Revisiting Nozick’s Argument against End-State and Patterned Theories of Distributive Justice
This paper takes a close look at Robert Nozick’s argument against end-state and patterned theories of distributive justice. I try to show that the intuitions Nozick seeks to marshal in his argument are those of a whole class of theories: historical entitlement theories. This interpretation is new in so far as most commentators think that Nozick’s argument is driven by a prior commitment to his own version of entitlement theory. If we understand Nozick’s argument in the way I suggest, its dialectical force depends on how large and diverse the set of entitlement theories is. If the set includes a few variants of the same theory, the argument lacks in dialectical appeal; if the set of entitlement theories is large and diverse, the dialectical force of the argument is more significant. How large and diverse the set of entitlement theories is, depends on what the substantive distinction between these theories and end-state and patterned theories turns out to be. The central, analytical goal of this paper is to identify this distinction. The distinction is fixed by two formal constraints that any recursively defined entitlement theory should endorse: (1) just acquisition processes have a chronological priority to just transfer and rectification processes and (2) a principle of justice in holdings (acquisition, transfer or rectification) cannot be formulated in a way that requires systematic violations of entitlements justified by the other principles. At the end I will argue that the substantive distinction identified by Nozick allows for a large and diverse group of entitlement theories. As a result the dialectical force of Nozick’s argument against end-state and patterned theories of distributive justice is quite significant.