Reading Guide For Nozick

“An Entitlement Theory”

Chapter 4 of Social Justice, eds. Clayton & Williams, pp. 85-109


This is an excerpt from Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Published in 1975, it was the first major, book-length critical response to Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. It has since become a classic work of libertarian thought. In this excerpt, Nozick sets out the fundamentals of the entitlement theory of justice, and provides several powerful arguments against what he calls “patterned” principles of redistributive justice. Nozick develops his own theory through the use of particularly imaginative thought-experiments. He argues that instead of focusing on what persons have, the proper focus of justice is on how persons acquire what they have.


I. The Entitlement Theory
• “Inductive definition” of justice in holdings
II. Historical Principles and End-Result Principles
• Historical principles of justice distinguished from End-Result (a.k.a. “end-state”, “current-time-slice”, “patterned”) principles of justice
III. Patterning
• Definition, assessment of patterned principles of justice
IV. How Liberty Upsets Patterns
• The Wilt Chamberlin example
• Case that patterns are incompatible with liberty
V. Redistribution and Property Rights
• Patterns as necessitating redistribution
• Core account of property rights
• Patterns as incompatible with property rights
VI. Locke’s Theory of Acquisition
• Initial criticism of Locke’s theory of “original ownership”.
• Reform of Locke’s theory; addition of the proviso
VII. The Proviso
• Initial discussion of the proviso
• Overridden property rights are still rights: the “only water hole in the desert” example
• Nozick’s argument that Locke’s Proviso is not an “end-state” principle

Study Questions

1. Nozick begins with the observation that the term “distributive justice” is not neutral. What does he mean by this, and what reasons does he give in support of it?

2. Into what three topics does Nozick divide the “subject of justice in holdings”? How does Nozick’s inductive definition of justice cover all three of these areas. Are there any areas Nozick covers here that Rawls leaves out? Are there any that Rawls covers that Nozick is missing?

3. What does Nozick mean when he says that the entitlement theory of justice is historical? What is the difference between historical principles and end-state (i.e. end-result, current time-slice) principles? It would be useful at this point, before reading further, to consider which sort of principle you tend to favor and for what reasons.

4. Summarize Nozick’s objections to patterned principles of justice. Do you think Nozick’s objections here hold up? How do you think someone like Rawls would answer these objections?

5. Nozick uses the “Wilt Chamberlin” example to argue that liberty upsets whatever distributive patterns might be established. Explain the example. Does it show what Nozick thinks it shows? If we applied Nozick’s results here, could we object to the wealth of a Donald Trump or Bill Gates on grounds of justice? Support your answer.

6. How might a Rawlsian argue against the conclusion Nozick reaches in the Wilt Chamberlin example? Whose case strikes you as more plausible? Why?

7. Critically assess Nozick’s argument that “taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor”. What follows if Nozick is right about this? If one disagreed with Nozick, how might one argue against him?

8. Summarize Nozick’s account of property rights as he gives it on pages 97-98. What reasons does Nozick advance in favor of private property pp. 101-102? Compare and contrast Nozick’s position on private property in sections VI and VII with Rawls’s remarks about the difference principle and efficiency on page 71.

9. Nozick suggests that the only legitimate constraint on property acquisition is the “proviso”. How does the proviso do this? Critically evaluate Nozick’s application of the proviso to the case where one has possession of some scarce commodity, like the last well filled with potable water.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License