An Internal Critique of Nozick’s Entitlement Theory

  • Gregory S. Kavka


Robert Nozick has proposed an entitlement theory of distributive justice, which he uses to defend the institution of private property, and to criticize redistributive measures on the part of government.1 The root idea of this theory is that the justice of a given distribution of possession depends upon how that particular distribution actually came about, rather than upon its structure. Many have criticized this theory from the outside, questioning the entitlement approach and the theory of individual rights on which it is based.2 I offer a different critique of Nozick’s entitlement theory, an internal one. Accepting, for the sake of argument, the general entitlement view of justice, I shall argue that Nozick’s specific theory is, in a very broad sense, internally inconsistent. That is, some fundamental principles and arguments of Nozick’s theory are subject to problems and objections that he recognizes himself in other contexts. And these problems cannot be solved without sacrificing some of Nozick’s main political doctrines.


Private Property Existence Problem Wealth Transfer Full Compensation Counterfactual Situation 
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  1. 1.
    Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974).Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    See, e.g., Brian Barry, Review of Anarchy, State, and Utopia in Political Theory 3 (1975): 331–6;Google Scholar
  3. Thomas Scanlon, ‘Nozick on Rights, Liberty, and Property’, Philosophy & Public Affairs 6 (1976): 3–25;Google Scholar
  4. Peter Singer, ‘Rights and the Market’, in John Arthur and William Shaw (eds), Justice and Economic Distribution (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1978): 207–21.Google Scholar
  5. 15.
    Allan Gibbard considers a libertarian system like Nozick’s and arrives at a similar conclusion using a different line of argument. See his ‘National Property Rights’, Nous 10 (1976): 77–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 17.
    The only mention of this assumption (and discussion of its implications) that I have found is in George Sher, ‘Compensation and Transworld Personal Identity’, The Monist 62 (July 1979): 378–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 21.
    See, e.g., Bernard Boxill, ‘The Morality of Reparation’, Social Theory and Practice 2 (1972): 113–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1991

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  • Gregory S. Kavka

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