Nozick on Justice

Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice is historical. It claims that the way to tell whether a distribution of goods is just or not is 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 important thing about the entitlement conception is what it excludes: what Nozick calls patterns. We put several patterns on the board. Read each one as “a society is just only if it distributes its resources so that pattern P is met.”

Here is an example. “A society is just only if it distributes its resources so that its members have equal educational opportunities.” Notice that this claim about a pattern ignores history: it does not matter why educational opportunities are unequal, only that they are, in fact, unequal.

That, in Nozick’s opinion, leaves out the only relevant information. What if educational opportunities are unequal because people have different opinions about the value of education? Would that be society’s fault? It would certainly be society’s fault if some subpopulation were forbidden from attending school or if someone had stolen the money for their schools. This is the only kind of inquiry that Nozick allows: were the historical steps leading to unequal educational opportunity just or not? The inequality itself does not matter.

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. We can be pretty sure that he approves of voluntary exchanges and gifts as legitimate ways of transferring property. And he has one highly influential paragraph about rectification. But that’s about all you get.

Nozick leaves these matters open because he thinks he can clear the field of all competitors. He maintains that when other views of distributive justice depart from the historical scheme they necessarily involve unacceptable infringements of liberty and violations of rights. If so, that would eliminate any non-libertarian alternative. 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 1974, ix).

The Wilt Chamberlain argument

The Wilt Chamberlain argument turns on its being obvious that forbidding people from paying to watch basketball is an intolerable infringement on individual liberty (Nozick 1974, 160–64). 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.

Harry noted the problem with this argument. It is not obvious that a society committed to meeting the patterns that we put up on the board would have to forbid Wilt Chamberlain from making more money than other people do. A very strict kind of egalitarianism would forbid that, but most other patterns are more accommodating.

Of course, people will be taxed in order for a society to meet any of the patterns that we put on the board. Nozick maintains that the forced collection of taxes would violate the side constraint against harming people (or threatening to harm them) and amount to forced labor (Nozick 1974, 169).

It seems to me that it comes down to what rights people have. If people have rights to keep all the money they are given or earn, then taxation violates their rights. But if children have rights to equal educational opportunities and taxes go to that, then taxation does not violate rights; on the contrary, it is necessary to ensure that rights are respected.

I proposed an analogy to the doctrine of necessity that we saw in Locke (there are more examples in the handout). Locke thought that someone in desperate need had a right to a rich person’s surplus. Any surplus food in the rich person’s possession would not belong to the rich person but rather to the starving person. A rich person who tried to keep surplus food away from a hungry poor person would violate the latter’s rights. Conversely, a hungry poor person who tried to take surplus food from a rich person would not violate the rich person’s rights.

If you believe that equal educational opportunity really is a requirement of justice, then taking money from some people to pay for the educational opportunities of others might be like taking excess food from a rich person to give it to a poor one.

Maybe Nozick could say that there are no rights to equal educational opportunity, much as we imagined he would say that there is no right to be saved from an angry mob. Or maybe he could insist that the people being taxed have property rights that conflict with such a right and take priority over it. Does his theory of rights have the resources to generate those answers?

Looking ahead

At this point, I can vaguely hear Bentham and Mill saying something like this. “You will never solve these problems as long as you limit yourself to the natural rights tradition. Our ideas about moral rights are too loose and ill-defined. There are lots of conflicts between them that cannot be resolved except by using some external standard like the utilitarian principle.”

Our next major author, John Rawls, will try to tackle that problem. He will try to put some of the ideas derived from the natural rights tradition on firmer theoretical grounds, thereby avoiding the need to appeal to utilitarianism to settle these kinds of questions.

Key concepts

  1. Entitlement conception of justice
  2. Wilt Chamberlain argument for libertarianism


Nozick, Robert. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books.


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