Nozick’s initial defense of moral side constraints

In the second subsection of Chapter 3, which we reviewed in our previous post, we saw two possible ways of operationalizing Nozick’s moral premise that individuals have rights. Either we could make it our overall goal to minimize the violation of such rights or we could treat the non-violation of our rights as a moral duty or “side constraint” upon our actions. Next, in the third subsection of Chapter 3 (pp. 30-33), Nozick will consider one of the most fundamental questions of moral philosophy: whether we should choose the end state, goal-directed view of morality or the side constraint view. Specifically, why should we treat the non-violation of rights as a side constraint and not as a goal or end state? In three words, Nozick prefers the side constraint view because “Individuals are inviolable” (p. 31). As Nozick notes (pp. 30-31), “Side constraints upon action reflect the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for achieving of other ends without their consent.”

But this Kantian formulation of moral side constraints begs the utilitarian question (p. 32), “why may not one violate [the rights of] persons for the greater social good?” Because in Nozick’s hyper-individualist world view, the notion of a “social good” or a “common good” is a fiction; instead, there are only individuals. Or in Nozick’s eloquent words (p. 33): “There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more.” For our part, while we share Nozick’s regard for individual autonomy and his skepticism about the existence of social entities, we are still unsatisfied with his underlying premise that individuals have rights, for Nozick has yet to elaborate what these rights are (beyond the duty not to harm or injure others) or where such rights come from. Furthermore, even if we were to accept Nozick’s rights premise as true, we could argue that the fact of individuals having rights imposes not only a negative duty of avoiding harm but also an affirmative duty of helping one’s fellow individuals. To his credit, Nozick anticipates some of these concerns in the fourth subsection of Chapter 3 (pp. 33-35), which we will review in our next post.

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