What are Nozick’s moral side constraints based on?

In our previous post, we reviewed subsections five, six, and seven of Chapter 3 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU). Here, we will review the next-to-last subsection of this long chapter. In short, after building a strong case in favor of universal moral side constraints in those middle subsections, Nozick then poses a foundational or higher-order question in the eighth subsection (pp. 48-51): What are these side constraints themselves based on? To summarize Nozick’s answer, he first identifies several traits shared by (all or most?) individuals–traits such as rationality, free will, and moral agency–and then argues that, combined, these traits “add up to something whose significance is clear: a being able to formulate long-term plans for its life” (p. 49). Nozick thus conjectures that a person’s “ability to form a picture of one’s whole life (or at least significant chunks of it) and to act in terms of some overall conception of the life one wishes to lead” (p. 50) are what underlay or support the side-constraint view of morality.

Really? Alas, by attempting to ground moral side constraints this way, Nozick overplays his hand. He even ends up undercutting his powerful reciprocity argument in favor of extending moral side constraints to human-animal interactions, since it is debatable whether non-human animals ponder the meaning of their lives or have any moral agency themselves. Also, Nozick once again neglects the social dimensions of human life (e.g. family, church, village, etc.), for in reality it is not “me” alone who gives meaning to my life; it is my fellowship and interaction with others that give meaning to my life. That is, however hard we may try, we just don’t give meaning to our own lives; others do! Nozick, though, brushes these deeper philosophical problems aside, simply stating (p. 51) “I hope to grapple with these … issues on another occasion.” For our part, we are disappointed with Nozick’s lame and woefully inadequate conjecture regarding the ultimate source of moral side constraints. If he is going to “half-ass” this difficult question, he should have either just deleted subsection eight of Ch. 3 in its entirety or relegated it to an end note. (FYI: We will conclude our review of Ch. 3 of ASU in our next post.)

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One Response to What are Nozick’s moral side constraints based on?

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