Robert Nozick

By Mack, Eric | Ideas on Liberty, June 2003 | Go to article overview

Robert Nozick


Mack, Eric, Ideas on Liberty


Robert Nozick

edited by David Schmidtz

Cambridge University Press [middot] 2002 [middot] 230 pages [middot] $60.00 hardcover; $20.00 paperback

This is a collection of original essays on the philosophical work of Robert Nozick, who died in the spring of 2002. Nozick rose to philosophical prominence with his first book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, published in 1974. Contributor Philip Pettit aptly says that this book still "stands unchallenged as the most coherent statement available of the case for a rights-based defense of the minimal, libertarian state." None of Nozick's subsequent five books dealt directly with political philosophy, and during most of his ensuing philosophical career, he attempted to distance himself from Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU]. Nevertheless, it is indicative of his failure to establish this distance that most of the essays in this volume focus on the libertarian doctrine of ASU. I shall follow suit by concentrating on the three strongest of the essays on Nozick's political thought.

Loren Lomasky's chapter, "Nozick's Libertarian Utopia," contends that Nozick's discussion of libertarian Utopia-which Nozick presented as a supplementary argument for the minimal state-is actually a crucial component of the main argument in ASU. Nozick says that his main argument for the minimal state is that it could arise by morally permissible steps from a stateless condition. Lomasky recognizes that showing that the minimal state could arise in this way is hardly decisive, for many radically different political structures could arise by permissible steps-if people freely take dumb enough steps. So Lomasky depicts Nozick's appeal to the Utopian aspects of the libertarian political framework as a way of revealing why this structure is more appealing than other structures that could also arise by permissible means. According to Lomasky, the minimal state is more appealing because it has the utopia-like, synergistic feature of promoting a social order in which each person's well-being is likely to be good for other people too. These are not the important benefits for people that arise from trade or joint production. Rather, they are the vicarious benefits for people of others achieving their own diverse goods in their own ways.

In ASU Nozick rejects the consequentialist idea that Tightness and wrongness in an action is entirely a matter of the value or dis-value of that action's consequences. He holds, instead, that performing an action can be wrong even if its outcome would be more valuable than the outcome of not performing that action. For instance, it can be wrong for you to kill innocent person A even if your killing A would prevent someone else from killing innocent persons B and C. …

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