Nozick obviously wasn't discussing, and I'm not asking about, the calculus or mechanical meanings of 'differential'. ODO doesn't distinguish them; 'different' is synonymized with 'differential', and vv.

  1. In 1, 2, 4: why didn't Nozick write 'different'?

  2. In 3, 5-7: why didn't Nozick write 'differential'?

Nozick. Anarchy, State, and Utopia, Oxford: Blackwell, 1974: 155-6:(http://fs2.american.edu/dfagel/www/NozickExcerpt.html)

In contrast to end-result principles of justice, historical principles of justice hold that past circumstances or actions of people can create [1.] differential entitlement or [2.] differential deserts to things. An injustice can be worked by moving from one distribution to another structurally identical one, for the second, in profile the same, may violate people’s entitlements or deserts; it may not fit the actual history.


The entitlement principles of justice in holdings that we have sketched are historical principles of justice. To better understand their precise character, we shall distinguish them from another subclass of the historical principles. Consider as an example, the principle of distribution according to moral merit. This principle requires that total distributive shares vary directly with moral merit; no person should have a greater share than anyone whose moral merit is greater. (If more merit could be not merely ordered but measured on an interval or ratio scale stronger principles could be formulated.) Or consider the principle that results by substituting "usefulness to society" for "moral merit" in the previous principle. Or instead of "distribute according to moral merit," or "distribute according to usefulness to society," we might consider "distribute according to the weighted sum of moral merit, usefulness to society, and need," with the weights of the [3.] different dimensions equal. Let us call a principle of distribution patterned if it specified that a distribution is to vary along with some natural dimension, weighted sum of natural dimensions, or lexicographic ordering of natural dimensions. And let us say a distribution is patterned if it accords with some patterned principle. (I speak of natural dimensions, admittedly without a general criterion for them, because for any set of holdings some artificial dimensions can be gimmicked up to vary along with the distribution of the set.) The principle of distribution in accordance with moral merit is a patterned historical principle, which specifies a patterned distribution. "Distribute according to 1.0." is a patterned principle that looks to information not contained in distributional matrices. It is not historical, however, in that it does not look to any past actions creating [4.] differential entitlements to evaluate a distribution; it requires only distributional matrices whose columns are labeled by 1.0. scores. The distribution in a society, however, may be composed of such simple patterned distributions, without itself being simply patterned. [5.] Different sectors may operate [6.] different patterns, or some combination of patterns may operate in [7.] different proportions across a society. A distribution composed in this manner, from a small number of patterned distributions, we also shall term "patterned." And we extend the use of "pattern" to include the overall designs put forth by combinations of end-state principles.

I first happened upon this para. from Introduction to Politics: First Canadian Edition (2012 1 edn, but ∃ 2016 2 edn). p. 87 Top.

enter image description here

  From the right, Rawls's major critic has been the American philosopher Robert Nozick (1938—2002). Nozick was writing from a libertarian perspective, which calls for a state focused on protection of property rights. He put forward a procedural theory of justice in which the main concern is not the outcome (e.g., meeting needs) but the way in which property (in the broad sense, meaning anything possessed by an individual) is acquired. It is therefore a historical theory in which "past circumstances or actions of people can create differential entitlements or differential deserts to things" (Nozick, 1974, [Anarchy, State, and Utopia]: p. 155). Provided that the property was acquired fairly, then the owner has a just entitlement to it. Nozick considered any attempt to redistribute property, even through taxation, to be unjust.


4 Answers 4


'Different' and 'differential' are not synonymous. The phrases 'differential entitlements' and 'differential deserts' have meanings that cannot be captured with 'different entitlements' and 'different deserts'. In this context, 'differential' means discriminating.

For instance, if I say that I give differential treatment to my students, that means that I am discriminating between them in some (not necessarily bad) way. I might be, for example, grading students less harshly because I am friends with their parents. That would be a case of differential treatment. On the other hand, if I say that I give a different treatment to my students, that by itself does not suggest that I am discriminating between them. Moreover, it sounds incomplete: different from what? Is it different from how other teachers treat their students? From how I treat my colleagues? And so on. To capture the original meaning without using 'differential' I would have to say something like: different students get different treatment. But using 'differential' is shorter.

  • If "The students get different treatment" and there is no obvious other group of students to find their treatment different form, and you can't tell that means "different from one another" using a latinate form won't help you. The two are not synonyms, but this use is synonymous. The use of 'different' to mean 'differing within a group' is valid, and we should not create grammar out of usage on the fly. When people use unusual synonyms to avoid more idiomatic usage, that is not a matter of grammar, and surely not one of definition, and we shouldn't make it sound like one.
    – user9166
    Commented Jun 25, 2019 at 18:57
  • Completely agree with @jobermark's comment. 𝘋𝘪𝘴𝘤𝘳𝘪𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘵𝘦 is about making a 𝐝𝐢𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐧𝐜𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧, discerning and judging. These two concepts (different and differential) are used in this example as synonyms. IMHO, this example doesn't represent a framework to explain concepts from the cited references since 𝘥𝘪𝘴𝘤𝘳𝘪𝘮𝘪𝘯𝘢𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 is not in place. At any rate, in the end, it will always depend on the criterion of what is an acceptable answer from the perspective of whoever is asking the question
    – user40268
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 12:06
  • @jonathan I think there is discrimination in the cited text, it is discrimination (again, not necessarily in a bad sense) based on people's history.
    – E...
    Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 13:38

Background: To be able to understand Nozick, you have to keep in mind (1) his tracking theory of knowledge, (2) his position on how to trace the truth no matter how varying through time conditions are i.e., differential quality and (3) his ideas from Invariances where he clearly demonstrates an evolutionary vision about the truth concerning time and space, while holding against concepts like the timelessness of truths. Nozick always highlighted the (underlying) presence of time and how it determines structures and objectivity.

Answer: In this frame of reference, I see differential strongly tied to history in the sense of the flow of measurable changes as a way of tracing and determining how the course of circumstances and actions create variability in what historically can be defined as concepts of original entitlement and original deserts to things. Such rearrangement from a distribution structure to another is what Nozick considered to create (as a possibility of) violation of these two concepts just at the moment they stop satisfying any definition based on their historical context. Patterning, when not linked to historical principles of justice, is an artificial design subject to outcomes or end-result policies that distort the historicity of entitlement and deserts to things concepts. Thus, there is indeed bias or misstatement even though the context is just about compulsory taxation on a justly acquired property and it is on a par with the use of force, e.g. the weighted sum of moral merits is the process of moving the conceptual structure of a personal property to be considered statistically on an underlying aggregate or group


Philosophical Explanations, 1981
Invariances, 2001

'Differential' in this context means differences in outcome based on some natural or well-ordered dimension or dimensions. For example, innate differences in size and physical strength predicate differential outcomes for people pursuing a professional football career; pre-given differences in parental wealth predicate differential access to educational opportunities. By itself this is fairly common-sensical: different people have different skills, lucks, resources, and talents that make them non-interchangeable. The world's greatest brain surgeon might fail miserably if she tries her hand at painting or philosophy, while most artists and philosophers would fail miserably at brain surgery, and that's just normal.

What Nozick is trying to suggest in this snippet is that historical contexts sometimes create differential entitlements or deserts. To give an unambiguous case, let's say that someone discovers a deserted island that happens to have a vein of gold. He goes in, set up camp, digs a mine; he is entitled to do this because of that historical accident of discovery, and he is entitled to enjoy the fruits of the sale of that gold. The fact that this creates a differential of wealth — he has lots of gold while other people do not — is justified by that historical event.

In Nozick's view, the mere fact of difference — that one has more and another less — is not a moral ill. The mere fact of difference does not take into account historical patterns that might explain and justify the difference as valid. We cannot simply point at (say) the fact that women earn 70% of what men in equivalent positions earn and say that this entails a social or moral ill, because there may be some dimension of gender differences which creates a historical context in which that pay differential is a normal and correct distribution. We certainly (in his view) cannot take steps to redistribute part of that 30% back to women.

Of course, this highlights the problem with Nozick's position. The status quo is the de facto historical context in which we all work, and Nozick's argument too easily boils down to an assertion that any attempt to alter the status quo is an injustice against those who profit most from it. Note the coy way in which he distinguishes between 'natural' patterns (assumedly those which have naturally occurred) and 'artificial' patterns which are 'gimmicked up' (by which he can only mean theoretical patterns that are critical of the status quo's historical context). Nozick is essentially using the concept of historically derived 'differentials' to normalize differences that people find objectionable. But this isn't really he place to get into a full critique of Nozick's work.


The other answers overcomplicate this distinction. Different means 'not the same'. Differential means 'based on difference'.

Consider sentence 1

  1. The insurance company used a differential pricing strategy based on gender, which resulted in different premiums for men and women.

1 can be rewritten as

1.1. The insurance company used pricing strategy that was based on how much men and women differ from each other. Therefore, the premiums for men and women were not the same.

Now consider

  1. The insurance company used a different pricing strategy based on gender, which resulted in different premiums for men and women.

2 has a different (pun intended) meaning. 2 means that the insurance company used a strategy that was NOT the same as some other strategy. 2 can be rewritten as:

2.1. The insurance company used some other pricing strategy based on gender, which meant that the premiums for men and women weren't the same


The differential tells me what the strategy is based on (the difference). Differential means, that it's explicitly based on difference. It actually describes the strategy itself.

Different means just not same as something else. It says nothing about the strategy itself. different just tells me it's not the same as something else, without telling me what it actually is. The strategy can be that they treat genders the same. different just implies it's not the same as something you're comparing it to.

You must log in to answer this question.