Nozick’s state of nature

Chapter 1 of Nozick’s classic work “Anarchy, State, and Utopia poses the following “what if” thought experiment: What if we lived in a state of nature, in a world in which there were no actual states or governments? This hypothetical first-order inquiry, in turn, raises a methodological second-order question: Why does Nozick himself begin his book with such an abstract, theoretical query?

Nozick provides two reasons for his second-order query. First: because the choice between the state and anarchy is the most fundamental question of political philosophy. And second: because Nozick wants to explain how a state or government could in theory arise in conditions of anarchy. The key words here are “in theory”, for Nozick readily admits that it doesn’t matter to him how the first states or governments really arose. What matters, according to Nozick, is not whether a particular explanation of the state is true or not. (Indeed, Nozick himself, pp. 7-8, describes three ways an explanation could go wrong.) Rather, what matters is whether an explanation “illuminates” the existence of states and governments.

Alas, Nozick doesn’t explain how a “defective” or incorrect explanation could provide any meaningful “illumination.” Worse yet, Nozick makes totally unwarranted assumptions about the state of nature. Instead of assuming a Hobbesian war of all-against-all, he assumes an idyllic Lockean state of nature, one in which “people generally satisfy moral constraints and generally act as they ought” (p. 5). Yet, there is a method to this methodological madness! In the eloquent words of Robert Nozick (id.), “If one could show that [a theoretical] state would be superior to even this most favored situation of [peaceful] anarchy …, or would arise by a process involving no morally impermissible steps, or would be an improvement if it [a state] arose, this would … justify the state[!]” (Note: it appears that Nozick is not searching for a Humean or consequentialist justification; instead, he is looking for a non-instrumentalist or Kantian justification of the existence of states and governments.)

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Credit: Kayla Ferguson

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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1 Response to Nozick’s state of nature

  1. Reblogged this on prior probability and commented:

    I am reblogging part 3 of my in-depth review of Robert Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” (see below). Here, Nozick joins a conversation that began centuries ago with Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean Jacques Rousseau, a conversation centered around “the state of nature” — a world without states or governments, a world without politics. But is a world without politics possible? What I find most troubling about this conversation is that most of the discussants, beginning with Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, rarely talk about the role of kinship rules in the state of nature. Yes, there are no states in the state of nature, but there are families, kin groups, and elders!
    Nozick is no exception in this regard. Instead of taking an anthropological approach to the state of nature, Nozick conjures up a hypothetical fantasy world that has probably never existed anywhere at any time. But as I explain below, there might indeed be a kind of method to Nozick’s methodological madness. In fact, when I read Nozick for the first time, one of the things that I ended up liking most about “Anarchy, State, and Utopia” is all the thought-experiments and imaginary scenarios that Nozick conjures up on page after page of his book. Perhaps thought-experiments are no substitute for empirical reality, but if I have to choose, I prefer a creative philosophical thought-experiment, one whose assumptions are few and clearly stated up fronted, a million times over a complex and convoluted “empirical” paper full of contested and often hidden assumptions and impenetrable statistical jargon.

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