Am I correct in thinking that Rawls and Nozick both offer theories of justice and that both allow for differences in the distribution of wealth ? If they agree in this, what is the decisive divergence between them ?

I am aware of Rawls' two principles : (1) Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others and (2) Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both (a) to the greatest [maximum : GT] benefit of the least advantaged and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity.

Rawls appears to to willing to appropriate holdings from certain individuals in order to help others, so that distribution improves the expectations of the least advantaged members of society. Nozick is on principle opposed to such appropriation.

Nozick's theory is based on the idea of entitlement to holdings by just acquisition, just transfer, and a principle of rectification to deal with past injustices.

If they both allow inequalities of distribution, what do they disagree over ? Why can't Nozick allow redistribution to be just ?

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    I'm afraid the viewpoints of Rawls and Nozick are somewhat more complex than this, as is their relation to each other. But I'm sure PSE can sort things out for you. +1 for raising the issue. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 18:36
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    Your statement of Rawls' and Nozick's positions needs to be revised. You have some idea of the difference between them but it needs to be finessed. It's probably best for that to be done through answers than in your text. I don't think that at this stage you could formulate the question properly. So wait for the answers ! Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 18:50
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    I have revised the question by adding detail which enables the views of Rawls and Nozick to be compared, and their disagreement over redistribution explored.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 19:38
  • @GeoffreyThomas Than you so very much for all your help. I really appreciate it.
    – Flow
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 19:47
  • Glad to help. You have one very useful answer already. Best - GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 19:54

2 Answers 2


A new government wants to take control. They want to give everyone $5 a month. Because they believe that is equality. There are rich people and poor people. So if the government gives $5 to everyone they are making the rich richer and the poor a bit better off. But still the two classes are not equal However that government says they are.

There's justification missing in the scenario. It's unclear why the government takes that measure. Because under some justifications it could follow Rawls' ideas while under others it wouldn't at all. The latter seems much more likely (more on that below).

The SEP describes the guidance that results from Rawls' difference principle like this:

If a system of strict equality maximizes the absolute position of the least advantaged in society, then the Difference Principle advocates strict equality. If it is possible to raise the absolute position of the least advantaged further by having some inequalities of income and wealth, then the Difference Principle prescribes inequality up to that point where the absolute position of the least advantaged can no longer be raised.

For Rawls, the absolute position of the least well off is where to look when deciding on which measures should be taken. It's likely that the action in the scenario doesn't favor the least advantaged enough. A better option could be an amount that is diminishing the better the position of advantage becomes. For example something like: the worst off get 10$, the best off get 0$, in between it scales. But it depends on the results that come from the amount that the government gives out. If and only if the constant amount (the 5$ for everyone) somehow results in economic growth that raises the absolute position of the least advantaged higher then the diminishing amount then it's the better option. Otherwise it's not.

It could also be the case that 5$ simply aren't enough, or that other measures that result in economic growth which raise the absolute position instead of just giving out some amount of money are better.

Simplified, Nozick thinks that the job of distributive justice can only be to rectify things that were aquired or transferred unjustly. How the distribution looks doesn't matter as long as the process was just. He gives guidelines how a correct aquisition or transfer are supposed to look. Whereas Rawls thinks that improvement of that absolute position of the least well off matters and distributive measures should be designed that way.

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    I have revised the question but your answer stands as completely relevant. +1.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 19:41
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    You might, however, want to delete the opening quote which no longer applies. The idea of a change of government and the unexplained statement, 'However that government says they are', can I think be dropped. Up to you, of course. You've plainly helped the Questioner no end already. Best - Geoffrey
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Jul 29, 2018 at 20:00

Nozick is opposed to redistribution, except for rectification of past injustices. It is a fundamentally different position from Rawls. However, unless we agree that acquisition was just historically, then the whole system falls apart.

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