A society is well-ordered when it is not only designed to advance the good of its members but when it is also effectively regulated by a public conception of justice.” — John Rawls (A Theory of Justice)
John Rawls was one of the 20th century’s most influential philosophers who came into recognition during the release of his seminal book, A Theory of Justice.
In it, he details a society best constructed so as to form a well-ordered and just society. Topics like this, particularly in political philosophy, has been written on for quite some time. But Rawls presented a novel method for reaching such an outcome — an ingenious one that would provide for the redistribution throughout a society; specifically, as regards how it benefits those worst-off in that society.
He does this through what he calls the “Veil of Ignorance.” A thought experiment centered around a criterion which contends that one not knowing their position within society (with respect to their race, class, natural abilities, gender, etc) would allow for an individual to choose the ways in which a just society can be formed.
The veil of ignorance is used in the original position — a starting point, of sorts, where one is asked to consider which set of principles would be selected for in the basic structure of society (according to Rawls, the basic structure is “the way in which the main political and social institutions of society fit together into one system of social cooperation, and the way they assign basic rights and duties and regulate the division of advantages that arises from social cooperation over time“).
Principles of Justice
Rawls believed that those behind the veil of ignorance in the original position would agree to the “principles of justice”: (1) the principle of liberty, (2a) the principle of equality and opportunity, and (2b) the difference principle (which is to regulate inequalities within a given society. Where once an inequality is seen to be unjust, it should be restructured and permitted in such a way, via distribution, so as to benefit those worst-off). This social contract is what Rawls calls “justice as fairness.”
Justice as fairness is a moral conception of justice — a social contract theory — that Rawls presents as an alternative to utilitarianism. The emphasis on “fairness” is integral to understanding this disposition in relation to the opposition justice as fairness poses to utilitarian theory (which seeks to maximize the algebraic sum of advantages irrespective of its permanent effects on one’s basic rights and interests).
The difference principle is introduced to offset the expectation that society rests on the shoulders of those worst-off as a means to maintain average advantages. According to Rawls, “a society is properly arranged when its institutions maximize the net balance of satisfaction.”
Anarchy and the State
Nozick, on the other hand, presents a radical and distinctive position. He wrote Anarchy, State, and Utopia in response to Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Although they disagree on many areas, they quite interestingly agree on some issues (but I will not get into the ways in which they do right now).
Nozick argues that the only legitimate state is [what he calls] the minimal state, constrained only within the provision of the protection of property, security from bodily harm, and the enforcement of contracts.
The three claims on which his brand of libertarianism rests are: (1) a moral prioritization (a Lockean conception of the “state-of-nature”) which focuses on individual rights to freedom that limits what any individual or group may do to any one individual or group, (2) rejecting that there are moral reasons to mitigate social and economic inequality, and (3) rejecting the idea of there being any moral principles that apply to political institutions or collectives that cannot be derived from the natural rights of individuals.
Now let’s go through some of the differences between these two important philosophers.
Rawls On Animal Rights
Rawls claims that human conduct towards non-human animals is not regulated by the principles of justice because only “moral persons” are “entitled to equal justice.” Essentially, by “moral persons,” Rawls refers to the ability to hold moral sentiments and one’s capacity to intelligibly navigate through moral dilemmas.
He does express, though, rather vaguely, that we should not mistreat animals. But he does not provide moral arguments for why we should not mistreat animals, due to non-human animals’ non-entitlement to equal justice. This is where Rawls and I disagree. And where I will explore further.
If what entitles humans to be protected against the actions of other humans regulated by the principles of justice is the ability to hold moral sentiments as “moral persons,” then what would this mean? What exactly allows for the status as “moral persons”? And what constitutes being able to hold moral sentiments?
Rawls attempts to answer at least one of these questions by addressing the obvious flaw in this reasoning — by acknowledging that there are persons to which, under this criterion, the principles of justice would technically not apply (in the case of people born with intellectual disabilities and children), but, nevertheless, still applies by virtue of them being human, relative to non-human animals with the same inability to hold moral sentiments, therefore putting them on par with persons that lack the ability — due to intellectual disabilities, and so on — to assume the status as “moral persons.”
Since Rawls applies the principles of justice to persons that lack the ability to hold moral sentiments, this presupposes some intrinsic value that designates humans’ rights over the rights of non-human animals simply by virtue of them being human, and this alone, ostensibly, suffices as a justification for the misappropriation of justice regarding human and non-human animals.
We cannot ascertain the level of conscious awareness of other animals relative to humans; but can, nevertheless, presume that they hold — by virtue of them not starving themselves to death, for example — a conscious intention to live out the natural course of their lives.
How can one prioritize a human that lacks the conscious intention to live out their lives over non-human animals that do? “…because human” simply isn’t enough.
Nozick On Animal Rights
Nozick holds an entirely different position. In his words, “animals count for something.” And with this, I agree. For Nozick, animals’ feelings — their happiness and the like — count for something to be factored into how we treat them.
He describes an ingenious thought experiment involving a baseball bat and a cow. The person enjoys swinging bats and gains immense pleasure from doing so. But let us suppose that the position in which the cow stands is the only position in which he can swing the bat. Unfortunately, the cow’s head is smashed with each swing.
Clearly, the man does not enjoy smashing the cow’s head. But he nevertheless enjoys swinging the bat. An interesting question arises: Is swinging the bat (an activity the man enjoys doing) more important than not only his displeasure with smashing the cow’s head but the pain that it causes the animal?
Nozick provides an idea of moral side constraints in relation to animals. Side constraints, according to Nozick, creates boundaries of permissible (and impermissible) acts that violate individual rights. Violations of side constraints are wrongful because such acts treat individuals — in this case, animals — as means or instruments to the ends of other people. Nozick provides a brilliant defense of animal rights and one that I happen to agree with.
Nozick describes individuals living within a state of nature, where the individual has the ability to “enforce his rights, defend himself, exact compensation, and punish.”
These individuals, living within this state of nature, can group together to form mutual-protective associations. Protective associations, according to Nozick, provides a service for the exchange of a fee, without violating member rights (I will not go into the details in how such a system would operate. I can only recommend you to Chapter 2 in Anarchy, State, and Utopia for further reading).
As expected, given the opportunities of the “free-market,” protective associations can grow larger to become “dominant protective associations.” And this is what Nozick calls the “minimal state.” The issue that I have is in how members of such associations can halt the patterns of history, and not form undemocratic societies that end in authoritarianism.
Another issue arises concerning the difference between a dominant protective association’s monopoly over land (and other smaller protection associations) with that of a conventional sovereign state. I don’t see how this avoids Nozick’s issues as regards the state’s monopoly over violence.
Moral desert provides for an interesting analysis because both Rawls and Nozick are correct in their point of view (although I give the edge to Rawls). Mostly because, according to Rawls, natural assets are “morally arbitrary.” Nozick clearly disagrees with this. So let’s get into it.
To circle on Rawls’ point, he touches on something rather important–for example, in order for natural assets to be an “asset” within a given society, that particular society would have to prioritize certain assets over others according to which asset has more value within that particular society.
So considering that many societies prioritize different natural assets relative to what those societies place value in with respect to natural assets, does make natural assets morally arbitrary. For to make a moral claim about it would be to accept a moral relativist position.
And this is why Rawls doesn’t agree with moral desert. Because the gains produced as a result of natural assets was beyond the control of the gainer by virtue of those endowments being outside of their control; and, to factor all the ways in which each society does this (the prioritizations of natural assets relative to the society), provides an understanding for Rawls’ position. I believe this is the moral justification for distribution.
Nozick — with this, disagreed and felt that people are morally entitled to what they earn. This provides a conflict due to both Rawls and Nozick being correct. But here’s why I give the edge to Rawls in this debate: in order for Nozick’s point to remain valid, he would have to disregard the issues Rawls raised of natural assets (which he does), and the correlations I’ve made to natural assets within relative societies, and just accept that in whichever society where gains are produced as a result of natural assets — and thus, holding an entitlement to — natural assets are in fact morally relevant, and not arbitrary.
But Nozick being correct here is by accident, and it’s under the conditions of moral relativism. For example, after factoring in Nozick’s position being of the Lockean tradition, then it would contradict within itself the notion that on one hand, there are natural [objective] rights, and on the other hand, there’s a moral relativist landscape upon which it operates; whereby, the former exists within the latter.
This is Nozick’s contradiction. Happy accidents alone don’t give Nozick the edge over Rawls in the moral desert conversation, although I do think there is a very valid dilemma of desert that Nozick proposed.
To be clear, I am not implying that Nozick believes that one deserves (or don’t deserve) natural assets. Neither would Rawls. This type of comment would rely on some sort of cosmic Justice that Nozick would find suspect (something with which I agree).
But one may ask: What’s the difference in whether or not natural assets are morally non-arbitrary in different societies where they’ve produced gains as a result of those natural endowments? People can value what they want. And so long as their ownership over these holdings fit within the entitlement theory of justice, then individuals are entitled over these holdings.
To answer this question, let’s focus on labor markets. Take America for example, our shift to a more knowledge-based society would prioritize not only education, but natural intellectual endowments, and position those assets over countries, like New Guinea, which prioritizes farming (this also creates issues within knowledge-based countries themselves, particularly for the working-class).
In the latter case, natural physical endowments matter more. You could argue that in either society, natural assets are producing some sorts of gains, so the question as to whether it is morally relevant wouldn’t change from a Nozickian point of view. But, in my opinion, what moral argument can one make about one’s natural endowments notwithstanding those endowments relative to moral desert?
Take wealth accumulation: many studies suggest that inequality depresses economic growth. There are also correlations between criminality and inequality as well, which is a result, in part, of that accumulation of wealth. So I ask from a utilitarian perspective, one Nozick advocates, how morally responsible is a group of very wealthy individuals, that as a consequence of their wealth accumulation, resulted in a society where criminality increased in relation to that, and, who acquired this wealth at the expense of the bottom half of society which has experienced decreases in wealth as a product of its accumulation from the top decile (10%) to which they belong?
I think this is an interesting question. One I won’t get into depth, but I’ll presume them to have some moral responsibility. If this is so, then natural assets responsible for the ability to accumulate wealth should also be asked a similar question. Although, this may be quite a reach. But remember that Rawls’ moral conception was of justice as fairness.
So from Rawls’ point of view, since no one is responsible for natural assets, in fairness, it should be left out of the original position.
Now in regards to the contradiction, in dealing with A Theory of Justice and Nozick’s response, unless every well-ordered society is well ordered exactly the same way, I believe there might be some slight differences in what’s agreed to in the original position.
It seems very flexible (when factoring pluralism) but centers around a set of principles that disparate societies would have in common. These slight differences might be the difference in culture, societal development, levels of religiosity, etc. And given these differences, some societies will prefer one natural asset over the other relative to their development.
If you make natural assets morally relevant, you bring relativism into the conversation by virtue of it being up-for-grabs when negotiating around these sets of principles of justice in the original position or among the various protective associations (assuming that they all do not have the same prohibitions). And since no one is responsible for their natural endowments, insofar as these natural assets represent outliers resting outside of the mean, then, according to Rawls, it is best to leave it out of the original position; thus, “morally arbitrary.”
But admittedly, even if this is true and Nozick accepts this premise, it still fits within his concept of Utopianism. The arguments for both sides are very well-argued. So you can only go with which one you prefer in this matter.
After reading both books and giving each some considerable thought, I favor Rawls’ conception of a just society. But Nozick presents such a brilliant argument, that one must factor it in as a means to fine-tune political liberalism (or even, to move beyond it).