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Robert Nozick Notes

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*Link - 1.2 John Rawls' Theory of Justice / Justice, Homelessness & Housing

Robert Nozick on Self-Ownership and Historical Entitlement

'If two people want to exchange things they legitimately own, it is never morally permissible to prevent them'. Is this true? [2018]

'A socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults' (Nozick). Critically discuss. [2016]

Does the injustice of slavery provide a powerful argument in favour of the principle of selfownership? [2015]

What does Nozick think is wrong with patterned principles of justice? Is he correct? [2014]

Theories of justice address the problem of 'distributive justice': how certain goods that arise from our participation in a 'cooperative venture for mutual advantage' [Rawls] should be justly allocated.
For libertarians, however, to speak of distributive justice is to presuppose that all goods are a 'manna from heaven'
awaiting (re)distribution by some central authority. Written in response to A Theory of Justice by John Rawls*, Robert
Nozick's Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974) epitomizes the contemporary libertarian position, arguing that
'whatever arises from a just situation by just steps is itself just'.
This essay discusses whether it is ever morally permissible to prevent two people from exchanging things they legitimately own. I focus on challenging the notion of 'legitimate ownership' with reference to Nozick's historical entitlement theory, as well as various critiques. I conclude that not all 'infringements of liberty' are morally impermissible.

Like Rawls, Nozick grants primacy to individual rights as side-constraints on the pursuit of social goals like utility-maximization.

Unlike Rawls, who concludes that a due respect for the 'separateness of persons' precludes imposing losses on individuals for the sake of general welfare; Nozick concludes that it precludes imposing losses on individuals for the sake of any conception of the overall social good, including deeply distributionsensitive conceptions.

'Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)' [Nozick]


Libertarians ground the institution of property on 'self-ownership', famously defined by Locke as 'every man having a property in his own person'. Each person is the morally rightful owner of their bodies, talents,
labour and the fruits thereof; which generates a claim-right to non-interference in private property affairs.

The derived rights of self-ownership include:

1. Rights of use/exclusion

2. Rights to compensation if used non-contractually

3. Authority to transfer such rights to others by sale, rent, gift or loan

4. Immunity from expropriation with respect to one's body and labor. Accordingly, self-ownership precludes any duty to help others.

Self-ownership is intrinsically valuable because it provides a moral bulwark against forced slavery, fraud,
expropriation, etc. appropriate to the separateness of persons.

Nozick is interested in a 'historical' theory of justice: a theory that judges the 'moral permissibility' of distributive outcomes in terms of the procedures which occasioned it (not some structural criterion of just distribution as in
'end-state' and 'patterned' principles).
A derivative distribution of holdings is 'just' if, and only if, the holding arises from:

1. An act of just initial acquisition

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