Nozick’s strong case for moral side constraints

Since the Thanksgiving break, we have been rereading and reviewing Robert Nozick’s classic work of political philosophy Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU), one of our favorite academic books of all time. Thus far, we have posted our reviews of the Preface, Chapter 1, Chapter 2, and the first four subsections of Chapter 3. Here, we will review the next three subsections of Chapter 3–subsections five, six, and seven on pp. 35-47 of ASU. Although we have previously pointed out many flaws and problems with Nozick’s reasoning, Nozick totally redeems himself here. In summary, these three subsections not only contain many memorable examples and intriguing thought experiments, such as a “utility monster” (p. 41), an “experience machine” (p. 42), and a “transformation machine” (p. 44); together, these subsections contain a highly-original and thought-provoking extended discussion on our moral duties towards non-human animals and on the moral duties that an alien race of “superbeings” would owe to us humans.

Before proceeding, however, let’s take a step back to put this extended discussion about animal rights and the moral duties of superbeings in context. Nozick has spent most of Chapter 3 trying to persuade us that moral side constraints must trump moral end states, that means must trump ends, at least in the realm of politics. Here (subsections five through seven), Nozick will pursue several unrelated lines of argument to extend his side-constraint view of morality to non-human animals. (What about insects, plants, or simple singled-celled organisms?) First off, Nozick conjures up the now-standard argument against utilitarian theories of morality: the possibility of utility monsters (p. 41), evil entities that obtain enormous amounts of utility when others are harmed. Next, Nozick notes (p. 45) that the lives of non-human animals have moral value because animals, like humans, have distinct lives and unique “experiences”. (Or as moral philosopher Peter Singer would point out in his book Animal Liberation, published a few years after ASU, animals experience pain and pleasure just as humans do.) 

But Nozick’s best argument (in our view) in favor of the universality of moral constraints appears in the seventh subsection of Ch. 3 (pp. 45-47), where Nozick imagines the possibility of an alien race of superbeings who “stand to us as it is usually thought we do to animals” (p. 45, emphasis in original). According to Nozick, even if humans were somehow morally superior to animals, moral side constraints should apply to human-animal interactions as they do to human-human interactions, for if there were such an alien race of superbeings (like the Vulcans, pictured below, in the fictional Star Trek series), and if they were to ever come into contact with us, wouldn’t we want them to follow the side-constraint view of morality in their dealings with us? In short, despite all the logical problems with the side constraint view–problems that we have duly pointed out in previous posts–, how could our answer to this question be anything other than a resounding “yes” in favor of moral side constraints? (That said, we will still have to determine what the actual content of these moral side constraints consists of, i.e. whether these side constraints are limited to mere non-aggression or whether they impose an affirmative duty to help or rescue persons in peril. We will also have to figure out what exceptions, if any, to carve out from these constraints.)

Image result for vulcans in star trek
We will take Sunday off to spend with our family and attend Mass, so we will conclude our review of Chapter 3 on Monday, Dec. 11, and then delve into Chapter 4 during the rest of the week.

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 strong case for moral side constraints

  1. Pingback: What are Nozick’s moral side constraints based on? | prior probability

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