arguments; I can’t call his barrage of unanswered questions and far-out stories, “arguments”– Nozick’s counter-examples fail to convince that Rawls’ suggestions should be tossed as a whole into the rubbish-heap.  Nozick’s punches are thrown only from the wrist.  He’s not so much demolishing Rawls’ grand philosophical edifice as he is merely throwing eggs at it and spray-painting the walls with his acrid disapproval.

On the other hand, on a literary level, Nozick’s prose is often easier to absorb than Rawls’.  I found that Rawls could be wordy and obtuse, wheras Nozick is often able to make his points in a much simpler language.  That said, Nozick’s main literary failure is that some of his paragraphs sound like the most nightmarish world problems from math class.  He creates matrices to describe scenarios and puts-together algebra-sounding examples containing characters such as “Person IA-prime,” who does Activity Z with Result Q.

I suppose it is only fair to point out that, in spite of attempting to tear it to shreds, Nozick speaks very highly of Rawls’ achievement… “It is impossible to finish his book without a new and inspiring vision of what a moral theory may attempt to do and unite; of how BEAUTIFUL a whole theory can be.”


2 thoughts on “Robert Nozick: The Anti-Rawls

    1. No, but I try NOT to do book “reviews.” My main purpose is personal– to cement what I read better in my head. So that often means I summarize the topic. I take notes as I read, then type them up by subject before I write my articles. I often do multiple posts per book– something I wasn’t planning-on in the beginning. I pick books mainly from a “To Read” list I’ve been building my whole life, but also I’ll choose a book on a whim. My pace slowed down dramatically when I figured-out that I wanted to learn physics more than superficially. If you have any more Q’s, just ask! Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment… H.S.

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