Nozick on rights Notes for April 5

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.

The handout shows that not all thinkers in the natural rights tradition were libertarians. The authors quoted all held that property rights must give way in the face of poverty. Nozick’s argument about the relationship between the form and content of natural rights tries to show that they were mistaken.

Why do we have rights?

Nozick’s answer to this question is superficially like Locke’s. Like Locke, he looks for natural features that people all share that might explain why they have rights. Unlike Locke, he does not use assumptions about God to explain why those features might be relevant. Instead, he assembles some answers given by philosophers working in the natural rights tradition and claims that their various proposals all surround the ability to form a plan for one’s life. This in turn, is important because of its role in giving meaning to life.

Jesse thought that this would take Nozick back towards treating rights as goals. Why not do what would give the most people meaningful lives, even if that comes at the expense of respecting some individual’s rights? Scheffler will say something similar to this next week.

Steve added that it would involve some assessment of the value of particular plans of life: those with worthless or bad plans would get less respect for their rights than those with valuable ones. But rights, presumably, are equal for everyone, regardless of how good their plans for their lives are.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 5, 2010.
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