Nozick’s View on Theory of Justice


After throwing light on important aspects of Rawls’ theory of justice we now embark on another theory of justice propounded by Robert Nozick in his Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974). Robert Nozick (1938-2002) was an American academic and a renowned political philosopher. His Anarchy, State and Utopia created a profound influence upon the contemporary academic world of political science and political philosophy. Rawls’ theory of justice was based on liberty, equality and inequality.

The policy makers shall pursue a scheme for the furtherance of liberty, equality and inequalities where such inequalities will benefit the least advantaged. But Nozick developed his theory in response to Rawls’ theory and he based his theory of justice on rights. Though both Rawls and Nozick have developed two theories of justice it cannot be said that Nozick was in any form critical of Rawls.

Rather he has showered huge accolade on the former. Rawls’ theory of justice, Nozick cautiously maintains, “is a fountain of illuminating ideas, integrated together into a lovely whole. Political philosophers now must either work within his theory or explain why not”.

In his early years Nozick was a great supporter of extreme libertarianism and in the fag end of life he considerably modified his extreme libertarianism. Some are of opinion that ultimately Nozick appears to us as a strong supporter of a political doctrine which is known to us as neo-liberalism and in this respect he is to some extent at par with Hayek.

Concept of Distributive Justice:

Before we start our analysis about distributive justice put forward by Robert Nozick we like to analyse very briefly the concept of minimal state. In the classical political as well as liberal political theory the state was primarily known as night watchman state which implied that the state had to discharge minimum functions.

These were to maintain law and order, to take action against violence, to fight the foreign aggressors, to stop theft and fraud, to implement all sorts of contracts. In order to establish its existence and credibility the state had to do all these functions. But subsequently it was felt that the functions of the state could not be confined within the above noted categories and for this reason the state that did these functions came to be designated as minimal state.

Many liberal thinkers are of opinion that the greater the functions of the state the greater are the infringement of rights of the individuals. Though the minimal state performs minimum functions still it is held that such a state has enough power to enter into the domain the rights of the individuals. In spite of this situation the minimal state is known as the most extensive state and such a state is justified.

The reason of justifying it is such a state is the most powerful vehicle for arriving at distributive justice. It is the duty of a political system to see that none is deprived of justice and for that goal the state will have to take action.

Entitlement Theory:

Mention has been made that Robert Nozick bases his theory of justice on rights. The rights come from the concept of entitlement. In other words rights mean entitlement. One has right or claim to anything means that one is entitled to it. If justice means the distribution of right, duties, privileges etc. then the idea of justice can appropriately be interpreted as entitlement theory of justice.

Nozick is reluctant to give preference to distributive justice because this concept does not give proper idea about the theory. He observes: “it would be best to use a terminology that clearly is neutral”. Implementation or realisation of the entitlement to holdings creates the foundation of the theory of justice. Thus Nozick’s theory of distributive justice and entitlement theory are same and convey identical meaning.

There are three different principles or three major topics of holdings:

(1) When a man acquires a holding (we can interpret it as property though Nozick does not use this particular term) according to the principle of justice and law, then the person concerned is entitled to that holding. In other words, property acquired in a legal and justifiable way shall cause under the authority of the person who has acquired it and it is a type of justice.

2. If a person happens to acquire a holding by means of transfer and here in this case the basic principles of justice has been strictly adhered to, then this justice- based transfer can reasonably be called an entitlement. The transfer takes place from one person to another. There are different forms of transfer such as voluntary exchange, gifts or any other type.

3. In all societies not all transfers or acquisitions take place in proper or legal or justifiable ways. There may be illegal transfers or acquisitions and it has been found that such cases are not at all rare. Naturally the rectification of this injustice or wrong can lead to another type of holding. Nozick calls it the “rectification of injustice in holding”.

When the three above noted holdings are conglomerated under one head that gives birth to a concrete shape of the theory of justice. It can be better put in the words of Nozick. He writes: “The general outlines of a theory of justice in holdings are that the holdings of a person are just if he is entitled to them by the principles of justice in acquisition and transfer, or, by the principle of rectification of injustice. If each person’s holdings are just then the total set of holdings is just”.

How do people come to know that injustice has been done to them in matter of holding? Nozick answers that from the fact/records of history or from various sources of information people gather the news that something wrong has been done to them and in that case they will move for the rectification of the wrong. If this does not happen, one cannot expect that justice will prevail.

Historical Principles and End-Result Principles:

What is Historical Principle?

For a better and illuminating formulation of a theory of justice Nozick has devised two principles-historical and end-result principles. Nozick has demonstrated that from distribution emanates entitlement and now the problem is how to decide that a distribution is just. If it is not just there cannot be justice.

In order to decide this problem Nozick has applied the criterion of historical principle. It says that the justness or unjustness of a distribution can be decided by the fact that whether it is historical or not. Historical principle means how it come about? Past records will show to what extent a distribution is able to satisfy the requirements of justice. Let us see how he defines. “Historical principles of justice hold that past circumstances or actions of people can create differential entitlements or differential deserts to things”.

If a scheme or distributive system is unjust or defective this can be rectified (of course if possible) or removed and in this way the distributive process moves from one stage to another or one scheme to another.

In the concept of historical principle there lies a clear hint of evolution of the theory of justice. There has occurred a gradual development of justice and this is chiefly due to the reason that the material circumstances of society change and this influences justice.

The End Result Principles:

Nozick has awarded another name to end-result principles and it is current time- slice principles. This concept demonstrates that how things, rights, duties and privileges are distributed and as a result of distribution who has got what is to be decided. Here we find that the question is not about distribution per se, we are to look into the consequences of distribution.

If the end result is satisfactory then it can be held that justice will be the result of distribution. Let us put the matter in his own words. “According to current time-slice principles (also read end-result principles), all that needs to be looked at, in judging the justice of a distribution, is who ends up with what (ital added), in comparing any two distributions one need look only at the matrix presenting the distribution”. Two important points to be noted here. Distribution must clearly state that who is getting what. The other point is this is possible only through comparison.

Nozick demands that only the end result principles can tell us what would be the exact nature of justice. If the procedure of distribution is incomplete or defective or cannot assure us of justice then the procedure can be changed. He also claims that this is the most reliable way of building up a theme of justice. We also partially agree with Robert Nozick. Partially because other factors are to be considered.

We thus come across the idea that the time-slice principles are also called unhistorical principles. Time-slice principles, end-result principles and unhistorical principles according to Nozick denote almost same thing. Noman Barry and many others say that utilitarianism and social justice theories are end-state doctrines.

According to Nozick the socialist theory about workers’ share in the profit of the company is based on historical principles. The workers claim that they also have a major share in the profit which the industry generates because this profit is the result of their labour. They have drawn this conclusion from the past history.

They have observed that the capitalists/owners of sources of production have gobbled the entire profit by nefarious means. “The socialist rightly holds onto the notions of earning producing, entitlement, desert and so forth and he rejects current time-slice principles that look only to the structure of the resulting set of holdings”.

From these two principles we form the idea that for a concrete theory of justice it is necessary to emphasise the entitlement concept. If there are any wrong doings in the acquisition of transfer of holding that must be rectified. Otherwise the justness of the distribution of entitlement will remain defective.

Patterned Principles:

After analysing the historical and end-result principles, Nozick has introduced another principle which he has designated as patterned principle. In the opinion of Nozick : “Let us call a principle of distribution patterned if it specifies that a distribution is to vary along with some natural dimension (emphasis added), weighted sum of natural dimensions, or lexicographic ordering of natural dimensions”.

Distribution of things, rights etc. should be controlled by other criteria. It may be moral, merit, usefulness to society or weighted sum of merit etc. It implies that the distribution will depend on merit, deserve, usefulness to society or natural dimension. The entitlement theory we have just now sketched does not fall in the category of patterned principle.

If a person possesses greater moral merit or if he has greater usefulness to society then he may naturally claim shares, greater reward or higher shares. And to deprive him of this rational claim will be tantamount to injustice. When the distribution is based on patterned principle it is also called patterned distribution.

Hence the whole sequence is justice is not based on equal liberty or any other principle enunciated by John Rawls rather patterned principle and the pattern relates to various elements such as usefulness to society moral merit etc. By enunciating all these Nozick wants to establish a new doctrine.

Criticism of Patterned Principle:

Nozick was quite conscious of the shortcomings of the patterned principle of justice and he has mentioned some of them.

We mention here few:

(1) Patterned principles only stress the patterned way of distribution of property and rights. But it is silent on the entitlement principles of holding and Nozick believes that only through the strengthening of this principle can justice be achieved. Hence its inability is not helpful for justice.

(2) In the opinion of Nozick justice depends on both receiving and giving of holdings or property. These two combinedly form the fabric of justice. But patterned principle only emphasises the receiving aspect and ignores the giving of property. So the patterned principle of distributive justice is a theory of recipient justice.

(3) Again there is a conflict between patterned principle and end-state principle. The patterned principle emphasises that men should be “rewarded according to the deserts is historical because it directs attention towards their past action”.

What is the conclusion? “Nozick’s own theory of justice is an historical un-patterned theory. It is an entitlement theory in which the distribution of individual property-holding is just if it is a consequence of fair acquisition. The only other aspect of justice is rectification, the principle which allows past injustices that is unfair acquisition to be corrected”.

Locke’s Theory of Acquisition:

Nozick’s theory of justice, sketched above, is a theory of entitlement and since it is a theory of entitlement it is also theory of acquisition or holding of property. Any theory of acquisition without any reference to Locke is bound to be unsatisfactory. Explaining the various aspects of social contract theory Locke has dealt with the concept of property.

He maintains that in a society the person who first lay his hand on a part of nature and made it usable with the help of labour that finally became his property. Here lies the idea of acquisition. Acquisition, thus, arises from man’s intention to use something for his personal use which will satisfy his requirement.

But there is a problem. Has every one opportunity to acquire holding/property through the utilisation of labour? This question originates from the concern that if everybody follows the same procedure ultimately there shall arise a shortage of property which means that everybody will not have any scope to acquire property.

The labour is the main factor behind the acquisition and every one will have the opportunity to acquire property by dint of his labour. Locke arrived at this conclusion because he believed that there would be enough in the nature and none would be deprived of property. “Whatever then he removes out of the state that nature has provided and left it is he has mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own and thereby makes his property. There is enough and as good left in common for others.”

In this way acquisition was established in Lockean concepts of contract theory and property. This proves that even after the acquisition process continues enough portions of state of nature will remain for the acquisition of others. This process will not worsen the right and position of others in respect of the acquisition of property.

But there is a complicated problem. If everybody goes on acquiring property freely or without any limitation, then time will come when nothing will be left or very little will be left for others which will not be enough for the sake of justice.

A thorough study of Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government assures us that he was quite aware of it. Nobody will be permitted to acquire more than what he needs. “A theory of appropriation incorporating the Lockean proviso will handle correctly the cases where someone appropriates the total supply of something necessary for life”.

Whenever a person proceeds to appropriate holding/property he must not violate the Lockean proviso because any violation will go against justice. “Thus a person may not appropriate the only water hole in a desert and charge what he will. Nor may he charge what he will if he possesses one”. “But this proviso would not, in Nozick’s theory, prevent someone who discovered a cure for a fatal disease charging whatever price he liked”.


Nozick’s theory of justice is apparently attractive and convincing but in final analysis it is not so.

Critics have raised several objections against it:

1. Nozick has given undue importance to distributive aspect of justice. Through the entitlement of holding he has built up the entitlement theory. Entitlement of holding may be in the form of acquisition or transfer or rectification of injustice.

These are the cases of distribution but what about production? He has neglected it and we think that it is unjust. Both production and distribution are closely connected and to ignore one will lead to an incomplete theory.

2. Robert Nozick was in strong favour of minimal state which is equivalent to night watchman state. It means that in any society the state has a role to play, though the role may be minimum. Nozick’s theory does not make it clear what role the state will exactly play in establishing justice.

Moreover, since Nozick’s theory falls into the category of distributive justice the state, through its elaborate machinery, must ensure proper distribution of holding, and at the same time entitlement to holding. If legal and other problems arise on the way of acquisition or transfer or rectification of previous wrong who will take the responsibility of rectifying this or solving the problem? In Nozick’s theory it remains unsolved.

3. Nozick has taken it for granted that people will strictly adhere to Locke’s proviso that enough will be left for the use of others for their use and the situations of others will not worsen. This implies too much reliance on the rationality of holders or users of property. But we cannot say that all the property owners will resist them from acquiring property/holding beyond their necessity.

If this happens in actual world, we are sure, there would not arise necessity of state or enforcing authority. Even the Utopian socialists and Rousseau could not imagine such a situation.

4. It is unfortunate that both Rawls and Nozick have offered us a theory of justice which they wanted to formulate in a society plagued by class divisions. If a society is divided into two opposing classes, and if one class is economically dominant the comparatively weak class would definitely be deprived of justice. For a real theory of justice, we firmly believe, there shall exist equality in its various manifestations.

5. Nozick, in his thorough analysis of distributive justice intends to highlight a greater philosophy and wants to draw the attention of his readers to politics which is popularly called liberalism.

But though liberal philosophy has many good aspects, its black spots and irritating aspects are not to be ignored. The real picture of liberal political philosophy of USA, Britain, and other states is not unknown to us and in that perspective we can say that neither Rawls’ nor Nozick’s theory of justice attracts us. They are meant for capitalism.

6. Justice can be divided into social, economic and political and all are connected with each other. Rawls’ and Nozick’s theory speaks least about their connection. Their theory is based upon certain principles.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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