Williams and Nozick Notes for September 8

Main points

Williams tries to show how equality is a significant political ideal. In particular, he tries to show how egalitarians can move from apparent facts about human equality to normative conclusions about how they ought to be treated. We concentrated on his remarks about the distribution of goods and said less about his very interesting remarks about equal opportunity.

Nozick criticized Williams for failing to take production seriously. In particular, he said that Williams’s views would intolerably infringe on individual rights to liberty.

In my opinion, they are talking past one another. Williams is describing a rational distribution of goods. Nozick is describing a system of rights. Nina disagreed with me, however.

Our discussion

We began with a discussion of the relationship between utilitarianism and egalitarianism. Daniel is certainly right to say that there is an important way in which utilitarians count everyone as equals. But there are legitimate reasons to worry that the commitment to equality may be too superficial as well.

Meredith said that she did not think that doctors have complete liberty to decide how to use their talents: they have to treat all comers. They cannot discriminate among patients based, say, on race or, in emergencies, on ability to pay. Maybe we’re wrong to think that, but it is how our society treats them. (See, for instance, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act.)

Another sort of criticism that Nozick did not mention concerns Williams’s distinction between goods that should be distributed based on merit and those that should be distributed based on need. Williams tacitly assumed that there is a finite amount of need, such that health care, for instance, need not be scarce. But that isn’t the way things are playing out. There is an apparently limitless demand for health care, making it seemingly permanently scarce.

This page was written by Michael Green for Freedom, Markets, and Well-being, PPE 160, Fall 2010. It was posted September 9, 2010.
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