Arneson vs. Nozick on Libertarian Rights

This is the third in an ongoing series of commentaries on the essays in The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s “Anarchy, State, and Utopia,” Bader and Meadowcroft eds.  In this post,  I will analyze Richard Arneson’s contribution, “Side Constraints, Lockean Individual Rights, and the Moral Basis of Libertarianism.”  For reasons that will soon become clear, I found this essay rather disappointing.

I will, in the interests of keeping this post reasonably short, focus here on only three points.  The first is that Arneson incorrectly identifies self-ownership as the linchpin of Nozick’s famous claim that rights function as “side constraints.” See Cambridge Companion (“CC”), 28.  Arneson is here repeating a depressingly common mistake, made particularly by those most hostile to Nozick’s arguments. As I discuss in some depth in Chapter 1 of Nozick’s Libertarian Project (“NLP”), the actual mainspring of his reasoning is Kant’s second formulation of the Categorical Imperative, which Nozick quotes at ASU, 32: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of others,  never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end.”

I was not the first to highlight the Kantian wellsprings of Nozick’s political philosophy (see NLP, 171 n72), or to reject the idea that self-ownership serves as its ethical foundation. Nevertheless, this major misreading of Nozick persists. In his recent review of the Cambridge Companion in the Notre Dame Philosophical Review, Professor Matt Zwolinski notes that in his final book, Invariances, Nozick continued to defend libertarianism, then felt the need to add:  True, he does not defend that principle on grounds of self-ownership (though perhaps he never did in ASU, either — the word appears only once in its 353 pages and seems largely to be a product of G.A. Cohen’s influential criticism of Nozick).”  

So, Arneson is firing at a straw man. And, as discussed further below, his erroneous attribution of the self-ownership thesis causes him to miss Nozick’s logic in identifying people’s capacity for rational agency as the best explanation for our instinctive commitment to the value of human dignity.

Secondly, Arneson is at great pains to refute Nozick’s claim that (in Arneson’s words) “there are morally binding, absolute, exceptionless side constraints,” as entirely implausible. CC, 27-9. However, it is not at all clear that this objection, even if true, actually cuts much ice against Nozick-style libertarianism. As Arneson himself notes, Nozick expressly cautions that he is withholding judgment on whether side constraints “may be violated in order to avoid catastrophic moral horror.” ASU, 30n.  Arneson calls this a “wily footnote” (CC, 20), but then proceeds as if Nozick is committed to the idea of absolute side constraints, which if discredited, refutes Nozick’s entire enterprise.

But he is mistaken here. It seems obvious both that side constraints cannot be “exceptionless” or “absolute” and that this admission is harmless to natural rights libertarianism.  Imagine this commonly posed scenario: if given the choice of torturing one innocent person to death or having everyone else on Earth die instantly, what should we do? Does Arneson really believe that Nozick (or any other rational person) would choose the death of some seven billion people in order to preserve the rights of one? Thus, we have identified a necessary exception to side constraints.

Accordingly, the question then becomes what is the cost of this admission to Nozickian libertarians. I believe that the answer is “virtually nothing.” Arneson identifies no reason why those who endorse natural rights (including, of course, those relating to property) cannot plausibly hold that there is a very powerful presumption in favor of respecting them. This presumption would certainly be strong enough to exclude almost all of the various forms of redistribution favored by egalitarian-minded philosophers, so it is not clear what, if anything, Arneson has accomplished.

Finally, at the end of his piece Arneson criticizes Nozick’s adoption of rational agency as the essential characteristic that “endows one with the moral status of person” [and thus with moral rights]. CC, 33. He notes that in trying to explain the significance of rational agency, Nozick observes that “A person’s shaping his life in accordance with some overall plan is his way of giving meaning to his life; only a being with the capacity so to shape his life can have or strive for a meaningful life.” (ASU, 50). Arneson says that “I cannot make anything of this suggestion” (CC, 33).  He then elaborates what he regards as insurmountable difficulties in determining what should count as “meaningful.”

I think Arneson’s puzzlement might have been averted had he focused more on the discussion that closely precedes the language he quotes: “But haven’t we been unfair in treating rationality, free will, and moral agency individually and separately?…So let us add, as an additional feature, the ability to regulate and guide its life in accordance with some overall conception it chooses to accept.” ASU, 49.  It seems clear in light of this language that the key aspect of rational agency is autonomy, and especially moral agency.

This interpretation does not require us to fruitlessly search for the criteria by which to assess whether a particular life is “meaningful,” but it does imply that we must not interfere with rational agents, unless they are violating the equal right of other people to be left alone. And, critically, this is the only reading that adequately explains Nozick’s great antipathy to the coercion of innocent persons. It is worth emphasizing that it is precisely in this context that he resorts to his sole use of the self-ownership concept. He does so not to provide an ethical foundation for libertarian rights, but as a metaphor to illustrate the evil of violating personal autonomy.

In arguing that the taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor, Nozick asserts that “[egalitarian] principles of distributive justice institute (partial) ownership by others of people and their actions and labor. These principles involve a shift from classical liberals’ notion of self-ownership to a notion of (partial) property rights in other people.” ASU, 172 (emphasis in original). Coercion of this sort, says Nozick, is morally reprehensible; we can appropriately own objects in this way, but not other persons.  Seizing the value of a person’s labor treats them merely as a means of achieving some greater good, and not as ends-in-themselves.  I don’t expect Arneson and other high liberals to accept this argument, but I sure wish they would at least address it.


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