Obituary: Professor Robert Nozick

Article excerpt

WHEN ROBERT Nozick was diagnosed with stomach cancer almost a decade ago, it was supposed to kill him within six months. He bore his illness not only with grace but with something very like insouciance. This was wholly in character; he was an original thinker who worked towards his own conclusions in his own way, and his work was stylish, radical, and endowed with an intellectual gaiety that was not common in 20th-century Anglo-American philosophy.

Nozick is best known for his first book, Anarchy, State and Utopia (1974), but this excursion into political theory was not as important to Nozick himself as it was to his reputation. He wrote little about politics after it, and was emphatic that he did not wish to spend his life writing "son of Anarchy, State and Utopia". In this, he was very different from John Rawls, the colleague and mentor whose A Theory of Justice (1971) provoked the writing of Anarchy, State and Utopia. Rawls spent the past 30 years exploring the implications of his carefully crafted moral and political theory in a way that Nozick neither wanted to, nor, perhaps, could have done.

That Nozick wrote a book that the neo-conservative, free-market American right of the 1970s and 1980s fell in love with is slightly surprising. He was born in 1938 in Brooklyn, the son of a Russian immigrant. As a student at Columbia University he joined the Socialist Party led by Norman Thomas, and founded the Columbia branch of the Student League for Industrial Democracy. Although the latter transformed itself in the 1960s into the Students for a Democratic Society, and was at the heart of the rebellion of 1968, the inspiration of both organisations in the 1950s owed more to John Dewey than Karl Marx.

He went on to graduate work in the Princeton philosophy department, working on problems in the rationality of decision- making that resurfaced 30 years later in The Nature of Rationality (1993). He became an assistant professor at Princeton, then at Harvard, worked briefly at Rockefeller University, and in 1969 returned to Harvard as a full professor at the astonishingly early age of 30. He remained there for the rest of his life, serving as Chair of the Department of Philosophy from 1981 to 1984, and in 1998 was named University Professor.

Anarchy, State and Utopia is a book that is more misunderstood by its admirers than its critics. It is often thought to have provided philosophical support for the policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but its criticism of social conservatism is at least as devastating as its criticism of the redistributive welfare state. As Nozick more than once observed, the people who liked the book, when he was arguing that everyone should be allowed to do what he liked with his own property, flinched when he drew the conclusion that this entailed the legalisation of hard drugs and prostitution. But he insisted that the two things hung together inseparably.

Nozick was right. He took as his starting point the thought that each of us comes into the world as the owner of herself or himself, body, mind, and abilities. It was the ownership of our own selves that drove the argument rather than the capitalist's ownership of the means of production. It was this that led him to mock the welfare state as doomed to forbid "consenting capitalist acts in private", and this that inspired the wonderful parody of Marx's "From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs": "From each as he chooses, to each as he is chosen".

A prostitute may choose to offer his or her sexual services to anyone who chooses to purchase them; it is her (or his) body, and it is up to her (or him) to decide who may use it, in what ways, and at what price. By the same token, the lungs into which we inhale cannabis fumes are our lungs. …