Nozick on justice

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. Specifically, it tells us that there are only three kinds of principles to use in determining whether a distribution of goods is just or unjust.

  1. Principles of acquisition
  2. Principles of transfer
  3. Principles of rectification

If the goods were acquired and transferred according to the first two principles, then the resulting distribution 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; if not, then not.

The tricky thing

The tricky thing is that Nozick said almost nothing about how to fill in what those three principles require. It is pretty clear that he is inspired by Locke’s theory of property through labor, but he is highly critical of the details of that theory. He says nothing about transfer and rectification.

Nozick leaves these matters open because he thought he had two highly abstract arguments that could clear the field of all competitors. They maintain that when other views of distributive justice depart from this historical scheme they necessarily involve unacceptable infringements of liberty or unjustifiable infringements on rights.

The idea was that those two arguments would eliminate any non-libertarian alternatives. Then the only justifiable state would be the libertarian one he described on the first page of the readings. Such a state would do no more than protect people against force, theft, fraud, and non-performance of contracts (Nozick, p. ix).

Two arguments for libertarianism

Nozick has two arguments for libertarianism: the Wilt Chamberlain argument and the argument from rights. I separated them because, it seems to me, they rely on slightly different points to reach their conclusion. One concerns liberty in a way that does not obviously depend on Nozick’s theory of rights while the other does depend on Nozick’s theory of rights.

The Wilt Chamberlain argument turns on its being obvious that forbidding people from paying to watch basketball is an intolerable infringement on individual liberty. The argument seeks to show that all the alternatives to the entitlement conception of justice are committed to doing that and so all of them involve intolerable infringements on liberty. If their infringements on liberty are not as intolerable as those involved in prevent people from paying to watch basketball, then the argument does not have any force.

The argument from rights asserts that the state’s use of force to collect taxes amounts to a violation of side constraints. It involves coercing people to make sacrifices for the sake of others but rights are supposed to act as a side constraint that forbids coercing one person for the sake of another.

The argument from rights obviously depends on what rights people have. The handout quoting several thinkers who believed that the poor have a right to whatever they need, even if it it is someone else's property. One of them was John Locke! If they are correct about what rights people have, then collecting taxes to pay for a welfare state does not violate the rights of the property owners. It enforces the rights of the poor.

This does not mean that Nozick is wrong. What it means is that the chief disagreement is not about whether rights are side constraints. It is about what rights people have even if everyone agrees that rights are side constraints. Nozick’s opponents think the poor have a right to what they need and so no one could have acquired the things they need as property. As they see it, the rights of the poor act as a side constraint on other people’s acquisition of property, if you will. To refute their position, Nozick has to show that the poor do not have those rights. It is not enough for him to say that rights are side constraints and so the state may never use force except to prevent theft, fraud, and the violation of contract.

Key concepts

  1. Entitlement conception of justice
  2. Wilt Chamberlain argument for libertarianism
  3. Argument for libertarianism based on rights.


There was a handout for this class: 19.Nozick.handout.pdf