Criticism of Nozick's theory of rights Notes for April 12

Main points

Scheffler defines a set of natural rights that, he claims, have the following features.

  1. They have the form of side constraints.
  2. They more clearly follow from considerations about the value of life than Nozick’s libertarian natural rights do.
  3. They are incompatible with the libertarian minimal state and compatible with the familiar welfare state.

If he’s right about the first point, Nozick’s argument from the form of rights to their content will be blocked. If he’s right about the second point, Nozick’s explanation of why we have rights at all leads away from his libertarian conclusions about their content.

Our discussion

We talked about three things.

First, should some internal organs count as distributable goods? I think the answer is yes. Steven pointed out that Scheffler denied this on page 67 but that the argument he gave there had no bearing on this point.

Suppose this is so and that people have natural rights to some of one another’s bodily organs. It’s not obvious why that’s objectionable.

Second, are Scheffler’s rights really side constraints? The question comes up because there isn’t any way of describing the behavior that is to be constrained. At least, there isn’t any way of describing the individual behavior that is to be constrained. We noted that the state or some similar body would play an obvious role in seeing that people’s natural rights were respected. So we might say that the constraint is on the state: it cannot ignore people’s needs when others have excess distributable goods.

Third, we talked a bit about the scope of Scheffler’s conception of natural rights. It seems to me that it’s presumptively global. This is a proposal about natural rights, rights that human beings have by nature. So it should apply to all human beings. Michael was less sure. He said that since the state is necessarily involved with these rights, they should apply only within the boundaries of a society.

This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2010. It was posted April 16, 2010.
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