Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain argument

Explain and assess Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain argument.

In Robert Nozick's famed Anarchy, State, and Utopia Nozick uses the example of a baseball player who becomes considerably richer than the rest of the population to show that liberty is incompatible with any patterned theory of distributive justice. This argument, if successful, will be a considerable challenge for Rawls because his theory prioritises liberty in his conception of justice but also requires some redistribution of prosperity (as determined by 'the difference process'). If Nozick is right a patterned theory (of which 'the difference theory' is one) is incompatible with liberty then the Rawlsian task collapses into a libertarian theory because the first concept (liberty) must be favoured over the second redistributive basic principle. First I am going to dispute that the Wilt Chamberlain debate is not question-begging because it assumes self-ownership and not absolute property protection under the law (the latter is exactly what the patterned theory must refuse) and endeavors to derive the last mentioned from the former. Second I am going to claim that interpreting liberty as self-ownership does indeed entail the incompatibility of liberty and a patterned theory so long as we do away with a Lockean proviso on primary acquisition.

Nozick categorises theories of distributive justice by two classifications. The first classification is whether a theory is historical or ahistorical which is the distinction between whether a theory takes into account past actions/events/circumstances (historical) or not (ahistorical). The greater important distinction that Nozick makes between differing ideas of distributive justice is between patterned and unpatterned ideas. A patterned theory of justice is one where distributive shares are driven or correlated with some changing. For example a utilitarian theory of justice will be a patterned theory of justice because it would distribute public goods corresponding to how much utility they enhance. An unpatterned theory would not determine who is to get what by reference to some variable on earth. The best (and seemingly the only real) way to interpret an unpatterned theory of justice is never to determine who is to get what but by what means who are able to get what; we may call this a procedural theory of justice. Nozick's argument against patterned ideas of justice is that they are incompatible with liberty and uses the example of Wilt Chamberlain to claim because of this point.

In an imaginary world we presume a patterned theory of justice. Although it doesn't (and shouldn't as the example is intended to show that all patterned ideas of justice are incompatible with liberty) subject which patterned theory we choose we will presume an egalitarian theory. So in the initial situation (from here on D1) we expect that the sociable goods in culture have been distributed evenly. In D1 Wilt Chamberlain, a famous basketball player, strikes an agreement with his club that for every ticket sold he'll acquire 25 cents (Nozick 1997:208). Because of this Wilt Chamberlain becomes very prosperous therefore upsets the patterned theory because society becomes more unequal (from here on D2). Relating to this circumstance Nozick can be interpreted as arguing the next:

  1. Ex hypothesi in D1 each individual is justly eligible for their talk about of goods. This requires that no individual in D1 has a case of injustice against any other person(Nozick 1997:208-9).
  2. If everyone is eligible for their goods then they should be at liberty to do with them whatever they need i. e. they may have absolute property protection under the law.
  3. An egalitarian basic principle denies that all is to be at liberty to do as they wish with their goods because it upsets the patterned theory of equality (as it does in D2).
  4. Therefore an egalitarian basic principle of distributive justice is incompatible with liberty.
  5. As there is absolutely no good reason to think that any other patterned theory of justice can't be upset by liberty then any patterned theory of justice is incompatible with liberty.

The essential point that Nozick is wanting to make is the fact that if each individual is eligible for their goods in D1 then how can it be possible for an unjust situation to occur in D2 after each person voluntarily provides money to Wilt Chamberlain in order to see him play? As Nozick places it, how do an unjust situation come up from people moving their money to Wilt when each customer 'acquired no promise of justice on any keeping of others before the copy' ?(Nozick 1997:209). An initial objection may be that in population people will usually easily trade (i. e. not have their property considered coercively to be able to maintain a distributive theory) in accordance with that distributive principle. This objection misses the point because all Nozick is trying showing is a patterned theory of justice is within process incompatible with liberty. That is, any patterned theory of justice doesn't necessitate a value for liberty.

A more serious problem for Nozick comes up in trying to establish (2) since it appears to beg the question resistant to the patterned theorist. For just what the patterned theorist denies is that every individual has utter property protection under the law over the goods that have been sent out to him. When goods are redistributed after D2 to be able to improve the unpatterned circulation that Wilt and his customers brought on then this isn't a violation of Wilt's liberty because he had no absolute protection under the law over his goods. If he previously no absolute privileges over his goods when 'his' goods are extracted from him then Wilt cannot complain that his liberty has been violated. His liberty regarding his goods as he would like is merely his to do with his goods as he pleases if he has no absolute privileges over his goods (which is just what the patterned theorist denies) then his liberty is not violated under any scenario where it is used e. g. not violated when in accordance with the patterned theory. In order to set up the incompatibility of liberty and any patterned theory non-question-beggingly then Nozick must give impartial support for absolute property rights. Nozick does give independent reasons for absolute property privileges and they are not reasons that the patterned theorist necessarily denies. Whilst the patterned theorist actually denies utter property rights they don't really necessarily refuse the principle that each person is the owner of their own systems i. e. the process of self-ownership. Even when Nozick fails in his try out at this he hasn't begged the question up against the patterned theorist because the denial of self-ownership is not the actual patterned theorist has denied in the Wilt Chamberlain argument, alternatively, what he has rejected are total property rights. If self-ownership does indeed entail absolute property protection under the law then your patterned theorist must, by modus tollens, refuse self-ownership as they always deny absolute property rights. Nevertheless, you don't beg the question against an challenger by asserting a conditional that requires the denial of your opponent's point otherwise all of beliefs would be question-begging! Rather Nozick has provided a fresh argument and it is for the patterned theorist to deny this in order to refuse the Wilt Chamberlain debate.

If Nozick is to show that liberty is incompatible with any patterned theory then in order to avoid begging the question Nozick must give indie support to the thought of absolute property rights. If people are forbidden from performing exercises their right to property (e. g. their to keep their property despite it being incompatible with a style) then we might say their liberty has been violated just like we say a person whose right to speech has been violated has also got their liberty violated. So conceived liberty is merely a collection of rights;we are in liberty to do something so long as we have a right to achieve that thing and no-one prevents us from exercising that right. A good example that facilitates this conception of liberty is given by Ryan (Wolff 1992:93) where we'd think it absurd to say that a professor's liberty has been violated by him being prevented from moving his tenure to his children. We think that his liberty was not violated because he had no to transfer his tenure to begin with. Therefore our liberties are dependent on our privileges. Liberty is violated when a right is violated and if people's right to property is complete then taking it from them without their consent violates their to that property and so their liberty too. When we say that property protection under the law are definite we do not imply that people contain the right to use their house literally nonetheless they want for that could give people the right to chuck their spears at somebody without provocation. Rather we mean that individuals may use their property nonetheless they wish so long as they don't interfere with others utilizing their property as they wish and crucially that they may use their house despite it not maintaining a patterned circulation. Can Nozick give unbiased support for utter property privileges (and not just postulate them)? His try out at this starts off with the thesis of self-ownership (Kymlicka 2002:107):

6. Persons have the right to decide how they use their body as long as they don't interfere with anybody else utilizing their body.

Self-ownership is essentially a complete property to your own body; we should be at liberty to utilize our bodies in any way we wish as long as we respect the like rights of others. Self-ownership seems intuitively an extremely plausible place to start for just about any normative theory. If it is refused then either other folks have a case on our anatomies or nobody has a promise on our anatomies or their own body. If people don't possess the to decide what they should do with their body then in what sense is slavery incorrect (slavery that is preferable to no slavery, to lower short the utilitarian response)? Self-ownership seems to have enormous explanatory power for our moral intuitions as it talks about why slavery, murder, rape, kidnapping and almost any other use of power is seen as wrong. An initial implication of this is that it might be wrong in a global where people are given birth to with different numbers of eyes for taking, without consent, people's sight in order to get a more identical distribution of sight (Cohen 1995:70). This is one manner in which a patterned theory would violate privileges and thus liberty but Nozick wishes to take goal at all patterned ideas not just some. For instance Rawls' patterned theory would ensure the to freedom of speech and freedom of thought that happen to be both guaranteed by self-ownership. Nozick needs to attack the Rawlsian redistribution of private property (i. e. property that is not similar to your own body) and show that violations of these private property privileges (and therefore liberty) is tantamount to denying self-ownership. The main point is the following:

7. If (6) is true then anyone can gain a complete property right to any part of the world so long as they don't aggravate the health of others.

(7) follows from (6) because (6) implies that we may do anything we wish so long as we don't hinder others doing what they wish. No matter how we acquire a little bit of property only that it appears we should use our bodies. For how else could something that had not been formerly ours become ours? If this is actually the case then we may acquire property because we acquire property through the use of our anatomies and we've the right to use our anatomies as we want. The clause in (7) is launched in order to try and stop the acquisition of property which deprives another of that right to it. For whenever we acquire a piece of land then it comes ours which is up to us if others should be able to put it to use and therefore no-one else can have a say over how that piece of land is to be used. Nozick feels this is appropriate so long as we hold a proviso on exactly when we may get a piece of land. We might only acquire a parcel if the acquisition of this piece of land materially worsens the conditions of anybody else who use that parcel. We only worsen the condition of others if indeed they have less of what they want than if we had not purchased the parcel that we do. For instance we may well not take the only full normal water hole within an area and deprive others of this inflatable water in it because were clearly worsening the conditions of others. He doesn't specify just what happens to someone's property after the Lockean proviso is violated just stating that there become 'strict restrictionson what he may do along with his "property"'(Nozick 1974:180). He seems to doubt that people might even call it that person's property. If the argument is prosperous it will show that folks can gain complete property rights and therefore that patterned ideas are unjust because they involve violating those property rights and thus liberty in order to keep up a design.

The problem with the aforementioned argument is that the self-ownership thesis will not entail (7). Specifically it doesn't entail the Lockean proviso and the proviso seems completely ad-hoc. If Nozick admits our ability to obtain property is dependent on how it affects the materials that others can have access (and therefore their welfare) to then how is this dissimilar to weakening the house rights in order to achieve increased utility with a patterned theory? Nozick's proviso seems arbitrary in that he offers no reason why we should select his Lockean proviso over another. If we should limit the acquisition of property due to its harmful effects on others then why shouldn't we admit another Lockean proviso such as one that maximises the welfare of others? I think that Nozick specifically chooses that basic principle because of his interpretation of 'interfering' in (6). For he would like to forbid acquiring property when that inhibits others acquiring property. This seems to be a mistaken interpretation of the interfering which seems to be essentially depriving another of a negative liberty rather than positive liberty. The differentiation between negative and positive rights is essentially the differentiation between what others have a obligation to do and what they have a obligation not to do. For example my right to not be killed is a responsibility that others have to not murder me and so is a negative obligation whilst my 'right' to a education is generally conceived as a obligation that my lecturers have to come and lecture me about distributive justice. THEREFORE I have a negative right if I have a right that folks don't take action to me whilst easily have an optimistic right I've the right that someone provide something to me. 'Interfering' is naturally construed as violating negative rights such as when we say that 'people have a right never to be interfered with'. So we ought to interpret the self-ownership thesis as stating that we may do as we want with our systems (including with them to acquire property) so long as we don't stop others utilizing their bodies as they wish (including them acquiring property). So our negative right to use the body even as wish is a person else's duty to not stop us from using it even as wish. We don't have a positive right to use our body once we wish and so nobody has a work to help or assist us in someway of using our bodies as we wish. This means that we have the negative right to acquire property and so everyone has a obligation to restrain from preventing me acquiring property unless in doing so I am violating the negative right of someone else to obtain or maintain property. AS I acquire property it does stop others acquiring property but this is 'nothing to the idea, since you possessed no to that plot' (Narveson 1987:62). For no person had the right to that piece of land until I acquired there and it became mine so when it becomes mine then no one may violate my to that property. So Nozick makes the fault of let's assume that by acquiring a bit of land I am interfering with somebody else's to that parcel. But in real reality I am not violating anybody's to that piece of land because I only have the work of not violating anybody else's right to property but nobody had a negative to that piece of property because it was me who first obtained it. So self-ownership assures that I may acquire property using my own body and that I might acquire property so long as I don't interfere with the property rights that others already have so when 'interfere' is violating a poor right we don't interfere with someone else acquiring property by acquiring that property because they had no positive to a bit of land rather only the negative right that another person not stop them acquiring a piece of land. Thus self-ownership will not need a Lockean proviso in order to obtain property because the mere depriving someone of a piece of land doesn't constitute interference. The implications for the Wilt Chamberlain case is that every person acquires the right to that little bit of property and that people may use our property in anyhow that people wish as long as we don't violate the negative protection under the law of someone else to their property. Inside the Wilt Chamberlain case no one is violating anybody else's to property by buying tickers because no one is preventing anybody else using their property as they wish and therefore the redistribution to keep up the pattern violates the negative protection under the law of Wilt to his property. As we have determined the violation of a right as correspondingly the violation of a liberty then it can be said that redistribution violates the liberty of Wilt by violating his liberty regarding his property as he would like.

In conclusion it seems that the Wilt Chamberlain argument does provide a good argument showing why patterned ideas of justice are incompatible with liberty. We first discovered that the violation of a right to do something is best referred to as the violation of a liberty to take action. Then we argued that in order for Nozick to avoid begging the question from the patterned theorist he must give 3rd party support to the thought of absolute property privileges which give an individual the to use their property even if it upsets a distributive structure. Nozick tries to argue for utter property right from the basis of self-ownership which is the theory that each person is to really have the right to use their body as they wish (which include using it to acquire property protection under the law) so long as they don't hinder others utilizing their systems as they wish. Nozick's Lockean proviso on acquisition is not entailed by self-ownership because interference is identified only as the negative to acquire property and we are not violating an individual else's right to that piece of property by acquiring it because they only experienced the negative right of the possibility to acquire it and not the positive right to someone else not taking it for themselves. As self-ownership ensures that folks may acquire and use property as they want so long as they don't violate the negative privileges of others with their property then the taking of Wilt's property (his money) is a violation of his overall property rights and is also therefore a violation of his liberty.


Nozick, R. , Anarchy, State, and Utopia 1974

Wolf, J. , Robert Nozick: Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal Express 1991

Cohen, G. A. , Self-ownership, freedom and equality 1995

Narveson, J. , The libertarian idea 1987

Kymlicka, W. , Modern political beliefs 1990

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