Robert Nozick and Amartya Sen’s Idea of Justice

Nozick severely criticized the John Rawls’ theory of justice. Nozick is a libertarian theorist. His fundamental principle is liberalism. He is committed to laissez faire (Free market).

Nozick’s idea of justice regards the right to property as an important ingredient of individual liberty. He defended the freedom of the market. He believed that the market freedom can increase efficiency. The role of the state is minimum in his theory as he felt state regulating market may lead to centralization of power.

He opposed the idea of the state imposing taxes on the wealthy to serve that money to the poor. The state needs to arrange its money by selling natural resources available to it. Nozick strongly disagrees with the concept of a welfare state.

Nozick’s Entitlement theory

  • The Entitlement theory says that people are entitled to self-ownership of their body and mind.
  • It envisages that people have the official right to freely dispose of it as one sees fit, but it will be accepted as long as no involvement of force, fraud or any illegal means.
  • It gave the right to have something through legal means.

A distribution is just if it arises from another just distribution by legitimate means

Robert Noxick

Nozick gave mainly three-way to own anything

  1. Self: Using their body, thought, etc. And they have absolute right over them
  2. Nature: Individuals may acquire bits of nature like land, water, minerals, etc., through several methods.
  3. By using labor/work: The things people make by applying their skills to the existing natural resources like agriculture products, industrial products, etc.,

      Here individual entitlement should not be questioned. The voluntary transfer of these goods will establish other’s entitlement to them.

They are three principles on which this entitlement would result in justice

  1. Initial acquisition
    • The first come first serve principle will apply here. Individuals who come first and own some part of nature (land, water, minerals, etc.,) becomes the owner of that property.
    • The legitimate right is given according to initial acquisition only when a good amount is left for others. And should not result in creating scarcity for others.
  2. Principle of transfer
    • The property acquired through initial acquisition or one’s talent can be voluntarily transferred to others without any force. Here, an individual should be treated as an end and not as means to other’s end
  3. Principle of rectification:
    • It is a very important part, as the state provided some power to regulate market forces. The state is allowed or has a right to intervene in any market activity to restore justice. If any transfer happened through illegal means, then the state has every right to step in. But, voluntary transfers resulting in economic disparities should not be a concern for the state. And the state is not allowed to intervene at that time.
    • If a country control over rare natural resources depriving others of their legitimate share, then it is justified for people to go for a protest.

Nozick firmly believes market regulations are bad for society. They impose a kind of control over the market. He did not see any point in contributing the wealth of the rich to the poor forcefully. But he allowed if the rich are voluntarily giving their money. The state has no right to take one’s wealth if it is legally earned.

Critical appraisal

  1. Nozick does not bother about the social and economic needs of the disadvantaged section.
  2. He left the welfare of the poor only to charity, but not on justice.
  3. He did not agree that the operation of a competitive market society may itself create certain conditions of injustice.
  4. He opposed the idea of taxation on the rich, and he only approved taxation for the provisioning of common services like street lights, roads, etc.

Amartya Sen’s idea of justice

Amartya Sen used Mahabharath to illustrate his idea of justice. He talked about the consequential approach where action should be determined by analyzing the consequences of that action. A person’s perception of things plays a key role in determining actions. He criticized Rawls’ theory of perfect justice.

Perfect justice is related to the social ideal. It should have the following characteristics

i. Basic needs should be satisfied

ii. Corruption should not be there

iii. Everyone should be happy

iv. Everyone has equal opportunities etc.,

But Amartya Sen said perfect justice is hard to achieve in the real world. So, instead of going for perfect justice. He asked to minimize the imperfections in society. For example, the Abolition of slavery cannot achieve perfect justice, but it aims to reduce one imperfection in society. Perfect institutions follow unbiasedness, rule of law and established with people’s agreement. He opposed Rawls’ idea i.e. perfect institutions lead to perfect justice.

If a theory of justice is to guide reasoned choice of policies, strategies or institutions, then the identification of fully just social arrangements is neither necessary nor sufficient

Amartya Sen

Amartya Sen said that perfect institutions may always not guarantee perfect justice. For example, Right to Education act which guarantees compulsory education for all children up to 14 years of age. The legal provision is there to provide education to all children and also to punish those who hire a child as labor. Still, we are witnessing many illiterate children who are engaging in different works around us. So, Amartya sen envisaged that not only institutions but also non-institutional actors influence the delivery of justice. Non- institutional actors include surrounding people, society, family, teachers, etc.

He criticized the idea of Rawls’s closed system and proposed open impartiality. In this open impartiality, people from outside world can involve in the matters of the particular society. The preconceived assumptions or notions of people in that region can be corrected in this way. It can be applied to the global level and helps to achieve global justice.

Rawls’ theory depends on the transcendental institutional arrangement. It is arrangement focused. Whereas, Amartya Sen’s theory is realization-focused. Social realization includes

1. Actual institutions

2. Actual behavior

3. Other influences

Concentrating on the actual behavior of the state rather than pursuing compliance by all with ideal behavior is proposed by Amartya sen. He focused on NYAYA or Realization principle.

According to Rawls, “Justice must be protected, even if the world perishes, even if all people die, justice must be protected”. But Sen contradicts it by saying, “If the whole world perishes, then what is the purpose of justice. With minimization of injustice, global justice can be achieved”.

Reference: An Introduction to Political theory by O P Gauba

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