In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Legal Entitlement and Justice Theories

Amia Srinivasan poses several questions for “free-market moralists”. Srinivasan’s article in the New York Times says that Robert Nozick’s arguments presented in Anarchy, State and Utopia are unfairly masqueraded as “moral common sense”. Srinivasan prefers the just society outlaid in John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice. Despite attempting to rebut Nozick, the author introduces several arguments made by other people. This is simply because Nozick has never written the statements attributed to him by Srinivasan.

Unlike traditional justice, most theories of social justice are dependent upon results, rather than processes. (Photo: Dan4th)

Unlike traditional justice, most theories of social justice are dependent upon results, rather than processes. (Photo: Dan4th)

Nozick’s theory of justice is historical – the justice of a society is dependent on its processes. Srinivasan cites the Wilt Chamberlain example as proof that Nozick believed that “people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange”. Srinivasan even said that Nozick “found it hard to say yes” to this question.  Many people will voluntarily buy tickets to see Wilt Chamberlain play, and then Chamberlain will be highly paid because of his fans. If the wealth distribution was ‘just’ prior to Chamberlain playing a game, or J. K. Rowling publishing another book, then it should be ‘just’ afterwards. The purpose of this example is to show that patterned theories of justice – the belief that certain wealth distributions are inherently just whilst others are intrinsically unjust – are wrong, because people will willingly and voluntarily change that wealth distribution.

Nozick’s theory is principally one of entitlement, rather than deservedness. To repeat the example given by Dr David Gordon at, a person is entitled to their own kidneys, though someone else may desperately need a kidney transplant. However, it would be wrong to force a donation of their kidneys. Ultimately, Nozick’s ideas concern what actions the state is morally permitted to take, rather than what actions individuals are morally obliged to perform.

The Questions

The article’s questions should be answered. Srinivasan’s first question is:

Is any exchange between two people in the absence of direct physical compulsion by one party against the other (or the threat thereof) necessarily free?

Freedom is the absence of coercion, which can involve indirect threats, such as against family members. However, Srinivasan’s rebuttal states: “Since she undertakes these acts of exchange… because she is compelled by hunger and a lack of alternatives, they are free.” This confuses internal constraints with external coercion. When walking to their workplace, a person cannot eat a big mushroom, become 20ft tall and break through buildings like Super Mario. Our inability to throw fireballs, fly or survive long without subsistence and sleep are fundamental constraints on human behaviour. Constrained choices are not equivalent to coercion.

The second question is:

Is any free (not physically compelled) exchange morally permissible?

Srinivasan’s response is that: “If you say yes, then you think that any free exchange can’t be exploitative and thus immoral.” This is the standard argument against sweatshops. A third party may have great difficulty in judging whether someone is being exploited or enduring impermissible working conditions. Whilst such labour may generate moral queasiness, that reaction should not force someone out of work they themselves prefer to digging for food in rubbish heaps.


Do people deserve all they are able, and only what they are able, to get through free exchange?

Who decides who deserves what? Pay is a prospective incentive, not a retrospective reward.


Are people under no obligation to do anything they don’t freely want to do or freely commit themselves to doing?

This is another malformed question: what is meant by ‘obligation’? A legal obligation would twist a moral one. Like in Ultima V, charity may be virtuous but to legally enforce that “Thou shalt donate half of thy income to charity, or thou shalt have no income” is an abomination. In Srinivasan’s example of coming across a person drowning, the personal calculation that the observer must undertake is much more complex: will attempting to save the drowning person seriously endanger their own life? Is there anyone else who can help, and will they arrive in time?

It is plausible that Srinivasan finds Nozick’s theory of legal entitlement to be morally reprehensible, but it is not discussed in their article. Instead, the article rests upon the crutches of two conflations: constraints with coercion; and moral obligations with legal ones.



This entry was posted on November 8, 2013 by in Law and Philosophy and tagged .
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