Nozick Against Rawls’ Difference Principle (2016)

Module: Justice, Society and The State (Nanyang Technological University)

Justice is an important political value because it applies to all institutions of societies and directly affects each individual, from their rights, properties, to family. These institutions affect its members’ lives greatly from the opportunities they have to relationships with one another. It is most of the time, not in one’s cards to leave the society simply because they disagree with the state’s arrangements, and these arrangements often come with institutionalised coercive force. The state’s authority has to be thus, justified in their arrangements.

In A Theory of Justice, John Rawls puts forward his theory of justice as fairness. It is built on the basis that people are free and equal, and so, hold equal basic liberties. He states that “each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override…The rights secured by justice are not subjected to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests” (Rawls, 1971, p.3) The theory “aims to describe a just arrangement of the major political and social institutions of a liberal society,” given that, “institutions distribute the main benefits and burdens of social life” (Wenar, 2013) Fairness is thus achieved, when primary goods (such as “basic rights and liberties,…free choice among wide range of occupations,…income and wealth” (Wenar, 2013)) are distributed in a just manner. In order to do so, Rawls introduces the veil of ignorance to be employed when making decisions. Under the veil, people are stripped of all their identities entirely and do not know their social positions, nor other factors such as abilities, intelligence and race. This removes all arbitrary discrimination factors among people. However, in reality, nature gifts some with high intelligence and others with good looks. None of these endowments are moral entitlements, and yet it gives them an edge in the game of life. Rawls assumes that behind the veil, people worry about being the bottom of society and lack the ability or capacity to obtain primary goods. This fear would compel people to make decisions that benefit the bottom classes or minorities. Based on this reasoning, he formulated the difference principle. The principle “requires that the higher expectations of the more advantaged contribute to the prospects of the least advantaged” (Rawls, 1971, p.95) Additionally, offices and positions in education and economies ought to have a fair equality of opportunity, and are open to everyone “with the same talents and willingness to use them” (Wenar, 2013). Therefore, the difference principle promotes redistribution of goods obtained from nature’s endowments, and so achieves equality, which is just.

One of the opposition to Rawls came from Robert Nozick, who argues that Rawls’ theory requires that the state interferes more than necessary, and that, is unjust. Justice as fairness is an end­state principle that ignores the history of acquisition and transfer of goods. It considers only the distribution pattern at a point, X , in time. Nozick claims that “no end­-state principle or distribution patterned principle of justice can be continuously realised without continuous interference with people’s lives” (Nozick, 1974, p.163). He believes that “the minimal state is the most extensive state that can be justified. Any state more extensive violates people’s rights” (p.149). He justifies the possession of such rights by claiming “the Lockean rights people possess (under the minimal state)…Each person (has) a right to decide what would become of himself and what he would do, and as having a right to reap the benefits of what he did” (p.168). On these terms, individuals have self-­ownership and own their talents and endowments, and consequently, the benefits obtained through effort and merit. In choosing to disregard self­ownership and imposing the difference principle, people are being used and coerced. Nozick is against the compulsory scheme and the lack of options to opt out of the difference principle, without quitting the state. Should an institution be allowed to define its social purpose in any way it pleases, and then, define admission criteria accordingly?

Nozick illustrates his point by using taxation (which is a means of redistribution according to the difference principle) as an example, to argue that individuals are being forced into labour. In some countries such as Sweden, Japan and France, personal income tax rates range between 50­-60% (Trading Economics, 2016). Taking “earnings of n hours (of) labour” is equivalent to actually taking “n hours from the person…for another’s purpose” (Nozick, 1974, p.169). In terms of hours spent, it is equivalent to working for the state and needy for about six months, in a year. In some countries like Singapore, a progressive tax rate is imposed. “This means higher income earners pay a proportionately higher tax” (Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore, 2016). Nozick expressly resents such schemes because it grossly violates individual rights. Redistribution forcibly takes from the individual and, on that count, is unjust. Someone might choose to spend their extra time working so that they are able to earn more to purchase some good or service beyond their basic needs that they would like to have. By taxing them, their ends of pursuing such goals are violated when a portion of their efforts are instead given to someone who may decide that they rather spend their extra time at home watching television. In order to get those goods and services, they would have to work twice as hard because for every Y they earn, Y/2 (based on 50% personal income tax rate) is being taken away from them. This extra labour then, is forced labour, which the individual would not have to work if not for taxation. This would apply to meeting what one considers their basic needs as well. One would have to work more to ‘replace’ what was taken from them, to reach the same amount of ‘take-­home’ income (which is the monthly income – person income tax – social security savings – other compulsory schemes one cannot opt out of). Nozick expresses that when evaluating theories, “we can identify types of treatment of persons as not sufficiently respecting and taking (into) account…individuals who pursues their own good…In particular, the imposition of sacrifices upon individuals does not take account of their being agents who rationally pursue their own systems of ends” (Mack, 2015). Such impositions do not treat individuals as ends in themselves, and uses them for purposes other than their own. This ends up violating their rights, which is unjust. It is important to highlight that Nozick’s argument is not to be construed such that taxation is always wrong, but rather, the tax rate needs to be justified. It is justified only when it is the minimal rate which allows for the functioning of the state, in the same rationale he pushes for a minimal state.

Justice is found in the minimal state. Nozick proposes the entitlement theory which has three principles:

  1. Principle of Acquisition of Holdings
  2. Principle of Transfer of Holdings
  3. Principle of Rectification of Violations of 1 and 2

The first principle allows someone to acquire possessions if the object is not owned. The second principle allows the voluntary transfer of possessions between people, if the object is held by the rightful owner. That means that the object legitimately belong to them and was not acquired unjustly, such as through theft. The third principle attempts to fix the violations of the first two principles, by compensating the rightful owner. Nozick (1974, p.181) “focuses on a particular way that appropriative actions affect others, and not on the structure of the situation that results.” By this theory, unlike Rawls’, people are not treated as “beings who ought to serve the ends of others” (Mack, 2015). Each individual has the right to do as they please with their properties they obtained justly through effort and merit, and this is just.

The strongest argument that Rawls is able to make is to justify nature’s endowment in Nozick’s objection, and show that the individual is not entitled to those rights. Michael Sandel (2009, Ep.8) attempts to refute Nozick in two manner. Firstly, Nozick who is a believer of effort and what is obtained through it, is only a believer in theory. Imagine a situation where Mary is able to sew 10 shirts in a day, but Jane who is not as gifted with nimble fingers and precision, takes five days to do the same. Jane in this circumstance, has to put in more effort. Should we pay Jane more than Mary because she put in more effort? Thus, the believer of effort, does not actually practise nor believe it.

Secondly, Sandel (2009) highlights that “even the work ethic, even the willingness to strive conscientiously depends on all sorts of family circumstance and, social and cultural contingencies for which (one) can claim no credit.” Thus, the merits that we think we deserve do come from our natural endowments, which are arbitrary discriminations. It is a fact that some people are born with talents and higher intellect that allow them to be able to do well in society and so acquire goods easier. It should also be noted that one exists in a society which prizes certain talents, that made these people successful. It is beyond one’s control to decide which society they want to be born into. Regardless of any society one belongs to, they deserve these primary goods. This is a comparison between moral desert and entitlements to legitimate expectations. According to Rawls, “distributive justice is a matter of…an entitlement to legitimate expectation…‘A just scheme answers to what men are entitled to; it satisfies their legitimate expectations as founded upon social institutions. But what they are entitled to is not proportional to or dependent upon their intrinsic worth’” (Sandel, 2009 Ep.8). Every individual in a society deserves certain goods just by his being alone, and not based on who they are. In other words, as Feldman and Skow (2015) put it, “a person may deserve something even though he is not entitled to it” by effort or merit. In a society, “what is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these” (Rawls, 1971, p.102) natural advantages and disadvantages. Justice is to not allow and promote natural endowments to determine someone’s terrible situation. By redistributing goods and opening up opportunities to everyone, “men agree to share one another’s fate” (p.102) and help each other out. Redistribution seeks “only to cover the cost of training and education and for using their endowments in ways that help the less fortunate” (p.101-102), in hopes to minimise the natural disadvantage. It does not seek to unjustly take more than what is needed, so much so that individuals no longer have incentives to exercise their talents. It does not seek to violate one’s rights. Individuals still have equal basic liberties, even though taxation and redistribution imposes on one’s right to self­-possession ­. “We can defend rights, we can respect the individual, we can uphold human dignity without embracing the idea of self possession” (Sandel, 2009, Ep.8). Rawls’ theory, therefore, stands to Nozick’s objection by arguing that such impositions are not overly excessive or unnecessary.

However, someone arguing for Nozick might continue to press on how people are being used as means instead of ends in themselves, and furthermore, Rawls’ theory does not ensure justice or fairness. They can acknowledge that people have natural endowments that enable them to have qualities that society prize and that it gives them a head start in life. But, that is just reality. It is also not certain that behind the veil, one would choose the difference people. They can also acknowledge that if they were the bottom of society, they would like someone to help them out, but they might also choose to gamble. Additionally, there are some people at the bottom society, who have become reliant on these help. They think that because they are where they are, they deserve the help. They do not take opportunities or effort as readily as others to better themselves. Often a large portion of these helps “target symptoms, not causes” (BBC, 2016). Furthermore, does redistribution really lead to justice? Reinhold Niebuhr writes in Moral Man and Immoral Society that “the powerful are more inclined to be generous than to grant social justice” (BBC, 2016). It could very well be the case that redistribution does not make things just. The ‘upper class’ could still by other means exploit the ‘lower classes’ to earn more money. For example, a talent manager could offer to make this singer famous, if the singer willingly gives him 90% of the earnings. This hardly seem fair nor just. By Rawls’ principle, as long as a portion of this 90% gets distributed and the contract is made freely, it would be just. This puts in question the conclusiveness of his theory. There are still non­economic goods that could be exploited even if it is for economic benefits.

In response to the objection, Rawls could argue that firstly, this ignores the fact that by giving taxes, one does gain substantial benefits as well. It is in one’s self interest to join in a society, as argued by Locke. It is thus, also in one’s self interest to maintain and keep the society functioning. Without which, we would not enjoy the benefits of established institutional justice. Taxation goes a long way in not only providing public goods from street lamps to law enforcers, it better the lives of the people around which in turn also benefits the individual. By using the tax money to give educational opportunities to the lower income earners or their children, it increases the chances of them breaking the cycle of poverty. In an economy as a whole, there would be an increase in the number of skilled professionals who become active, useful members. It is also arguable that as the economy prospers, less people would have to resort to crime and stealing and this reduces crime rates. On a larger scale, not only do people enjoy safer environments, foreign investors are more likely to want to pick this country to set up their business because it has skilled workers and is safe. The methods that these people benefit might not be the best currently, but it does not mean that the reasoning behind it is wrong. Therefore, to claim that one is used merely as a means in a redistribution system is to be hypocritical to ignore the benefits that one receives knowingly or unknowingly.

To address the issue of non­economic goods, Rawls could respond by proposing the expansion of the veil. For example, in Singapore, Yeoh and Huang (2009) argue that foreign domestic workers “are subject(ed) to draconian measures that circumscribe family formation and close off the possibility of sinking roots into Singapore society: they cannot bring along any dependents and are also prohibited from marrying Singapore citizens and permanent residents, or becoming pregnant.” It seems unjust that someone should have authority over another on when they can fall in love, marry or become pregnant. Thus, when we employ the veil, if people decide that it is wrong, then when the veil is lifted, such policies are wrong and should be abolished. Therefore, Rawls’ theory can be conclusive, by using his veil as a decision making method, and so stands to the objection.

In conclusion, Rawls’ justice as fairness theory should be implemented in political and social institutions because it is the best system around. Even though the strongest objection to Rawls’ is that it violates individual’s rights and uses people as means to achieve certain social purposes or for the enhancement of others, this is defensible on the grounds that these rights are not in fact one’s entitlement, and men’s basic liberties are not in fact, violated. Everyone, deserves certain goods and this should not be denied to them on any arbitrary grounds. Conversely, one does not deserve the goods they obtain from these arbitrary grounds. Moreover, redistribution of goods is not only for the common good, but it is also in one’s self interest to do so.


BBC. (2016). Charity: Arguments against charity. Ethics Guide. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/charity/against_1.shtml [Accessed 16 Apr. 2016].

Feldman, F. and Skow, B. (2015). Desert. [online] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/desert/ [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore. (2016). Individual Income Tax Rates. [online] Available at: https://www.iras.gov.sg/irashome/Quick­Links/Tax­Rates/Individual­Income­Tax­Rates/ [Accessed 7 Apr. 2016].

Mack, E. (2015). Robert Nozick’s Political Philosophy. [online] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/nozick­political/ [Accessed 3 Apr. 2016].

Nozick, R. (1974). Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, pp.149-­182.

Rawls, J. (1971). A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Sandel, M. (2009). Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? Episode 07: “A Lesson in Lying”. [online] Available at: http://www.justiceharvard.org/2011/02/episode­07/#watch [Accessed 7 Apr. 2016].

Sandel, M. (2009). Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? Episode 08: “What’s A Fair Start?”. [online] Available at: http://www.justiceharvard.org/2011/02/episode­08/#watch [Accessed 7 Apr. 2016].

Sandel, M. (2009). Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? Episode 09: “Arguing Affirmative Action”. [online] http://www.justiceharvard.org/2011/02/episode­09/#watch [Accessed 7 Apr. 2016].

Trading Economics. (2016). List of Countries by Personal Income Tax Rate. [online] Available at: http://www.tradingeconomics.com/country­list/personal­income­tax­rate [Accessed 7 Apr. 2016].

Wenar, L . (2013). John Rawls. [online] The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Available at: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/#JusFaiJusWitLibSoc [Accessed 7 Apr. 2016].

Yeoh, B. and Huang, S. (2009). Sexualised Politics of Proximities Among Female Transnational Migrants in Singapore. Population, Space and Place, 16(37-­49).

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