Nozick on rights and justice Notes for April 9 & 14

Main points

We went over three points in Nozick’s political philosophy:

  1. The claim that rights take the form of side constraints.
  2. The argument from form to content: the best explanation of why rights take the form of side constraints also explains why they have libertarian content. This explanation involves the distinction among persons and the role that rights play in leading a meaningful life.
  3. The entitlement theory of distributive justice, that is, justice in the distribution of material goods. This holds that there are only three kinds of principles of justice. Why? Because adding any other kind of principle would lead to intolerable limits on liberty.


We did not discuss reasons for doubting that rights are side constraints. We did talk about how to challenge the second point, the move from the claim that rights have the form of side constraints to the claim that they have libertarian content. This move is blocked if someone can show that there could be rights that have the form of side constraints but a different, non-libertarian content.

The entitlement theory of distributive justice faces similar questions. It’s so abstract that someone might come along and show that it is compatible with a non-libertarian understanding of the state.

We did not try anything that ambitious. Instead, we looked at Nozick’s reasons for thinking that the alternatives to a libertarian state would involve intolerable infringements on liberty. With the exception of a particularly dumb kind of egalitarianism, none obviously failed the test.

Utilitarians are generally in favor of economic liberty because it enables people to make trades that leave them better off, improving overall utility. But utilitarianism was supposed to be one of the bad views.

Now, it’s true that utilitarians will probably tax people. But that isn’t the same thing as prohibiting people from paying to watch basketball. At most, it raises the cost. Is raising the cost of an activity an intolerable infringement on liberty? Maybe it is and maybe it isn’t. We need an argument and the line about prohibiting capitalist acts among consenting adults won’t do the trick (though it is an awesome line).

What about the argument that taxation is like slavery? Well, it’s pretty good. Except that slaves don’t have anything like the range of choices available to them that people whose labor is taxed do. Again, maybe the analogy is apt, maybe it isn’t. It isn’t obvious enough that pointing out the similarity seals the case.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2008. It was posted April 26, 2008.
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