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ROBERT NOZICK’S ENTITLEMENT THEORY OF JUSTICE: A CRITICAL ANALYSIS

INTRODUCTION

The presence of justice was essential to any lawful society. Justice has always been the primal focus of the law.  Although terms such as ‘rightfulness’ and ‘fairness’ are often closely associated with ‘Justice’, the legal world is devoid of a single agreeable definition of justice because of its evolutionary nature. In its broadest sense, justice can be defined as the idea that people are treated fairly, without discrimination, and reasonably by law.

‘Law without Justice is like a wound without a cure.’

– William Scott Downey

To have an effective administrative execution, legal theories were evolved to regulate human dealings with each other. Among the people who contributed to the evolution of justice through the decades, Robert Nozick has an honorable mention. Best known for his libertarian book, ‘Anarchy, State, and Utopia’,[1] Nozick was a right-libertarian who came up with this book as a criticism of the Theory of Justice by John Rawls. As a right-libertarian, he was a supporter of legal property rights and defended the distribution of natural resources and other material wealth to people. His Entitlement theory is a part of the four major theories of justice. 

WHO WAS ROBERT NOZICK?

Born to a Russian immigrant and businessman, Nozick was a student of philosophy at Princeton University. As a member of the student ‘New Left’ during his college years, Nozick became an enthusiastic socialist. Apart from this, the works of F A Hayek and Ludwig Von Mises fueled the fire of libertarianism in him. His conversion to libertarianism peaked in 1974 when he published his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, a closely argued and original defense of the libertarian “minimal state” and a critique of the theory of his Harvard colleague John Rawls. Immediately hailed by conservative intellectuals, the work became a kind of philosophical manifesto of the ‘New Right’, though Nozick himself was not entirely comfortable with their association.[2]

His works included Philosophical Explanations (1981), The Examined Life (1989), Invariances (2001) etc. Nozick’s other works involved ethics, decision theory, philosophy of mind, metaphysics and epistemology. The Entitlement theory discussed here was the product of his National Book Award-winning work of 1974, which puts forth a new outlook of justice as opposed to the previous theories in this field.

NOZICK’S CRITICISM OF RAWLS’ THEORY

The government according to Rawls should have the power to forcibly take away wealth from people who are in an advantageous position and ensure equitable distribution of the same among people. His idea of fairness began with the fair and almost equal distribution of wealth in a society. The idea of A Theory of Justice[3] was that the State could use its power to redirect societal inequalities toward creating a more fair life for those behind others in wealth. Robert Nozick pointed out various flaws in Rawls’ theory and addressed the same issue in his book.

Although Robert Nozick, like Rawls, believed in Distributive Justice (this implied the methods and principles to determine the distribution of material goods and services amongst the members of society), Nozick’s approach was essentially different. Rawls believed that a person in his higher position had the means to fill the gap in society. For Nozick, who thought this was an idea that would require the coercion of the individual by the state and thus act against the rights of the individuals, his answer to distributive justice was a theory of justice in ‘holdings’.[4]

CONCEPT OF ‘HOLDINGS’

According to Nozick, anybody who had legally acquired wealth and property, or “holdings” as he called them, without violating others’ interests, had the right to hold it against everyone. These rights were only attached to the holdings that were acquired legally. A person’s holdings were just and fair only if they were acquired through one of the following methods i.e. possession, prescription, transfer, or inheritance.

This can be summed up in three principles of justice:

  • A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding;
  • A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to the holding is entitled to the holding;
  • No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of (1) or (2).[5]

Therefore there are three types of justices mentioned by Nozick that revolve around his idea of the right to property and self-ownership.

Justice in Acquisition: This is an initial acquisition of holdings. This takes into account how people first came to own that property. It revolves around the idea of maintaining the fairness of acquisition in society.

Justice in Transfer: This deals with the rightful transfer of holdings from one person to another, including voluntary exchange and gifts. Whatever is justly held can be transferred justly as well.

Rectification of Injustice: The process of dealing with holdings that are unjustly transferred or acquired in the first place, the means of compensation and redressal done by the government in case the first two justices fail to be delivered.

AN OVERVIEW OF THE ENTITLEMENT THEORY

People according to Nozick are born with fundamental rights. Regardless of the inequalities in society, these individual rights cannot be infringed, no one can be made to suffer only because he has more wealth than some others. Nozick adopted the 18th-century philosopher Immanuel Kant’s principle of  ‘individual inviolability’ that cannot be violated as a means to achieve particular ends, meaning the significance of each person’s possessions of self-ownership is that people should not be used as resources or a means of achieving some end and this is exactly what Rawls proposes to do, Nozick criticizes.[6]

The theory also mentions a selfownership concept. The argument essentially goes like this:

  • People own themselves;
  • The world and its objects were originally unowned;
  • One can acquire an absolute right to a disproportionate share of the world if this doesn’t worsen the material condition of others.[7]

The theory begins with the concept of wealth, which when acquired or transferred by the due process of law should not be snatched away from its owner under any pretext; the same is covered by the ‘Justice of acquisition’ and ‘Justice of transfer’. However, the theory also covers the point where some people might go against the law. For people who steal from others, acquire wealth and property fraudulently, prevent others from the fair acquisition of the same, or forcibly exclude others from competing in exchange, the third justice i.e. ‘Justice in rectification’ comes into play.

CRITICISM OF THE ENTITLEMENT THEORY

While Nozick’s theory might have appealed to some because of its concern for individual rights and a more realist approach than the Rawlsian perspective, many philosophers have rejected it because of its shaky foundation and lack of details. Furthermore, Nozick’s comparison of the ‘taxation of earnings’ to ‘forced labour’ seems vague in a modern economic setup.

A bare reading of the argument on self-ownership is enough to understand that this notion does not fit into the civil jurisprudence of today because of its unaccountable claims which are devoid of clarity and detailing. In his later work, ‘The Examined Life’, Nozick himself reflects that his theory may have some problems. It would lead to the vast majority of resources being pooled in the hands of the extremely skilled, or through gifts and inheritance, in the hands of the extremely skilled’s friends and children. Thus, his concept of justice had its loopholes which were never filled.

CONCLUSION

Altogether, his theory has fallen short in multiple ways yet Robert Nozick’s contributions to the growth of legal aspects with his attempt to view the society through the eyes of an individual cannot be denied. Nozick’s viewpoint was only one among the various theories of justice propounded before his entitlement theory. Socrates spent his entire lifetime to attain the real meaning of justice; this work was further done by Aristotle, who defined three types of justice, namely, general justice, distributive justice, and corrective justice. Mill’s Utilitarian theory saw justice as a part of morality, and thus his concept was too simple and demanding in nature. This was followed by Rawls’ views of regarding individuals as an instrument to achieve social equality in terms of materialistic resources and wealth.

None of these four theories was free from flaws. Each of them had their shortcomings which were pointed out by the other jurists and critics. We have traveled a long way to reach where we are in our understanding of modern-day legal aspects and their applications, and regardless of their imperfect theories, we owe a lot to these jurists for these attempts to define justice from different viewpoints. These bulk of studies have helped modern-day jurists to draw a fair and reasonable concept that has become the foundation of the jurisprudence of the 21st century.

Author(s) Name: Athika Gupta (Unity Law College, Lucknow)

[1] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (first published 1974, Basic Books) 400

[2] Brian Dugnan, ‘Robert Nozick’ (Britannica) <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Nozick> accessed 23 June 2023

[3] John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (first published 1971, The Belknap Press) 561

[4] ‘Robert Nozick’ (StudySmarter) <https://www.studysmarter.co.uk/explanations/politics/political-ideology/robert-nozick> accessed 23 June 2023

[5] Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (first published 1974, Basic Books) 151

[6] A Salahuddin, ‘Robert Nozick’s Entitlement Theory of Justice, Libertarian Rights and Minimal State: A Critical Evaluation’ (2010) 7(1) Journal of Civil and Legal Services <https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/robert-nozick8217s-entitlement-theory-of-justice-libertarian-rights-and-minimal-state-a-critical-evaluation-2169-0170-1000234-97787.html> accessed 24 June 2023

[7] Dale Murray, ‘Robert Nozick: Political Philosophy’ (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) <https://iep.utm.edu/noz-poli/#SH3b> accessed 23 June 2023