Nozick’s Theories of Justice Analysis


Robert Nozick gained fame as a leading American philosopher thanks to the success of his 1974 book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. The books endeavours to further explore the anti-consequentialist elements that have been discussed by John Rawls in his book, A Theory of Justice.  Nozick has identified the best tool with which to gauge state action is its respect for individual rights. For this reason, a minimal state, according to Nozick, is the only legitimate state considering its key role in protecting various individual rights, including the right to life, the right to own property, and liberty.  Nozick endeavours to refute the anarchist’s claim by way of demonstrating how a minimal state might come about without infringing on individual rights.  Nozick has also endeavoured to restore interest in the idea that individual rights are a key element of the political theory by considering the political philosophy of libertarianism. The premise of this essay is to argue that Nozick’s minimal state is unjust by exploring counter-arguments to it, such as by Rawls.

Nozick’s libertarianism

Libertarianism advocates for the need to limit role of state in societal issues, basically to national defence, police protection, as well as how courts of law are governed. In his libertarianism philosophy, Nozick argues that all other tasks that the modern government is charged with, such as social insurance, welfare, and education, ought to be taken over by charities, religious organisations, and by private institutions. In this case, Nozick contends that the private institutions should essentially operate in a free market. Many libertarians depend on sociological and economic considerations in defending their position namely, the innate processes that could trigger inefficiency and incompetence in state bureaucracies, as well as the advantages of market competition. They also cite the poor record of government in addressing such specific issues as pollution and poverty.

While Nozick seeks to endorse such arguments, he, nonetheless, assumes a moral position in defending libertarianism.  Nozick is of the view that while there are practical benefits associated with liberalism, its profound respect for individual rights is by far the strongest. Nozick’s libertarianism is largely based on his entitlement theory which states that if a person has acquired a property justly, he/she has the right to own it. In the event that a person possesses a property that has been obtained through unjust means such a property should be subjected to the compensation and rectification processes. Nozick further opines that where an individual is entitled to own a property, denying them the right to own it against their will amounts to an injustice. A minimal state emerges from Nozick’s state of nature. Such a state, according to Nozick, cannot pry into people’s lives, and neither can it force them into surrendering what they justly own.  The minimal state, therefore, only protects the individual against being forced to enter into a contract, fraud, as well as theft’. On account of the entitlement theory, the state has no right to coerce its citizens into forfeiting property that rightfully belongs to them so that the proceeds can be used to funding government programmes which the state views as constituting the common good. As such, while people are likely to contribute towards the support of various schemes out of their own volition, the state cannot forcibly tax them with the goal of funding public education, providing for the poor or public goods, among others.

Nozick strong claims about rights

Nozick is convinced that a key function of political philosophy is to refute the claim made by the anarchist to the effect that no state is legitimate. Given his focus on moral rights, Nozick argued in favour of a minimal state that preserved moral rights. Mulgan is opposed to the moral right of a minimal state that Nozick speaks in favour of, arguing that they are the only legal means of enabling a state to exercise its legal and political rights.  Nozick is of the view that the society that emerges from a minimal state boasts of a capitalist economy, as well as a free market. Accordingly, such a society fulfils the requirements of a “free society”. A state that exceeds these requirements would be morally unacceptable seeing as it would contravene rights. In defending the minimal state, Nozick stretched a history that traced the origin of a minimal state from a “state of nature” with no rights having been violated. His was hypothetical, as opposed to actual history, which indicated the emergence of a minimal state through just means.

Read also  Reviewing a Redundancy Decision

The libertarian perspective recognises individuals as possessing rights. As such, when other people do certain things to them, this amount to a violation of their individual rights. The reason why these rights are natural is because we have them based on what they are as opposed to having received them from someone. Nozick states that stating we have rights is different from explaining why we have rights. In a bid to draw this important distinction, Nozick makes use of the second formulation of Categorical Imperative that Immanuel Kant popularised namely, that one should act in such a manner as to treat humanity as an end, as opposed to treating humanity as a means.

Kant was of the view that humans are rational by nature and that they possess dignity. Accordingly, humans should be treated with dignity. It is this dignity that hinders other people from using us, implying that humans have rights against use of this nature. Nozick opines that human rights act as “side-constraints”, and this has a limiting effect on what other people (the state included) may do to us. Nozick further opines that humans cannot trade their rights in exchange for something of benefit. For instance, pursuing a little more wealth or happiness is not sufficient grounds for contravening an individual’s rights. According to Nozick, people are inviolable, implying that they ought not to be used to meet certain ends if doing so is against their will. Nozick has relied on this argument while developing his self-ownership principle. Nozick opines that because an individual owns his/herself, they thus have a right to do with themselves what they deem pleasing. Since nobody else owns us and we do not own them, each one of us has his/her individual rights to themselves and what is in their possession.  In other words, we have rights against violations by other people, including theft, enslavement, and the rights to have access to such services as education and healthcare, and the right to own property through just means.

Wilt Chamberlain – unjust and just distributions

In his Wilt Chamberlain argument, Nozick endeavoured to highlight his claim against the idea of “distributive justice”.  In this case, Nozick tries to show that patterned ideologies of distributive justice are not attuned with freedom. His argument is thus an attempt at depicting justice in transfer. Chamberlain is a famous basketball player and some of his fans willingly pay money to watch him play basketball. Consequently, Chamberlain benefits from a huge amount of cash. Nozick contends that he sees nothing wrong with an individual disposing of his or her resources, on condition that this is done willingly. Nozick further intimates that he sees nothing wrong with distribution borne out of voluntary transactions. The Wilt Chamberlain argument is therefore an attempt by Nozick to demonstrate that voluntary exchange as evidenced by basketball fans willingly paying to see Chamberlain play is okay.

Nozick does not see anything wrong with transactions of this nature. The outcome of this transfer is that Chamberlain ends up with more than he did previously. Again, Nozick sees nothing wrong with such an outcome. Nozick contends that when individuals willingly dispose of resources, this ends up upsetting patterns. Assuming, for instance, that a utility maximising pattern had been established in society prior to the basketball fans opting to watch Chamberlain play and this pattern is not maximised nay more after the transfers of the transactions have been made to Chamberlain, Nozick argue that it would be unreasonable to try and forcefully go back to such a pattern through state action.

Read also  Hart and Fuller Legal Arguments Analysis

Nozick argues that ‘Liberty upsets patterns’ , and goes on to indicate that it would be unfair to attempt to reinstate a pattern that has been destabilised by intentional transfer. The most important thing for Nozick is entitlement. For the reason that individuals obtain holdings due to other individuals having relinquished holdings either in exchange for certain services or goods  (for example, watching Chamberlain play) or due to charitable donations, then the individual who receives such holdings has a claim to them since they have been transferred voluntarily. Similarly, Nozick contends that free transfer will agitate any end-state theory, such as ensuring that everyone has an equal share to the holdings. This is based on the understanding that provided that individuals are able to transfer property without restraint and based on their needs, such as end-state shall shortly be upset. Any attempt to restore such an end state through forceful means would amount to a contravention of individual entitlement rights.

Critics to Nozick’s argument on Chamberlain contend that Chamberlain holds no absolute rights to this new holding and that a portion of this new income could be subjected to taxation under legitimate means in order that the amount taxed may help fund crucial societal projects. Regarding this, Cohen further contends that redistributive claims of third parties, and more so the very poor, may lawfully change following a change in the comprehensive distribution in society since what is in possession of third parties is reliant on what others possess, in addition to the comprehensive distribution in society. It is also likely hat the intuitive petition that Nozick links to his Wilt Chamberlain argument might actually fail to attract universal recognition. Many critics are of the opinion that there could be considerable instinctive entreat towards arguments that endeavour to demonstrate a basis for the provision of support for persons unable to fend for themselves, in preference to towards the instinctive petition to permit Chamberlain to hold onto all the money emanating from voluntary transactions. A review of Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument indicates that it may not be appealing without firth accepting his moral intuitions and entitlement theory.

Three Principles of Justice

Nozick recognises three principles of justice, which are essential to his entitlement theory. They are: just acquisition; just transfer; and just rectification. Nozick is of the view that the just acquisition principle gives an individual the freedoms to acquire any holdings that they wish to obtain, provided that such property has not been acquired by fraudulent means, through forceful means, or via theft. Nozick further maintains that the principle of just transfer allows an individual to exchange property in their possession provided that there is no further transfer of the same property by force, theft or fraud. These two principles underscore the transfer and acquisition of goods through legitimate means.

Conversely, Nozick opines that the principle of just rectification seeks to correct violations of the principles of just acquisition and just transfer. Distributive justice, according to Nozick, involves ensuring that goods end up with those who found them or made them, or those who acquire them from others via an agreement that is, selling or buying of goods. All other means of owning goods are not legitimate, on the basis of a moral position. This hinges on the premise that all other means of owning goods entails forcing people to give goods to others, and this contravenes the general libertarian principle that Nozick contends is the most basic moral principle.

Read also  Judicial Precedent A Practice Of The Courts Law Essay

However, where an individual has acquired goods by assassination, theft, or fraud, Nozick urges that it is important that the just rectification principle is pursued. This principle is especially useful in a case whereby a person has been involved in unjust transfers, or where there is original acquisition of a good. The principle endeavours to establish what might have transpired in the event that the unjust transfer/acquisition had not taken place.

The principle further demands the implementation of measures like compensation or restitution with the goal of enabling the victim go back to the condition she or he would have been had the injustice not happened. Finally, the principle does not approve compensatory processes that could be infringe on individual rights of third-parties who are not connected with the property being transferred or acquired. Nozick is of the view that execution of the principle of rectification is crucial in setting up the legitimacy of all property by examining justice in the acquisition and transfer of such property, and the likely compensation that the victims ought to receive should it be established that they have been the victims of injustices.

Most critics of liberalism complain that it permits too little government. Specifically, they argue on the need for a more-than-minimal state to aid in the realisation of distributive justice. Rawls maintains that the state should partake in redistributive taxation as a means of ensuring that income and wealth is distributed fairly in the society. This is a position that Nozick is opposed to, going by his “entitlement theory” of justice   Rawls offers opposing views of legitimate state power to those offered by Nozick. Rawls maintains that the state ought to possess the powers it needs to see to it that the least well-off citizens become well-off.

Such a viewpoint is rooted in his theory of justice. A key principle to this theory holds that the only time when unequal distribution of income and wealth becomes unacceptable is in case individuals at the bottom becomes well off that is likely to be the case under any other form of distribution. Nozick is opposed to such arguments, indicating that they rely on a false ideation of distributive justice.

Rawls is opposed to utilitarianism as it could allow an unjust distribution of burdens and benefits. Unlike Nozick, Rawls is of the view that social justice encompasses the fundamental structure of society, as opposed to transactions between individuals. Rawls also intimates that justice demands that there be a minimisation of economic and social outcomes of arbitrarily distributed goods.


Nozick’s is not just. Nozick views the voluntary transactions among individuals that act forms the foundation for justice, rather than the distribution itself. If at all Nozick’s Wilt Chamberlain argument is to be regarded as being valid, we must first accept his entitlement theory. The allegations of third parties not partaking in any transactions could legitimately change following changes in distribution in society. Although the Wilt Chamberlain argument holds instinctive appeal, arguments that endeavour to support the very needy are likely to possess even stronger intuitive appeal. The principle of rectification as popularised by Nozick, along with the principle of compensation that is linked to it, are difficult to apply, and this could justify universal supply of opportunity and sustenance. Even the pettiest claims ought to be considered in the minimal state as they are vital for poor people.  The principle of compensation could fall short of upholding rights as virtually anything may be done. Nozick fails to acknowledge the crucial role of political power in a minimal state, just like in any other state. While Nozick urges that charity could aid in the acquisition of social goods, such an argument is inadequate charities lacks the means or resources to undertake important schemes, such as in healthcare or education.

Order Now

Order Now

Type of Paper
Number of Pages
(275 words)