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  • Cited by 2
  • Print publication year: 2011
  • Online publication date: September 2011

6 - Nozick’s libertarian theory of justice

from Part III - Justice


In Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), Robert Nozick sketches and motivates a libertarian theory of justice and then uses it to argue that a minimal state, but nothing stronger, can be just. In this chapter, I focus on explaining and assessing his libertarian theory. My focus will be on laying out the basics and identifying how they can be challenged. I shall not address his argument for the minimal state.


Although Nozick frequently (and confusedly) writes of (moral) justifiability, permissibility, and legitimacy, it is clear that his main focus in the book is on justice. He never, however, explains the concept of justice. We shall therefore start by clarifying the concept of justice relevant to Nozick's theory. What is his theory about?

The term “justice” is used in many different ways by philosophers: as fairness (comparative desert), as moral permissibility (or justifiability) either of distributions of benefits and burdens or of social structures (e.g., legal systems), as enforceable duties (duties that others are permitted to enforce), as the duties that are owed to individuals (as opposed to impersonal duties, owed to no one), and as the enforceable duties owed to individuals. It is clear that Nozick restricts justice to the fulfillment of the duties owed to individuals, but it is unclear whether he restricts it only to enforceable duties.