Nozick’s theory of justice

This article is based on notes I took for my applied ethics students on article 53 of Hugh LaFollette’s Ethics in Practice: Third Edition (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2007). That article excerpts pp. 140-164 and 167-174 of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974). All page numbers refer to the article.

Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was most well-known for his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which developed and defended a libertarian political philosophy. As a necessary part of this project, Nozick articulated what he called the entitlement theory of justice. This article will briefly describe that theory.

Nozick offered his entitlement theory of justice partly in reaction to the theory of justice John Rawls developed in his early work.

According to Nozick, “a distribution [of holdings] is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution” (579). A person is entitled to a holding if (and only if) that person acquired the holding (1) in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition, or (2) in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer from someone who is entitled to the holding.

Unfortunately, Nozick never explicitly defines the two principles above. However, he does talk about what it takes for an act of acquisition or transfer to be just. Hence, I generally will drop the word principle, and simply refer to justice in acquisition and justice in transfer.

A process view of justice

Nozick’s view of justice is a process view: according to him, it is how a distribution came into being, rather than the form a distribution has, that determines whether or not the distribution is just. Any distribution—no matter what it looks like—can in principle be just, so long as the individual holdings in the distribution were acquired in the right way.

What are the criteria for justice in acquisition?

Nozick does not explain in this reading what the criteria are for justice in acquisition, so I will fill in the gap by summarizing some of his discussion elsewhere.

First, let’s just be clear that when Nozick talks about acquisition in this context, he means acquisition through a means other than transfer. He has in mind here the processes by which holdings first come into being.

How does one acquire a holding? Nozick starts by taking a page from the British philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke originally argued that we generate property (holdings) by “mixing our labor” with raw materials. For instance, if you come across a patch of unclaimed land, you can’t simply declare that it is yours. But if you work the land—say, by tilling the soil or building on it—then the land would become your property because you have mixed your labor into it. Likewise, you can’t just mark off a copse of trees as your own (unless you have planted them), but if you do the work of cutting them down, then the lumber becomes your property.

Justice in acquisition does not always require the mixing of labor with raw natural resources; one can instead use labor to convert justly transferred holdings into a new kind of holding. For instance, to acquire shoes justly, you don’t have to get the leather for them directly from the wild by hunting and tanning. You can instead simply buy the leather from someone else. The shoes you then make are new holdings, and you have acquired them justly because they come from the mixing of your labor with other materials you held justly.

There are limits to these processes—for instance, there are limits to how large a share of a scarce natural resource one can justly acquire through labor—but we won’t worry about those limits here. I just wanted to give you a sense of how one can generate new holdings where there were no holdings before.

What are the criteria for justice in transfer?

Although Nozick does not explicitly say what justice in transfer is, we can infer his meaning from the kinds of transfers he says are ruled out, such as transfers based on theft or fraud. It seems that to Nozick a transfer is just if it is (i) voluntary, in the sense that it is not coerced, and (ii) informed, in the sense that both parties in the transfer know exactly what is happening, so that neither is being defrauded. A just transfer does not necessarily have to be a wise transfer, or a compassionate transfer, or a useful transfer, but simply a transfer that one freely makes without having been actively deceived or forced by someone.

The theory neither precludes nor requires any particular pattern of distribution

Let me underscore one of the first things I said about Nozick: on his theory, we cannot tell whether a distribution of holdings is just simply by looking at the shape of the distribution at a moment in time—any distribution can (in principle) be just, and any distribution can (in principle) be unjust. Why? Let’s consider a toy example.

Suppose there are three people (P1, P2, P3) in question, and we want to examine three possible distributions of holdings, in some generic unit.

  • In Distribution A, everyone has 5 units. (This is an egalitarian distribution: everyone has the same.)
  • In Distribution B, P1 has 7 units, P2 has 10 units, and P3 has 14 units. (This distribution is maximin: of the three distributions, its worst case—P1—is the best.)
  • In Distribution C, P1 has 2 units, P2 has 50 units, and P3 has 1000 units.

How might each of these distributions come about in a just manner, according to Nozick?

Here’s one way: let’s suppose that everyone starts out with nothing whatsoever, so that there is no question about the justice of the initial distribution. Each distribution above could represent the product of just acquisitions of goods by initial labor on raw materials encountered in nature. Distributions A, B, and C, then, would simply represent the results of the three people exerting themselves to different degrees, or with varying degrees of success.

Here’s another way: let’s suppose that everyone acquires goods from nature at the same rate. However, P3 has (or develops) some special natural talent, like being an outstanding story-teller. When P1 and P2 discover this, they voluntarily start to trade their holdings to P3 in exchange for entertaining stories. If the exchange rate is not steady, it is possible for each of distributions A, B, and C to be realized over time. Since the exchanges are voluntary and informed, and the initial acquisitions of holdings from the land are stipulated to be just, each of the distributions is just on Nozick’s account. This kind of process really could result in any distribution at all.

Likewise, distributions A and B could count as unjust on Nozick’s view, despite being egalitarian and maximin respectively, if they have come about through coercion or through fraud. We cannot tell whether any of the distributions is just or unjust unless we know how each came into being.

See also: Rawls’s theory of justice