Monday, November 21, 2011

Nozick vs Williams: the Wilt Chamberlain example

To: Randy W.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Nozick vs Williams: the Wilt Chamberlain example
Date: 18 January 2006 13:30

Dear Randy,

Thank you for your email of 11 January, with your University of London essay in response to the question, 'Explain how Nozick seeks to use his Wilt Chamberlain example to show that liberty upsets patterns. Does his argument create problems for Williams' defence of equality?'

As I would have expected, this is an excellent answer to the question. In what follows, my comments should not be taken necessarily as recommendations for ways in which the essay might have been improved, but merely thoughts triggered by what you have said which you are free to take or leave as you see fit.

Possibly as an exam strategy it would have been a good idea to at least mention the Wilt Chamberlain example straight off (if only to say, 'I will talk about the example in a minute, but first...'). An examiner with a pile of scripts to read will tend to form snap judgements. The judgement in your case might be that you have not sufficiently focused your attention on answering the question. I would not agree with this judgement, but the examiner might be sufficiently 'put off' by his first impressions to give your work a less than fair assessment.

If I was answering this question, I would explore further the clash between what Williams sees as a 'reason' for a certain action and what Nozick sees as a 'reason'. The implication of Nozick's argument is that we cannot give any weight to Williams-type reasons, because Nozick-type reasons trump them every time. If something is mine, I have a 'right' to it. It is up to me to freely decide how I am to dispose of it. No-one can have the 'right' to demand that I give up the thing that is mine for any 'reason' related to the other person's desires or needs, however seemingly compelling.

In other words, Nozick provides a very simple and powerful way of distinguishing between what we do because it is 'right' and what is merely a 'good thing' to do. Now, of course, one can argue as you do that purely in terms of his own theory of 'rights', Nozick is not justified in objecting to certain kinds of redistribution. The current state of affairs is not, in fact, one that arose according to Nozick's ideal scenario. Redistribution is therefore justified, to the extent that it is putting right a previous wrong. This point, however, is strictly speaking irrelevant to the question whether Nozick's argument makes problems for Williams.

Another issue that interests me is the difference of 'level' at which one can engage with the Nozick-Williams debate. One can raise the question whether or not, as moral individuals, we should see the needs of others as, in principle, capable of generating claims for things that they have a 'right' to, for example, someone who is starving. This is different from the question, which is the primary focus here, of what we may or may not demand of a just state.

My own inclination, on the level of individual morality, is to regard the notion of 'rights' as having no special force. There are only reasons for action. Some reasons have more force than others, some normally 'trump' other reasons, unless they are themselves trumped by even stronger reasons. Freedom is important, of course, but it is not the only thing that is important.

Transposed into the arena of political philosophy, I find this stance more difficult to defend. Rights have a special role to play in the political arena, which they do not have at the level of moral discourse. There is a case for declaring that henceforth certain goods, benefits or whatever should be available 'by right', as a way of setting inviolable, minimal standards of acceptable provision by the state for its citizens. Nozick can complain that these 'rights' are so in name only, but then the dispute becomes merely verbal. The considerations, relating to human freedom which Nozick emphasizes are very important, to be sure, but they are not the only thing that is important.

I am not unduly worried by your argument about how we are to determine 'which things are truly needed'. This is a matter for reasoned judgement, based on a consensus which admittedly can change over time. That's not a problem in principle. We are not making a hard and fast philosophical case for or against regarding a given need as a 'right' but rather consciously setting a bench mark, because a bench mark is needed. The case for doing so is not undermined by the realization that we have considerable latitude in deciding exactly where the bench mark should be placed.

All the best,