Summary and Analysis of John Rawls’ and Robert Nozick’s Thoughts on Justice
John Rawls’ liberal philosophy on laws and social institutions describes them as, in their
nature, being justice seeking. He speaks of justice as a principle based on fairness, thus rejecting
the utilitarian idea of the greater good. He goes on to define society as a closed system of persons
with general agreement on a set of rules that are designed to produce a furtherance or betterment
of the society through cooperative interaction. If this cooperation results in a societal
improvement, then the subject of justice must be introduced to handle the fair distribution of or
access to the betterment.
For Rawls, justice is not arbitrary, prejudiced, or preferential. He feels that from the
original position, or natural state of man, all members of society are equal. Justice, in this
framework, finds itself concerned with the relative scarcity of goods and man’s propensity to
prefer self-advantage. In practice, Rawls’ justice ensures that all members share the same
freedoms and that holding advantageous office or position is a prospect open to all.
From the springboard of the original position, he employs a hypothetical tool, the veil of
ignorance. Rawls posits that the only way that persons can formulate laws that are fair is to be
devoid of any knowledge of their individual characteristics. This policy restricts the introduction
of personal advantage. Being blind to one’s situation promotes the generation of laws or
institutions that will not benefit one man over another.
Robert Nozick’s libertarian, entitlement theory of distributive justice presents a radical
departure from the more hypothetical ideas of John Rawls. It is a decidedly historical, practical
approach to defining the role of justice. Nozick was an advocate for the minimal state. He would
think that any state that takes on more than the defense of its people causes injury to personal
freedom. It is the acquisition and transfer of goods that is the concern of his theory of distributive
justice. He argues that if the principles of justice are observed when acquiring holdings, then the
acquisition of the holding is just and entitled. For instance, if an item is unheld, and one acquires
it, then it is a just acquisition. He also states that held items may be the subject of just transfer
between people by means of trade or service. If one follows his inductive argument implicitly,
then it holds that the natural distribution of holdings would be just. Further, he states that the
resulting situation, being just, has no need for manipulation by any state. He also does a
precursory explanation of the rectification of injustice in holdings, should the principles of the
original acquisition of holdings, or the transfer of holdings be violated.
Nozick compares his historical, entitlement distribution of goods against “current time-
slice” principles of distribution. He cites welfare economics as an example, a seeking of a fair
“end-result” distribution. He finds looking at only our current situation to be unjust. Perhaps
disadvantaged persons are getting their just desserts. To preserve justice in Nozick’s eyes, one
must look at the whole historical accounting of things.
Nozick also discusses that there are patterns in distribution that can arise either justly, by
following his principles regarding just holdings, or by the intentional impression of a distributive
matrix by a state. He describes the fall of a hypothetical socialist state that occurs when one
person engages in capitalist acts, earning such money that others would leave the socialist
industry to engage in private enterprise as well. This circumstance would mandate that the
socialist state ban capitalist commerce in the name of self-preservation. It is this engaging of a
role by the state other than the defense of its people that is of paramount concern to Nozick. The
takeaway is that no distribution of holdings other than a natural distribution that occurs by
preserving justice in acquisition and transfer can be just. Also, it follows, that any action by a
state to redistribute holdings to which people have entitlement is an affront to personal liberty.