Rawls vs. Nozick on Social Problems and Criminal Justice

Abstract

A variety of approaches to the study of fairness, ethics, morality, and justice entails numerous disputes between scientists who support specific theories and ideas. Famous philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick offer compelling and intriguing concepts regarding the values of fairness and equality. They describe concepts of building a state based on morality and justice. Justice as Fairness: Political, not Metaphysical by Rawls examines the question of whether fairness can be extended to a common political conception for various types of societies, or only to a universal moral conception. Nozick’s Distributive Justice does not demand distribution be correlated with morality, need, and usefulness to society; it uses an exchange paradigm of justice. Theoretically, these ideas can provide a universally recognized basis for the concept of justice in a democratic state.

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Introduction

There are many approaches to learning equality, ethics, justice, morality, and fairness in philosophy. It entails numerous and diverse disputes between scientists who support specific theories and ideas. Problems described in scientific papers and mixed reactions to them present crucial social and spiritual phenomenon. A particular influence on contemporary politics and discourse was made by famous philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick in their works. The purpose of this essay is to reflect on the articles of the authors, to compare their key points, and determine whose theory is most applicable to social problems and criminal justice.

Justice as Fairness by John Rawls

John Rawls is a famous American philosopher, the founder of the liberal concept of state and international law. He is considered one of the most prominent representatives of the Anglo-American political philosophy of the 20th century. Rawls started researches on the problems of logic and language in the field of philosophy, and soon, he worked on the fundamental issues of ethics and philosophy of politics (Gališanka, 2019). Foundations of a fair society and the formulation of the morality problem, based on the concept of rationality, became the main theme of his works, one of which is Justice as Fairness: Political, not Metaphysical. The issues discussed in the article continue to be the subject of many disputes about justice among Rawls’ ideological opponents and supporters of his point of view.

In his work, Rawls (1985) talks about the task of political philosophy and also considers the main intuitive ideas that “are combined into a political conception of justice for a constitutional democracy” (p. 223). The primary purposes are that the public conception of justice should be independent of conflicting philosophical and religious doctrines in a constitutional democracy. Thus, Rawls (1985) applies the principle of tolerance to philosophy, making the public conception of justice political rather than metaphysical. The article examines the question of whether fairness can be extended to a common political conception for various types of societies, or only to a universal moral conception. The author claims that from a practical point of view, no general ethic idea can provide a universally recognized basis for the concept of fairness in a modern democratic state (Rawls, 1985). Furthermore, justice as fairness is based on the basic intuitive ideas embedded in the political institutions of a constitutional democratic regime.

Rawls’s political philosophy can be considered a study of the transition from a theoretical political philosophy to a practical one, from an idea to its application. A political conception of justice is a rational idea of a basic social structure. Furthermore, certain fundamental ideas presented in a public political culture are used for its formation. Justice as fairness includes the principle of equal freedom, the principle of differentiation, and the principle of equal chances. They are subordinated to the priority of liberty, according to which fundamental freedoms could be limited only in the name of freedom itself, and the priority of justice over efficiency and welfare (Rawls, 1985). Finally, based on justice as fairness, a well-organized society is built and guided by the principles of a straight system of cooperation. Citizens of such nations have an effective sense of justice, understand recognized principles of fairness, and act by the duties prescribed by their position. A political conception of justice is a moral concept for political, social, and economic institutions.

Distributive Justice by Robert Nozick

Robert Nozick’s paper “Distributive Justice” from Anarchy, State, and Utopia appeared three years after the publication of Rawls’s Justice as Fairness. It was the next significant step in the discussion of normative political philosophy and a liberal theory of justice. The work is based on “the principle of acquisition of holdings, the principle of transfer of holdings, and the principle of rectification of violations of the first two principles” (Nozick, 1973, p. 49). A person who acquires a holding has the title of ownership of this property. A person who acquires a holding from someone who has the title to this property also receives title to this property. Elimination of unfair ownership of a holding is carried out based on these two principles. Fair distribution arises from a prior equitable distribution through legitimate means.

An essential feature of Nozick’s conception is that equity in property relations is historically determined and depends on how distribution occurred. Principles based on the final result or condition refer only to who owns and what is owned, but they do not indicate how this distribution arose. Almost all the principles of distributive justice are patterned, and distribution occurs according to moral merit, needs, diligence, or the sum of the mentioned indicators. The theory of distributive justice treats production and distribution as two separate and independent spheres. Every person who does something, buying or receiving under the contract all other resources used in the production process, owns the title of its ownership (Nozick, 1973). Matching the pattern requires constant intervention in the activities of individuals and in the acts of choice they make.

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According to Nozick (1973), distributional taxation in a non-minimum state is equivalent to using people as means. Only an individual has legitimate claims on the products of his talents, and consequently, absolute ownership of them. People’s total possession means complete possession of what they produce. Redistributive taxation takes a certain amount of what an individual provides without consent and gives this part to others. Redistributive taxation is not consistent with the principle of self-possession; therefore, it is unfair (Nozick, 1973). The philosopher assumes rights as intuitive and does not provide arguments in favor of their existence. They are not substantiated through natural law, human nature, or the nature of the universe.

Comparison of the Theories

The problem of justice is especially relevant in the context of the formation of new social structures and property stratifications. At the beginning of this process in its modern form is the polemic of J. Rawls and R. Nozick. Rawls’s theory is conceived as a counterweight to utilitarianism, while Nozick’s work is a reaction to Rawls’s liberalism. From a practical point of view, the conceptions of these philosophers are the opposite. Rawls is a liberal and a supporter of a welfare state, Nozick is a libertarian and conservative. From a philosophical point of view, they are opposed to utilitarianism, and both reject it because it erases the differences between individuals. They are also supporters of personal rights, but there are significant distinctions. Rawls creates his theory based on Kant’s deontology; Nozick makes it based on Locke’s theory of natural rights (Corlett, 2016). Nozick uses an exchange paradigm of justice; Rawls adheres to a distribution paradigm of general justice.

Nozick’s theory does not demand distribution be correlated with morality, need, and usefulness to society; people may have things by chance or gift. Rawls’s end-result theory suggests that the choice of principles is based on what a person can get as a result of particular sets of principles. Therefore, Rawls’s approach is considered wrong if any historically established theory of rights is correct. Concurrently, Nozick’s work is just a sketch in which many important details are not worked out (Corlett, 2016). Nozick firmly believes in individual freedom and advocates for a minimal state that supports the law but does nothing to redistribute wealth.

A characteristic feature of Rawls’ theory is its practicality and the possibility of applying it in practice to reach a welfare state. If it is successful, it gives people an opportunity to create fair and objective principles. These principles may be used in social problems and criminal justice of society. The author offers an accurate way of making moral decisions that avoids many issues of a utilitarian system (Rawls, 1985). At the same time, Nozick’s idea leads a state to extreme individualism. As a result, people are obliged to pay taxes for things, transport, private medical care, and education. Also, the redistribution of wealth causes a vast difference between the rich and the poor. It obstructs criminal justice and makes social unrest among citizens (Corlett, 2016). Thus, Nozick’s theory is not applicable to build a harmonious and productive state.

Conclusion

There are many disputes and theories about what fairness is and how to create a state-based on morality and justice. Famous philosophers John Rawls and Robert Nozick offer convincing and intriguing conceptions regarding the values of fairness and equality. The works of the authors have both advantages and disadvantages that allow discussing and comparing these two theories. Nevertheless, Rawl’s ideas provide a more workable foundation for practical application to social issues and criminal justice. Theoretically, these two ideas can provide a universally recognized basis for the concept of justice in a democratic state. However, in practice, they must allow for a variety of doctrines and many conflicting conceptions of the good, endorsed by members of existing democratic societies.

References

Corlett, J. A. (Ed.). (2016). Equality and Liberty: Analyzing Rawls and Nozick. New York, NY: Springer.

Gališanka, A. (2019). John Rawls: The Path to a Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Nozick, R. (1973). Distributive justice. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 3(1), 45-126.

Rawls, J. (1985). Justice as fairness: Political not metaphysical. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 14(3), 223-251.

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