Nozick on rights and moral goals versus moral constraints

In the first subsection of Chapter 3, which we reviewed in our previous post, Nozick drew a distinction between two types of libertarian government–minimal states and ultraminimal states–and identified a foundational moral problem with each type of state. Here, we will review the second subsection of Chapter 3 (pp. 28-30), where Nozick reformulates the age-old moral problem of “ends” versus “means” in terms of moral goals and moral constraints. In brief, according to Nozick, there are two ways of applying morality to our actions. One way is by setting a moral goal G or morally attractive “end state” that we hope to achieve. Although this goal-directed view of morality emphasizes ends, Nozick adds a new wrinkle to this approach. According to Nozick, our moral goal or end state need not be the traditionally utilitarian or consequential one of maximizing utility or happiness; it could just as well be the Kantian one of “minimizing the total (weighted) amount of violations of rights” (p. 28). By contrast, the other way of applying morality to our actions is through moral side constraints (p. 29): “don’t violate constraints C.” This approach emphasizes means, i.e. how one’s moral ends are achieved. Under this side-constraint view of morality, the pre-political moral rights of others operate as firm Kantian moral trumps or absolute constraints on one’s goal-directed actions.

Having drawn this distinction between moral goals and moral constraints, Nozick then returns to the question he posed at the beginning of Chapter 3 (p. 28), “how can [a true libertarian] support [an] ultraminimal state, which would … leave some persons’ rights unprotected or illprotected?” As Nozick notes, the problem with this question is that it assumes a goal-directed view of morality–i.e. that a true libertarian’s overall moral goal is to minimize the total weighted amount of rights violations–when, in reality, a libertarian may adopt a side-constraint view of morality (p. 30): “he may place the nonviolation of rights as a constraint upon action, rather than (or in addition to) building it into the end state to be realized.” On the side-constraint view, the ultraminimal state does not itself violate the rights of non-protection-paying customers, “even though it avoids making it more difficult for someone else to violate them” (ibid.).

Alas, Nozick’s analysis of the moral status of an ultraminimal state (private protection racket) raises more questions than it answers. To begin with, what about the other deep question that Nozick raised about the night-watchman state at the beginning of Chapter 3; to wit (p. 27): “If some redistribution is legitimate in order to protect everyone [under a minimal state], why is redistribution not legitimate for other attractive and desirable purposes as well?” In any case, why should we prefer the side-constraint view over the goal-directed view of morality? Nozick turns to this particular question in the next part of Chapter 3 (pp. 30-33): “Why Side Contraints?” So, we will review Nozick’s answer in our next blog post …

Image result for ends versus means

Credit: Laura Patrick

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One Response to Nozick on rights and moral goals versus moral constraints

  1. Pingback: Nozick’s defense of moral side constraints | prior probability

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