Rawls vs. Nozick vs. Kant on domestic economic justice

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Robert Nozick initiated one of the most inspired and inspiring discussions in political philosophy with his 1974 response in Anarchy, State, and Utopia to John Rawls’s 1971 account of distributive justice in A Theory of Justice. These two works have informed an enormous amount of subsequent, especially liberal, discussions of economic justice, where Nozick’s work typically functions as a resource for those defending more rightwing (libertarian) positions, whereas Rawls’s has been used to defend leftwing stances. Common to these discussions, as found in politics generally (where similar kinds of arguments frequently are used to defend right and the leftwing policies and conclusions) is that they end in rather stubborn stalemates: the right defends minimal states while the left defends more extensive states. Interesting, too, is that both Nozick and Rawls take themselves to be consistent with, inspired by, and furthering Kant’s freedom project in the development of their own Kantian theories of justice. In this chapter, I start by outlining the structures of these debates with an emphasis on the original disagreements between Nozick and Rawls. I then show how neither theory actually employed Kant’s own theory of justice, but rather drew on or out (presumed) implications of his ethical theory. In the final sections, I argue that if Nozick and Rawls had instead used Kant’s theory of justice and not his ethics, not only would their individual theories have been stronger, but also they could have found ways of overcoming the unproductive stalemates that characterize their own as well as subsequent related discussions of economic justice as we currently find them in scholarly and contemporary political debates.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationKant and Social Policies
EditorsAndrea Faggion, Alessandro Pinzani, Nuria Sanchez Madrid
Number of pages31
ISBN (Electronic)9783319426587
ISBN (Print)9783319426570
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • public authority
  • difference principle
  • public reason
  • active citizenship
  • liberal state

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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