Nozick’s non-aggression principle

In our previous post, we reviewed the third subsection of Chapter 3 in which Nozick makes a strong case for preferring moral side constraints over moral end states. In the fourth subsection (pp. 33-35), Nozick will focus on the libertarian principle of non-aggression. Here, he reiterates his normative conclusion in favor of side constraints (p. 33, “The root idea [is] that there are different individuals with separate lives and so no one may be sacrificed for others …”) and then finally gets around to identifying the source of his premise that individuals have rights and the content of these rights! According to Nozick, individuals have rights just because they are individuals (“individuals with separate lives”), and further, this tautological moral fact (individuals are individuals) thus imposes a Kantian duty on all to not harm others. Or in Nozick’s words (p. 33), “the existence of moral side constraints … leads to a libertarian side constraint that prohibits aggression against another.” Lastly, Nozick’s carves out a key exception to the libertarian principle of non-aggression: self defense. 

Alas (yet again!), Nozick’s argument is feeble and unpersuasive. To begin with, his reasoning is circular. According to Nozick, we must accept the side constraint view of morality because (by assumption) individuals have rights, but now Nozick is telling us that individuals have rights (rights that must always be respected under the side constraint view) because they are individuals! A secondary problem with Nozick’s reasoning is that it begs an important question: why should we value individuals qua individuals more than the families to which we belong? All Nozick has done (thus far) is to assume the primacy of the individual over the family or village or other collective. But one could just as well argue that each individual is also an essential member of a village or family unit, and that as a result, the village or the family has collective rights that trumps the rights of individuals, even under the side constraint view. 

Yet another problem with Nozick’s analysis is definitional (or lack thereof). Nozick doesn’t tell us what constitutes “aggression” or otherwise define the outer limits of the non-aggression principle (NAP) beyond physical harm, except to to make an exception for self defense. Finally, what about the rights of non-human animals? Nozick turns to that question in the fifth subsection of Chapter 3, which we shall review tomorrow …

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