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Robert Nozick

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I have read a few summaries of Nozick's theories, e.g. the minimal state, man "owns" himself, etc. From the little I know, it seems like decent material. I'm sure some others may have read some of his work, and I'd like your input on what sort of views he advances and your opinion of his work from an Objectivist standpoint, because I'm curious whether it would be worthwhile to look into him further. Thanks... :confused:

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I don't know enough about Nozick to form an opinion about him (he writes in an slow, difficult, pedantic style I can't stand). I do know that he spends a chapter in one of his books (Socratic Puzzles, I think) attempting to refute the Objectivist ethics. I also know that his view that rights are "side-constraints" is non-sense. But I understand that his attack on Rawls was quite good. My advice: there are better thinkers out there...and better writers!

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  • 2 years later...

But a must-read. Especially for people who want to be well-informed when having good conversations.

In general, though, I agree with DPW. He is a brilliant man with skillful arguments, and is fundamentally flawed concerning his view of rights.

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I have a dusty old copy of Nozick's "Examined Life" sitting on my bookshelf. I tried to read through a couple chapters that looked interesting but could not get into it. His writing style is exactly as DPW described. Basically, from what I remember, his ethical and political views are deeply rooted in a subjectivist view---not surprising considering he is a libertarian.

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I have read a few summaries of Nozick's theories, e.g. the minimal state, man "owns" himself, etc. From the little I know, it seems like decent material. I'm sure some others may have read some of his work, and I'd like your input on what sort of views he advances and your opinion of his work from an Objectivist standpoint, because I'm curious whether it would be worthwhile to look into him further. Thanks... :)

I don't think there's much of value in Nozick from a positive perspective. His major work in political philosophy, Anarchy, State and Utopia, just starts in the middle with the assertion that there are such things as individual rights, and proceeds to deduce from there. Back in the 1970's, he wrote an article called "On The Randian Argument" that was just embarassing. He tried to critique Rand, and only succeeded in demonstrating that he didn't have a clue about the nature of her actual argument. Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl took him to the woodshed over that one in a subsequent article "Nozick on the Randian Argument". If you're looking to read some Rand-influenced academic philosophy by non-Objectivists, I'd recommend Rasmussen and Den Uyl's Liberty and Nature long before anything by Nozick.

Nozick's critique of Rawls is worth reading. As is usually the case with moderns, they're much better at tearing down each other's nonsense than they are at erecting anything solid themselves. Critique, though, only gets you so far. It's much more valuable to understand what is true, and why, than to understand what is false, and why.

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I have a dusty old copy of Nozick's "Examined Life" sitting on my bookshelf. I tried to read through a couple chapters that looked interesting but could not get into it. His writing style is exactly as DPW described. Basically, from what I remember, his ethical and political views are deeply rooted in a subjectivist view---not surprising considering he is a libertarian.

I don't understand why some Objectivists object so much to "libertarians." The word roughly means a person who advocates a lack of government force in economic and social matters. I have trouble arriving at the view some have that that implies subjectivism or an "anything goes" attitude. It seems that saying that, since there are evangelical, irrationalist, and anarchist libertarians, "libertarians" must be wrong implies that since there are evangelical, irrationalist, and anarchist free willists, free willists must be wrong, and that since there are irrationalist and anarchist egoists, egoists must be wrong.

I'm thinking there must be something I don't know in the story behind this antipathy. Thoughts?

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I think, in short, that the essence of libertarianism is the view that you can believe anything as long as you agree to their non-aggression principle., which becomes quite apparent from reading libertarian philosophy. I would guess that the main issue Objectivists have with libertarianism is the "anything is compatible with rights" attitude, because it is patently false.

Edited by Maarten
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I don't understand why some Objectivists object so much to "libertarians."

I think what Objectivists object to is actually Libertarians, or the Libertarian Party. "Libertarian" with a lower-case "l" is to vague a word to be objected to on any grounds more specific than that it's a word that doesn't really mean much of anything, besides a claim to advocate "liberty," which is left undefined (outside of a context).

There are several threads on why Ayn Rand rejected Libertarianism, which should not be difficult to find in a search. Here are some quotes from her on the topic, from ARI's website.

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I think what Objectivists object to is actually Libertarians, or the Libertarian Party.
In The Art of Nonfiction, she says, my emphasis added (p. 120) 'Similarly, some people today use "libertarian'' to designate the pro-free enterprise position, but there are some modern liberals who call themselves libertarian as well. This stealing of terms with undefined connotations is so prevalent today that I simply do not use any of these words. This is one reason I prefer "pro-capitalist" to "conservative."' However, note that in her June 20, 1974 letter to Mrs. Maethner, she makes reference to Rothbard and the libertarian movement. To the best of my knowledge, Rothbard had no connection with the LP, so I disagree that the objection is only to the party. I don't see any difference between the libertarian movement in general, and the libertarian movement plus LP after the party was organized, and while the "principles" of the movement are quite wide-open so there is huge latitude in what can count as libertarianism (the same is true of conservatism), thus I can't see anything that distinguishes libertarians and Libertarians.
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Anarchy, State, and Utopia is good. I didn't find it a particularly difficult read and liked his argument that minarchism is the ideal.

Anarchy, State and Utopia just starts in the middle with the assertion that there are such things as individual rights, and proceeds to deduce from there.
That's not where his argument starts.

[Nozick]wrote an article called "On The Randian Argument" that was just embarassing.
What particular argument did you find "embarassing"?
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:shrug:

Saying that his arguments were "embarassing" or "wrong in every aspect" isn't the same as showing an argument of his that was embarassing/wrong in any aspect.

At any rate, Den Uyl and Rasmussen didn't even address most of Nozick's points, preferring (for whatever reason) to focus on digressions from Nozick's arguments. I wouldn't want anyone to incorrectly dismiss Nozick out of hand.

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Saying that his arguments were "embarassing" or "wrong in every aspect" isn't the same as showing an argument of his that was embarassing/wrong in any aspect.

True. It's been many years since I read the articles in question, and I don't remember the details, only my reaction. So take that with whatever size grain of salt you wish, and if you want to make a first-hand judgment by all means track down copies of the articles and read them yourselves.

I don't mean to say that Nozick is utterly without value. I've got my own copy of Anarchy, State and Utopia which I've read through, although not for some time. I just didn't find him a particularly valuable defender of freedom.

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However, note that in her June 20, 1974 letter to Mrs. Maethner, she makes reference to Rothbard and the libertarian movement. To the best of my knowledge, Rothbard had no connection with the LP, so I disagree that the objection is only to the party.
Well, I didn't say that it's only to the party--just that, since "libertarian" with a lower-case "l" is so vague, Objectivist criticisms of libertarianism can usually be assumed to be directed at the party (or, I should add, a type of ideology essentially similar to that of the LP).

Murray Rothbard was involved in the Libertarian Party (from 1974 to 1989, according to them).

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In The Art of Nonfiction, she says, my emphasis added (p. 120) 'Similarly, some people today use "libertarian'' to designate the pro-free enterprise position, but there are some modern liberals who call themselves libertarian as well. This stealing of terms with undefined connotations is so prevalent today that I simply do not use any of these words. This is one reason I prefer "pro-capitalist" to "conservative."' However, note that in her June 20, 1974 letter to Mrs. Maethner, she makes reference to Rothbard and the libertarian movement. To the best of my knowledge, Rothbard had no connection with the LP, so I disagree that the objection is only to the party. I don't see any difference between the libertarian movement in general, and the libertarian movement plus LP after the party was organized, and while the "principles" of the movement are quite wide-open so there is huge latitude in what can count as libertarianism (the same is true of conservatism), thus I can't see anything that distinguishes libertarians and Libertarians.

Wow. Brace yourself. I agree.

The term "libertarian" (big 'L', little 'l', it makes no difference) is so utterly meaningless since it is centered around, not a philosophy but, a catch-phrase, a catechism, a quote out of context: "Don't initiate force." Because they have no philosophy, there is no definition of what it is to initiate force. Does this include pointing a gun at you but not firing? The anarchists who call themselves libertarians will say "no". Does this include economic strong-arming, thus restricting one's choices in the marketplace? The Marxist libertarians will say "yes". They, rather than system-building and developing a philosophy from reason, have started at a conclusion. In the world of comedy, they deliver the punch-line then give the set-up. I'm not laughing.

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  • 3 weeks later...

Speaking as someone who is not a "libertarian", I'd say that there is no comparison between Nozick and Rand, apart from the fact that they may both be classified broadly as classical liberals. Nozick is an analytical philosopher of the highest standing, which is clear from reading ASU and other works, while Rand comes accross as a bit cranky and religious. Although she has some useful insights, particularly the exhortation to develop reason and self reflection (not unique to her, of course, but she gives it a strong emphasis), her written work is very reminiscent of any pamphlet by Leon Trotsky, ie. very dogmatic and rhetorical. Her knowledge of specialist fields such as economics and social policy is superficial, which means that they add nothing that is new to the debate. She does have a good awareness of aspects of contemporary philosphy however. To be frank, some of her "followers" are much better social scientific writers. Nathaniel Branden springs to mind, as exemplified by his superb essay on alienation in the book on capitalism. Given the choice between the two writers (against the criteria of depth and rigour of understanding, or just the quality of the writing), I'd go for Nozick anytime. This said, Nozick's work is not without its flaws, although these might generally be thought of as being characteristic of classical liberalism as a whole. I'm thinking in particular about the potential for inconsistency between the requirements of justice (the protection of negative rights) and the attributes of markets that optimise welfare outcomes (the salience of particular incentives). Were warned, for example, that indiscriminant transfers to the poor may result in perverse incentives, but other voluntary transfers such as inheritance are acceptable, but what if these transfers are made from parents to young adults who are essentially without meritorious qualities, skills or other positive attributes. Would this not foster the survival of the unprepossessing at the expense of those who are genuinely talented, and who could therefore make a fuller contribution to common good (defined of course as the aggregation of individual interests)? One needs only to think of some of the idiots who are able to acquire senior management positions, ultimately because they inherited social advantages of several kinds. Thus the protection of negative rights could result in interpersonal transfers that create diswelfares.

"Marxist" libertarianism (eg. Cohen), although well argued, cannot overcome the incompatibility between self ownership and the common ownership of external resources. It reads well but is a fantasy, which means its next to useless as a guide to policy.

One "libertarian" writer who I have found very useful recently is David Schmidtz, an academic philospher. This is a guy who clearly understands the importance of desert focussed resource allocation, as he started his working life as a mail delivery man. David Kelly is a good academic writer too, although much of his work appears to be derivative. I've also found the work of the Cato Institue to be quite informative. If you can recommend any other good "libertarian" writers, please let me know, as I'm writing a book on political philosphy and retirement, which encompasses insights from the classical liberal tradition.

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TEM, what about a comparative analysis by the standard of truth?

Also, while I sympathize with some of your sentiments, what of the entirely and fundamentally new concept of capitalism as moral? While this might have been vaguely hinted at by F.A. Hayek, it was first and foremost Rand who sponsored this idea. Also, what of the thought that concepts are internal to a thinker? Again, as far as I know, first and foremost sponsored by Rand. Also, evaluation of sociology from the principle of individualism, and of psychology from the principle of man as conscious being. To my knowledge, all of this was unique to Rand.

What I do sympathize with, however, is that Rand's contributions lacked a great deal of depth, but I don't blame her for that. She was not an academic philosopher, nor an economist, sociologist, psychologist, political scientist, historian, or any other such specialist. She was an author who had very interesting and largely factual views.

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Take her assertion that psychology must begin with the principle that man is conscious, and that no psychologist yet has successfully explained the human psyche with this in mind. Beyond this, I can think of no further contribution that Rand has produced in the study of psychology. The same can be said for sociology. She was even less inspiring in her account of history.

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"Also, while I sympathize with some of your sentiments, what of the entirely and fundamentally new concept of capitalism as moral?"

Business certainly needs to be thought of as "moral", and if this is attributable to Rand, she has performed a great service

"Also, evaluation of sociology from the principle of individualism"

I was under the impression that Herbert Spencer had achieved this first

"and of psychology from the principle of man as conscious being"

I'll defer to your more informed judgement on this. I'm certainly impressed by Branden's psychology of self-esteem

"She was an author who had very interesting and largely factual views"

My comments weren't a general dissing of Ayn Rand. She has made a tremendous contribution, particularly on the importance of reason as a basis for human action. I guess I was merely saying that in terms of scholalry presentation, Nozick's work surpasses. :)

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  • 2 months later...
I think, in short, that the essence of libertarianism is the view that you can believe anything as long as you agree to their non-aggression principle., which becomes quite apparent from reading libertarian philosophy. I would guess that the main issue Objectivists have with libertarianism is the "anything is compatible with rights" attitude, because it is patently false.

I think this misunderstanding is the seed of Objectivists' discontent with the word. I, for one, use it freely to describe myself. I do so because the word doesn't mean "you can believe anything as long as..." The word simply means "advocating minimal government" or something like that - a word's definition can be found easily in any dictionary. To repeat the essence of a previous post of mine, by the logic used to throw out the word "libertarian," we should throw out "selfish" and "egoist" as well - "selfish" can mean cheater in ordinary parlance, and "egoist" can mean irrationalist egoist. Just because a few people believe that one "can believe anything as long as..." doesn't mean the actual definition of the word contradicts the tenets of Objectivism.

I only bring this up because I think using the word would help Objectivists clarify their position in conversation in which lengthy oration is not appropriate or possible.

Edited by Hugoist
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I think this misunderstanding is the seed of Objectivists' discontent with the word. I, for one, use it freely to describe myself. I do so because the word doesn't mean "you can believe anything as long as..." The word simply means "advocating minimal government" or something like that - a word's definition can be found easily in any dictionary. To repeat the essence of a previous post of mine, by the logic used to throw out the word "libertarian," we should throw out "selfish" and "egoist" as well - "selfish" can mean cheater in ordinary parlance, and "egoist" can mean irrationalist egoist. Just because a few people believe that one "can believe anything as long as..." doesn't mean the actual definition of the word contradicts the tenets of Objectivism.

I only bring this up because I think using the word would help Objectivists clarify their position in conversation in which lengthy oration is not appropriate or possible.

"Selfish" and "egoist" properly get at the point Objectivists are trying to make, by definition. "Libertarian" doesn't, because properly defined, it doesn't get to the root of the problem. It's not useful philosophically, and it groups Objectivists, by definition, with many people we disagree with. I've started going with "socially liberal, fiscally conservative" when I'm tempted to use a world like "libertarian," in talking generally about the application of philosophy, as I understand it, to government.

Welcome to the forum! (though I see you've been around for a while) - I'm a big fan of VH too. Feel free to introduce yourself in the introductions section, we'd love to know more about you.

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To repeat the essence of a previous post of mine, by the logic used to throw out the word "libertarian," we should throw out "selfish" and "egoist" as well - "selfish" can mean cheater in ordinary parlance, and "egoist" can mean irrationalist egoist. Just because a few people believe that one "can believe anything as long as..." doesn't mean the actual definition of the word contradicts the tenets of Objectivism.
The discontent isn't over the word. Rather, it is discontent over the philosophy of those who are libertarians. You have to start with the actual objects in reality -- the people who are libertarians. Then you have to ask, what is their philosophy? Such as exists, libertarian philosophy "on the ground" holds that "liberty" is a self-evident moral imperative. Objectivists rightly reject that foundation. Objectivism would arrive at a particular conclusion about government that's closer to the Libertarian position that, say, the Communist position, but it is not at all evident that Objectivism is politically compatible with Libertarianism on matters of the protection of rights. There may be some individual Libertarians who oppose anarchy or suicide by pacifism, but that is not a necessary position of Libertarianism, which means that Libertarianism is in direct contradiction to Objectivism because it includes anarchy and suicide by pacifism, which are precluded from Objectivism. Because Libertarianism is an undefined "school" of philosophy whereas Objectivism is well-defined, working from definitions is no help in understanding what Libertarianism refers to, in that you have to justify the definition in the first place. The closest to a deductive principle that you can have would be "The philosophy of libertarians", which means you have to consider libertarians, and their philosophy, and induce the conceptual common denominator from that.

So I think it would be more productive to forget libertarianism entirely, if you want a non-Objectivist philosophy for comparison, and instead focus on a specific libertarian-type philosophy, such as von Misianism, or Nozickism, or Hosperology.

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