Scheffler on Nozick Notes for November 19

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 and third points, Nozick’s explanation of why we have rights at all leads away from his libertarian conclusions about their content.

What about Wilt Chamberlain?

We walked through the Wilt Chamberlain argument to see if it could be used to show that Nozick’s conception of rights is clearly superior to Scheffler’s. This would be so if the only way to respect Scheffler’s conception of rights would involve intolerable infringements on liberty.

Lucas said that it doesn’t. Scheffler would almost certainly tax Chamberlain and the fans who want to pay to watch him play. But it’s just not obvious that this would be an intolerable limit on their liberty. It’s not the same thing as forbidding capitalist acts among consenting adults.

Michael, though, added a twist. Since Scheffler is describing natural rights and natural rights are held by all human beings, he thought the tax would have to be high enough to provide food, clothing, shelter, medical care, and (police protection for) liberty to everyone in the world. That might well be very expensive. Whether it would be so expensive as to be intolerable is an excellent question that is raised and discussed along with alternatives in other excellent classes. Suffice it to say that this might well be a big problem for Scheffler. It’s more likely to be a big problem for us: maybe what we’ve found here is that our values commit us to extensive obligations to the rest of the world.

Are they side constraints?

Callum went after Scheffler here. There certainly appears to be a difference between Nozick’s rights and the ones that Scheffler prefers. With Nozick it’s clear what behavior is constrained: you’re not allowed to use force or fraud. With Scheffler, it’s a lot less clear. The fact that you could violate someone’s natural rights, as Scheffler understands them, without doing anything that appears remotely wrong, such as sitting around watching TV, looks odd. Since we can’t specify the behavior to be constrained, it seems, Scheffler’s rights are not side-constraints.

I think this is a tough issue for him. There were two interesting replies on Scheffler’s behalf.

Michael said that Scheffler should be able to appeal to a common excuse: lack of knowledge. If my pig ruins your garden, I’m obliged to pay for the damage. But even if I haven’t done so, it doesn’t follow that I’ve done anything wrong: I may not know about the damage and so not realize that I owed you anything. It should be possible to say something similar about the person watching TV while someone around the world falls into poverty.

One reason why we said Scheffler’s position looks odd is that he’s calling his rights “natural” rights but it appears that what these rights require us to do has to be mediated by the state. (The state, it was said, is the entity that ensures the wealthy respect the natural rights of the poor by transferring resources from the one to the other.) So we’ve got sort of half-natural rights, which is odd.** This is a topic that the PPE seminar took up last week.

Theresa said that Scheffler’s position wasn’t so bad. She posited that every human society has devoted itself to ensuring that the needy are fed.†† A point Prof. Williams made to the PPE seminar. I’ll shut up about that seminar now. She had to be right, otherwise children wouldn’t have ever survived infancy. So saying that the government has to be involved is more continuous with our pre-state social life than it appears to be and, in that sense, should count as “natural.”

I added that Nozick is in a bit of a bind here himself. He accepts what he called Locke’s proviso that natural resources can only be acquired when there is “as much and as good” left for others. Since that is so, it should be possible for someone innocently watching TV to violate someone else’s rights even on Nozick’s theory. And that’s why Fowler concluded that Nozick should have dropped the proviso when he was sitting in Naomi’s seat in 2008!‡‡ Actually, I might have gotten the point from him.

Key concepts

  1. Rights limit liberty.
  2. Moving from the claim that rights take the form of side constraints to claims about the content of rights.
This page was written by Michael Green for Social & Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Fall 2012. It was posted November 19, 2012.
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