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Robert Nozick and the Good Fight

Robert Nozick and the Good Fight

4 Mins
September 9, 2010

March 2002 -- "Whoever makes something, having bought or contracted for all other held resources used in the process…is entitled to it. The situation is not one of something's getting made, and there being an open question of who is to get it. Things come into the world already attached to people having entitlements over them…. Those who start afresh to complete 'to each according to his ____' treat objects as if they appeared from nowhere, out of nothing."

I first read that passage in a book manuscript that was circulating in the Princeton University philosophy department in 1974. It reminded me of the words Ayn Rand put in the mouth of her hero in Atlas Shrugged :

"[I]ndividuals are ends and not merely means; they may not be sacrificed or used for the achieving of other ends without their consent. Individuals are inviolable."

-Robert Nozick

"The socialist society would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults."  Nozick

Though he made ample use of economic theory in this critique, he wrote primarily from a moral point of view. Like Rand, he enraged the Left by denying them the moral high ground—and he did so with great wit. "The socialist society," said Nozick, "would have to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults." In a discussion of the income tax as a device for redistribution, he argued that "taxation of earnings from labor is on a par with forced labor." On one issue after another, he punctured the political idealism of those who wanted government to pursue their vision of utopia; he did it by showing that any such program uses coercion to violate individual autonomy.

In the world of academic philosophy, Nozick became the most prominent advocate of libertarianism, the theorist with whom every other viewpoint had to contend. This was not because his case for freedom was fundamentally original. Many of the arguments he used can be found in the long tradition of classical liberalism, from John Locke in the seventeenth century to Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand in our own era. The reason for Nozick's prominence was principally that he cast the arguments in the method and style of analytic philosophy, the approach that dominates academic philosophy in English-speaking countries.

As the name suggests, analytic philosophers consider their job to be the close and detailed analysis of issues. They prize philosophical dissection: subtle distinctions, rigorous arguments, precise formulations of positions. Nozick was a master of this approach. He handled the scalpel of analysis with a speed and dexterity that awed his colleagues, even when they didn't like his views. And indeed, his book did much to clarify issues of distributive justice and the nature of the conflict between libertarians and egalitarians.

But the goal of close analysis creates occupational hazards. Analytic philosophers are often insensitive to the wider context of the issues they deal with and unwilling—or unable—to examine their own fundamental assumptions, concepts, and methods. As a result, they tend to take for granted the current state of play in their specialist domains, treating complex, derivative concepts and assumptions as axiomatic. Nozick was no exception.

This was nowhere clearer, to me at least, than in an early article he wrote criticizing Rand's moral and political philosophy. Nozick more or less completely failed to come to grips with Rand's theory, spinning his wheels in an effort to break apart her integrated view of human life and values. In Anarchy, State, and Utopia, the shortcoming of his method was most evident in his failure to explain why individuals are ends in themselves and why they are inviolable; his statement of the principle was about as far as he went. Nozick did not accept Rand's explanation that individuals are ends in themselves because life is metaphysically an end in itself, the fundamental value that each person seeks to realize. But he did not offer any alternative.

Nevertheless, Anarchy, State, and Utopia is a genuine classic in the literature of freedom. Robert Nozick fought the good fight with intellectual brilliance, moral idealism, and personal courage. Everyone else engaged in that fight owes him a large debt of gratitude.

This article was originally published in the March 2002 issue of
Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.

David Kelley


David Kelley

David Kelley is the founder of The Atlas Society. A professional philosopher, teacher, and best-selling author, he has been a leading proponent of Objectivism for more than 25 years.

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David Kelley Ph.D
About the author:
David Kelley Ph.D

David Kelley founded The Atlas Society (TAS) in 1990 and served as Executive Director through 2016. In addition, as Chief Intellectual Officer, he was responsible for overseeing the content produced by the organization: articles, videos, talks at conferences, etc.. Retired from TAS in 2018, he remains active in TAS projects and continues to serve on the Board of Trustees.

Kelley is a professional philosopher, teacher, and writer. After earning a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University in 1975, he joined the philosophy department of Vassar College, where he taught a wide variety of courses at all levels. He has also taught philosophy at Brandeis University and lectured frequently on other campuses.

Kelley's philosophical writings include original works in ethics, epistemology, and politics, many of them developing Objectivist ideas in new depth and new directions. He is the author of The Evidence of the Senses, a treatise in epistemology; Truth and Toleration in Objectivism, on issues in the Objectivist movement; Unrugged Individualism: The Selfish Basis of Benevolence; and The Art of Reasoning, a widely used textbook for introductory logic, now in its 5th edition.

Kelley has lectured and published on a wide range of political and cultural topics. His articles on social issues and public policy have appeared in Harpers, The Sciences, Reason, Harvard Business Review, The Freeman, On Principle, and elsewhere. During the 1980s, he wrote frequently for Barrons Financial and Business Magazine on such issues as egalitarianism, immigration, minimum wage laws, and Social Security.

His book A Life of One’s Own: Individual Rights and the Welfare State is a critique of the moral premises of the welfare state and defense of private alternatives that preserve individual autonomy, responsibility, and dignity. His appearance on John Stossel’s ABC/TV special "Greed" in 1998 stirred a national debate on the ethics of capitalism.

An internationally-recognized expert on Objectivism, he has lectured widely on Ayn Rand, her ideas, and her works. He was a consultant to the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged, and editor of Atlas Shrugged: The Novel, the Films, the Philosophy.


Major Work (selected):

Concepts and Natures: A Commentary on The Realist Turn (by Douglas B. Rasmussen and Douglas J. Den Uyl),” Reason Papers 42, no. 1, (Summer 2021); This review of a recent book includes a deep dive into the ontology and epistemology of concepts.

The Foundations of Knowledge. Six lectures on the Objectivist epistemology.

The Primacy of Existence” and “The Epistemology of Perception,” The Jefferson School, San Diego, July 1985

Universals and Induction,” two lectures at GKRH conferences, Dallas and Ann Arbor, March 1989

Skepticism,” York University, Toronto, 1987

The Nature of Free Will,” two lectures at The Portland Institute, October 1986

The Party of Modernity,” Cato Policy Report, May/June 2003;and Navigator, Nov 2003; A widely cited article on the cultural divisions among pre-modern, modern (Enlightenment) and postmodern views.

"I Don't Have To" (IOS Journal, Volume 6, Number 1, April 1996) and “I Can and I Will” (The New Individualist, Fall/Winter 2011); Companion pieces on making real the control we have over our lives as individuals.

Ideas and Ideologies
Political Philosophy