Scheffler on Nozick

Notes for April 10

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.

Do Scheffler’s rights protect liberty?

According to Scheffler, we have a natural right to as much liberty as we need to have a reasonable chance at living a decent and fulfilling life. (It’s easier to type than it is to say.)

Both Ziqi and Adam asked whether that was enough protection for liberty. For example, would the state be allowed to tax individuals until they were down to the bare necessities? On the face of it, there is no natural right against that. The only reason for a state not to do that sort of thing would be that it would ruin the economy by undermining the incentive to work. It would be the same kind of protection that utilitarians offer for individual liberty: individual liberty is protected because it works for the benefit of others.

Are Nozick’s rights really side constraints?

A discussion with Jiacheng made me reconsider Nozick’s theory of rights. Can Nozick mean that rights are literally side constraints, ruling out any contrary action? He says we have rights against being the victims of force and fraud. Does that mean the state can’t use force to collect taxes for its minimal functions? Does it mean that individuals can’t use force or fraud to protect themselves against people who threaten them? Presumably not.

But then rights aren’t literally side constraints. You can use force or fraud in defense of your rights. You can’t use force to violate someone else’s rights. Maybe that’s what he thought. It would be like Locke’s claim that no one has the right to use aggression but that force can be used against criminals. So does Nozick think criminals forfeit their rights, as Locke did? There’s a long section on this sort of stuff that I have not read in a long time: I guess I have to review!

Are Scheffler’s rights really side constraints?

I ended the class with a quick point. I said that I thought Nozick might ask whether Scheffler’s rights really do have the form of side constraints.

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.

Despite the fact that I tried to sneak my point in at the very end, Sam had a quick reply. People use the state to overcome problems like this. That is the natural solution. But I imagine Nozick would say that the original point stands. Scheffler had said that he was able to describe natural rights that have the form of side constraints without libertarian content. I’m not sure he succeeded. Again: what is being constrained?

Key concepts

  1. Scheffler’s alternative conception of rights
  2. How Scheffler argues against Nozick
This page was written by Michael Green for Social and Political Philosophy, Philosophy 33, Spring 2014. It was posted April 15, 2014.
Social and Political Philosophy