Political Philosophy Fall 2019

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.

(What do I mean by “principle?” I mean an abstract rule, such as “property transferred through a voluntary gift belongs to the person to whom it is given.” That is an example of a principle of transfer.)

The important thing about the entitlement conception is that 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? What if people just want to give their own children their best opportunities in life, even if that means giving them a leg up on other people’s children? 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).

It would be amazing if he could pull it off. He would get a significant conclusion out of extremely minimal assumptions. Can he do it? His big argument involves a big man: Wilt Chamberlain.

The Wilt Chamberlain Argument

The Wilt Chamberlain argument seeks to show that all the alternatives to the entitlement conception of justice are committed preventing people from paying to watch basketball (Nozick 1974, 160–64). Since that would be an intolerable infringement on liberty, it follows that all the alternatives to the entitlement conception are committed to intolerable infringements on liberty.

In my opinion, the problem with this argument is that most patterns do not obviously block people from paying to watch a basketball game. A very strict kind of egalitarianism would forbid that, but most other patterns are more accommodating. For example, in a reasonably wealthy society, you could satisfy the pattern “everyone’s basic needs are met: no one is hungry, homeless, or lacking in medical care” and still have enough left over that individuals could decide whether they want to pay to watch a professional basketball game or go to the movies.

You could also regulate the labor market to try to ensure that everyone was paid equally: no more paying white men more than everyone else for the same work, for example. That would be a way of reaching a pattern: equal pay for equal work. It would definitely interfere with freedom of contract but it wouldn’t obviously prevent anyone from spending their money on things like basketball games.

A lot depends on what rights you think people have. If people have rights to keep all the money they are given or earn, then taxation or regulation violates their rights. But if people have rights to the necessities of life and taxes go to that, then taxation does not violate rights; on the contrary, it is necessary to ensure that rights are respected.

I think that rhetorically, the Wilt Chamberlain argument is Nozick’s strongest point. It certainly seems ridiculous to forbid people from spending their money just to maintain a social pattern. But I suspect that once you dig below the surface, you will find that what is actually driving Nozick’s argument are assumptions about individual rights.

Main points

Here are the things you need to know from today’s class.

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


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