Robert Nozick

The American philosopher Robert Nozick (born 1938) established his reputation as a polemical advocate of radical libertarianism, a position arguing for maximum individual rights and a minimal government. He went on to investigate classical issues in philosophy that have often been neglected or dismissed by modern analytic philosophers.

Robert Nozick was born in Brooklyn, New York, on November 16, 1938. His parents were both immigrants, and he referred to himself as just one generation from the shtetl (the small-town Jewish communities of Eastern Europe). He earned his B.A. degree in 1959 at Columbia University, where he was a socialist and a member of the left-wing Students for a Democratic Society. He went on to an M.A. (1961) and a Ph.D. (1963) from Princeton University.

After teaching as an instructor and assistant professor of philosophy at Princeton (1962-1965), he went to Harvard as assistant professor (1965-1967), to Rockefeller University as associate professor (1967-1969), then back to Harvard as full professor in 1969. He became a familiar figure in the Harvard Yard, often arriving at his office in athletic togs after running or bicycling from his home.

Nozick won almost instant fame in 1974 with his book Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which earned a National Book Award in 1975. The startling effect of the book came from its combination of several qualities. Unlike most books out of academia, it was a manifesto to the public, political world. Its opinions did not quite fit any of the common patterns of scholarly or popular thinking. And its style was a mixing of close philosophical analysis, brash personal assertions, anecdotes, and humor.

The book began with the declaration: "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)." That might seem to be a fairly conventional statement in a society nourished in the American Declaration of Independence, but its elaboration quickly struck sparks. Nozick's next paragraph affirmed "that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons' rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified."

That position constituted a radical endorsement of freedom of speech, of sexual action, of life styles—pleasing in many ways to the political left, especially the youthful New Left. It implied also a freedom of business enterprise from most forms of government regulation and from much of conventional taxation—pleasing to the political right.

Nozick formulated his position as a two-edged argument. Against anarchism—the position of a very small minority in American society—he argued that a minimal state, enforcing strictly limited laws, is not an undue infringement on personal rights. Against all advocates of a "welfare state" he argued that government has no right to do many of the things that most people today expect government to do.

The basic philosophy is a revision of traditional, political, and economic ideas of John Locke (1632-1704) and Adam Smith (1723-1790). It puts great emphasis on the "entitlement" of people to their own property, including the rights to buy property, sell it, give it away voluntarily, and bequeath it to their heirs. If the Declaration of Independence accents the values of liberty and equality, Nozick puts the emphasis on liberty.

Critics were quick to point out that liberties often conflict. Do employers' rights to hire and fire nullify totally workers' rights to jobs? When does the exercise of freedom become oppressive? Are rights to food, housing, health care, and protection from poverty in old age as important as the right to amass a fortune? Does government have a right to tax citizens to operate public schools and parks or to establish a social security system? What about a military draft in times of national emergency? Since Nozick believed in animal rights—he advocated vegetarianism and for a time listed himself in Who's Who as a member of the Jewish Vegetarian Society—what human rights should be restricted for the sake of animal rights?

Nozick did not address all these questions in detail. He candidly acknowledged that his book was an "unfinished" argument. But he was clear on the main point: It is no more the business of the state to distribute wealth than to distribute mates for marriage. All efforts to redistribute wealth (for example, by taxing the rich for the sake of the poor) involve interference in people's lives.

In part, Nozick's argument was a reply to his Harvard colleague, John Rawls. In his famous book A Theory of Justice (1971) Rawls gave a high value to equality, justifying functional inequalities only insofar as they benefit the worst off in society. (The poorest player on the team may be better off giving some authority to the quarterback rather than demanding an equal voice in calling the plays.) Nozick acknowledged "no presumption in favor of equality."

Nozick said little about how people acquire the property to which they are "entitled." He referred to Locke's famous theory that individuals are entitled to claim as private property those objects that incorporate their own labor, provided there is "enough and as good left in common for others." Nozick saw problems in that theory, but did not develop an alternative.

One of Nozick's theories might lead to radical consequences, if adopted. He believed that some redistribution of property to rectify past injustices is justifiable. Conceivably that might lead to dismantling some huge corporations and fortunes or to restoration of much of the United States to the Native Americans. But Nozick chose not to "specify the details."

Rather than throw himself into the controversies arising from his first book, Nozick went on to other interests, especially the classical problems of philosophy. He commented that in ten years of teaching at Harvard he never repeated a course. That enabled him to work in a great variety of areas. His second book, Philosophical Explanations (1981), is a massive (770-page) study of issues in metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and "the meaning of life."

These are the problems that philosophers beginning with Socrates have wrestled with. But American philosophy after World War II tended to retreat from them and to concentrate mainly on questions of logic and language. In imitation of scientific disciplines, it sought to work in areas where exactitude is a goal. Nozick argued instead that philosophy is not a branch of science but an "art form." So he re-opened the traditional topics, seeking not proofs but explanations. He even wrote on the question that Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) made famous: "Why is there something rather than nothing?"—a question that many analytical philosophers had dismissed as nonsensical. Nozick showed an interest in mysticism without committing himself to its beliefs. With his colleague Rawls, despite major disagreements, Nozick restored to philosophical discussion the great issues of ethics in public life.

Recent works by Nozik include The Examined Life (1989), which reflects on what is important in life, and The Nature of Rationality (1993), which explores rational belief. In 1996, he compiled a collection of essays, Socratic Puzzles.

In 1997, Nozik participated in a friend-of-the-court-brief that was submitted to the Supreme Court, in order to outline a philospher's point of view on euthanasia, (the right to die). Nozik was one of a team of philosophers, which included Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, John Rawls, Thomas Scanlon and Judith Jarvis Thomson. The so called "philosopher's brief" argued in favor of the individual's right to die. The autonomy of the individual, and the neutrality of the state in such matters demanded that freedom in death is as important in freedom in life. Death should come at the indvidual's will and pace, and not by the will and pace of the majority.

Continuing his duties as the Arthur Kingsley Porter professor of philosophy at Harvard, Novik's current work focuses on philosophy that spans many topics, including psychology, neuroscience and metaphysics. He was an important contributer to the evolution of late twentieth century philosophy.


Further Reading on Robert Nozick

Although Nozick's work attracted wide attention in professional journals and even in the mass media, it is not yet the subject of books. One exception is Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia, edited by Jeffrey Paul (1981).