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The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Elisha Whittelsey Collection, the Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1975 (accession no. 1975.616.11); www.metmuseum.org
Contemporary adaptations of the state of nature
The notion of a state of nature, real or hypothetical, was most influential during the 17th and 18th centuries. Nevertheless, it has also influenced more-recent attempts to establish objective norms of justice and fairness, notably those of the American philosopher John Rawls in his A Theory of Justice (1971) and other works. Although Rawls rejected the notion of a pre-social or pre-political state of nature, he argued that the basic features of a just society could best be discovered by considering the principles of government that would be accepted by a group of rational individuals who have been made ignorant of their positions in society (and thus also of the privileges or privations they experience as a result)—a heuristic device he called the “veil of ignorance.” In this way, Rawls, like Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, argued that the best way to assess the value of social institutions is to imagine their absence.
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The American philosopher Robert Nozick, Rawls’s contemporary, also turned to a hypothetical state of nature in his main work of political philosophy, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), to argue for a position that was markedly different from that of Rawls. According to Nozick, the minimal state (one whose functions are limited to protecting the natural rights to life, liberty, and property) is justified, because individuals living in a state of nature would eventually create such a state through transactions that would not violate anyone’s rights.