Nozick’s “Side Constraints” Argument

Posted on Posted in libertarianism, Political Philosophy, Politics, Utilitarianism

In Anarchy, State, and Utopia Robert Nozick argues that redistribution of wealth is immoral because it violates the rights of those whose wealth is taken. One of his arguments for this claim is his “side constraints” argument. He contrasts two views:

1) The side constraint view: individual rights are side constraints on how on may go about pursuing any goal.

2) The utilitarianism of rights view: individual rights are a goal to be maximized.

The argument is that even though individuals have rights to things, he is not specific but lets us imagine these are things like education, health care, food, it is wrong to try and maximize these rights by infringing on some other persons rights. Remember Kant, we can’t use persons as a means to an end. Individual rights are like side constraints, he says, rather than part of the goal.

That is all good and well and true but he is wrong in thinking that persons have unlimited property rights, or a right to all the money they earn. Once you do away with that assumption you no long have the problem that redistribution supposedly caused because you are not infringing upon anyone’s rights when you take some of their money and put it towards the general good.


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