The Floating University

Of the People, by the People, for the People?  

The Rawls-Nozick Debates as an Introduction to the Philosophy of Politics and Economics.

TAMAR GENDLER, Department of Philosophy Chair at Yale University, Cognitive Scientist

Lesson Overview

Who gets what and who says so? These two questions underlie and inform every social arrangement from the resolution of schoolyard squabbles to the meta-structure of human societies. They are also the basis of political philosophy. Professor Tamar Gendler uses the work of three titans of the discipline --Thomas Hobbes, John Rawls, and Robert Nozick -- as a lens to guide us through the taut debate over the role of government in society, asking "Will we embrace the radical state of nature or will we surrender our freedom to the leviathan of the state?"

Engagement with the the fundamentals of political philosophy is an essential step toward being able to think critically about the power structures in place and make your voice heard as a citizen. Gendler begins with the question of why human beings should cooperate, then looks at the different answers that arise from two very different perspectives: Hobbes' theory of self-interest versus the social contract theory of Rousseau and Locke. Next, she shows how, with Marx's communism, political philosophy evolved to the point at which it had the power to overturn established hierarchies and dominate the international politics of the twentieth century. 

Turning to the contemporary world, Gendler introduces us to the legendary arguments of John Rawls and Robert Nozick, who have each carved out an opposing corner of modern political philosophy. The tension between radical individual freedom and modified utilitarianism continues to shape our political discourse, as proponents of a strong federal government clash with those demanding unhindered individual agency. The United States may be on the verge of going radically in either direction, and it's up to you to learn the language and history that will allow you to participate in the debate.

This lecture will give you a framework for addressing some of the burning dilemmas of our time: "Should the State guarantee universal health care? How should the tax system work? Should there be a draft army?" while raising less familiar, but equally complex questions like, "Should I be allowed to sell my vote?"


  • Course Pack: Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. (Preface, entire (pp. ix-xiv); Chapter 7, Introduction (pp. 149-150); Chapter 7, Section I, up to “Sen’s Argument” (pp. 150-164))
  • Course Pack: John Rawls, A Theory of Justice. (Chapter I, opening paragraph (pp. 3); Chapter I, section 1, paragraphs 1-2 (pp. 3-4); Chapter I, section 2, paragraph 1 (pp. 6-7); Chapter I, section 3, paragraphs 1-8 (pp. 10-14); Chapter I, section 4, entire (pp. 15-19); Chapter II, section 11, entire (pp. 52-56))
  • Online: Thomas Hobbes, Selections from Leviathan. (Book I, chapter XIII, paragraphs 1-14; Book I, chapter XIV, paragraphs 1-5; Book II, chapter XVII, paragraphs 1-15)  Link:
  • Book (must purchase): Kenneth E. Shepsle and Mark S. Bonchek, Selections from Analyzing Politics: Rationality, Behavior, and Institutions (1997). (Chapter 8, entire (pp. 198-218); Chapter 10, selections (“The Problem of the Commons”), (pp. 288-296))

Discussion Questions

(1.) "Although a society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage, it is typically marked by a conflict as well as an identity of interests. There is an identity of interests since social cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would have if each were to live solely by his own efforts. There is a conflict of interests since persons are not indifferent as to how the greater benefits of their collaboration are distributed…each prefers a larger to a lesser share." What implications do you think this observation has for how a just society should be structured? For example:should there be an absolute sovereign (as Hobbes suggests)? Should social and economic inequalities be arranged so that they are to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged (as Rawls argues)? Does any state more extensive than the minimal state violate people’s rights (as Nozick maintains)? Should utilitarian trade-offs of basic liberties be permitted?

(2.) “war consists not in battle only, or the act of fighting, but in… the known disposition thereto during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary.” In saying this, Hobbes is pointing out that the live possibility of danger may be as destabilizing as danger itself. How do the recent preparations for Hurricane Irene bring out the ways that uncertainty can make it rational to behave in risk-averse ways? How does this connect to Hobbes’ arguments in Book I, Chapters 13 & 14, about the costs of living in a state of nature? 

(3.) Imagine that it is a US election year, and that you are a speechwriter for one of the Presidential nominees (you can choose which party s/he represents). You are preparing your candidate for an upcoming televised debate about increasing taxes to pay for increased services. On your desk are copies of A Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State and Utopia. Suppose you were asked to brief your candidate in preparation for the debate. What examples, concepts or arguments from these books that s/he might use in the debate, or expect to hear used by the other nominee? A salient example is the debate over entitlements currently raging in congress and in the 2012 presidential contest: is providing Medicare an infringement of individual liberty? How would Rawls defend the concept of universal medical care? 

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About Tamar Gendler

Dr. Tamar Gendler is a leading philosophy scholar. Her primary areas of study are the Philosophy of Psychology, Epistemology, and Metaphysics. Professor Gendler's work has earned her many fellowships from such foundations such as the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the National Science Foundation. Her 2008 essay entitled "Alief and Belief" was selected by the Philosopher's Annual as one of the best articles published in Philosophy in 2008. In 2010, she became the first woman to Chair the Department of Philosophy at Yale. Dr. Gendler has taught philosophy and cognitive science at Yale since 2006.