Sunday, January 5, 2014
Nagel on Nozick
Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has recently been reissued with a new Foreword by Thomas Nagel. You can read the Foreword via Google books. In it Nagel describes the situation in moral and political philosophy in analytic philosophy circles in the late 1960s. A group of thinkers that included Nozick, Nagel, and other notables such as John Rawls and Judith Jarvis Thomson, who participated in a discussion group called the Society for Ethical and Legal Philosophy (SELF), reacted against certain then common tendencies. First, as Nagel writes, they rejected the logical positivists’ “general skepticism about value judgments, interpreted as essentially subjective expressions of feeling.” Second, they rejected utilitarianism in favor of “principles that limit the means that may be used to promote even the best ends.”
In place of these rejected ideas, this group of thinkers affirmed two general themes. The first, according to Nagel, was “a belief in the reality of the moral domain, as an area in which there are real questions with right and wrong answers, and not just clashing subjective reactions.” The second, he writes, was:
a belief that progress could be made toward discovering the right answers by formulating hypotheses at various levels of generality and subjecting them to confirmation or disconfirmation by the intuitive moral credibility of their various substantive consequences, as well as by their coherence in explaining those consequences. The method depended on taking seriously the evidential value of strong moral intuitions about particular cases, including imaginary cases, and then looking behind those intuitions for general principles… which accounted for and justified them.
Some comments. First, note that when Nagel speaks of testing hypotheses by reference to their “consequences,” he isn’t talking about advocating the moral theory known as consequentialism. That should be clear enough from the fact that the group of thinkers in question rejected utilitarianism. Concern with “consequences” doesn’t suffice to make one a consequentialist. The idea was rather that if a moral hypothesis turns out to have absurd implications, that is reason to go back to the drawing board. It is, more or less, an application of the method of reductio ad absurdum in the sphere of moral and political philosophy.
Second, Nagel’s remarks are a reminder of something I’ve emphasized myself, viz. that the “man-on-the-street’s” perception of liberal academics is not entirely correct. Conservatives, especially, are often prone lazily to label those who defend left-of-center moral and political conclusions as “relativists,” “consequentialists,” “subjectivists,” etc. Some of them are, but by no means all.
Having said that, a third comment is that the crucial role that “intuitions” have played in recent academic philosophy in my view pretty much completely undermines the avowed aim of the thinkers in question of avoiding subjectivism. To be sure, the word “intuition” has historically been used in different senses in philosophy, but the sense that prevails in recent analytic usage is not a respectable one. As A. R. Lacey tells us in the entry on “intuition” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy (edited by Ted Honderich), “recently… the term ‘intuition’ has been used for pre-philosophical thoughts or feelings, e.g. on morality, which emerge in thought experiments and are then used philosophically.” For reasons given in a post some years ago, I would say that intuitions can only ever have at most a heuristic value and never the sort of “evidential value” required by the method employed by the group of thinkers described by Nagel. By themselves appeals to intuition amount to nothing more than the “subjective expressions of feeling” the SELF crowd wanted to avoid. The Rawlsian method of “reflective equilibrium” doesn’t change this one bit; it only makes of the subjective expression of feeling a systematic and elegant expression.
It is no surprise, then, that the work of the SELF thinkers almost always tended (what are the odds?) to reflect the “strong moral intuitions” (i.e. very deeply ingrained prejudices) of the average American college professor. Almost but not always, Nozick’s strongly libertarian position in Anarchy State, and Utopia being a famous exception. Nagel nicely summarizes two key themes of Nozick’s book. First:
Things or actions that may be beneficial do not come into existence out of nowhere; they often, in [Nozick’s] words, “come already tied to people who have entitlements over them … people who therefore may decide for themselves to whom they will give the thing and on what grounds.”
If some flourish and others are left behind, there is nothing wrong in that, nothing that the state may use its power forcibly to correct. As Nozick says repeatedly, it is no more wrong than the fact that A cannot marry B because B prefers to marry C. A may be miserable, but no one has suffered a wrong or an injustice. There is no moral presumption in favor of equality; the separateness of persons is the basis of the moral order.
End quote. Though I am no longer a libertarian, I still think that there is much truth in these two basic ideas, even if they need to be qualified. As I explained in a post on my apostasy from libertarianism, what led me to find libertarianism convincing for a time were two main lines of argument, a negative one and a positive one. The negative line of argument was that Hayek’s and Nozick’s critiques of the very idea of social justice destroyed any egalitarian (or other) justification for redistributing wealth via taxation. The positive line of argument was that Nozick’s and Rothbard’s critiques of taxation showed that such redistribution was not only unjustified but positively unjust, and thus that no taxation at all was legitimate except perhaps what was necessary to fund the minimal state. The positive line of argument was, essentially, too extreme an interpretation of the very real insight contained in the first of the Nozickian themes identified by Nagel. The negative line of argument was, essentially, too extreme an interpretation of the very real insight contained in the second Nozickian theme.
For reasons I have spelled out at some length in my Social Philosophy and Policy article “Classical Natural Law Theory, Property Rights, and Taxation,” from the point of view of Aristotelian-Thomistic natural law theory, rights have a teleological foundation, and the specific ends for which property rights exist prevent our claim over our resources from being so strong that taxation per se is unjust. It is not per se unjust, and it is not per se unjust even for some purposes that go beyond the minimal state. However, especially in light of the fact that most of the value of resources derives (as libertarians rightly emphasize) from our labor and ingenuity rather than from raw materials themselves, there is a very strong presumption against taxation. It is also a presumption that is, in my view, much less frequently overridden than left-of-center people suppose. So though it goes too far to say that all taxation is in principle unjust, I think it correct to say that much taxation is in fact unjust. Hence there is much truth in the first Nozickian theme.
There is also much truth in the second Nozickian theme. Left-of-center types commonly conflate issues of poverty with issues of inequality, but they are not the same thing. Suppose everyone had a standard of living at least equal to that of your typical middle manager, but some people lived like Bill Gates, Richard Branson, or Jeff Bezos. You’d have no poverty to speak of but still have massive inequality. Would this be unjust? I say that it would not be the slightest bit unjust, and I have yet to see a good argument to the contrary. I think the libertarian is absolutely correct to see claims of injustice here as motivated by envy, and thus as motivated by a serious vice rather than by a concern for morality.
Poverty is different, and can be the result of injustice. However, it need not be, and there is certainly way too much sloppy thinking about the issue. The word “poverty” covers a variety of complex phenomena. What counts as poverty in a First World country is very different from what counts as poverty in a Third World country. Glib talk about the “causes of poverty” gives the impression that the possession of wealth is the default state of human beings, from which they must somehow have been pushed (by whom?) if they are not in it -- and that is the reverse of the truth. “The poor,” particularly in a First World context, do not necessarily comprise a stable group with the same members over time. Where individuals or families do tend to stay poor over time, in First World countries the reasons have mostly to do with social pathologies like the absence of fathers. In Third World countries the reasons have primarily to do with corrupt governments and the absence of stable market structures. And so forth.
Especially in First World countries, it is very difficult to determine to what extent, if any, poverty can be attributed to any particular unjust actions, such as refusal to pay a just wage. (Which would be what, exactly? I also have yet to see a good argument here. That there can in principle be such a thing as an unjust wage pretty clearly follows from natural law theory, for reasons I give in the paper referred to above. But determining in practice exactly when a wage is strictly unjust is in my view very difficult.)
It would be nice if these issues could be settled with simple-minded slogans -- “Taxation is theft!,” “Share the wealth!,” “Pay a living wage!” etc. -- but they can’t be. Where economic matters are concerned, things are very messy, and there is in my view way too much self-righteous posturing and too little serious, rigorous thinking, among liberals, socialists, distributists, social democrats, and many libertarians and conservatives too. In part because of the complexities involved, though, I think that while it goes too far to say that government cannot even in principle act to remedy economic difficulties, there is also a strong presumption against regarding some particular economic difficulty as the result of an injustice or otherwise within the purview of government action.
Now, the presumptions in question -- against taxation and against government intervention in the economy -- can be overridden. But especially when we factor in the principle of subsidiarity, I think that classical natural law theory favors a broadly right-of-center approach to economic matters rather than a left-of-center approach -- certainly not libertarian, but closer to that than to egalitarian liberalism. Again, see the paper referred to above for the details.
Nagel also comments on the overall quality of Nozick’s book:
The book is a dialectical feast, displaying the agility of an intelligence of the highest order. It is also written in an irresistible style and voice, an audible speaking voice full of energy and drive. And it is often very funny.
I agree completely. There are two general criteria by which one might regard a philosophy book as good. One might think it simply gets things basically right, that it presents views that are true and gives good and clear arguments for them. Or one might think that it does not get things right but nevertheless presents views and arguments that are of philosophical interest -- errors, perhaps, but errors from which we can nevertheless learn much. Some great works of philosophy, like Descartes’ Meditations and Leibniz’s Monadology, are of the latter sort, and so is Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. And to some extent it get things right too.