Nozick on natural rights and knowledge

Do individuals have procedural rights in the state of nature? (Or conversely, do victims of harms or their allies have a moral duty to use only “fair and reliable” guilt-finding procedures before imposing any punishment on wrongdoers? Aren’t both formulations of this question the same?) Surprisingly (to us), although Nozick is prepared to announce that “individuals have rights”, he is ambivalent about the moral status of procedural rights in the state of nature! Nozick is considering interactions between “independents” and private protection agencies in the fourth subsection of Chapter 5 (pp. 101-108). More precisely, what if a due-paying member of a protection agency has committed a wrongful act against an independent? May the protection agency prohibit the independent from enforcing his rights? Suffice it to say that Nozick has trouble answering this question because of the uncertain status of procedural rights in the state of nature.

Nevertheless, in the course of considering the status of procedural rights, Nozick poses a new and original and truly thought-provoking question about the possible relationship between knowledge and moral rights (p. 106): “Shall we say that someone doesn’t have a right to do certain things unless he knows certain facts, or shall we say that he does have a right but he does wrong in exercising it unless he knows certain facts?” In other words, there are two ways of interpreting natural rights. Under the first interpretation, my natural right to punish a wrongdoer depends on the state of my knowledge about who the wrongdoer is. Under the second interpretation, by contrast, I have this right regardless of the state of my knowledge, but it would be wrong of me to enforce my rights without the requisite knowledge of who the wrongdoer is. Both interpretations of natural rights also raise a deeper epistemic question: how do we “know” which interpretation is the correct one? Nozick, for example, prefers the second of the two epistemic views of rights, while we prefer the first, simpler one (see image below), but aside from taking a vote, is there any correct or principled way of choosing between either interpretation of natural rights?

Image result for how to choose between two theories

Credit: Alyson Hall

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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