Nozick on justice Notes for November 14

Main points

Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice is historical. It claims that we can tell whether a distribution of goods is just or not by looking at its history. If goods were acquired and transferred legitimately, then the resulting distribution of goods is just. If they were not, then we have to ask whether the injustice was rectified according to the third principle. If so, then the resulting distribution is just and if not, then not.

The tricky thing is that Nozick said almost nothing about how to fill in what those three principles require. That’s because he thought he had two highly abstract arguments that could clear the field of all competitors. They maintain that other views of distributive justice depart from this historical scheme and, in doing so, necessarily involve unacceptable infringements of liberty.

My alternative

I proposed a patterned principle of justice to compare with Nozick’s historical principles. My patterned principle holds that unequal educational opportunities are unjust.

It’s a pattern because you can tell whether the distribution of education in a society is just or not simply by the educational opportunities available to different children against one another. You don’t have to take any historical information into account. So even if unequal schools did not come about as a result of force or fraud, they might still be unjust according to my patterned principle.

As Jared correctly noted, it’s quite likely that, in the world as it actually is, unequal educational opportunities are very much the result of force and fraud in the historical past if not the present. Since that’s so, it’s possible that the principle of rectification would be brought in to do something close to what I think should be done: equalize educational opportunities. We don’t know because Nozick didn’t spell out the principle of rectification. But it could happen that way: everything depends on what the principle of rectification is.

A digression about historical injustice

There are a number of problems with thinking clearly about injustice over historical times. I can recommend these articles as a place to start, if you’re interested. (And if you’re not, don’t worry about them. They’ll still be there later.)

Two arguments for libertarianism

Nozick has two arguments for libertarianism: the Wilt Chamberlain argument and the argument from rights.

I said that the Wilt Chamberlain argument isn’t as compelling as it appears to be. It pretty decisively refutes a kind of egalitarianism that no one has reason to believe. But it doesn’t show that utilitarianism is mistaken. And my patterned principle doesn’t forbid “capitalist acts among consenting adults”; it just raises their taxes. People would be free to pay Wilt Chamberlain to play ball if that’s what they wanted to do with their remaining wealth.

The argument from rights depends on what property rights people have. The handout lists three thinkers who denied that people have property rights to things that others need. Has Nozick shown they’re mistaken? This is where we will start next time.

Key concepts

  1. Entitlement conception of justice
  2. Wilt Chamberlain argument for libertarianism
  3. Argument for libertarianism based on rights.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 14, 2012.
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