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The Political Philosophy of Nozick based on his book, "Anarchy, State, and Utopia".

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How would the following political philosophies: 1) a utilitarian, 2) Nozick, and 3) Rawls, respond to the following prompt- "Should Barry Bonds be allowed to keep whatever money people are willing to pay in exchange for watching him play baseball, provided that they are entitled to the money they are prepared to pay him?". Also include discussion about Nozick's entitlement theory and provide good objections and responses to his overall theory. Use direct quotations from two different sources... I need one from Nozick and one from Rawls.

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The question we set out to answer is this: should Barry Bonds be allowed to keep whatever money people are willing to pay in exchange for watching him play baseball, provided that they are entitled to the money they are prepared to pay him (henceforth the ‘original question’)? Different answers can be given depending on which theory of justice we prescribe to. For a utilitarian, if exchanging money to see Bonds play baseball maximizes the total utility (i.e. overall happiness, pleasure, service to life) then the exchange is permissible. In a Rawlsian society, the exchange is valid if it accords with the difference principle, that is, an inequality is just only if it maximizes the position of the worst off. For Nozick, the exchange is just so long as it accords with his entitlement conception of justice and negative rights are not violated. I will postpone the answer to our original inquiry until further discussion of the theories is given. I now turn to Nozick’s entitlement theory.

The entitlement theory consists of three principles: 1) principle for acquisition of original holdings: conditions under which a person can come to hold/own something; 2) principle of transfer of holdings: conditions under which a holding can be transferred from one to another; 3) principle of rectification of injustice: what to do when someone has an unjust holding. Nozick argues that an overall resulting distribution is just provided it comes about via a process that satisfies his principles of entitlement and does not violate negative rights (i.e. free from coercion, force, fraud, theft). This type of distributive justice is historical since it looks at the track record of individual transactions made every step of the way. An end-result theory of justice on the other hand is one that makes the justice of any given distribution depend solely on whether it satisfies some structural criteria. It does not matter which particular person has which part of the distribution, it just matters that the overall distribution satisfies some structural standard. In short, an end-result principle just looks at the distributional matrix and applies the structural criterion. For example, utilitarianism looks at the overall distributional matrix to see if it maximizes utility; if it does, it is just, otherwise, it is unjust. Another example is Rawls’ difference principle: the overall distributional matrix is just so long as the position of the worst off is maximized. Nozick, however, thinks that end-state theories of justice, such as the examples just mentioned, are internally inconsistent and unjustifiably infringe upon certain liberties. To see why Nozick thinks this, I will refer to his ‘Wilt Chamberlain’ argument. However, I will not stick to Nozick’s exact formulation of the Chamberlain argument instead I will modify some of the parameters to suit our specific needs and call it the ‘Barry Bonds’ argument.

Let D1 be any non-entitlement conception distribution (e.g., Rawls’ difference principle or utilitarianism). Now suppose Barry Bonds signs a contract that gives a portion of the money of every baseball ticket that he plays in directly to him. As excited fans enter the stadium they drop a buck into a special box with Barry’s name on it. By the end of the season one million fans dropped a total of a million dollars into Barry’s deposit box. Let us call this new distribution D2. Barry had n at D1, and now at D2 he has n + one million dollars; whereas fan f at D1 had m, and now at D2 f has m – one dollar. Now, by hypothesis D1 was a just distribution, then D2 must not be a perfect distribution since an individual now has a lot more money than before. D2 seems to create an inconsistency with the patterned/end-result distribution D1. What are we to say of D2, is it just or unjust? Surely D2 cannot be unjust since the fans were entitled to their money by D1 and voluntarily paid Barry Bonds for his services thus justly leading to D2. It seems that if one wants to preserve the structural criterion or patterned principle of distribution from D1 to D2, one would have to prevent Barry and the fans from making such an exchange even though all parties happily consent to it. However, according to the structural criterion of distribution employed at D1, D2 is not just since it upsets this structural criterion. Thus in order to maintain the end-state principle one would have to step in and forcefully stop the fans and Barry from the exchanging services. It seems as if this is directly incompatible with our basic conception of liberty.

The ‘Barry Bonds’ argument shows that we normally view voluntary exchanges like this as legitimate; if the end-state principle disagrees then there must be something wrong with this principle. Furthermore, it is not just that the end-state principle is mistaken, but it is also internally inconsistent, because by hypothesis D1 was suppose to be a just distribution. To say that it just is to say that each person is entitled to what they have. Thus to say later that Barry and the fans are not allowed to make such an exchange is in turn denying the fans’ entitled money to begin with back at D1. What exactly is it to have a legitimate entitlement if you cannot spend it the way you want to? Denying the fans and Barry from such an exchange is to deny the fan’s justly earned holdings. If one is truly committed to D1, then the end-result principle has to insist on constant interference with people’s liberties; for instance, by placing a guard next to Barry’s deposit box to stop fans from dropping in money. (We should also keep in mind that the ‘Barry Bonds’ argument is just one example of the countless similar examples like this that happen all the time in society where a group of people with just entitlements choose to transfer their holdings elsewhere for whatever reasons, e.g., sport games, concerts, IBM computers, etc.)

Nozick thinks that the only way such an exchange can happen between the fans and Barry without infringing upon liberties is to adopt an entitlement theory. According to Nozick’s entitlement theory, so long as the fan’s holdings are just they may do anything they so desire with their holdings (given that negative rights are not violated) including transferring their holdings to watch Barry Bonds hit homeruns all day. Recalling that in our original question the people willing to pay in exchange for watching Barry play were in fact entitled to that money, so for Nozick the answer to the original question is obviously in the affirmative. We can think of Nozick as having two conditions for an acceptable exchange of services between the fans and Barry. First, negative rights not being violated is a condition for the exchange to be acceptable; but since we’re dealing with a simple transaction between fans and a baseball player I will assume henceforth that such rights are never violated during the exchange. Second, fans must be entitled to the money they are prepared to transfer to Barry. But of course, the second condition was already met from the outset when we said that the fans are in fact entitled to their money (recalling a premise to our original question). Whether or not Barry Bonds should get paid for his services only boils down to the second condition. And this condition is obviously satisfied. I find this view convincing since it agrees with the intuition that people should be allowed to spend their justly acquired money in any way they see fit regardless of any structural criterion or patterned principle of distribution. I think that to prioritize the end-state or patterned principle over how one decides to spend their entitled money is unjust.

A utilitarian may object by arguing that if the exchange between the fans and Bonds does not maximize the overall utility then it is unacceptable. Furthermore, a utilitarian might also say that the total utility could have been maximized if the same money dropped into Barry’s box was instead dropped into a box meant to bolster after school programs for their children (assuming now that all the baseball fans were parents). This would have in effect brought greater satisfaction to both the parents and the children compared to the satisfaction of dropping the money to see Barry Bonds play baseball. The following rebuttal can be made: it may be true that a greater satisfaction could have been reached had the parents contributed to the worthy cause of promoting their children’s after school programs, but even if the parents were guilty of selfishness or stupidity they should still have the freedom to choose how they want to spend their justly earned money. Should that include watching Barry Bonds hit homeruns so be it. But of course most if not all parents do care about their children’s interest; the point is that society should not restrict their choices based on some structural criterion, in this case maximizing total satisfaction.

Rawls may object that if the exchange between the fans and Bonds does not maximize the position of the worst off, the exchange must be denied since it is unjust according to the difference principle. I will discuss Rawls’ principles of justice further so that more weight can be given to the objection. His two principles of justice are as follows: first priority is to give everyone equally the maximum scheme of basic liberties and once this is achieved the second principle takes over and governs the distribution of primary goods (e.g. wealth, self respect) other than liberty, namely, social and economic inequalities to be arranged in such a way as to be in everyone’s advantage. At the moment, we are concerned with the second principle ‘inequalities to be arranged in such a way as to be in everyone’s advantage’. One way Rawls interprets this is by saying that inequalities are just so long as they maximize the position of the worst off (the difference principle).

Going back to the potential objection raised by Rawls we can reply as such: Rawls’ difference principle is essentially an end-result principle, and we have already seen in the Barry Bonds argument and the reply given to the utilitarian that such principles infringe upon one’s liberty to make decisions regarding entitled possessions. Not so fast, Rawls may respond, the idea that his principle of justice entails an end-result should not be argued so quickly. It is obvious that we think it is simply by focusing on the difference principle. However, we should recall that the difference principle is just a part of Rawls’ theory of justice. Another part is his principle of greatest equal liberty and fair equality of opportunity; which is lexically prior to the difference principle. So in a sense, to see whether or not a given distribution is just in a Rawlsian society we cannot simply look at an overall distributional matrix, since there is none. If you violate someone’s rights Rawls is partially historical. In effect, prioritizing basic liberties and fair opportunity of equality over the difference principle establishes Rawls’ theory of justice not as a pure end-result since it is also partly historical. It is true that the difference principle is characteristic of an end-result principle, however a historical test (liberty and opportunity of equality) must first pass. Furthermore, the difference principle is suppose to apply to the basic structure of society, not to individual transactions like in the case of Nozick’s entitlement theory. Essentially, the difference principle guides the design of social policies with the intention of maximizing the worst off. It is not as if each economic transaction is judged by the difference principle, rather, provided that the basic structure is just, the determination of individual shares of resources is left to pure procedural justice. A pure procedural justice does not appeal to any independent criteria of what a fair outcome will be; rather, it creates a fair procedure and whatever comes out of if is deemed fair. We may interpret Rawls’ principles of justice as such: the basic structure attempts to bring about an end-result distribution by appealing to the difference principle, but it also is historical in the sense that it establishes this structural criteria via the preservation of basic equal liberty and opportunity which is modeled after a pure procedural justice. At this point it seems that we cannot give a satisfactory rebuttal to Rawls’ objection simply by appealing to the Barry Bonds argument (which is meant to attack strictly end-result principles) since Rawls’ theory of justice is not purely characteristic of an end-result. However, another line of argument might be developed by analyzing how Nozick and Rawls treat the relationship between natural talents (such as the case with Bonds’ phenomenal talent) and desert.

Rawls thinks that natural talents are “arbitrary from a moral perspective” since one simply is born with them. A natural question to ask is this: how are we to set up a fair basic structure from a moral perspective? Rawls’ solution is this: “No one deserves his greater natural capacity…But it does not follow that one should eliminate these distinctions. There is another way to deal with them. The basic structure can be arranged so that these contingencies work for the good of the least fortunate” (Nozick pg.228, quoting Rawls). That is to say, since natural talents are arbitrary form a moral perspective, it does not follow that they should be rendered completely useless; rather, so long as they maximize the least fortunate, individuals, such as Barry Bonds, are allowed to make use of such talents.

In this picture Rawls does not allow our intuitive notion of desert, rather xyz talents are acceptable insofar as they help out the worst off. In effect, he is treating natural talents as a ‘collective asset’. It seems as though Rawls is guilty of not making a distinction between persons, rather he treats individuals’ natural talents holistically by limiting their talents as to fit some structural criterion. Even though it is plausible that in a Rawlsian society Barry Bonds probably would be allowed to keep whatever money fans may give him, it is only so because it follows derivatively of what he is institutionally entitled to deserve not because he intuitively deserves it for practicing long hours and making use of his talent. For Rawls, desert is not prior to justice. Nozick points out, “whether or not people’s natural assets are arbitrary from a moral point of view, they are entitled to them, and to what flows from them” (pg.226). That is, just because Barry Bonds has a unique talent that he does not intrinsically deserve, it does not follow that he does not deserve the benefits from such a talent. What are we to say of the many laborious hours in the batting cage, stress levels, family sacrifices; does he not deserve the benefits after such pains? Rawls’ theory of justice cannot account for this. Nozick’s entitlement conception, however, is also guilty of not supporting a preinstitutional notion of desert. In the end, I think Nozick’s entitlement conception comes closest to our intuitive notion of desert. For Nozick, Barry Bonds is entitled to his talents without qualification, whereas for Rawls, the qualification is spelled out by the difference principle.


1) Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books, Inc. (1974)

2) Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press. (1971)

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