Morals and the Free Society: 5. Nozick

Here is the fifth chunk of the argument. To return to the fourth chunk, click here. To advance to the sixth chunk, click here. The complete essay is posted here.


Resolving the Contradiction

A satisfactory moral vision for a free society cannot be a schizophrenic opposition of moral directives. Yet that’s where we’ve been led by our investigation of the moral implications of the economic theory of the free market. How can these conflicting directives—to constrain our pursuit of our own utility for the sake of the free market as a whole, but also to pursue our own utility egoistically—be reconciled into a consistent moral picture?

To investigate this problem, it will be useful to survey some attempts to provide some sort of morals for the free society.


Nozick (1974) speaks of the moral rules that bring the free market into existence as “side constraints.” The idea is that one maximally pursues one’s own goals in a state of unconcern for the goals others, while at the same time observing a set of extraneous, more or less absolute restrictions on one’s range of action. You pursue your own goals however possible, except that you aren’t allowed to kill or maim anyone, rob people, defraud them, etc. The constraints are called “rights,” and they are conceived as prohibitions on allowed action that stand completely outside the order of ends or utilities. According to Nozick, the source of rights is that “individuals are inviolable” (1974, 31). “Why?” asks the market egoist. “Why should I care about other individuals?” Nozick: “Because Kant.”

So there are rights, which appear as a set of rules separate from the rest of life, and there’s the rest of life, which can supply no intrinsic motivation to respect rights.

This is obviously no solution. It is just a reaffirmation of the very schizophrenia we want to escape. It sets rights and market behavior in opposition, the selfless versus the selfish, with the irony that the selfless observance of rights exists to create the selfish market. It invites people to think of the market as something that does not reward and even punishes rights-respecting behavior, and to think of rights-respecting behavior as something it’s better to get others to do while avoiding for themselves. In addition, it treats rights as the only source of moral constraint on the pursuit of one’s own goals. Now, perhaps the bare observance of rights is enough to secure “liberty.” But we have seen that a perfectly efficient market, which optimizes the outcomes of all, requires the elimination of all transactions costs and therefore requires adherence to mores of behavior, such as candor and fair-mindedness and forgivingness, that go well beyond the bare observance of rights.

Work Cited

  • Nozick, Robert. 1974. <em>Anarchy, State, and Utopia</em>. Basic Books.

8 thoughts on “Morals and the Free Society: 5. Nozick

  1. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 4. The Moral Contradiction of the Free Society | Policy of Truth

  2. All of this seems spot-on. In fact, the only puzzle it leaves is how anyone could deny any of it. But I think some would. The funny thing is that I don’t even think that the later Nozick would deny it. Or at least, I don’t think the later Nozick would be entitled to deny it. I don’t know if you’ve read it, or would agree, but chapter 5 of Philosophical Explanations seems to me an elaborate working-out of the very contradiction you describe in your post.

    In the spirit of my “blogcation,” I’ll just offer two bibliographical suggestions. One is that David Schmidtz’s Rational Choice and Moral Agency is at some level intended as a resolution of the contradiction you discuss. I don’t know if Schmidtz’s views end up being sufficiently different from Gauthier’s to be worth reading for this particular project, so I just mention the fact and leave it. You might also want to look at Roderick Long’s short online appreciation of Nozick. I don’t think it was designed to resolve the contradiction you mention (and doesn’t), but it treats a nearby objection to Nozick-on-rights, so you might find it worth reading.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the references, Irfan. Especially the Schmidtz. I’ll have to get that. (Schmidtz was also at the APA-Pacific. He headlined an invited symposium and filled up the room. I didn’t personally find his talk all that illuminating. Seemed like a decent chap, though.) I’m afraid I haven’t read Philosophical Explanations, and probably never will. Unlike Stephen Boydstun, I just don’t find Nozick very valuable. I’ve read two post-ASU books of his, and I didn’t think either was very good, I’m afraid.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Dave- Hi. I just found this blog. I will go back and read the earlier posts. I have read all of Nozick’s books and found Philosophical Explanations and Invariances valuable. (Even though what David Stove said about PE is hysterical and true.)


  4. Pingback: Morals and the Free Society: 6. Hayek | Policy of Truth

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