Two Tuesday Quotes: Rawls and Nozick

Yes, I know it’s Wednesday but it occurred to me late last night how much I missed doing this. Now that I’m reading more often the exposure to thinkers, and their quotes, has been expanded. Surely I should go back and make sure I’m not duplicating any thinkers. But then again, maybe it’s better to start blind. The lazy in me concurs with the latter.

John Rawls

In constant pursuit of money to finance campaigns, the political system is simply unable to function. Its deliberative powers are paralyzed.

John Rawls (b. 1921, d. 2002) was an American political philosopher in the liberal tradition. His theory of justice as fairness envisions a society of free citizens holding equal basic rights cooperating within an egalitarian economic system. His account of political liberalism addresses the legitimate use of political power in a democracy, aiming to show how enduring unity may be achieved despite the diversity of worldviews that free institutions allow. His writings on the law of peoples extend these theories to liberal foreign policy, with the goal of imagining how a peaceful and tolerant international order might be possible.

Rawls was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. His father was a prominent lawyer, his mother a chapter president of the League of Women Voters. Rawls studied at Princeton, where he was influenced by Wittgenstein’s student Norman Malcolm; and at Oxford, where he worked with H. L. A. Hart, Isaiah Berlin, and Stuart Hampshire. His first professorial appointments were at Cornell and MIT. In 1962 Rawls joined the faculty at Harvard, where he taught for more than thirty years.

Rawls’s adult life was a scholarly one: its major events occurred within his writings. The exceptions were two wars. As a college student Rawls wrote an intensely religious senior thesis (BI) and had considered studying for the priesthood. Yet Rawls lost his Christian faith as an infantryman in World War II on seeing the capriciousness of death in combat and learning of the horrors of the Holocaust. Then in the 1960s Rawls spoke out against America’s military actions in Vietnam. The Vietnam conflict impelled Rawls to analyze the defects in the American political system that led it to prosecute so ruthlessly what he saw as an unjust war, and to consider how citizens could conscientiously resist their government’s aggressive policies.

Rawls’s most discussed work is his theory of a just liberal society, called justice as fairness. Rawls first set out justice as fairness in systematic detail in his 1971 book, A Theory of Justice. Rawls continued to rework justice as fairness throughout his life, restating the theory in Political Liberalism (1993), The Law of Peoples (1999), and Justice as Fairness (2001). Students wanting a clear guide to A Theory of Justice may wish to read Lovett (2011), or (more advanced) Mandle (2009). Those interested in the evolution of justice as fairness from 1971 onwards should consult Freeman (2007) and Weithman (2011). This entry reflects Rawls’s final statement of his views on justice as fairness, as well as on political liberalism and on the law of peoples. (source)


Robert Nozick

Individuals have rights and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state?

Robert Nozick (1938–2002) was a renowned American philosopher who first came to be widely known through his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974),[1] which won the National Book Award for Philosophy and Religion in 1975. Pressing further the anti-consequentialist aspects of John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, Nozick argued that respect for individual rights is the key standard for assessing state action and, hence, that the only legitimate state is a minimal state that restricts its activities to the protection of the rights of life, liberty, property, and contract. Despite his highly acclaimed work in many other fields of philosophy, Nozick remained best known for the libertarian doctrine advanced in Anarchy, State, and Utopia.

Robert Nozick was born in Brooklyn in 1938 to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. He earned an undergraduate Philosophy degree from Columbia University in 1959 and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Princeton University in 1963. He taught for a couple of years at Princeton, Harvard, and Rockefeller Universities before moving permanently to Harvard in 1969. He became widely known through his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which shocked the philosophical world with its robust and sophisticated defense of the minimal state—the state that restricts its activities to the protection of individual rights of life, liberty, property, and contract and eschews the use of state power to redistribute income, to make people moral, or to protect people from harming themselves. Nozick went on to publish important works that ranged over metaphysics, epistemology, the philosophy of science, and axiology—Philosophical Explanations (1981), The Examined Life(1989), The Nature of Rationality (1993), Socratic Puzzles (1997), and Invariances (2001). Nozick’s always lively, engaging, audacious, and philosophically ambitious writings revealed an amazing knowledge of advanced work in many disciplines including decision theory, economics, mathematics, physics, psychology, and religion. Robert Nozick died in 2002 from stomach cancer for which he was first treated in 1994.

As an undergraduate student at Columbia and at least in his early days as a graduate student at Princeton, Nozick endorsed socialism. At Columbia, he was a founder of what was to become the local chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. The major force in his conversion to libertarian views was his conversations at Princeton with his fellow philosophy graduate student, Bruce Goldberg. It was through Goldberg that Nozick met the economist Murray Rothbard who was the major champion of “individualist anarchism” in the later decades of the twentieth century (Raico 2002, Other Internet Resources). Nozick’s encounter with Rothbard and Rothbard’s rights-based critique of the state (Rothbard 1973 and 1978)—including the minimal state—lead Nozick to the project of formulating a rights-based libertarianism that would vindicate the minimal state. There is, however, an intriguing lacuna in this story. Goldberg himself and the economists whose writings are often said to have influenced Nozick’s conversion to libertarianism—F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman—were not at all friends of natural rights theory. So, we have no account of why the libertarianism that Nozick himself adopted came in the form of natural rights theory (and an associated doctrine of acquired property rights). (source)