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The Right to Be Rich or Poor

Rawls’s maximin principle is compatible with considerable inequality. If, as some economists argue, steeply progressive taxation reduces the incentive to work of the most talented members of society to the point where they contribute less to the society and everyone, including the worst-off, suffers, then it would be just, according to Rawls’s principle, to allow these people to keep most of their wealth, although others may have much less. Doctors, for example, might be allowed to keep more than other. Nevertheless the maximum rule is difficult for egalitarians to argue against, because any attempt to approach closer to equality would necessarily, at the same time as it narrowed the gap between the worst-off and the better-off, make the worst-off still worse-off than they were before.

Though strongly protected against the attack from egalitarians that appeared most likely, the maximin principle was soon shown to be vulnerable at other spots. Since the appearance of A Theory of Justice a book and a number of critical reviews2 have exposed fundamental weaknesses in its central arguments, including the argument for the maximin principle. The devastating critique of Rawls in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, directed especially at the case for redistribution in accordance with the maximin rule, must very nearly complete the demolition of Rawls’s impressive structure.

In part, the force of Nozick’s criticisms depends on Rawls’s own desire that his theory account for and systematize the particular judgments about justice that we ordinarily make.3 For Rawls, finding a plausible general theory that confirms most of our ordinary judgments of what is just is the aim of any theory of justice. But as Kenneth Arrow has noted in a discussion of Rawls’s theory,4 the most widely held intuition about distributive justice—which Arrow and most other teachers find it difficult to dissuade introductory students from thinking completely self-evident—is the view that an individual is entitled to what he creates. This view is, of course, much closer to that of Nozick than to Rawls’s.

I believe that Rawls is mistaken in thinking that the test of a moral theory is its ability to account for the particular moral judgments we already make. That approach comes too close to making the justification of what we already believe the sole task for moral philosophy. One of the strengths of Nozick’s criticism, however, is that even if Rawls were to abandon his ideas about how moral theories are to be tested he would still be unable to defend his position. For Nozick has shown that Rawls’s case for the maximin principle rests on an unjustifiable asymmetry between the worst-off and the best-off in a society. Rawls argues that the worst-off could accept the justice of, and cooperate in, a society governed in accordance with the maximin principle, but not one governed according to, say, the principle of utility. This is because in any society governed according to any principle other than the maximin principle there would always be a group of people at least as badly off as the worst-off in a maximin-ruled society.

Provided the maximin rule has been properly applied, this is necessarily true; but, Nozick insists, Rawls glosses over the equally important mirror-image question: why should the better-off accept the justice of and cooperate in the society? Under the maximin rule, after all, the better-off may have to make substantial sacrifices to help the worst-off, perhaps much greater sacrifices than they would have to make to satisfy the principle of utility. For instance, to put the matter in monetary terms, assume that a tax of 75 percent on all incomes over $15,000 would, after deducting administrative and other costs, allow welfare payments to the worst-off group to be increased by only $1 per person per year. The maximin rule would require that the tax be levied.

So Rawls is able to conclude that the maximin principle would be the one that people in the original position would agree to only because he considers the matter from the perspective of those who fear they will be among the worst-off, rather than from the perspective of those who hope to be among the better-off. For this reason he fails in his attempt to derive the maximin principle in a neutral manner from what reasonable people would agree upon under conditions requiring impartiality; and in addition Nozick is able to make the telling point that the fundamental flaw Rawls finds in utilitarianism—the failure to rule out “even the tendency to regard men as means to one another’s welfare”—can be found in Rawls’s own principle. The maximin rule treats the better-off as a means to the welfare of the worst-off. Indeed one could say (though Nozick does not) that the tendency to treat people as a means to another’s end is greater under the maximin rule than under utilitarianism, since a utilitarian would give equal consideration to everyone’s interests, whereas the maximin rule forbids giving any consideration to the interests of the better-off, allotting them goods solely in so far as doing so assists the worst-off.

There remain many interesting and illuminating points in Rawls’s long book, but its foundations are now seriously undermined. The question we must face, then, is whether any conception of distributive justice that accepts individual rights, particularly the right to property, and prohibits absolutely treating one man as a means to the welfare of another can with-stand the arguments Nozick has directed primarily against Rawls. If the answer is negative we shall have to choose between a conception of justice such as Nozick’s and our conviction that a society does not have to rely on the charity of its wealthy members for the relief of its poorest members.

The enthusiasm which greeted Rawls’s theory of justice when it first appeared may in part be explained by the fact that it was the first fully worked-out alternative to utilitarianism since W.D. Ross’s intuitionist theory lost favor in the 1930s.5 If more careful consideration has found Rawls’s theory wanting, opponents of utilitarianism lack, once again, a developed alternative theory—except, that is, for Nozick’s entitlement view. Nonutilitarians not wishing to accept the conclusion that coercive redistribution of wealth is a serious violation of rights urgently require an alternative theory of rights.

What else is there? Not much. While, as Nozick points out, there is no lack of unsupported presumptions in favor of equality, there is a surprising dearth of arguments for equality. Nozick discusses one of the few arguments that have been widely discussed—generally with approval—by philosophers: that put forward by Bernard Williams in his article “The Idea of Equality.”6

Williams argues that the proper ground of distribution of medical care is ill-health; and that, therefore, it is irrational for the distribution of medical care to be governed by the ability to pay. On first reading many of us will find this argument for some degree of equality convincing. But, Nozick asks, why should the internal goal of an activity take precedence over the particular purpose of the person performing the activity? By a parallel argument it could be said that the proper ground of distribution of barbering services is the need to get one’s hair cut; but if we think a barber need cut the hair only of those able to pay, why should a doctor not do to the same?

What Nozick’s facetious counterexample indicates is that the plausibility of Williams’s argument lies not in any supposed necessary truth about the proper ground of distribution of medical care but in the claim that a society should provide for the most important needs of its members. This is a plausible claim, but it is only a claim and Williams does not argue for it. So we still do not have an argument for equality.

Wisely, Nozick remarks that his readers will probably feel that the case for equality all hangs on some other argument, and says he would like to see that argument set out in detail. That, unfortunately, is where the attempt to refuse Nozick on the ground he has chosen—accepting a doctrine of individual rights that includes a right to property—rests at the present time. Which is not to say that it will rest there long. There is tremendous activity in moral and political philosophy nowadays and if a response to Nozick’s challenge is not already in preparation it soon will be.

What if we refuse to accept the ground Nozick has chosen? The natural alternative is then utilitarianism. There are other possibilities, but none that seems likely to be very attractive to those who reject Nozick’s position because of its prohibition on coercive redistribution of wealth. In A Theory of Justice, for instance, Rawls considers as alternatives to his own theory only utilitarianism and what he calls “the Principle of Perfection.” Perfectionism, which is the theory that we should maximize the achievement of excellence, was most strongly advocated by Nietzsche and is even further from concerning itself about the worst-off than Nozick’s theory is; and when more plausible advocates of a perfectionist position talk about social justice, they tend to water down their perfectionism with a dose of something that looks like utilitarianism. 7

Utilitarianism has no problem in justifying a substantial amount of compulsory redistribution from the rich to the poor. We all recognize that $1,000 means far less to people earning $100,000 than it does to people trying to support a family on $6,000. Therefore in normal circumstances we increase the total happiness when we take from those with a lot and give to those with little. Therefore that is what we ought to do. For the utilitarian it is as simple as that. The result will not be absolute equality of wealth. There may be some who need relatively little to be happy, and others whose expensive tastes require more to achieve the same level of happiness. If resources are adequate the utilitarian will give each enough to make him happy, and that will mean giving some more than others.

A more serious possibility is the one we discussed in connection with the maximin principle. If it is necessary to give more to those with talents useful to society, to encourage them to develop these talents in a way that will benefit others, then utilitarians would have to do this. Actually the evidence for this commonly accepted hypothesis is weak; financial incentives may not be as important as we think. So some inequality would result from the application of utilitarian principles to a society like ours, but far less than there is now, and the inequalities that remain would not (in my view) be objectionable.

Nozick describes Rawls’s view as an “undeniably great advance over utilitarianism.” From his standpoint that is a reasonable estimate. Rawls’s theory is a half-way house between utilitarianism and Nozick’s own position. But if having gone half-way with Rawls we are forced by the logic of our position to go all the way with Nozick, it could be that we went wrong when we started out. None of the arguments Nozick uses against Rawls is decisive when invoked against a utilitarian position. Utilitarianism gives a clear and plausible defense not merely of progressive taxation, welfare payments, and other methods of redistribution, but also of the general right of the state to perform useful functions beyond the protection of its citizens from force and fraud. Utilitarianism also provides an argument in defense of the claim behind Williams’s argument for equality—that society should, so far as its resources allow, provide for the most important needs of its members.

Nor do we have to go all the way with the utilitarians to be in a position to advocate state-directed redistribution of income. The problem of whether we can accept a utilitarian account of noneconomic rights like the right to freedom of speech or freedom of worship need not be raised here, for Nozick’s argument is mainly addressed to economic rights. We can deal with property in a utilitarian manner, rejecting the doctrine of an intrinsic right to property, without necessarily rejecting the idea that there are some intrinsic rights against the state. For the remainder of this discussion, though I shall talk simply of “utilitarianism,” it will be this limited economic utilitarianism to which I am referring.

Nozick, aware that utilitarianism is a more fundamental rival to his position than other conceptions of justice, tries to get it out of the way in the first part of the book, when discussing the moral background of his theory. The discussion is sketchy, however, and falls below the level of the later sections. Nowhere is utilitarianism fully and systematically confronted. Nozick mentions some well-known objections but, with one exception, does not pursue the replies that utilitarians have made when these objections have been raised in the past.

The exception is interesting. In opposition to the view, which utilitarians have held, that the only things that are good or bad in themselves are states of consciousness, or conscious experiences (pleasant or happy ones being good, painful or miserable ones bad), Nozick asks us to imagine that we can build an “experience machine” which would give us the satisfactions of a wonderful life—any life we’d like—while we float in a tank with electrodes plugged into our brains.

If we had such a machine, Nozick says, we would choose not to use it—and this shows that things other than experience matter to us. In anticipation of the reply that we would not use the machine because, as good utilitarians, we would be concerned about other people’s (and other animals’) experiences as well as our own, Nozick makes the further assumption that everyone is able to plug into one of these machines. This means that we cannot give point to our lives by improving the experiences of other beings; the experience machine gives everyone who wants them the best possible experiences anyway. Nevertheless, Nozick says, we would not plug in, and this is because in addition to wanting to have certain experiences we want to do certain things and be a certain sort of person. We desire to live in contact with reality, and this no machine can do for us.

Perhaps. It is worth noting, though, that it is difficult to know what, in a world in which everyone could plug into an experience machine, there would be left to do, other than plug in; and how it would be possible to “be a certain sort of person.” How could one be, for example, a kind or courageous person (Nozick’s examples)? What could I do to anyone else that showed kindness, if everyone else could have whatever experiences he wanted without my kindness? When would there ever be any point in being courageous? Maybe it would seem a pointless world, and plugging into the machine a pointless kind of existence, but that is because we are used to having the possibility of improving experiences, our own or those of another, to give point to our normal existence. Take away the point of trying to improve the experience of ourselves and others and perhaps we do take away the only thing beyond our own experience that gives point to our lives. Maybe life as a whole doesn’t have any point beyond experience itself. Nozick’s example is bizarre enough to have a bizarre answer, and the bizarreness of the answer that the orthodox form of utilitarianism gives is an insufficient reason for rejecting that theory.

Even if we find that Nozick’s example does refute the idea that states of consciousness are the only things intrinsically good or bad, however, Nozick has refuted only one form of utilitarianism. Several recent utilitarian writers, including nearly all those writing in the field of welfare economics, have taken wants or desires, rather than states of consciousness, as the starting point for utilitarian calculations.8 It is intrinsically good, on this view, if someone gets what he wants, and bad if he does not. This version of utilitarianism is not threatened by Nozick’s experience machine; if there are things that we want other than experiences, well and good, utilitarianism will try to make it possible for us to get them.

So the utilitarian alternative to a theory of justice based on individual rights to property remains open; though other theories will no doubt be put forward, those wishing to avoid the conclusions of Nozick’s book may find themselves reconsidering one or another version of utilitarianism, and questioning whether the right to property must be taken as seriously as American political thought has taken it for the last 200 years.


This Property Is Condemned May 1, 1975

  1. 2

    The book-length study is The Liberal Theory of Justice by Brain Barry (Oxford University Press, 1973). Among the more notable critical reviews have been those by Thomas Nagel in the Philosophical Review (April, 1973) and the two-part critique by R.M. Hare in Philosophical Quarterly, July and September, 1973.

  2. 3

    This point was brought to my notice by Gregory Pence.

  3. 4

    Kenneth J. Arrow, “Some Ordinalist-Utilitarian Notes on Rawls’ Theory of Justice,” Journal of Philosophy, LXX, 9 (1973), p. 248.

  4. 5

    See W.D. Ross, The Right and the Good (Oxford University Press, 1930).

  5. 6

    In Philosophy, Politics and Society (Second Series), Laslett and Runciman, eds. (Barnes and Noble, 1962).

  6. 7

    For example, Bertrand de Jouvenal, The Ethics of Redistribution (Cambridge University Press, 1951).

  7. 8

    See, for example, Jan Narveson’s Morality and Utility (Johns Hopkins Press, 1967). The upshot of R.M. Hare’s ethical theory is also a utilitarianism of this type; see Freedom and Reason (Oxford University Press, 1963) and “Wrongness and Harm” in Essays on the Moral Concepts (University of California Press, 1972).

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