Nozick vs Rawls
Individualism vs collectivism in ethics

book review score+5

Anarchy, State, and Utopia

Robert Nozick
Basic, 2013, (orig. 1974), 372 pages

In this book Robert Nozick asks: which functions of the state, if any, are justifiable on ethical grounds? Can one justify taxation to benefit the common good? Does the state have any right to appropriate resources to achieve common goals like going to the Moon? For Nozick, the answer is: only if the individuals consent to it.

As Thomas Nagel puts it in his introductory remarks, rights do not submit to a calculus of “the greater good”; they are boundaries that must not be crossed no matter what. “Respect for rights,” says Nagel, “is the sole condition of justice.” Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a libertarian counter-argument to John Rawles's idea of redistributionist social justice put forth in A Theory of Justice. It has been hugely influential, and a large literature has sprung up around it.

To show that our American legal system could be based on sound libertarian principles, which he calls the state-of-nature, Nozick tries to derive it from first principles. Then he tries to show that only a Lockean minimal state, and not something more expansive, is justifiable.

He also discusses the “Fairness Principle” advocated by Rawls, which states that a group that elects to restrain their own liberty has the right to restrain the liberty of anyone else who benefits from their agreement—even if they never agreed to it.

The Fairness Principle was, of course, not invented to benefit individuals, but to justify redistributive taxation. It was conceived as a license to justify and expand the welfare state. Nozick convincingly shows that such considerations have insufficient foundation in justice. No principle of justice can be continuously realized, he says, without continuous interference with people's lives.

Most of what Nozick says is a rebuttal to Rawles, and he presupposes a familiarity with Rawles's theory. Rawles believed that the distribution of talent, drive, and, indeed, everything noteworthy of the individual, is random and therefore unequal. This, he claimed, is unjust and must be compensated for by redistributing the fruits of their labor to the untalented and slothful. Nozick replies:

Denigrating a person's autonomy and prime responsibility for his actions is a risky line to take for a theory that otherwise wishes to buttress the dignity and self-respect of autonomous beings; especially for a theory that founds so much (including a theory of the good) upon persons' choices. [p.214]

Nozick is saying that Rawles's Fairness Principle is a blueprint for a society of ants, who have no individual worth, no value, no hope, and no ambition. A theory of justice that denies that individuals have value is problematic at best.

A Theory of Justice was an attempt use “social justice” as a foundation for collectivism. Helping the disadvantaged was one of Rawles's two pillars of justice. But Nozick saw that in practice, distributive justice leads to coercion, stagnation, erosion of property rights, massive injustice, and, ultimately, oppression. Game theory backs this up: in a classroom where everyone knows they will all get the same grade, why study? Experience shows that most students won't.

If Nozick is right, the welfare state could not have arisen from considerations of right and wrong. So what caused it? Presaging Mitt Romney by 38 years, Nozick asks why 51% of the lowest-income voters never banded together to vote free stuff for themselves. Eventually, of course, they did. So is democracy to blame? If democracy always devolves into a coercive, redistributionist state, Nozick's line of thinking suggests that it is democracy, not capitalism, that contains the seeds of its own destruction. Destruction is assured when the people, in their clamor for more government services, allow the government to throw off the restraints previously placed on it. Those restraints are all that keep democracies from exploding. Few societies have been able to keep their governments in check for long. Tomato

mar 30, 2014

book review score+1

The Structure of the Objective World
Robert Nozick
Basic, 2001, 416 pages

You might think that because Invariances is so much more sciencey than Anarchy that it would merit a terrific score. But there's too much hand-waving about quantum mechanics, relativity, and neuroscience here for even Robert Nozick to get very far. In places, it even seems as if he doesn't want to.

In Part I, Nozick bends over backward to see if anything can be salvaged from the intellectual train wreck that was postmodernism. Even though he says the idea of no absolute truth is “highly improbable,” he does his best to see if he can find any material in the wreckage to build a theory of truth.

Nozick knew the claim of truth being relative was only political—a cynical attempt to use philosophy to overthrow the modernist Western status quo. Postmodernists knew their position was logically untenable, so they tried to change the rules of logic. It was a regressive idea that goes nowhere: you can't discuss anything with someone who believes there's no such thing as truth. Nozick toys with them as a cat toys with a mouse.

There's no validity to the mystical interpretations the postmodernists massaged out of quantum physics and Einstein's relativity. Nozick understands this, and presents the physicists' conclusions pretty well for someone on the other side of the cultural divide, yet he persists for 168 pages in arguing his opponents' case. He finally concludes that it's hopeless. There is such a thing as objective truth; truth, he says, is composed of invariance under transformations (a concept he gets from physicist P.A.M. Dirac). Nozick liked that idea so much he put it in the title.

Absolute truth, says Nozick, unifies humanity by its assertion that what is true for one social group is true for all. This would certainly be a point in its favor, if it needed one; but to empirical scientists, whose job it is to discover new truths, the claim that truth is relative is barely worthy of refutation. Find me a tribe whose members honestly believe that 2+2=5, they say, and have built a viable civilization around it, and we can talk.


In Part II, Nozick talks about consciousness and ethics. Here, he gets off the track almost immediately. Although he calls it consciousness, he's really talking about awareness. Awareness is an interesting problem, but it's not a philosophical one. Neuroscientists are hard at work identifying precisely how it works. The so-called hard problem of consciousness is a fundamentally different one, and philosophy could make a solid contribution, but it's scarcely mentioned here.

It's a shame, because Nozick was a brilliant thinker, and he could have used the material here to come up with an answer if he'd tried. But the later Nozick we see here reminds me of the philosophy TA's we had back in school: well educated on all the great thinkers, and filled with enthusiasm for spinning arguments they know to be fatally flawed. Maybe that's the essence of philosophy. It seems that for all his brilliance, that is also what Nozick loved. He didn't uncover any solid truths here, but he seemed to be having fun, so I won't complain. Tomato

may 25, 2014