What is justice and how distributive justice may be defined? Which holdings and which acts should be considered as just ones and which ones should be seen as unjust? What is a just society and how justice correlates with equality and liberty? Two great American philosophers – John Rawls and Robert Nozick - tried to give answers to all these and many other similar questions in their well-known theories on distributive justice. Meanwhile, despite of the same subject two philosophers have quite different views on what is just and what is unjust in a society.
Robert Nozick, the author of the Entitlement theory, holds three principles of distribution under which the latter can be recognized as just: justice in acquisition, justice in transfer and rectification of injustice in holdings. These principles are formulated by the philosopher in a very individualistic manner: if you acquire something according to the justice principle or if someone transfers his holding to you in compliance with the principle of justice, then you are entitled to this holding. The third principle is based on “the existence of past injustice” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p.236) which should be rectified by a re-distribution of holdings. Nozick also introduces the historical principle for structurally identical distributions which may take place in different periods of time: “my having ten and your having five, and my having five and your having ten, are structurally identical distributions” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p. 237). He states that the welfare economics is based on this historical principle when a worse-off state of one is compensated by his better-off condition in the future. Another important idea of Nozick’s entitlement theory is reflected in the “End-Result principle or end-state principle” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p. 238), or who has what at the end after distribution.
In Nozick’s opinion, justice may be not only historical but also patterned or unpatterned which means that in a society holdings are distributed in accordance with a particular pattern, e.g. “moral merit” or “usefulness to society” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p. 238) whereas in some situations this distribution can be unpatterned, e.g. gifts or donations when goods are given to people regardless of their merits, skills or talents. Meanwhile, in general Nozick follows Locke’s theory and states that everyone has right to what he makes. He illustrates this idea with the example of Wilt Chamberlain, a basketball player, who can get a much larger income than a standard salary in this society may be thank to the fact that people are ready to pay him in exchange of watching him playing basketball. Nozick contends that this income of Chamberlain is completely just as no one has any claims of injustice in this case. Moreover, he considers the taxation as a violation of the rights of individual property as the end-state of a better-off person may be worsened as a result of taxation.
In contrast with Nozick’s very individualistic approach to the distributive justice illustrated in his Entitlement theory, John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is focused on a social cooperation. Nozick does not give any direct definition of society but based on his assumptions it may be concluded that society, from his point of view, represents a group of independent and self-sufficient individuals who own what they produce. John Rawls, in the contrary, defines society in the very first line of his work: “We may think of a human society as a more or less self-sufficient association regulated by a common conception of justice and aimed at advancing the good of its members” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p. 219). The crucial difference here consists in that for Rawls only society can be self-sufficient but not a separate individual.
Rawls construes his theory based on two main principles: contract between the members of a society and the difference principle. Rawls believes that justice is based on an original agreement “among free and independent persons in an original position of equality” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p. 225). Nozick has criticized a lot Rawls’ idea of an “original equality” considering that drawing conclusions based on an imaginary or thought equality is not serious, nor reliable. The second principle of Rawl’s theory – the difference principle – is even more criticized by Nozick. Rawls contends that “the fundamental problem of distributive justice concerns the differences in life-prospects” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p.224). Rawls believes that due to this inevitable difference between the members of the same society inequality can be permissible and justified by a more efficient and productive economy and distribution of more benefits throughout the whole social system. Nozick does not agree with this statement because he thinks that under such distribution conditions the private rights of those who are better-off will be violated as after such a distribution they will be inevitably worse-off. Nozick asks: “why individuals in the original position would choose a principle that focuses upon groups, rather than individuals”? (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p. 252). This question is crucial for the dispute between Rawls and Nozick as the first one is concentrated on social benefits relatively equally distributed between the members of the society whereas the other one is completely for the rights of individuals to what they have produced like in the case of W. Chamberlain.
The Theory of Justice by John Rawls and the Theory of Entitlement by Robert Nozick are both valuable for understanding the notion of distributive justice. They have some similarities, e.g. both philosophers investigate the subject of distributive justice and both of them can not set the limits of it in society, and differences, especially their understanding of what distribution may be considered as just or unjust. Both theories have their strong and weak points: Rawls has not completely explained the difference principle and Nozick is too individualistic considering taxation as a violation of individual property rights. Meanwhile, Ralws’ theory seems to be more persuasive, since Rawls was the first who introduced the idea of collaborative society with a minimum subsistence wage for the members of the society who are temporally unemployed or whose social position is worse-off in a given period of time. Moreover, he has elaborated the concept of a just distribution which is fundamental for a real democratic state. In contrast with Nozick, Rawls is more inclined to everyone’s wealth and always tries to answer the question of “whether it is possible to arrange the institutions of constitutional democracy so that the two principles of justice are satisfied, at least approximately” (Stewart & Robert, 1996, p.225). It’s hence not surprising that Rawls’ and not Nozick’s theory lies at the heart of American democracy where the common welfare of all society members prevails over a better-off state of an individual.
Stewart, Robert, M. (1996). Reading in Social and political philosophy (2nd edition).Oxford University Press.