Political Philosophy Fall 2022

Nozick on Justice


We are talking about a specific part of justice here: distributive justice. This is concerned with the distribution of material goods and opportunities for desirable social positions like jobs or political offices.

Nozick presents what he calls the entitlement theory of distributive justice. The most important thing about this theory is that it 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. I’m going to ask you to describe some patterns that we commonly use when we are trying to say whether a society is just or not.

After doing that, we will talk about why Nozick would have a problem with the patterns we listed.

The Tricky Thing

Nozick’s entitlement conception of justice holds that there are three principles of distributive justice.

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

The tricky thing about this chapter is that Nozick said almost nothing about how to fill in what those three principles say. 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 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 is about all you get.

Why did he do it that way?

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.

The idea is this. Suppose you start with a society that has met your favorite pattern. Suppose for the sake of simplicity that it is equality: everyone has the same amount of money. Then some members of the society want to pay to watch Wilt Chamberlain play basketball. Once they buy their tickets, the pattern is messed up. Chamberlain has more money than he did when money was distributed equally and all his fans have less.

Nozick says that it makes no sense to insist on the pattern here. And he thinks the same thing will be true of every pattern: once you give people the freedom to spend their money on what they want to spend it on, any pattern will be broken. That is why he concludes that patterned principles of justice are incompatible with liberty. If he is right, then only a non-patterned theory will do and that, he says, is the entitlement theory.

We will talk about whether the Wilt Chamberlain argument shows that all patterns are hostile to liberty. One thing to think about is that utilitarianism is supposed to be a patterned principle.

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.