Nozick on rights Notes for April 8

Main points

We compared Nozick’s version of libertarianism with those of Mill and Locke.

The three important concepts for Nozick are:

  1. All moral rights have the form of side constraints.
  2. Only rights with libertarian content have this form. This is explained by the separateness of persons, that is, the fact that benefits for one person do not automatically compensate others for the burdens they bear.
  3. The entitlement theory of justice. We will discuss this next time.

How might we ignore the separateness of persons?

Nick pressed this question. He thought that history binds us all up together such that it doesn’t make sense to try to work with sharply individualistic rights. I asked him to wait until we talk about the principle of rectification in the entitlement conception of justice. But now that I think about it, I’m not sure I appreciated how deep his point goes. Anyway, we should talk about it next time.

I think Nozick’s remarks on this topic are aimed at the utilitarians. They hold that the costs imposed on me can be justified by benefits that others receive.

It’s less clear how Nozick would apply the argument to other members of the natural law/rights tradition. Bonaventure, Aquinas, and Locke all thought that the person who holds private property in the face of others’ needs hold things that belong to the needy people. Giving those things to the needy isn’t obviously ignoring the separateness of the property owners from the needy any more than returning stolen property would be to ignore the separateness of the thieves.

Form and content

So did the natural rights tradition rest on a huge mistake? Did the authors on the handout all fail to appreciate the link between the form of rights and their content?

It’s possible. But, on the face of it, they could all work with the understanding that rights are side constraints. It’s just that the needy are the ones who have first claim on goods and not the property owners. The claims of the needy constrain the claims of the property owners. That looks straightforward enough.

There is the difficulty that I snuck in at the very end of class. What is being constrained? What am I supposed to do to avoid violating the rights of a person who falls into need halfway around the world? The difficulty of understanding what an individual is supposed to do undermines the suggestion that those welfare rights could be side constraints.** This is a problem for Nozick too via Locke’s proviso. See Anarchy, State, and Utopia, p. 180.

But suppose we put that to one side. What if a libertarian granted the point. Yes, the needy have the first claim to goods and their needs put a constraint on what can be acquired as property. But government does much much much more than alleviate poverty (and, arguably, it does precious little of that). Libertarianism could still stand against the vast array of government programs and policies even while conceding that a redistribution from property owners to the very poor is justified.

Finally, I should say that disputing the move from form to content does not show that Nozick is wrong. He could well be correct in saying that the only content of rights is libertarian. All I’m questioning is whether he has proven that assertion with the argument that moves from premises about the form of rights to conclusions about their content.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2009. It was posted April 8, 2009 and updated April 13, 2009.
Name of website