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Two dead philosophers buried 10 metres apart, still living: John Rawls and Robert Nozick

May 16, 2016

My year as a visiting professor with the Department of Economics at Harvard is coming to an end, and I am on a pilgrimage of sorts. Today was spent in Mount Auburn Cemetery, visiting the notable and still living dead.

Visiting John Rawls in Mount Auburn Cemetary Cambridge Massachsetts

John Rawls died on November 24th, 2002. He is buried in a part of the cemetery called Harvard Hill, where you can see over the tree tops, just barely, the spire of Sanders Theatre in Memorial Hall. Professor Rawls is the author of A Theory of Justice, published in 1971. I read it for the first time in the early 1980s as a graduate student when working on my Master’s degree at McGill University. Rawls asks what kind of social contract would we enter into to govern the workings of our society if we had to negotiate it behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing where we stood in society, knowing nothing at all about ourselves, not our social rank, not even who are parents were. His answer? A good society is one in which the interests of the least advantaged have priority: social welfare is improved only when the least advantaged advance.

Also buried on Harvard Hill, barely 10 meters away, is Robert Nozick, who died on January 23rd, 2002. Nozick’s great work is Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a forceful response to Rawls, published in 1974. Nozick argued for a minimal state, focusing on the importance of individual property rights. Social welfare is based upon process, the freedom to engage in voluntary exchange in the exercise of property rights is what makes a society good, and the state should play a minimal role providing only those most basic services that uphold property rights. Let the outcomes be what they will be, as long as this process respected.

Robert Nozick in Mount Auburn Cemetery Cambridge Massachusetts

Two books, still alive, and very much for our times.

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From → economics

4 Comments
  1. In your top headline, you have a possessive instead of a simple plural!!

    Eleanor

    >

    • Thank you! The moment after posting I noticed that and corrected it. If you see anything else, please let me know

  2. Craig Jones permalink

    I seem to recall reading that Nozick disavowed much of his own philosophy toward the end of his life — or at least substantially backed away from it. Am I hallucinating?

    • I don’t really know about that. My impression was, and this is what the Wikipedia page I linked to says, is that he put his book out there, but moved on to other research and didn’t really engage in the research agenda. If this is the case, I wouldn’t call it disavowing his work. Rather, he just moved on to other interests. But to be honest, I can’t speak with authority on this.

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