Saturday, 18 January 2014

ASU Ch.3: Moral Constraints and the State, part one

Main threads:

  • A discussion of the idea of the ultra-minimal state, a variation on the minimal state
  • A discussion of the difference between end goals and side constraints. This is in response to a charge of hypocrisy: proponents of an ultra-minimal state seek to avoid rights violations in most cases, but seem to be happy with certain rights violations. Nozick shows that this is not so.
  • A discussion of the nature of side constraints, and how they apply to rights.
  • A reiteration of how far the theory has so far gone, and a recognition of certain problems which will at some point need to be resolved.
  • A discussion of animal rights

The minimal state is one which enforces contracts, protects rights (i.e. police, courts and defence) and collects the taxes necessary to support these, but does nothing beyond these. The ultra-minimal state is similar, except that citizens have the option of not paying tax and not receiving protection in return. Note that they are still prohibited from seeking an alternative agency to the state for the purpose of rights protection.

Nozick suggests that the minimal state represents the combination of an ultra-minimal state with a "Friedmanesque voucher plan, financed from tax revenues." The "vouchers" are used to "purchase" the state's protection. I find this analogy odd - Friedman proposed vouchers for schools, as an alternative to a state monopoly on schools. Since the rights protection industry would be an enforced monopoly, this seems a rather different intention from that of Friedman.

Nozick also digresses on the issue of whether or not such a minimal state is redistributive - if it is redistributive then he sees this as a problem, since he attacks all other redistributive programs. He concludes that while it may have certain redistributive effects - richer people pay more tax, and so subsidise the poorer people who are using the state's protection - the question of whether a program is "redistributive" is about the intention of the program, rather than its side effects.


The second challenge to the ultra-minimal state that Nozick considers is that, in leaving unprotected the rights of those who do not pay for the state's protection, it is acting hypocritically: avoiding all other programs in order to avoid violating rights, yet being happy to allow people's rights to be violated if they do not employ protection. To counter this attack, he distinguishes between End Goals and Side Constraints. Maximising utility, as per utilitarianism, is an end goal. Avoiding violation of rights could be construed as an end goal - "Seek the action which leads to the least violations of rights" - but it makes more sense to see avoidance of rights violation as a side constraint upon action - e.g. "Seek to maximise utility, but only so far as you can do so without violating rights."


Nozick puts the constraint of respecting people's rights within a Kantian framework of treating people (including oneself) as ends rather than merely as ends to some other end. He briefly muses upon the full constraint entailed by treating others as ends - does sexually fantasising about someone treat them as an end? - but claims that, so far as political philosophy is concerned - the reach of the maxim is restricted to certain ways of treating other people, primarily one's physical treatment of their person.

He asserts that, since each person is an individual with his/her own life to lead, it is impermissible to violate one person's rights for the good of another person. "...there is no social entity with a good that undergoes some sacrifice for its own good." Other people have no right to compel a man to make sacrifices for their benefit - "least of all a state or government that claims his allegiance."


At this point, Nozick formalises the moral theory he has been developing, in which everyone, as a separate person with their own life to lead, possesses certain rights which are inviolable - perhaps not in every single case, perhaps they might be violable in order to prevent great catastrophe, but certainly very strong - and that therefore, a non-aggression principle exists between sovereign individuals. He extends to right of self defence to cover a right to defend against innocent threats - an innocent threat being defined as someone who is innocently a causal agent in a process such that, had he chosen to become a causal agent, he would be an aggressor.

Nozick notes that he has not properly covered the issue of paternalistic aggression, and that the issue of innocent threats is more complicated than his discussion so far has indicated. Suppose an innocent person is used as a human shield by someone aggressing against me; I may defend myself against the threat, even though in the process I am likely to harm the human shield. Is the human shield then entitled to defend themself against me?


Thus follows a digression on animal rights. I won't go into it in great depth, but as a summary:

  • Nozick believes animals' interests should be considered in moral calculations
  • He rejects the standard Kantian view that violence to animals is wrong purely because it might encourage greater violence against humans: while this of course an empirical matter, he thinks it unlikely that intelligent people are incapable of distinguishing between violence towards animals and violence towards humans.
  • As a side note he opposes eating meat, though this is not part of his actual argument
  • He mentions the view that it is okay to eat animals, because "if we weren't eating them they would never have been bred; surely existence is better than non-existence!" Noting that in the case of actual people we would reject this - it is not permissible to raise a person to the age of twenty-three and then slaughter them, even if on balance their life was on average happy - he sees this as an argument for generally inviolable natural rights of humans.
  • He is agnostic as to whether this dooms the argument as applied to animals
  • While he believes that animals are worthy of consideration, he does not believe they have the same rights as humans


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