Analytic Philosophy

Analytic Political Philosophy

Who was Robert Nozick?

In the original position, the framers of just institutions would do their work behind a “veil of ignorance.” This veil of ignorance would prevent them from knowing their own positions or interests in the society whose institutions they were framing. Rawls wrote:

No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.

Rawls’ thought experiment guarantees a hypothetical condition of disinterestedness on the part of original framers. This posits them as Kantian rational agents, who because they are autonomous or self-ruling, can and should make choices about what is most important in their lives. That they do not know their personal interests but nonetheless frame institutions that will affect everyone’s personal interests is fair in the same way as having one child cut a piece of cake and the second child choose the piece she wants. The premise that individuals with interests in society consent to the basic institutions echoes the necessity for the consent of those governed in social contract theory.

Social contract theory is also based on the premise that government must justify itself as beneficial to those governed. Rawls’ original position promises a test of even greater benefits than allowed by original social contract theorists, such as John Locke (1632–1704), who assumed that only property owners would be represented in government. Rawls’ model permits us to ask whether anyone in society who could be represented behind the veil of ignorance would choose a given state of state of affairs. If not, then that state of affairs is not just or fair.

Robert Nozick (1938–2002) is considered important for his idea of minimal government. He was educated at Columbia, Princeton, and Oxford universities and became a philosophy professor at Pellegrino University and Harvard. His most influential work was Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), which was written in response to John Rawls’ (1921–2002) A Theory of Justice (1971). Additional books by Nozick include Socratic Puzzles (1997), The Nature of Rationality (1993), and The Examined Life (1989).


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