PHIL 41150: Political Philosophy
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Wednesday April 23, 2003

Robert Nozick


[1.] Background

         11/16/38 - 1/23/02

         like Rawls, spent most of his academic career as a professor at Harvard

         Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), his best known book, was the first full-length challenge to John Rawls' A Theory of Justice."[1]

         It belongs to the Lockean tradition of political philosophy, in that it emphasizes natural rights to liberty and property.


Online obituaries:

Harvard Gazette:

The Guardian:,3604,639619,00.html


Online essays on Nozick:

Richard Epstein:


[2.] Do Rights Require Anarchy?


Nozick's book begins as follows:


Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). So strong and far-reaching are these rights that they raise the question of what, if anything, the state and its officials may do. How much room do individual rights leave for the state? (ASU p.ix)


Nozick is concerned to answer our Question Two: What justifies a political society? i.e. what is the source of political authorityN ? And he thinks this question is especially pressing, given the fundamental assumption that people have natural rights, and any interference in one's activities on the part of the state is, on its face, a violation of those rights.


Nozick does think that Q2 can be answered (i.e., he thinks there is a justification for political authority) but only for a minimal political authorityN:


Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons' rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection. (ASU p.ix)


The latter implication mentioned by Nozick:


"the state may not use its coercive apparatus to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection"


is consistent with Mill's Harm Principle; but the former implication:


"the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others"


is not: Mill had a broad concept of harm, according to which it is possible to harm someone indirectly, by refusing to aid them. So Mill did not take the Harm Principle to rule out the state using coercive force to make individuals assist others.


Nozick's emphasis on the minimal state and the primary importance of individual liberties makes his position a form of libertarianism.


As we'll see, Nozick will criticize Rawls' account of distributive justice; in particular, he denies the Rawlsian claim that a more-than-minimal state is justified in order to achieve distributive justice.



[3.] The Entitlement Theory.


[3.1.] Three Principles.


Nozick's Entitlement Theory is a theory of justice in the distribution of goods (i.e. distributive justice). Nozick intends this to compete with the theory of distributive justice Rawls gives in A Theory of Justice. It consists of three principles of entitlement of holdings (all of which Nozick states explicitly); each of those three principles depends on one of three principles of justice in holdings:


principles of entitlement of holdings:

principle of entitlement of acquisition*

principle of entitlement of transfer*

principle of exhaustiveness*

principles of justice in holdings:

principle of justice in acquisition

principle of justice in transfer

principle of rectification of injustice


[*These three phrases are not used by Nozick himself.[2]]


Principles of Entitlement:


1.       Acquisition -- "A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in acquisition is entitled to that holding."


So what is the principle of justice in acquisition on which the principle of entitlement of acquisition depends? Nozick describes it as "the complicated truth about" "the appropriation of unheld things." OK-- but what is it? I.e., what exactly is the complicated truth? Nozick never says (not in ASU or anywhere else![3]). The closest he comes to stating the principle is his suggestion that it includes what he calls the Lockean proviso: "that there be 'enough and as good left in common for others'". (ASU 177; Cahn 1072; Locke quotation is from Second Treatise V:27, Cahn p.468)


2.       Transfer -- "A person who acquires a holding in accordance with the principle of justice in transfer, from someone else entitled to that holding, is entitled to the holding."


What is the principle of justice in transfer? Nozick says that "it specifies the legitimate means of moving from one distribution to another." (ASU 151; Cahn 1065) As with the principle of justice in acquisition, Nozick doesn't actually state the principle of justice in transfer; rather, he gives examples of violations of this principle, i.e. examples of unjust transfers of property:


Some people steal from others, or defraud them, or enslave them, seizing their product and preventing them from living as they choose, or forcibly exclude others from competing in exchanges. None of these are permissible modes of transmission from one situation to another. (ASU 152; Cahn 1065)


3.       Exhaustiveness -- "No one is entitled to a holding except by (repeated) applications of 1 and 2." In other words, the only means by which an individual may become entitled to property are if (i) they acquired the initially unheld property by just means or (ii) they justly acquired the property from someone else who owned it.


In summary, Nozick's theory of distributive justice is: "a distribution is just if everyone is entitled to the holdings they possess under the distribution." (ASU 151; Cahn 1065)


[3.2.] Rectification.


After describing his entitlement theory of justice, Nozick addresses the question of how past violations of that theory should be addressed; i.e. he asks, "what should we do in the present to correct, or make up for, past cases of unjust acquisition and unjust transfer that have resulted in individuals currently holding property to which they are not entitled?"


This sort of situation seems to be playing out currently in northern Iraq. Over the last 15-20 years, Kurds in northern Iraq were forced by the Ba'athists to abandon their homes and property and immigrate into the mountains. Those homes and property were appropriated by the government and sold to Arabs in an attempt to cleanse the area of Kurds (only Arabs were eligible to buy the property). With the recent fall of the Ba'athist regime, Kurds are returning from the mountains to reclaim what was once theirs. Assuming that the Kurds acquired the property in a just way to begin with, what should now be done to rectify the past injustice?


The "principle of rectification" mentioned by Nozick is intended to answer this question:


principle of rectification of injustice

         consider the historical facts regarding how property actually came to be distributed in the way it is distributed, including any unjust acquisitions or transfers

         consider what distribution(s) would (or would most probably) now exist had the relevant past injustices not occurred

         if the current, actual distribution is not among the distributions mentioned in the previous step, then we are morally obligated to bring about one of those distributions



[1] Christiano, T "Robert Nozick," in Cahn, p.1061.

[2] Christiano uses the names "principle of entitlement in acquisition" and "principle of entitlement of transfer," in his introduction to Nozick in Cahn, p.1061. "The principle of exhaustiveness" is mine. Note that in Christiano's presentation, he does not distinguish between the principle of exhaustiveness (which has to do with entitlement) and the principle of rectification of injustice (which has to do with justice).

[3] Wolff, J. Robert Nozick: Property, Justice and the Minimal State, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991, p.106.

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