How Societies Should Organize: Balancing Freedom and Community

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.

My name is Tamar Gendler.  I'm professor of philosophy and cognitive science and chair of the philosophy department at Yale University.  

So philosophy comes from the Greek term meaning love of wisdom; philo, love; sophos, wisdom and every culture from time immemorial has had a philosophical tradition.  There are philosophical traditions in western culture that have their roots in ancient Greece.  There are philosophical traditions in eastern culture, great Chinese and Indian philosophical traditions.  There are philosophical traditions in Africa.  There are philosophical traditions in native cultures throughout the world.  What philosophy does in every society of which it is a part is asks the question why, why are things that way they are and should they be that way. 

The western philosophical tradition to which my comments today will be restricted can be divided into two main segments.  On the one hand it has a descriptive component, which asks about how things are and how we know that and on the other hand it has a normative component, a component which asks about how things ought to be.  So into the first category fall questions like what is the fundamental nature of reality, does God exist, do we have free will.  Those branches of philosophy are known as metaphysics, fundamental questions about what there is, and epistemology, fundamental questions about how we know things.

On the other side of the divide are the questions that I've called normative  questions, questions about values and that segment of philosophy has three main parts.  One of them, aesthetics is concerned with the question what is beautiful and what makes it so. The second part of that division of philosophy, moral philosophy asks the question what is morally right or good and the third part of that division of philosophy, political philosophy asks the question how should societies be structured in order to allow human flourishing and what makes societal structures legitimate           

Political Philosophy

Perhaps the most accessible and exciting part of philosophy for people who have never encountered the discipline before is political philosophy, which asks questions that we as citizens of a democracy need to ask ourselves in order to be responsible participants in our joint governance, questions like what is the best way for society to be structured in order to allow people to flourish, questions like what is the appropriate division of rights and responsibilities in a society, questions like how should the legitimate concerns of liberty on the one hand and equality on the other be balanced and for those of you who are interested in studying a subject that has practical import it may be worth realizing that political philosophy brought you the world as you know it today.  Political philosophy brought the world Greek democracy.  It brought us the Magna Carta.  It brought us the French Revolution and the American Revolution.  It brought us communism.  It brought us the Civil Rights Movement.  It brought us feminism and libertarianism.  It even brought us the Tea Party.  It was, as a result of thinking about these sorts of questions that these movements came into being.

So I want you to start by asking yourself how you would answer these questions.  Should the State guarantee universal healthcare?  Should there be an inheritance tax?  Should there be a draft army and should you be allowed to sell your vote?  

The three people we’ll meet in the lecture are Thomas Hobbes who wrote a great book called Leviathan in 1651, John Rawls who wrote a book called Theory of Justice in 1971 and Robert Nozick who wrote a book called Anarchy, State and Utopia in 1974. It has been said that political philosophy asks two questions, who should get what and who says so and you might think of the three authors that we’re going to discuss as answering those questions in different ways.  

Thomas Hobbes is primarily concerned with the second question who says so, what makes the State legitimate and John Rawls and Robert Nozick are in a conversation directly with one another about the question who gets what.

Thomas Hobbes: State of Nature vs. State of Governance

So Thomas Hobbes lived at the end of the 1500s and beginning of the 1600s roughly at the time of Shakespeare and if you read Hobbes work in the original you’ll notice that the language in which he wrote was somewhat archaic, but the questions with which he is concerned in his great book Leviathan aren’t questions that just apply to his time, they’re questions that concern us today as well. He asks the question what would the world be like if there wasn’t a state and would that situation be better or worse than the situation where there is some form of governance.  In particular, Hobbes famously asks people to imagine what life would be like in what he calls the state of nature,

The State of Nature: Where there is no governing body

a situation in which there is no external governing body and Hobbes points out that in the state of nature people are all roughly equal in the following relevant way.  All of us, no matter how physically strong or intellectually clever are at risk of having the work that we do disrupted by others, at risk of having the property that we’ve acquired taken by others, at risk of having the things that we see as important to our lives destroyed by others because all of us sleep and all of us go away from things that are important to us. 

As a result says Hobbes, in the state of nature people need to expand a tremendous amount of energy protecting their goods.  there is no opportunity in the state of nature to do the sorts of things which human beings think makes life valuable, things like develop relationships to individuals far from us, things like Hobbes mentions creating the skills of navigation, writing poetry, making music or any of the things that you find valuable in your life. All of those things Hobbes point out are possible only because you have a kind of security and safety.
By contrast, life in the state of nature says Hobbes, is solitary, poor, nasty, broodish and short.  The question is how can we get out of the state of nature?  How can we get out of this situation of perpetual fear, for as Hobbes point out active war isn’t what disrupts human activity.  The fear of war is sufficient to disrupt human activity.  Think of the ways in which after 9/11 your anxiety about your security was raised so that at every moment you were attentive to things around you, hyper vigilant to what risks you might face. So Hobbes’ idea in arguing for the legitimacy of government is to begin by asking what would it be like if there were no government and to point out that that’s a state which all of us find undesirable.

There are says Hobbes, three things which motivate people to try to leave the state of nature.  They are, to quote directly, “fear of death, desire of such things as are necessary for commodious living and the hope by their industry to obtain them”.  

So the puzzle the Hobbes raises is how can we get out of the state of nature and in subsequent years game theorists who work at the intersection of what you might think of as philosophy and economics have developed a way of representing the problem which Hobbes thinks we face in the state of nature.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

Life in the state of nature, according to Hobbes, embodies what is sometimes called a prisoner’s dilemma. The prisoner’s dilemma gets its name from a famous example .  A small town police officer has captured two criminals and he wants to entice them to confess, so what he does is he creates a structure of prison sentences where it’s advantageous for each of the prisoners to confess regardless of what the other one does.

U.S. vs. USSR: The Cold War Nuclear Arms Race

We can illustrate a prisoner’s dilemma by thinking about the situation of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.  Both sides would have preferred de-escalation in terms of armament.  Both sides would have been happy to use the money that they were building missiles with to build schools and highways and hospitals, but both sides also realized that if they engaged in unilateral disarmament they would be at risk.  Let’s look at the structure that governed the choice that those two countries faced.

The United States couldn’t choose whether the Soviet Union disarmed or not.  It could only choose whether it disarmed.  The Soviet Union couldn’t choose whether the United States disarmed or not.  It could only choose whether it disarmed.  For both countries their first choice was that the other country disarmed while they kept their weapons.  Because of that what was rational for both countries to do was to keep their arms. 

What that meant is that the rational choice for both parties was to keep their arms rather than ending up in their second choice situation, the situation where I have money to spend on my schools and hospitals and Russia has money to spend on its schools and hospitals both countries in order to be rational needed to spend resources on armament.  This structure occurs over and over again in human transactions. So unless there is some sort of enforcement mechanism in place we will end up like the US and the Soviet Union during the arms race, with our third choice situation.
So the general problem with which the prisoner’s dilemma confronts us is that if we behave in rational ways we will always end up not cooperating and the puzzle that Hobbes’ confronts in his political philosophy is the question how is it possible to bring human beings into their second choice situation, where they cooperate with one another rather than competing.

It turns out that in lots of small local interactions human beings do manage to find a way out of this scenario.  Famously, during the First World War when soldiers were engaged in trench warfare the Germans and the Americans developed a kind of truce whereby soldiers from one side could leave their trenches and get some fresh air without getting shot and then soldiers from the other side would leave their trenches and get some fresh air without getting shot.  The idea was that as long as the other side was behaving peacefully it was rational for you to behave peacefully as well

If you fail to cooperate or if it seems to me that you have failed to cooperate I will retaliate by not cooperating.  Because of the possibility that informal modes of cooperation can breakdown Hobbes insisted that in order to get out of the state of nature we need not only informal arrangements with one another, but a body that regulates human interactions. 

Hobbes concludes that it’s in our rational self interest to submit our will to a sovereign whom he calls the Leviathan and thereby to get ourselves out of the state of nature.

Milestones in Political Philosophy after Hobbes

Let’s fast forward 300 years. A half century later philosopher John Locke writes another book about social contract theory and 50 or so years after that the philosopher John Jacques Rousseau writes a similar work, each of them refining Hobbes’ notion of the social contract.  Together these three pictures of what makes a state legitimate allow the thinkers who lie at the heart of the American and French Revolutions to articulate a picture of human rights that makes those revolutions legitimate.  From the French and American Revolutions which give voice to the citizens we move through the 18th century to the emancipation of the serfs in Russia and a general democratization of society, a recognition that individual’s votes should not be dependent upon them being landholders, but should rather be open to people of all social classes. 

Extending this idea Karl Marx writes the Communist Manifesto and an entire enormous nation, Russia in 1917 reshapes the fundamental structure of its society in response to a work of political philosophy.  At the same time the tradition which gave rise to the revolutions in the 18th century, one that says all human beings have the right to have their voices heard, gives rise on the one hand to the women’s voting movement in England and America and then to the Civil Rights movement on United States’ soil expanding and expanding out of Hobbes’ fundamental idea that a government to be legitimate, must be in response to the needs of its people.  We get during this 300 year period an incredible opening up of political rights of a sort unknown in the history of civilization.

1971: John Rawls:  How Do You Create a Just Society?

Political philosopher John Rawls was born in the early 20th century in the American south.  He was of a generation where he and all his friends went off to serve in the Second World War and returned from that war concerned with how it’s possible to create a stable and just society.  Rawls spent most of his academic career thinking about that question as a professor of philosophy at Harvard University and when he was in his early 50s in the middle of the 1960s and early 1970s as the Vietnam War was raging, as social protests were going on around him, as American society was reshaping itself in ways that voice was given to the needs of the disenfranchised, Rawls tried to articulate in the great social contract tradition a picture of what a just society looks like and how a just society should be structured.

It’s in this time that John Rawls sets out to write his work, The Theory of Justice. It’s worth listening to the extraordinary opening words of Rawls’ book.  He says, “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions as truth is of systems of thought.”  

Rawls’ fundamental assumption in articulating what a just society looks like is that each person possesses a certain inviolability which cannot be overridden even if doing so would be of greater benefit to the society as a whole.  In so doing he challenges what had become a dominant picture of what justice and morality demand.  That picture can be traced to the 19th century works of the British philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill and is known and utilitarianism.  It’s an incredibly appealing view. 


What the view says is that an act is morally right if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number of people.  If I face a choice between saving one person and saving five where I can save only one group or the other, utilitarianism gives what many people find to be the intuitive answer that I should save the five, thereby bringing about more happiness rather than the one. 

The problem with utilitarianism that Rawls is concerned with is that it seems that in farfetched and typical circumstances utilitarianism could demand that we violate the rights of the one to help the many.  A famous counter example to utilitarianism is that a healthy man walks into a hospital where there are five dying individuals, one in need of a heart, one in need of a kidney, one in need of a liver and two others each in need of parts that he has.  The utilitarian rubric would seem to suggest that if those five can be saved by harming him that that’s what morality demands. This picture that each of us has inviolable rights and that those rights can’t be overridden by the needs of others is part of what is new and exciting in Rawls’ discussion.

Taking as his premise the idea that justice is the first virtue of social institutions that is that no unjust society is a legitimate one Rawls asks the following question.  How should the benefits and burdens of living together in a community be distributed so as to best realize what justice requires?  In particular, he asks what should the fundamental institutional structures look like to allow a society to be a just society. 

Rawls sees himself as the inheritor of the social contract tradition of which Hobbes was the initial voice in the western tradition.  Like Hobbes, Rawls asks what would people choose to have their society look like if they were building it from the ground up.  Rawls says a just society is one that rational, free and equal people would choose to contract into, but we enter our interactions with one another will all sorts of inequalities in place.  Some of us are wealthy.  Some of us are poor.  Some of us are endowed with certain kinds of intellectual or physical skills that others lack. If we try to build our society taking into consideration those facts about ourselves we aren’t doing it from a position of equality, so Rawls’ insight is that sometimes the fairest way to make a decision is to put yourself in a position where you have less information.

Think about what the fairest way to divide a cake is.  The fairest way to divide a cake is to ask you to divide it not knowing which piece you’re going to get.  If you divide the cake unaware of which part will be yours you will be inclined to divide it in a fair way. This is the veil of ignorance

The Veil of Ignorance

the situation where you don’t know who you will be.

Let’s go behind the veil of ignorance and ask a question that Rawls asks, namely, which of the two principles that he has derived ought to take priority over the other?  Do we care more about fundamental rights or do we care about the distribution of income?  So suppose you’re faced with a choice of three societies in which you can live not knowing what role you will play in the society.  In society number one the average income is $100,000, but only 85% of the people have fundamental rights, only 85% of the people have the right to vote, liberty of conscience, the right to a fair trial.  In the second society the average salary—in the second society the average salary is $70,000 and only 85% of people have fundamental rights.  In the third society the average salary is $70,000, but 100% of people have the right to vote, freedom of expression, the right to a fair trial.  Which society would you choose to live in, average income of %100,000, 85% free, average income of $70,000, 85 % free or average income $70,000, 100% free?  When confronted with this choice set anybody who is paying attention rejects the second option.  It has all of the disadvantages of the first and all of the disadvantages of the third, but it’s also true that when confronted with this choice almost everybody rejects the first option as well.  If you don’t know whether you’re going to be one of the ones with freedom then even though you’re guaranteed to have a higher income in the first society than the third more than 95% of people choose to live in the third society.

This idea that when you don’t know where you’re going to end up you have an inclination to be risk adverse is what lies behind Rawls’ conclusions about what would be chosen from behind the veil of ignorance.

People want to make sure that the bottom is safe before they worry about what the top looks like, so Rawls suggests that to the extent there are inequalities in a society they should satisfy two conditions.

So the first condition is that the benefits of those inequalities be accessible to all and the second and perhaps most controversial part of Rawls’ theory is that to the extent that there are inequalities in a society they should be distributed in such a way that they are to the benefit of the least well off, so if it turns out that having a lower tax rate in the highest bracket produces wealth and income in a way that leads those in the poorest quintile to benefit Rawls says that’s okay, but if it turns out that that’s advantageous only to those in the highest segment of society that inequality, says Rawls wouldn’t be countenanced from behind the veil of ignorance.  It isn’t a way that people would choose for a society to be structured if their fundamental concern was with justice.

In 2005 two psychologists inspired by the work of John Rawls decided to survey several thousand randomly selected Americans about what they thought the distribution of income would look like in a society of which they would want to be a part and they presented those citizens with two different pie graphs. In the one, which you can see on the top the vast majority of wealth was held by the top quintile of society and a small amount by the second quintile with virtually none held by the remainder of the society. In the other the distribution was more equal.  Roughly a third of the wealth was held by the top quintile and the remainder was distributed among the remaining four.  Given the choice between those two social structures 92% of Americans chose the bottom.  As a matter of fact the top graph, which only 8% of subjects chose represents the actual distribution of wealth in contemporary America, whereas the bottom graph represents the actual distribution of wealth in contemporary Sweden.                      

The distribution of wealth where no more than 60% of the wealth is held by the top fifth and where at least some of the wealth is held by the bottom two-fifths seems to be an ideal for all Americans, not just for those who would benefit thereby.

Rich people and poor people give the same answer from behind the veil of ignorance.  Men and women give the same answer from behind the veil of ignorance.  Religious and nonreligious people give the same answer from behind the veil of ignorance and perhaps most strikingly democrats and republicans give roughly the same answer from behind the veil of ignorance.

As a matter of fact, 85% of the nation’s wealth is held by the top quintile, roughly 10% by the second, roughly 5% by the middle and virtually none of the nation’s wealth by 40% of the country.

Does that mean our society is fundamentally unjust?  John Rawls would give the answer yes.  By contrast Robert Nozick would give the answer no. because the structure of society in which we find ourselves is one that has arisen as the result of voluntary interactions, of human beings engaged in legitimate transactions whatever distribution results, says Nozick, is a just one. 

While John Rawls was writing Theory of Justice as a distinguished philosopher in his mid 50s having fought in the Second World War and then taught philosophy for many decades thereafter.  Down the hall from him was a precocious young man in his late 20s who had recently started teaching at Harvard.  That young man by the name of Robert Nozick took upon himself the task of writing a rebuttal to Rawls’ Theory of Justice. And three years after Theory of Justice was published Nozick published his retort, Anarchy, State and Utopia.

Nozick was concerned that Rawls had placed the wrong fundamental notion at the center of his theory.

Robert Nozick:  Individual Liberty Trumps All

Nozick writes:  “Individuals have rights and there are things that no person or group may do to them without violating those rights.  The minimal state limited to narrow functions of protection against force, theft and fraud, enforcement of contracts and so on is the most extensive state that can be justified.”  Like Rawls, Nozick is challenging the utilitarian picture.  Like Rawls, Nozick thinks the goods of one person can’t be traded off the goods of the community, but unlike Rawls Nozick places at the center of his political philosophy not the notion of equality or justice, but rather the notion of liberty.

Let’s look at what a society governed by Nozick’s principles might look like.  Nozick famously articulates a view of the conditions under which property is legitimately held and his view is this.  It’s legitimate for you to own something if you acquired it in a legitimate way when it was un-owned or if you acquired it in a legitimate way from somebody else who already owned it.  If I got the property from you as the result of your having given it to me then no one can legitimately take that property away from me.  This may sound relatively uncontroversial, but let’s look and see what it implies. 

Suppose each of us starts out with the same amount of money.  Say each of us has $100 and there are thousands and thousands of us all of whom are fans of the great 1970s basketball star Wilt Chamberlain, so suppose you give 25 cents of your money to Wilt Chamberlain and I give 25 cents of my money to Wilt Chamberlain and our friend gives 25 cents of his money to Wilt Chamberlain and so on thousands and thousands of times until Wilt Chamberlain comes to have not the $100 with which each of us started out, but thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars.  On Nozick’s picture any decision to take away any of the money which Wilt Chamberlain got through this voluntary and legitimate transaction is a violation of rights. Then no distribution of income, including one in which 1% of the people own 99% of the wealth could ever be illegitimate because what matters is how it actually came into being.  If all that 99% of the wealth came to those individuals as the result of legal transactions then nothing can be done without violating rights to redistribute it.

There is no easy answer to this question.  There is a strong intuitive pull to the view that Nozick advocates—it is in some sense theft to take from Wilt Chamberlain what each of us has voluntarily given to him.  On the other hand without such theft, more commonly known by the term taxation, we will find ourselves perhaps in the sort of situation that neither Rawls nor Nozick wants to be in.

If all of us give our quarters to Wilt Chamberlain and his companions.

Instead of having a society of which we’re all equally a part Wilt and his wealthy friends are able to buy access to the media, are able to buy advertising time for candidates that they support, are able to send their children to schools where they gain power and advantage and access to resources with the result that the fundamental rights which Nozick as well as Rawls was concerned with preserving become difficult for people to exercise.  

The Wilt Chamberlain example illustrates a general phenomenon which we face in a society, one which was foreshadowed in our discussion of prisoner’s dilemma.  Individual decisions that are acceptable may be problematic if large numbers of people make those decisions.  The problem that this gives rise to is sometimes called the Tragedy of the Commons, 

The Tragedy of the Commons

so suppose there is a green area where I let my cow graze and you let your cow graze and our neighbor lets his cow graze.  So far no problem, for each of our cows there is enough to eat, but suppose that each of us instead of having one cow has 50.  If you alone had 50 cows there would be no problem.  If I alone had 50 cows there would be no problem, but if hundreds of us have 50 cows the entire green space will disappear and all of our cows will die.  This structure manifests itself in situation after situation.  Over fishing results from each of us taking what would be a fine amount of fish if were the only ones doing it, but an amount that becomes problematic if others are doing likewise.  Each of us polluting a small amount causes no problem.  All of us polluting together can lead to drastic consequences.

Your world according to Rawls vs. Nozick

Let’s return to our four opening questions and ask what Rawls and Nozick would say about them. —with respect to the question of whether societies should guarantee universal healthcare Rawls would say yes and Nozick would say no.  On Rawls’ picture health is a precondition for participation in a civic society and from behind the veil of ignorance clearly everyone would choose a society in which they had the guarantee of safety on Rawls’ picture.  By contrast, on Nozick’s this provision would be possible only as the result of illegitimate interference in people’s lives. 

With respect to the question of whether an inheritance tax is legitimate Rawls would say yes, Nozick no.  Rawls says each of us has the right to be born into a roughly equal community and those who inherit large amounts at the moment of birth are disadvantaged in ways which presumably is not to the benefit of the least well off.  Nozick by contrast wonders where Rawls gets the idea that it’s anybody’s business to tell me whether I can give my money to my children.

With respect to the third question should the army be constituted by draft or by volunteers Rawls would, at least in conditions of wartime, advocate a draft army.—just as the benefits and rights of a society that are fundamental need to be distributed equally across all so to on a Rawls’ picture must the burdens.  The only fair way to distribute those sorts of responsibilities is as the result of a random process.  Nozick by contrast would be happy with a volunteer army.  Individuals have the right to contract into risk and the fact that most of the individuals who contract into risky situations are those for whom there are not so many options isn’t something that would bother Nozick, though of course under both circumstances there are many who would choose to serve their society—simply out of a desire to protect it.

Finally, with respect to the question should it be legitimate to sell your vote Rawls gives the answer no.  That is a right that he considers unalienable, unalienable because from behind a veil of ignorance we saw that no one would choose to live in a society where such rights weren’t distributed equally.  Nozick by contrast thinks that this, like everything else should be something which is your discretion to choose and if you decide that one of the best ways for you to finance something that you care about is by selling your vote to another person what business is it of anybody else to tell you that you can’t. 

You, I imagine, have your own answers to those four questions.  Perhaps they line up completely with one or the other of the authors that we’ve discussed, but what you now have in addition to your answers to those questions are some tools for thinking about why you give those answers.

When I graduated from college I spent a couple of years doing education policy work and then decided to go back to graduate school to study philosophy.  In 1990 I was lucky enough to enroll as a graduate student at Harvard University where two of my teachers were the political philosopher John Rawls and a man who ended up being my dissertation director Robert Nozick.  It’s from the two of them that I learned what I know about political philosophy.

What political philosophy and philosophy in general encourages you to do is to step outside the specificity of your own situation.  Hobbes and Rawls and Nozick all recognized that each of us wants more rather than less of a share of the goods of our society, but what they ask you to do is to think about how the fact that you want more rather than less suggests that everyone else probably does too.

What can I do with a degree in Philosophy?

Philosophy has always been connected to the works that are going on in other fields at its time.  In ancient Greece the philosopher Aristotle was not only doing work in metaphysics and epistemology.  He was collecting constitutions from various other Greek city states to provide the first catalog of political systems.  He was doing biological experiments and thinking about the nature of physics.  In the early modern period philosophers like Rene Descartes or Thomas Hobbes were major contributors not just to the philosophical work of their time, but also to the scientific work.  Descartes invented coordinate geometry, which we still know by the name Cartesian geometry and Hobbes did work not just in the domain of political philosophy, but also work in the sciences.  This has been true throughout philosophy’s history that it’s great thinkers think not only about questions central to the discipline, but also about how those questions relate to the fields around them, so philosophers of mind right now contribute to debates about the nature of consciousness thinking both about what it is for people to be conscious and making use of the resources of a 500 year-old tradition of thinking about the relation between mind and body.

People who major in philosophy have gone on to do a huge range of things. They go to law school.  They go to business school.  They go to medical school.  Some of them  go onto be philosophers in a professional sense, but what philosophers typically go onto do is to be thoughtful, reflective participants in whatever they end up doing whether that be working in real estate or working as a nurse or being a fulltime parent or being mayor of their town. 

The most profound questions of the world are the ones which philosophy gives you permission to ask and to learn how to answer and it’s for that reason that the study of philosophy can be an enormously illuminating and valuable part of anyone’s life.  Thank you.  Thank you.  Thank you.


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. Professor Tamar 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.

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