Periodic table quilts

Via The Amazing Cliff Pickover, we discovered a website that sells quilts of the periodic table, such as the one pictured below. These beautiful quilts are made by robots, measure 8 feet wide by 4 feet high (2.4m x 1.2m), and are available for purchase here.

Hat tip: @pickover

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Nozick’s open questions

Nozick ends Chapter 3 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia (ASU) by drawing up a tantalizing road map of the rest of his philosophical project; to wit, he concludes thus (p. 53, emphasis in original): “The remainder of Part I … attempts to justify the minimal state. In Part II, we argue that no state more powerful or extensive than the minimal state is legitimate or justifiable …” As a result, Part I of the book (Chs. 1-6) corresponds to a world of stateless anarchy–a world of private protection rackets with each one dominant on its own turf–and in the rest of Part I (Chs. 4-6), Nozick will explain how, in his words (p. 52), “the transition from [private protection rackets] to a minimal state must morally occur.” Next, in Part II of ASU (Chs. 7-9), which corresponds to the world of the classical liberal nightwatchman state, Nozick will argue that such a minimal state is the only state consistent with his (Nozick’s) side-constraint view of morality. Suffice it to say that we are sufficiently intrigued by Nozick’s ambitious project to press on with our review of the rest of ASU. Nevertheless, before we proceed and delve into Chapter 4, let’s pause to point out (or reiterate) all the fundamental philosophical questions that Nozick has left unanswered or under-explored thus far. Furthermore, the following open questions are relevant to Nozick’s project even if we assume (as we are prepared to do) that Nozick’s side-constraint view of morality is true:

  • Why assume a Lockean state of nature in the first place?
  • How are the promises between the members of any mutual protection groups enforced? Indeed, how can there be private protection markets at all in the absence of pro-market institutions such as property and contract law?
  • What are the contents of Nozick’s side constraints? If the contents of such side constraints consist of simple rules such as “do not harm others” or “do not commit any acts of aggression against others,” how do we define the concepts of “harm” or “aggression”?
  • What exceptions should we (must we?) carve out from these side constraints? In particular, if the only justified exception is self-defense, what is the scope of this exception? (By way of example, when can a pre-emptive strike, if ever, count as an act of justified self-defense?)
  • Why do “individuals” matter more to Nozick than families, clans, villages, or other such organic collective entities?

Last but not least, will Nozick provide us a better answer to the question, What is the source of his moral side constraints? Postulating a series of beautiful side constraints without providing a persuasive (non-tautological) explanation of their provenance seems like a serious philosophical blunder. In the alternative, why won’t Nozick (unlike Rawls or, for that matter, Locke!) consider the possibility of a hypothetical social contract, i.e. a contractarian approach?

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Image credit: Jason Pike

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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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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.)

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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.
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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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Nozick’s initial defense of moral side constraints

In the second subsection of Chapter 3, which we reviewed in our previous post, we saw two possible ways of operationalizing Nozick’s moral premise that individuals have rights. Either we could make it our overall goal to minimize the violation of such rights or we could treat the non-violation of our rights as a moral duty or “side constraint” upon our actions. Next, in the third subsection of Chapter 3 (pp. 30-33), Nozick will consider one of the most fundamental questions of moral philosophy: whether we should choose the end state, goal-directed view of morality or the side constraint view. Specifically, why should we treat the non-violation of rights as a side constraint and not as a goal or end state? In three words, Nozick prefers the side constraint view because “Individuals are inviolable” (p. 31). As Nozick notes (pp. 30-31), “Side constraints upon action reflect the underlying Kantian principle that individuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for achieving of other ends without their consent.”

But this Kantian formulation of moral side constraints begs the utilitarian question (p. 32), “why may not one violate [the rights of] persons for the greater social good?” Because in Nozick’s hyper-individualist world view, the notion of a “social good” or a “common good” is a fiction; instead, there are only individuals. Or in Nozick’s eloquent words (p. 33): “There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives. Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others. Nothing more.” For our part, while we share Nozick’s regard for individual autonomy and his skepticism about the existence of social entities, we are still unsatisfied with his underlying premise that individuals have rights, for Nozick has yet to elaborate what these rights are (beyond the duty not to harm or injure others) or where such rights come from. Furthermore, even if we were to accept Nozick’s rights premise as true, we could argue that the fact of individuals having rights imposes not only a negative duty of avoiding harm but also an affirmative duty of helping one’s fellow individuals. To his credit, Nozick anticipates some of these concerns in the fourth subsection of Chapter 3 (pp. 33-35), which we will review in our next post.

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Nozick on rights and moral goals versus moral constraints

In the first subsection of Chapter 3, which we reviewed in our previous post, Nozick drew a distinction between two types of libertarian government–minimal states and ultraminimal states–and identified a foundational moral problem with each type of state. Here, we will review the second subsection of Chapter 3 (pp. 28-30), where Nozick reformulates the age-old moral problem of “ends” versus “means” in terms of moral goals and moral constraints. In brief, according to Nozick, there are two ways of applying morality to our actions. One way is by setting a moral goal G or morally attractive “end state” that we hope to achieve. Although this goal-directed view of morality emphasizes ends, Nozick adds a new wrinkle to this approach. According to Nozick, our moral goal or end state need not be the traditionally utilitarian or consequential one of maximizing utility or happiness; it could just as well be the Kantian one of “minimizing the total (weighted) amount of violations of rights” (p. 28). By contrast, the other way of applying morality to our actions is through moral side constraints (p. 29): “don’t violate constraints C.” This approach emphasizes means, i.e. how one’s moral ends are achieved. Under this side-constraint view of morality, the pre-political moral rights of others operate as firm Kantian moral trumps or absolute constraints on one’s goal-directed actions.

Having drawn this distinction between moral goals and moral constraints, Nozick then returns to the question he posed at the beginning of Chapter 3 (p. 28), “how can [a true libertarian] support [an] ultraminimal state, which would … leave some persons’ rights unprotected or illprotected?” As Nozick notes, the problem with this question is that it assumes a goal-directed view of morality–i.e. that a true libertarian’s overall moral goal is to minimize the total weighted amount of rights violations–when, in reality, a libertarian may adopt a side-constraint view of morality (p. 30): “he may place the nonviolation of rights as a constraint upon action, rather than (or in addition to) building it into the end state to be realized.” On the side-constraint view, the ultraminimal state does not itself violate the rights of non-protection-paying customers, “even though it avoids making it more difficult for someone else to violate them” (ibid.).

Alas, Nozick’s analysis of the moral status of an ultraminimal state (private protection racket) raises more questions than it answers. To begin with, what about the other deep question that Nozick raised about the night-watchman state at the beginning of Chapter 3; to wit (p. 27): “If some redistribution is legitimate in order to protect everyone [under a minimal state], why is redistribution not legitimate for other attractive and desirable purposes as well?” In any case, why should we prefer the side-constraint view over the goal-directed view of morality? Nozick turns to this particular question in the next part of Chapter 3 (pp. 30-33): “Why Side Contraints?” So, we will review Nozick’s answer in our next blog post …

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Credit: Laura Patrick

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