Nozick, Rawls, and the Problem of Patterned Principles of Justice

Responding to John Rawls egalitarianism, Robert Nozick responds that “….in a socialist society… no end-state principle or distributional patterned principle of justice can be continuously realized without continuous interference with peoples' lives. Any favoured pattern would be transformed into one unflavored by the principle, by people choosing to act in various ways…” (Nozick 1974, 163) This essay will argue that Nozick’s objection is successful against Rawls, only to the extent that it is understood in the context of Rawls' understanding of his own theory.

Two Visions of Justice

In 1974, Robert Nozick wrote a lengthy response to John Rawls' A Theory of Justice, called “Anarchy, State, and Utopia”. One of Nozick’s core critiques of Rawls, centers around a characterization of the kind of Justice that Rawls was advocating. Nozick called it, the justice of “patterned distributions”. Famously, Nozick argued against a fixed “patterned distribution” of wealth, using the metaphor of famous basketball player Wilt Chamberlain. The entire allegory is too much for this post but to summarize briefly, he pointed out through this metaphor that, given a regime of voluntary individual exchanges which, are ostensibly morally acceptable even on Rawls conception of patterned justice, the only way to maintain a fixed pattern of distribution, would be through the application of force, which itself could be construed as unjust, on Rawls' own theory.

Equality Is Fake News

I want to make a bold claim: I don’t think there is any such thing as ‘equality’. Now, just to clarify: clearly, arithmetic and geometric equality is real. Otherwise the “ = “ wouldn’t exist. What I am referring to, is the sense of the term that gets applied to human social and political relations. This kind of equality is a phantasm; a will-o-wisp; a unicorn, in all its varieties. If we look at particular examples of what people tend to call “equality”, what we find are hidden changes in the meaning of “equal”.