Nicholas Georgouras, 2006, The Landlord, marble
John Clare, The Mores (1821-24)
During the Industrial Revolution in Britain, vast tracts of land were enclosed and the people who lived off them were completely disenfranchised. This situation was much like circumstances the world over for indigenous peoples under colonialism. With this understanding of the enclosure of land through the acquisition of property, this essay will explore the theories of justice by two philosophers, Robert Nozick and John Rawls. Robert Nozick firmly believes in the rights of private property. Contrastingly, John Rawls argues that justice is based upon cooperation rather than competition. I will argue that Nozick’s theory is problematic through its assertion of property rights being based on the rights of the individual, and that a stable, secure society can only exist through people’s voluntary cooperation.
Robert Nozick favours libertarian principles which assert that a person who legally acquires, either directly or through transfer, some form of property is entitled to that holding. This entitlement can be said to be directly related to the circumstances in which one is born or one finds oneself; for it is fortunate circumstances that allows one to secure an entitlement to the property that is transferred. They are fortunate because under entitlement theory no one is entitled to any holding unless they have legally acquired it, which alienates and excludes people who are too poor or powerless to own or hold a claim to land. Nozick does not believe that justice is about patterns of distribution of property but about entitlement to property. He objects to patterns of distribution, such as the egalitarian principles of the equal distribution of societal goods, because of a lack of central distribution. He states that there is no person or group entitled to control all resources or to decide how they should be allocated. Further, Nozick contends that patterns of just distribution cannot be realised without there being an unreasonable amount of interference in a person’s life.
Nozick’s main principle of distribution is that is it legally and justly acquired. This condition is a problem for Nozick’s argument as, historically, much of the land that has been acquired upon the Earth has been through invasion, colonisation, war or oppression, not through any legal or just means. This assertion prioritises the rights of colonisers over indigenous peoples and undermines Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in which the civil and human rights of all people are equal. Nozick’s libertarian view of property rights relies upon John Locke’s assertion that property is a moral right by virtue of human labour. However, an objection to this assertion could be the question: Whose labour? Is the labour of colonisers more important than thousands of generations of indigenous people’s labour? In Theory of Social Democracy, Thomas Meyer and Lewis Hinchman argue that Locke’s linking of freedom to property was problematic because there are people whose existence depends upon the property of others which negates their access to a moral right to liberty. Michael Thompson, in his review of Meyer and Hinchman, states that ownership, which is the province of the minority, gives inequitable access to positive liberty, thereby creating a material inequality which perpetuates into inequity at the level of human and civil rights.
Nozick’s objection to distributive justice can be addressed through looking at the Athenian economic crisis of 594 BCE. Civil unrest occurred because of the enslavement of farmers and their families, who defaulted upon their mortgages. The civil administrator, Solon, was chosen to mediate the dispute and he enacted social, legal and moral reforms that served as the foundation for later Athenian democracy. Through his law reforms, Solon implicitly subordinated wealth to an ethical code. His authority stemmed from an agreement by both sides that he administrate the dispute, and also his reasoning that the whole society would suffer if the imbalance was allowed to continue to occur. Solon’s political reforms established the basis of a moral and legal framework in which individuals could pursue wealth in a social context. For Solon, it was necessary to see beyond short-term gain to long-term success through the use of reason. Reason becomes the authority that legitimises a government to control and allocate resources so that there is enough equity in society to enable it to be stable. Reason also makes it acceptable for citizens to comply with the demands of society without undue interference. In contemporary society social democracy theory reflects the ideals of Solon’s reforms. It reconciles the contradiction in libertarian appeals to civil and human rights by providing a framework for the government to provide the necessary means to enable these rights to become concrete.
John Rawls holds a contrasting egalitarian perspective of distributive justice to Nozick. He sees society as ‘a cooperative venture for mutual advantage’. According to Rawls, people are not indifferent as to how the resources, on which society depends, are distributed. Conflicts of interests arise when there are marked inequalities between individuals or groups within the system. So Rawls advocates that we should look at distributive justice with the notion of an ‘original position of equality’. The main idea of an original position is that life is a lottery, with no one having knowledge of what their place in society will be when they are born. Nor do they have knowledge of how they will be allotted natural assets or abilities, or whether they will be subject to liabilities, such as being born in a refugee camp, in wartime, in slavery or servitude, or with some form of disability. In choosing the principles of justice to which we would desire to be subjected if we were placed in the original position, Rawls contends that we would make our choice through a ‘veil of ignorance’. This ‘veil of ignorance’ will ensure that, as we cannot know what advantages or disadvantages we will be placed under, we will choose principles that will be of the most benefit to the least advantaged.
Considering that, in the modern world, the production of goods and services relies upon a vast network of workers and consumers; Rawls has a strong argument that society is a cooperative effort that should result in mutual benefits. The companies that produce these items or services rely upon systems of utilities, education, health, transport and communication. Even if one of these systems fails, such as when a strike or natural disaster happens, many of the other systems may also fail with the effect upon a company or community sometimes being ruinous. Therefore, we all benefit from these systems being cooperative. Nozick rejects Rawls’ theory by stating that there is no guarantee that people would be motivated to adhere to his difference principle if they emerged from the ‘veil of ignorance’ being naturally well-endowed. As far as Nozick is concerned, a government has no right to interfere with a person’s liberty in order to enact the distribution of social goods, and its only role is to protect the property of persons. Just as the civil strife affected Athens in 594 BCE and no estate could be cordoned off for its own protection, under Nozick’s theory the government would have an onerous task trying to protect one person’s property from the many who do not have any property. Therefore, the motivating factor to adhere to the difference principle may be that the naturally well-endowed could not be guaranteed of keeping their position if they unfairly took advantage of their situation.
Nozick’s person does not live in a vacuum, relying upon the cooperation of others to make sure that he or she is protected. As John Stuart Mill stated: “…everyone who receives the protection of society owes a return for the benefit, and the fact of living in society renders it indispensable that each should be bound to observe a certain line of conduct towards the rest”. Nozick’s theory results in an unequal society that is insecure and tenuous. Under such conditions, a person’s ability to maintain their hold upon property is also tenuous. Rawls’ theory of distributive justice recognises the benefits that people should enjoy when they cooperate for mutual advantage, and is based upon principles under which there is a balance of equality, liberty and productivity and so encourages all to adhere to it.
Nozick’s entitlement theory is weak because the legal right to property can be seen to be contentious, especially with regard to land obtained by invasion and the disenfranchisement of indigenous peoples. Rawls’ theory, that we should consider our position in society from the ‘original position’, is based upon a real understanding of the unreliability of existence, as we have no concept of our potential societal or physical position before we are born. If we can cooperate to form principles of justice based upon mutual long-term self-interest, these will have more possibility of being upheld because we all benefit from them, rather than just a select few. Therefore, for the establishment of secure, stable and cohesive communities, Rawls’ argument has the most strength.
- Clare, J., The Mores, comp. 1821-24; publ. 1935, viewed 10 July 2012, http://orion.it.luc.edu/~sjones1/mores.htm
- Lamont, J & Favor, C, 2007, “Distributive Justice”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Viewed on 1 July 2012, URL = http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2008/entries/justice-distributive/ .
- Lewis, J.D, 2008, ‘Solon of Athens and the Ethics of Good Business’ in Journal of Business Ethics, (2009), 89, Springer, pp. 123-138, viewed on 13 July 2012, DOI. 10.1007/s10551-008-9989-4
- Mill, JS, 1869, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual”, Ch.4 in On Liberty,1869, Viewed on 8 July 2012, http://www.bartleby.com/130/4.html
- Monbiot, G., 2012, ‘John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis- 200 years ago’ guardian.co.uk, 9 July 2012, viewed 9 July 2012, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jul/09/john-clare-poetry
- Rawls, J. 1972, ‘An Egalitarian Theory of Justice’, extracts from A Theory of Justice, reprinted in Tom Beauchamp & Norman Bowie (eds.). Ethical Theory and Business, 6th edition, (Prentice Hall, 2001), pp. 649-656.
- Shaw, WH & Barry, V,1995, ‘Justice and Economic Distribution’, Ch. 3 of Shaw & Barry (eds.) Moral Issues in Business, 6th edition, (Wadsworth, Belmont, CA, 1995), pp. 101-126.
- Thompson, M, 2009, ‘Theorising Social Democracy’ in Studies in the Culture and Politics of Antiurbanism, Autumn 2009, Palgrave Macmillan, viewed on 14 July 2012, http://dissentmagazine.org/democratiya/article_pdfs/d16Thompson.pdf
- Townley C, J 2012, Justice, Markets and Capitalism, Lecture notes distributed in unit, PHI230, Business and Professional Ethics, Macquarie University, Sydney on 2 July 2012
- United Nations, 1948, ‘Universal Declaration Of Human Rights’, viewed on 15 July 2012, http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ .
 Clare J. The Mores, (1821-24)
 Monbiot, G., 2012, ‘John Clare, the poet of the environmental crisis- 200 years ago’ guardian.co.uk, 9 July 2012.
 Nozick, 1974, ‘The Entitlement Theory’, extracts from Anarchy, State and Utopia, reprinted in Tom Beauchamp & Norman Bowie (eds.). Ethical Theory and Business, 6th edition, (Prentice Hall, 2001).
 Nozick, 1974, p.658
 Nozick, 1974, p. 658
 Nozick, 1974, p.657
 Nozick, 1974, p.657
 Nozick, 1974, p.660
 United Nations, 1948, Universal Declarations of Human Rights
 Nozick, 1974, p. 660
 Thompson, M, 2009, ‘Theorising Social Democracy’ in Studies in the Culture and Politics of Antiurbanism, Autumn 2009, Palgrave Macmillan, p.96
 Thompson, M, 2009, p.96
 Lewis, J.D, 2008, ‘Solon of Athens and the Ethics of Good Business’ in Journal of Business Ethics, (2009), 89, Springer, p.124
 Lewis, J.D, 2008, p.129
 Lewis, J.D, 2008, p.131
 Thompson, M, 2009, p.96
 Rawls, J. 1972, ‘An Egalitarian Theory of Justice’, extracts from A Theory of Justice, reprinted in Tom Beauchamp & Norman Bowie (eds.). Ethical Theory and Business, 6th edition, (Prentice Hall, 2001), p.4.
 Rawls, 1972, p. 12
 Rawls, 1972, p.12
 Townley C, 2012, Justice, Markets and Capitalism, Lecture notes distributed in unit, PHI230, Business and Professional Ethics, Macquarie University, Sydney.
 Townley, C, 2012
 Mill, J, S 1869, “Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual”, Ch.4 in On Liberty,1869.