Liberty, Equality, and Affinity in the Philosophy of Held, Nozick, and Rawls

In this paper, I will argue that of the philosophers Robert Nozick, John Rawls, and Virginia Held, the political philosophy of John Rawls is the most successful in reconciling the three political values of liberty, equality, and fraternity. I will begin by exploring the meaning of these three values. Then, I will present in brief the political philosophies of each of the aforementioned thinkers with an emphasis on how each treats these values. I will conclude with some thoughts on how political philosophy can move forward with the help of moral psychology.


In classical liberalism, liberty is most often defined negatively—one has liberty if they are not restrained by other individuals or the state from any particular action. A more foundational sense of liberty comes to us in the concept of agency. We think of ourselves as having the ability to make choices in our lives to affect outcomes that increase our likelihood of survival and sense of well-being. Aristotle and Kant both think that the moment of choice—the rational capacity to assess options and discriminate among them—is the defining aspect of being human. If we were not at liberty to make rational choices, we could not be blamed or praised for our resulting actions, and morality would be meaningless. This also suggests that some of our choices are influenced by non-rational, subconscious drives. It is our mastery over our more base, animalistic drives that in part forms the basis for a civilized society. We self-regulate the liberty of our urges to achieve a balance within ourselves and with the others around us.

The quality of determining the “right amount” of liberty then is something like Aristotle’s concept of virtue in that it is not simply a scale where more is better. We are not free to do whatever we wish, nor should we be restrained from taking any action whatsoever. The classical liberal characteristic of atomism asserts that society is reducible to the interests of its individual constituents, and this is useful in making an analogy. If one were to simply eat constantly, illness would result, and likewise if one were to fast excessively. We find a balance in our appetite that promotes our ideal health. Similarly, in society our individual liberty is curtailed for the greater good. As Rousseau writes, “What man loses by the social contract is his natural liberty and an unlimited right to anything that tempts him and which he is able to attain; what he gains is civil liberty and the ownership of all that he possesses” (Cahn 441-2). There is always a constructive tension between the rational and non-rational components in the expression of our individual liberty, just as there is between ourselves and others in the expression of our civil liberty.


It is interesting to next consider what could be meant by “too much” or “not enough” equality. A scale of equality seems silly, since equality itself connotes balance. Equality of what? Kurt Vonnegut famously lampooned the concept of enforced equality in his satirical short story Harrison Bergeron, in which he imagines a Handicapper General making sure that every citizen with above-average talents is dumbed down. This levelling-down is an incorrect perception of what is meant by equality. A better answer comes from Kant, who asserts that persons should be treated as ends and not means and therefore be afforded equal human dignity. Another good conception of equality comes in the phrase “equal rights.” Each individual human being has the same moral claims as another, especially to the properties of life, liberty, and necessary personal possessions. It is also useful to look to Locke, who states that people naturally are in a state of equality “wherein all the power and jurisdiction is reciprocal, no one having more than another” and that people of similar natural gifts “should also be equal one amongst another without subordination or subjection” (Cahn 365). When Locke goes on to suggest that there is a natural hierarchy impressed by God, we must tread more lightly. It could be “evident and clear” that a person has superior natural talents, but that does not confer upon them an “absolute or arbitrary power” over another (Cahn 366).

Fraternity (Affinity)

Such arbitrariness is evident in the term fraternity. The Greeks did better when they used the term philia, which denotes friendship, affinity, and non-sexual love. The term fraternity seeks to approach this meaning but does so at the expense of at least half the human beings in existence and does a disservice to the feminine qualities inherent men. It belies the bias in the root of the word virtue, where vir- denotes “man.” What is important is that human beings have an affinity for one another that goes beyond simply the need to procreate and protect ourselves. I will use the term affinity instead of fraternity from here forward. For Aristotle, the highest form of friendship was one that subsumed pleasure and utility and was best realized as a desire for the other’s well-being for its own sake. This concept of jointly realized happiness stretches outside the bounds of the classical liberal characteristics of a pre-social, atomistic individual and provides us with a sense of shared destiny. This affinity shows itself in the Noble Lie, the pride of Spartans, and the need of validation from others in amour propre. For Carl Schmitt, the affinity of friend as defined from enemy is the essence of the political, and if this affinity were to become a global phenomenon, the political would cease to exist (Schmitt). Freud thought that to love one’s enemy was a case of credo quia absurdum (Freud 68). So long as there is diversity among discerning human beings we will sort ourselves into vying teams if for no other reason than the distinction it provides one group from another and the joy that comes from the tension. This pursuit of joy drives our desire to form affinity groups with one another and salve the injury of our lost individual liberty while seeking the greater good. It also explains the selflessness with which we expect representatives to undertake public business.

Robert Nozick

For Robert Nozick, the most important political value is liberty. People need to be free to go about their affairs with minimal interference from the state. As he writes, “A minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified. Any state more extensive violates people’s rights” (Cahn 957). Nozick describes what he calls an entitlement theory of justice consisting of three major topics: the original acquisition of holdings, the transfer of holdings from one person to another, and the rectification of injustice in holdings (Cahn 957-8). So long as these three occur, then whatever distribution of property results must be just. He identifies justice not as some perceived end state of existence, but as the aggregate of actions that have been undertaken justly. Nozick also points out that liberty upsets patterns. If everyone were to be given an equal share of the planet’s wealth today, presumably reduced to some dollar value for ease of distribution, by tomorrow that distribution would have undergone changes made by free and justly acting individuals, and the result would almost certainly be an unequal distribution. He suggests that egalitarians are wrongly fixated on end-result principles that do not consider “differential entitlements or differential deserts to things” based on the historical actions of people (Cahn 960).

There are some problems with Nozick’s formulations. For one, he asserts that what is meant by equality is that of material outcome. This is not correct. The implication is that people with a desire for social justice are simply seeking to punish those who have justly acquired more property. This is shown to be shallow when he waffles on his third characteristic of justice. If we are to accept his theory, then the rectification of past unjust acquisitions and transfers must be upheld. Nozick seems to think this is too messy to take very seriously, aside from a footnote referencing The Case for Black Reparations (Cahn 967). Researchers have used generally accepted accounting practices and legal precedent to demonstrate that African-Americans are potentially due more in reparations than is currently held by the top four world banks (Craemer). Suddenly, the “time slicer” shoe is on the other foot, and many would complain that to realize such a redistribution would be unfair. Nozick’s concept of justice states clearly that African-Americans are entitled to this compensation, and the state should use its coercive power to provide it for them in the interests of recognizing the infringement on their liberty, but Nozick is unwilling to defend his own theory. The value of their liberty is arbitrarily diminished, undermining the equality of dignity and rights which they are due, and denying them the affinity due to them as fellow citizens.

Nozick assumes that property has a default state of being un-owned which transubstantiates to becoming owned when justly acquired. Nozick states that when Locke said that there should be “enough and as good left in common for others,” he meant that the “situation of others is not worsened” by the acquisition of property (Cahn 965). This is a dubious interpretation of Locke, who repeatedly upholds that the default state of all property is the commons. Since “property” for Locke includes life, liberty, and possessions, one could argue that even one’s own life and product of labor owes some element of ownership to the commons. This helps explain the prohibition against destroying one’s own life—the most personal possession one has, from which all other property rights emerge. When Nozick asserts that a person is no worse off when denied a life-saving drug our sense of affinity is offended. The right to deny access to property is not absolute since all property is by default held in common. The ability of the person to formulate the drug did not arise out of a vacuum. That person was born from someone other, fed by others, using language and mathematics refined and improved by others. Certainly, a person has the liberty to choose not to contribute to the welfare of others, but doing so negates the entitlement to property that results from our collective civil liberty. I think of Nozick’s entitlement theory as the “finders keepers” theory of property and he reminds me of a stubborn child who is obsessed with his own ego.

Virginia Held

An appeal to affinity is a central concern of Virginia Held, whose ethics of care rejects the premise that society is best understood as rationally self-interested individuals freely entering into a contract with one another. She imagines “what society would look like… if we replaced the paradigm of ‘economic man’ and substituted for it the paradigm of mother and child” (Cahn 1011). She further explains that a ‘mothering person’ can be male or female, and that any discomfort men may feel in being described this way is like the discomfort women have at being abstracted to a purely rational creature (Cahn 1012). When we look at the world this way, fundamental differences become apparent. A child does not choose to be born, and a mother can not simply choose not to care for her child. The basic assumption of distrust between agents is not reasonable anymore. The agency and thus liberty of the actors is bound up one with the other to a large degree. As Held writes, “Perhaps what are needed for even adequate levels of social cohesion are persons tied together by relations of concern and caring and empathy and trust than merely by contracts it may be in their interest to disregard” (Cahn 1016). This beautifully affirms the sense of affinity as described earlier. Held further explains that “the equality that is at issue in the relation between child and mothering person is the equal consideration of persons, not a legal or contractual notion of equal rights” (Cahn 1017). It is silly to think of a child as having the same rights as an adult, but not absurd that their well-being should be given equal consideration when making choices in a family. The idea of negative liberty also becomes less substantive, since “we obviously do not fulfill our obligations by merely leaving people alone” (Cahn 1018). The problem becomes not so much how to protect out individual natural liberty from the power of a society which we freely enter yet intrinsically require, but rather how to individuate ourselves from a family of which we are already naturally a part.

Held’s mode of thinking is very powerful and points out how entrenched notions of male superiority are throughout Western moral and political philosophy. She uses Rousseau as an example of someone who think citizens must be free, but wives must submit (Cahn 1012). It is a stereotypically male tendency to make human behavior abstract just as it is stereotypically female to understand emotional ties. In fact, all genders have both components within them to differing degrees. As I pointed out earlier, an affinity for one’s fellows is a thread that weaves itself throughout political philosophy. While it is an optimistic view to say that bonds of affection are more foundational in human beings than mutual distrust, I do not think this view is naïve. To a considerable the degree the world conforms to the characteristics we project upon it, and so our view of how the world ought to be should be both realistic and aspirational. Paternalism may have been ironically propagated by and accepted because of our desire to belong to a social group. In Taoism, the feminine and masculine of yin and yang respectively as portrayed in the taichi symbol complement one another, with neither one dominating the other and with a portion of each contained within the other. Confucianism also has a much more nuanced conception of duty in mutual and hierarchical relationships. Cognitive linguist George Lakoff describes how Americans frame their thinking about the country by either a “strict father” or “nurturant parent” model, with conservatives demanding austerity and liberals wanting to help the needy (Lakoff). Held herself believes that a care ethics view does not supersede the constructs of social contract theory or utilitarianism, but rather adds to them. In the realm of law and the market, social contract rooted conceptions of justice will remain “particularly useful” (Cahn 1007).

John Rawls

Rawls recognizes at the outset that political values such as equality and liberty tend to undermine one another, and he seeks to find a way to describe society through the framework of a social contract that reconciles these values. Rather than define justice as entitlement like Nozick, he defines justice as fairness, and develops a practical scheme by which fairness can be realized maximizing liberty and equality for all. His theory of justice has three main parts. Each person should have equal basic liberties such as rights of association and rule of law, to the highest degree possible without impeding other liberties. They should have a fair equality of opportunity to attain a position commensurate with their abilities not contingent on their class. Lastly, the economic structure should “mitigate inequalities in income and wealth owing to differences in natural talent” (Cahn 912). To defend why we should support the idea of surrendering wealth that we acquired justly by exercising our own innate abilities, Rawls invokes “the veil of ignorance” (Cahn 917). If we did not know how our innate characteristics compared to others and we were designing principles of justice that would impact our well-being, we would want a scheme that provided for us if we found ourselves lower in the echelon, and still provide a reasonable reward and incentive should we prove to be more industrious and better endowed. While the “more fortunate have title to their better situation… it is incorrect that individuals with greater natural endowments… have a right to a cooperative scheme that enables further benefits in ways that do not contribute to the advantages of others” (Cahn 927). This exemplifies the Difference Principle or maximin, in which inequality of outcome is only justified when it is to everyone’s benefit and specifically helps those who are the worst off.

There are several concepts built into this framework which are highly desirable. Rawls notes that using the idea of the social contract is a purely hypothetical situation used to highlight core principles. The idea that we should see ourselves as individuals competing against each other and defending ourselves against an oppressive state has been rejected as a negative self-fulfilling projection that must be discarded. When self-interest and greed are stated as the principle virtues, society bends to suit. Justice then resembles the last man standing in an unnecessary war. The justice Rawls defines is one where people get their due while still recognizing that our self-interest is tied up in promoting the common good. “In justice as fairness, men agree to share one another’s fate” (Cahn 913). By putting our affinity for one another as the central principle, and defining liberty and equality in a practical framework, we find that providing for the least of society is not a slippery slope to the confiscation of all liberty and the property that accompanies it. Rawls’ philosophy has flavors of Mills’ utilitarianism in that it seeks to maximize the aggregate benefits overall, but also a healthy dash of Kant with a version of a universalizable categorical imperative. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly” (King). Overall, Rawls’ framework most successfully reconciles the political values of liberty, equality, and affinity because it provides a cogent rebuttal to those who would scream foul at the hint of abridged liberty or enforced equality.

It is telling that political philosophy limits itself when it seeks to make abstract the drives and aversions of human beings in our social condition. The prevalent convention is that to admit of emotion in philosophy is to become unscientific and therefore unreliable, but if we deny that aspect of ourselves, we miss something vital and are not completely honest. As Jonathan Haidt points out in his book about moral psychology, The Righteous Mind, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second” (Haidt 11). Much of philosophy uses thought experiments like the state of nature, social contract, or veil of ignorance to trigger an intuition pump within us that will point us to the Truth. Human beings are a tangled mess of biases, and we tend to choose and interpret information to meet deeply seated needs within us. As strongly as I reject Nozick and his arguments for liberty, I recognize that there are many who agree with him just as vehemently. I believe that the state should be concerned with providing a neutral ground for the liberty and equality of individuals to thrive, but others see that state action as unconscionable meddling. This difference exposes a schism in the deeply felt convictions of intelligent, rational people that cannot be overcome with logic. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk suggests a thought scenario by which the wealthy would not be made to feel punished through excessive taxation but rather encouraged to contribute to society of their own free will and be praised for it (Abadi). I’m not sure that passing the hat will be enough to provide for society’s needs, but I appreciate the conundrum that Sloterdijk grapples with. Any philosophy of the state necessary includes emotional aspects related to our view of ourselves and our individual liberties on the one hand and our place in the human family through hierarchy, equality, and affinities to human beings on the other. A framework for justice and a future for humanity will depend on embracing and making sense of these non-rational influences.

Matthew Ebert
PHIL 318
Dr. Jason Fisette
10 May 2018

Works Cited

Abadi, Cameron. Germany’s welfare state under fire. Agence France-Presse, GlobalPost, Public Radio International. 30 May 2010. Web.

Cahn, Steven M. Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts. Third Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Print.

Craemer, Thomas. “Estimating Slavery Reparations: Present Value Comparisons of Historical Multigenerational Reparations Policies: Estimating Slavery Reparations.” Social Science Quarterly, vol. 96, no. 2, 2015, pp. 639-655.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: W.W. Norton, 1962. Print.

King, Rev. Martin Luther Jr. Letter from a Birmingham Jail. Ed. Ali B. Ali-Dinar, Ph.D. African Studies Center, University of Pennsylvania. Web.

Lakoff, George. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1996. Print.

Schmitt, Carl. The Concept of the Political. Translated by George Schwab. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.