Scheffler on Nozick

Class notes for 27 October

Main points

The great strength of Nozick’s argument is that it seems to show that very controversial conclusions, namely, the truth of libertarianism, follow from apparently uncontroversial points about rights, namely, that rights have the form of side constraints.

Scheffler tries to block that inference by showing that an alternative conception of the content of rights is compatible with rights having the form of side constraints. Furthermore, he claims that the alternative conception better reflects what Nozick describes as the basis of rights: they protect our ability to lead meaningful lives.

If successful, Scheffler will have shown that Nozick cannot derive libertarianism from a conception of rights as side constraints. This is because libertarianism does not follow from the alternative conception of rights.

I ended with some questions about the duties corresponding to Scheffler’s ‘alternative conception’ of natural rights. The thrust of these was: “what kinds of action do natural rights, on the alternative conception, rule out?” Behavior incompatible with meeting the needs of others? But that’s a dauntingly broad category: it can include watching TV while someone thousands of miles slips into poverty. If there’s no description of the behavior ruled out that someone trying to respect natural rights could reasonably be expected to avoid, one might well think that Scheffler has failed to show that natural rights on the ‘alternative conception’ really have under the form of side constraints. Again, what behavior is constrained?


Ken introduced a problem I hadn’t thought of before. What happens if there aren’t enough resources available for everyone to have what is necessary for a reasonable chance at living a decent life? Great question!

According to the qualification (see Scheffler, p. 153), it seems that no one has a natural right to the resource in question.

Does that show there’s something wrong with Scheffler’s alternative conception of natural rights? Bridget suggested that there is. But I wonder if that’s so.

After all, if some people did have a right to, say, the scarce source of water or food, that would mean that others have duties to leave the water or food to them. But it seems plausible to me to say that people in that kind of situation are at liberty to seek to acquire the water and food that they need. And if that’s so, they can’t have contrary duties: being at liberty to take the food means the absence of duties not to take the food.

Plus, there would be awkward questions about why some people have rights and others lack them. Nothing in the conception of natural rights that Scheffler proposes favors one class of needy people over another.