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  • Writer's pictureTiffany Lee

Nozick’s War Against Patterns ft. Rawls and Frankfurt

“Liberty,” Nozick says, “upsets patterns”. We live in a society dependent on liberty, relentlessly exercising our freedom and human rights, blissfully unaware of how integral ‘choice’ really is. In his book ​Anarchy, State and Utopia​, Nozick claims that the problem with patterns is that they are at odds with liberty. Patterns, in his eyes, are the greatest possible threat to free will and to “fill in the blank, ‘to each according to his ____’ is to be predisposed to search for a pattern”. While Nozick’s libertarian outlook ceases to acknowledge the connection between patterns and justice, for Rawls and Frankfurt, patterns contribute to the foundation of their theories.

Robert Nozick


John Rawls


Harry Frankfurt


The core idea of Rawls' difference principle revolves around inequalities that are “unfair”. People who are in theory, equal, are treated in vastly different ways. John Rawls proposes the idea of the difference principle in which he says we are entitled to the benefit from the circumstances we are born in so long as our success works to “improve the circumstances of the least advantage group”, only then are inequalities justifiable.Rawls acknowledges that much of what we perceive we are entitled to and deserve has been handed to us by the arbitrary game of chance, placing a moral obligation for us to give back those who were not as lucky. Rawls’s theory stresses a patterned conception of justice, understanding that income and wealth disparities are not to ensure that people receive what they deserve but to provide leeway for disproportionate gain as long as it benefits the less fortunate. His theory can be emulated by any corporate giant. The billions of dollars racked in by Google for collecting and distributing data or the money amassed by fast food chains like McDonald’s for providing cheap and accessible food is justified by the allocation of millions of jobs around the globe, indirectly providing means for the employees to enhance their standard of living. Regardless of how much more the CEO makes, because he or she is bettering the lives of others by contributing to the general public, according to Rawls’ theory, this distribution is just.

Htor in arbitrary contingencies or the natural lottery that determines the automatic privileges or disadvantages assigned to us in the game of life. People are born into families with various socioeconomic backgrounds, where some are more or less encouraging of pursuing an education or certain passions. They are involuntarily entered in an unfair race that is arbitrarily hindered, where the possibility of them winning the natural lottery is largely determined by luck and factors beyond their control. Hence, Rawls insists that the difference principle can establish equal opportunities for people hailing from different social, cultural and economic backgrounds; what he calls equality of fair opportunity.

Similar to Rawls, Frankfurt’s theory is rooted in patterns. According to the doctrine of sufficiency, “justice requires that each person have ​enough”​, rather than everyone having

the ​same,​ which distinguishes his theory from egalitarianism, the doctrine that states that every individual is ​equal​ and deserves​ equal​ rights and opportunities. However, the extent of ‘enough’ is non-comparative and differs for each individual given the setting of their life; the standard of satisfaction is far from universal. While some are comfortable with the bare minimum, others accustomed to an affluent lifestyle demand luxury in which enough may cost a bit more. A world brazen with inequality is possible because each individual is content with their own needs.

Nozick classifies Frankfurt's doctrine of sufficiency and Rawls’ difference principle as “patterned” theories of justice because we ask whether something is enough or if it contributes to the greater good. We are able to fill in the blank “to each according to his own needs”, neglecting how we acquired that distribution: justly or unjustly. In ​Anarchy, State and Utopia​, Nozick labels patterns as the greatest threat to liberty, urging that each individual has the right to their conditions of wealth, talents, and other acquired assets and the power to distribute them as they see fit. Nozick brazenly criticizes Rawls’ and Frankfurt’s patterned conception of justice as they violate his principle of entitlement by restraining one’s right to control the distribution and handling of their holdings. In Rawls's difference principle, patterns impose on one's liberty as people are obliged to contribute to society, impeding them from truly attaining distributive freedom. Similarly, he rejects Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency as it breaches our individual freedom by necessitating that we adhere to a common standard of ‘enough’. Nozick's objection to their theories of justice clearly stems from the possible threat of an infringement on liberty rather than the thought of inequality.

Many of us are blessed with arbitrary contingencies whether it be social standings, circumstances of wealth or inheritance. After first glance, Rawls’ difference principle or Frankfurt’s doctrine of sufficiency may seem to infringe on the liberty of the wealthy or create a structure in which everyone conforms to a common standard of sufficiency. While we are constantly reminded of the necessity of freedom in an increasingly modern and liberal age, there are obvious limitations to liberty which is why we must rely on theories of Rawls and Frankfurt in order to seek the bigger, more realistic picture of justice.

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