20 September 2013

Day 249: Nozick's Entitlement Theory of Justice - what are we REALLY entitled to?

Robert Nozick is best known for his work ‘State, Anarchy and Utopia’ in which he argues against patterned principles of justice and in favour of an entitlement theory of justice (2013:26). We will first consider what the difference is between the two, to then proceed with a critical review of Nozick’s argumentation, herein paying particular attention to the relevance of such a theory in consideration of the present as an outcome of human history.

The difference between patterned theories of justice and unpatterned theories of justice revolves around the means-end question: Is it just (or can it be justified) to use unjust means to attain a just end? For Nozick the answer to this question is ‘No’. In his view, if every step of the process of distribution throughout history is just, then the result is a just distribution (Nozick 1974:151). Herein, the justice of an act of distribution is measured in relation to whether one is entitled to one’s resulting holdings (2013:26). In contrast, patterned theories of justice pertain to ensuring an ideal ‘kind’ of outcome from distribution – where this ‘kind’ is dependent on and determined by the values a particular society holds. If equality is treasured, the outcome of distribution would require being that each one has equal holdings. If the fulfillment of basic rights is valued, then the pattern of distribution would require standing in relation to ensuring each one’s basic needs and rights are met as a minimum condition.

Within his argumentation, Nozick holds two concepts at heart: property and liberty. A problem he sees with patterned theories of justice is that goods are treated as thought they are ‘just here’ and available to be distributed in any way we see fit. He argues that resources cannot merely be allocated according to some patterned principle, because: “The situation is not one of something’s getting made, and there being an open question of who is to get it. Things come into the world already attached to people having entitlements over them” (Nozick 1974:160). Not taking into consideration the source of a good would therefore be a form of stealing. The same logic is used in an attempt to prove that taxation should be included under the category of theft (2013:29).
When it comes to liberty, Nozick argues that if distribution happens in a patterned way, then individuals require sacrificing their freedom to give to charities and gift goods to others, because such acts would upset the particular preferred pattern in question (2013:28).

As noble and logically thought-out his arguments may seem – I simply question the relevance of an entitlement theory of justice. Considering that throughout history, we can see countless examples of ‘unjust initial acquisition’ and ‘unjust transfer’ – where elites were built based on for instance the colonization of an entire people and the appropriation of their resources. The current allocation of resources is still a result of such past events. Therefore, one cannot say that at this point, one can simply go on with making sure that ‘from here-on out’ all distribution is conducted in a just manner – for our starting point is already unjust in itself – leading to unjust advantages and disadvantages. Where Nozick supports the correction of past injustices we must ask how he attempts to do this without a patterned form of distribution – for, it would imply re-constituting history by imagining how distribution would have taken place at each step of the way if no injustice had taken place. As said above, history is filled with unjust transfers and acquisitions, therefore, such a task would involve the creation of an ‘alternate timeline’ of not only a village, a region or a country, but of the world in its entirety. We simply do not have the data or means to construct such an alternate timeline in any accurate way – we cannot ‘predict’ or ‘come to know’ how things ‘would have’ played out if it weren’t for injustice. Therefore, Nozick’s entitlement theory is irrelevant as it is not practically applicable in terms of our current reality. What it does seem to do and seems to have done, is to create a great set of justifications as to why we should not attempt to bring about greater equality or make sure the needy are taken care of – protecting those with significant wealth from any form of accountability with respect to the past and with respect to their fellow human beings.

If one is to constitute an entitlement theory of justice one should utilize human rights as the basis for such a theory, as unless each human being’s rights are provided for, one cannot speak of entitlement, one would instead be protecting an economic system of distribution that does not honor the life of every man, woman and child equally, but places the luxury of some over the bare survival of others. Each one is entitled to a certain level of well-being as it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, each one is entitled to a certain level of education as it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights, each one is entitled to adequate housing as it is enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Such are true entitlements – and unless an entitlement theory of justice comprises a system of distribution that guarantees the fulfillment and honouring of these entitlements at all times – we know we are in fact dealing with deception – the deception of those using fuzzy logic and fear to protect their own self-interest and to protect the elite of the world – where the theory has in fact no foundational basis in reality as that which actually matters in terms of supporting and enhancing (human) life on Earth.

In conclusion, to proclaim any patterned theory of justice as ‘unjustified’ by default means to ignore the reality of the world and its historical injustices. Nozick’s entitlement theory can only become relevant and applicable once the current distribution has been re-patterned to reflect the values and rights in the constitution.


(Author not specified). 2013. PLS3705: Guide 1. Pretoria: University of South Africa

Nozick, R. 1947. Anarchy, State and Utopia, New York: Basic Books.
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