Jan 12, 2018 in Law



The concept of justice has been the topic of more than one ethics story, but it still remains one of the most controversial and confusing elements of ethical analysis. No one knows what justice is. Not everyone agrees with the statement that justice should be restorative, distributive, procedural, or retributive. Nevertheless, in many ethical arguments, justice often comes into play. The case is particularly problematic with the distribution and use of limited natural resources. The Great Lakes make up 20% of the world's fresh water resources, which are quickly becoming scarce. In the current situation, no states that are bordering the Great Lakes either in the United States or Canada can use its water for consumer or agricultural purposes. John Rawls' and Robert Nozick's theories confirm that justice is achieved based on the rules that are developed and agreed upon by all parties. Consequently, if any of the states need to tap water from the Great Lakes, a general agreement should be  made to ensure that it benefits all parties and guarantees that the use of the fresh water takes place in accordance with the justice in transfer principles.

As natural water resources are becoming scarce, states and nations seek to limit access to them. The Great Lakes are one of the brightest examples of how the principle of justice works in practice. The American states and Canadian provinces bordering on the Great Lakes have made an agreement to avoid any diversions from the Great Lakes watershed, even though they are facing the risks of draughts, agricultural losses, and the lack of fresh water for consumption. Both Rawls' and Nozick's theories support this move, although they leave enough freedom for other justice decisions.

According to Rawls, the roots of justice lie in the norms and agreements made by the parties (251). To a large extent, Rawls' theory of justice reflects the fundamentals of the contract theory (Rawls 250). The parties of the agreement have made a deliberate and rational decision to place a ban on using the water from the Great Lakes. This is why their actions can be interpreted as justice for fairness. For Rawls, the theory of justice is a central element of the rational choice theory (250). He treats justice as a matter of social agreements that are also made public (Rawls 250). According to Rawls, justice does not necessarily entail equality. Rather, he accepts inequality as reasonable, especially when it works for everyone's advantage (Rawls 255). However, in the situation with the Great Lakes, Rawls' principles of justice are followed in their entirety, as the agreement made between the states puts an equal and undisputable ban on using the water from the Great Lakes for any purposes.

Certainly, Rawls leaves enough room for ethical changes, but such changes should benefit all parties of the discussed agreement. According to Rawls, "all social values – liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect – are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any, or all, of these values is to everyone's advantage" (255). Therefore, the justice and fairness of the Great Lakes agreement should be considered in light of the fresh water challenges facing each party. Not all states have an equal amount of water resources to compensate for the lack of access to the Great Lakes. Consequently, not all of them may perceive such agreement as fair. States and provinces with the most difficult water situation may be allowed to use the Great Lakes for their benefit but only to the extent that does not damage the interests of other parties and does not lead to resource depletion.

Robert Nozick has a different view on the situation, although his theory of justice leads to similar outcomes. Nozick's justice theory relies on two essential principles: (1) justice in acquisition and (2) justice in transfer (266). No one is entitled to holding a property, unless it was acquired by legitimate means (Nozick 266). The Great Lakes are a natural resource and a public property, and none of the states bordering on the Great Lakes has any advantageous right to acquire and use them for their agricultural or economic purposes. However, like with John Rawls', states may come to another agreement, which will provide some of them with legitimate access to the Great Lakes and their waters. Any violation of such an agreement will also violate the principles of justice proposed by Nozick because a state that acquires a property not in accordance with justice in acquisition and transfer is not entitled to this property (265).     


Both Rawls' and Nozick's theories of justice hold such an agreement between the states as relevant, legitimate, and just. According to Rawls, justice grows from a common agreement made by the parties that establish the rules of distribution. In this case, it is a common ban on using water from the Great Lakes. Nozick's theory also supports such agreement as the means to manage legitimate access to the Great Lakes among the states, which border on them. However, both theories leave enough room for changes. In Rawls' view, unequal access to the Great Lakes can also be ethical, if it benefits all parties. Nozick also implies that the states could make a different agreement to allow for the legitimate access to fresh water resources among the states. If any of the states need to tap water from the Great Lakes, a general agreement should made to ensure that it benefits all parties and guarantees that the use of the fresh water takes place in accordance with the justice in transfer principles.

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