The State of Moral Philosophy


Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia, edited, with an introduction and selected bibliography, by Jeffrey Paul, Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1981, 418 pp., $27.50/$12.95.

The appearance of Reading Nozick, a collection of critical essays on Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia, reminds me once again how much academic moral philosophy has changed since I began to study it seriously in the late 1950s. Much of this change was the result of two books—Nozick's (1974), and A Theory of Justice (1971) by John Rawls, who is Nozick's older colleague at Harvard.

In the 1950s, and for quite some time before, mainstream academic moral philosophy was a bleak field indeed. There were thinkers of great intellectual ability writing about philosophical ethics at the time, but little, if any, moral disagreement found its way into their works.

One entered the field because one wondered about moral questions, but one found little serious discussion of answers to such questions. One found instead mainly discussion of "metaethics," of what sort of statements, from the point of view of linguistics and the philosophy of knowledge (epistemology), moral judgments are.

It is possible to shrug off such a situation as simply showing the ability of academics to spend time on arcane questions. In fact, the situation cut deeper, at least in my own case. Dwelling on the status of moral judgments led to the use of supposedly random examples of such judgments for discussion. It now seems to me, though, that the very trivial examples usually chosen actually helped to reinforce the belief that all serious and enlightened thinkers more or less agreed on moral questions.

While Rawls's moral beliefs were solidly within the mainstream of academic opinion, his book had the great virtue of turning discussion to the substantive issues of moral and political philosophy. Rawls has a theory about what social arrangements are just. While he also (as any serious philosopher must) advances an epistemological justification for his views, the primary focus is on justice.

I think it fair to say that the resurgence of interest in substantive moral and political philosophy provoked in large part by Rawls's work provided an excellent circumstance for Anarchy, State, and Utopia when it appeared a few years later. Now, academic moral philosophy sports plenty of moral controversy.

In 1979 I wrote in this magazine that Nozick's book was "the most important event in the recent history of the philosophy of liberty." I see no reason to change that assessment. While Anarchy, State, and Utopia has been the subject of much hostile criticism (as most of the essays in Reading Nozick show), Nozick succeeded in getting liberty on the agenda for discussion by professional philosophers.

Carrying on the defense of liberty cannot, however, be left to Nozick alone. Naturally, one hopes that his new book, Philosophical Explanations, just issued by Harvard University Press, will cement his reputation and will, thereby, help to keep his libertarian views on the agenda of academic philosophy. Nonetheless, Reading Nozick reminds one of how set against liberty the philosophic mainstream is and of how much work all philosophic defenders of liberty still have before them.

Jeffrey Paul has made an interesting selection from the great mass of critical literature on Anarchy, State, and Utopia. His introduction is well-written and should be very useful, as will his very good bibliography, to those who need a basic orientation in approaching Nozick's work.

Paul had very difficult choices to make in selecting essays for inclusion in this collection, and it would be churlish to spend much time debating his choices. It is unfortunate, however, that one may read these essays without realizing just how nasty some of the early reviews of Nozick were. I think, for example, of Brian Barry's comments in Political Theory or David Lyons's "Rights against Humanity" in the Philosophical Review as particularly reprehensible instances. The personal moral rebukes, both explicit and implicit, in those pieces showed just how much Nozick had bothered the leftward-leaning academic establishment.

In thinking of the articles included here, I was struck by three broad issues that are central to assessing Anarchy, State, and Utopia and need even further discussion.

One section of the book is devoted to Nozick's very complex and inventive attempt to justify "the minimal State" (which protects its citizens against violations of their rights to life, liberty, and property but otherwise is a "hands-off" government) against the anarchist. Three very interesting critiques of Nozick's argument are included, one by Paul himself. Nonetheless, I continue to think that Nozick's position on this question awaits a well-integrated critical assessment.

Nozick argues that from a state of nature a minimal state would arise by steps that in no instance violate anyone's rights. In arguing this, he has recourse to many very complex and technical points, particularly in regard to compensation and risk. Thus, the problem for critical evaluation is to keep the overall significance of the argument clear while sorting out the technical details. One hopes that Reading Nozick might spur new effort in this direction.

One item that has given particular delight to Nozick's critics is his failure to include in Anarchy, State, and Utopia a full explanation and, mostly, defense of his view of individual rights. Nozick assumes for working purposes that individuals have roughly Lockean natural rights (those outlined by the British thinker John Locke and incorporated by the Founding Fathers into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution). The argument of his book went on from there to set out how such rights would justify the existence of a State (contrary to the anarchists) and also limit the State to a very few functions. In spite of the fact that Nozick explicitly says that he leaves the establishment of these rights for another time, his critics have consistently harped on it. One of the best-known criticisms of his book is entitled "Libertarianism without Foundations" (an essay by Thomas Nagel included in Reading Nozick).

In order to blunt this criticism, Paul has included an essay by Nozick in which he does deal with fundamental questions of moral principle—namely, his well-known criticism of Ayn Rand's philosophical defense of her ethical views. Then, he also includes three articles that in one way or another attempt to support some version of the Randian claim that an individual's own life is his ultimate standard of value.

All three articles are well worth reading even though they are far from convincing me that the concept of life provides the philosopher's stone for constructing the foundation of natural rights. I think, however, that one may wonder if Paul was well advised to include this side dispute on Randian ethics rather than four more articles on Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which is what the subtitle says his readings are about.

The most interesting section of Professor Paul's collection is the long fourth part devoted to critical reaction to Nozick's entitlement theory of justice, or, in simpler terms, his defense of capitalist property rights. It is impossible and unnecessary to pick particular essays for discussion. What one sees here is the depth of the rejection of property rights by the philosophical mainstream.

Lord Acton said that power corrupts. In the case of most of these critics of Nozick's entitlement theory, one may fairly say that the dream of power corrupts. Almost all of these writers are victims of the dream of having power to make the world as they want it. As their essays show, they love this dream very much! Friends of liberty have much philosophic work to do to provide counterweights to the arguments, of these able and influential enemies of liberty.

It is perhaps worth noting, however, that Nozick's critics are only parrying his thrusts. None of them has a settled and worked-out view on justice. They use egalitarian intuitions to counter his claims, but the naivete of their own trust in the power of the State stares one in the face. Not a one of them has any idea how to tame this great power they dream of using to make the world "just." Strangely enough, they have little good to say of existing States, but they hold tightly to the hope that the power of the State can be used to do what their intuitions tell them is just. Indeed, philosophers of liberty have much work to do.

Finally, in considering this collection, one is drawn back to a realization of what an excellent thinker and witty writer Nozick is. For all that it provides by way of a very useful overview of his critics, reading Reading Nozick is neither as entertaining nor as enlightening as reading Nozick.

J. Charles King has a doctorate in philosophy and formerly taught at Pomona College. He now lives in Indianapolis.