Nozick’s fear argument

For most of Chapter 4, Nozick has been wondering why all wrongful acts are not allowed so long as compensation is paid. Here, in the sixth subsection of this chapter (pp. 65-71), Nozick presents (to his mind) his strongest argument against a permissive or compensation-based view of morality: the argument from fear. In the words of Nozick (p. 66): “Some [types of boundary crossings] we would fear, even knowing that we shall be compensated fully for their happening or being done to us.” This fear argument does not apply to all border crossings; only to those wrongful acts (such as rape, assault, and other forms of physical violence) that generate fear and apprehension. Nozick thus concludes that fear-inducing acts must be prohibited and punished as public crimes. (Presumably, non-fear-producing acts should be allowed so long as compensation is paid.)

Although the fear argument is plausible, three complications trouble us. One difficulty is definitional. Which fears are truly bad and which are too diffuse or idiosyncratic to take into account? “Fear” — standing alone — is way too broad a concept. A related problem is measurement: how is it possible to measure something as subjective as fear, let alone specify ahead of time what level of fear should trigger the prohibition-enforcement rule versus the compensation-enforcement rule? Simply put, how much fear is too much fear? (To his credit, Nozick will grapple with this line-drawing problem in the “risk” subsection of Chapter 4 on pp. 73-78.) But even if we could measure fear and figure out what the fear threshold should be, there is a bigger problem with the fear argument. Aren’t harms or wrongs reciprocal in nature? That is, aren’t harms the result of actions taken by the wrongdoer as well as by the victim? If so, why should we privilege freedom from fear over freedom of action? For example — as Nozick will ask later in the chapter (on page 76, to be more precise) — what if persons who are engaged in fear-producing activities were able to preempt the fear problem by providing tranquilizer pills to their potential victims?

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for there is yet another problem with the fear argument. In a word, what’s so special about fear? If persons are to be treated the Kantian way, with dignity and respect, why not prohibit all boundary crossings, not just fear-producing ones? Nozick will address this question in the remaining subsections of Chapter 4, and so will we — in our next blog post …

Image result for fear

Image Credit: Dee Wallace

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One Response to Nozick’s fear argument

  1. Pingback: Nozick on risk and natural rights | prior probability

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