Essay: Analysis of Dworkin, Rawls, Nozick and Cohen’s Theories

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  • Analysis of Dworkin, Rawls, Nozick and Cohen's Theories
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“A just state is a state where every citizen has equality of opportunities. A state that uses state power to enforce equality of outcome is an unjust state.” To analyze this claim, I will explicate the views of Dworkin, Rawls, Nozick, and Cohen, and discuss how they might respond. First, I will investigate Dworkin’s theory, and possible responses he might give to this statement. Then, I will further examine Dworkin’s response in light of Rawls’, Nozick’s, and Cohen’s arguments, and discuss their likely responses as well. Finally, I will provide my own view on which is the most tenable position.
Dworkin argues that people have a universal right to equal concern and equal respect. The right to equal concern is the right of all people to have their lives treated as equally valuable. The right to equal respect is the right of all persons to exercise personal responsibility over their own lives, which entails certain basic liberties for all. Further, he argues that liberty and equality are “interpretive,” not “criterial” concepts, lacking fixed definitions prior to their interpretation. As such, they are not intrinsic values with fixed definitions which conflict and require inevitable tradeoffs, and they are not fundamentally incompatible. Dworkin bases liberty on the notion of respect for each person’s responsibility for their own life.
Dworkin might respond to the statement “a just state is a state where every citizen has equality of opportunities. A state that uses state power to enforce equality of outcome is an unjust state” that human dignity and the principle of human concern imply that each person is guaranteed a baseline of goods minimally necessary for living well, however it is defined, and for instances of bad luck where they fall below it. A just society based on equal concern would effectively insure its members against poverty, homelessness, hunger, illness, illiteracy, unemployment, etc., in a way that respects their responsibility for their own lives. This would reconcile and unify the notions of equal concern and equal respect, as well as equality and liberty, ensuring equality of opportunity while also allowing one to take responsibility for their lives.
Dworkin does not say that a just society is one with a particular defined distributional pattern of resources, but rather, one in which there is equal concern and equal respect: equal concern with everyone starting with a baseline level of opportunities, as everyone’s lives are equal, and equal respect with everyone responsible for the choice of resources they end up with. Dworkin’s approach preserves personal responsibility and autonomy for acquiring resources for oneself, as well as a baseline, or minimum level of opportunity (equal concern) for everyone. As such, I think Dworkin would largely agree with the statement that “a just state is a state where every citizen has equality of opportunities. A state that uses state power to enforce equality of outcome is an unjust state.” He does not agree that it is the role of the state to enforce an equality of outcome of resources, as this would violate his principle of equal respect (the freedom to acquire one’s own resources in the way one sees fit).
Further, the notion of every citizen having equality of opportunity fits with his notion of equal concern, with everyone’s lives treated as equally valuable; a distributional scheme in which everyone’s baseline opportunities were sharply imbalanced would violate his principle of equal concern. Dworkin also believes that the libertarian view sacrifices an equal concern for the value of persons’ lives to a false view of the role of individual responsibility in free market distributions.
Nozick would agree with the second part of the statement, that “A state that uses state power to enforce equality of outcome is an unjust state,” but he would not necessarily agree with the first part (and Dworkin’s view) that a just state is one in which every citizen has equality of opportunities. Nozick does not believe that a more extensive state is justified to achieve distributive justice—that is, to enforce a certain distributional scheme that is considered “just.” He argues that we ought not to confuse inequality with injustice, and that distributive justice suggests that there is a central distribution with a person or group that is entitled to control all the resources, deciding at their discretion how they ought to be distributed. His theory, an “entitlement theory of justice,” posits that one is entitled to a holding either by acquiring it in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition, or in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer from someone else entitled to that holding. These are the sole criteria which determine if a holding is just, and as such, any distributional scheme that results from these principles is considered just. Nozick does not specify that there ought to be a minimum, baseline level of opportunity or resources for everyone, but rather, that justice in the acquisition and transfer of holdings is sufficient to ensure that the distribution of resources is just; equality of opportunity is implied within justice in transfer and holding.
G.A. Cohen argues that libertarians, such as Nozick, sacrifice liberty to capitalism. He would disagree with the statement that “A state that uses state power to enforce equality of outcome is an unjust state,” and argues that libertarians fail to adequately consider power differentials that arise from the accumulation of wealth, and the full range of consequences from wealth accumulation. Similarly, Cohen might also disagree with Dworkin’s principle of equal respect, in which people are free to acquire (and use) their own resources in the way they see fit.
Cohen critiques Nozick’s example involving basketball player Wilt Chamberlain, which Nozick uses to illustrate how government intervention through redistributive measures inherently infringes upon peoples’ liberty. In this example, he says to imagine a society in which the distribution of wealth fits a pattern that would arise under a non-entitlement conception of justice, such as an equal distribution, which could be called distribution D1. Now suppose that Wilt Chamberlain is a member of this society, and that his contract with his team specifies that each game attendee must pay twenty-five cents to enter the venue, the sum of which will go to him. Suppose that one million fans decide to see him play over the course of the season and pay the twenty-five cent entrance fee. The resulting distribution, D2, will be one in which Chamberlain now has $250,000, much more than anyone else; such a distribution breaks the original pattern established in D1. Nozick asks, is D2 just? He contends that yes, it is, and Chamberlain is clearly entitled to his money. Since D1 was a just distribution in which everyone was entitled to what they had, there is no injustice in the starting point that led to D2. Additionally, since everyone who paid twenty-five cents to see Chamberlin play in the transition from D1 to D2 did so voluntarily, and everyone who did not want to pay to see Chamberlain play still has their money, the resulting distribution cannot be said to be unjust.
Cohen believes that Nozick fails to adequately consider the full range of consequences that result from Wilt Chamberlain’s accumulation of wealth: he may use his wealth to influence politicians to pursue policies that disadvantage non-affluent people, and if individuals realized the full range of outcomes that result from their small contribution to Wilt Chamberlain, they may not agree to pay the 25 cents. Cohen does not believe that distributions that result from just steps are necessarily themselves just. To further illustrate this view, Cohen uses the “rolling pin” example, in which a pin falls off of a counter and rolls outside the house into the neighbor’s yard, where they locate it and make use of it, thinking they had simply misplaced it. There was nothing unjust about the process by which the neighbor acquired—they found it in their yard, and earnestly believed that they had just misplaced it. And yet the resulting distributional scheme, where they are now able to make use of a pin that was not actually theirs, is evidently not just. As such, just because someone accumulates a particular set of resources from “just steps” does not mean they are entitled to those resources, and redistributive schemes that seek to achieve relative parity of resources, or outcomes, are justified.
Rawls would agree with the first part of the statement, but disagree with the second part, that “A state that uses state power to enforce equality of outcome is an unjust state.” Rawls believes that inequality is unjust, and the state has to distribute wealth according to the general principle of justice as fairness. Rawls would disagree with Dworkin in this respect—Dworkin does not believe that it is the role of the state to enforce equality of outcome of resources, as this would violate his principle of equal respect (the freedom to acquire one’s own resources in the way one sees fit). Rawls believes that everyone ought to have equal opportunity, as his theory of society as fair system of cooperation over time entails this.
In my view, Dworkin’s position is correct. I think his principle of equal concern, which could reasonably entail a guaranteed baseline level of goods necessary for living well, and for instances of bad luck where one falls below it, is an effective way to ensure true equality of opportunity. Additionally, I agree with his principle of equal respect—I don’t believe that it is the state’s role to enforce an equality of outcome of resources, and people should be free to acquire their own resources in the way they see fit. I don’t think a just state is one which enforces a particular distributional pattern of resources, and if the principles of equal concern and equal respect were properly applied, a just distribution of resources would naturally arise.
Rawls and Cohen would likely disagree with the statement “A state that uses state power to enforce equality of outcome is an unjust state,” while Dworkin and Nozick would likely agree with this statement. Dworkin, Rawls, and Cohen would agree with the statement “A just state is a state where every citizen has equality of opportunities,” but Nozick would likely disagree with this statement. I believe that Dworkin’s position is the most tenable, preserving equality of opportunity at the same time as the freedom to acquire and use resources as one sees fit.

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