Robert Nozick

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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

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). □

Nozick, Robert

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(b. Brooklyn, New York, 16 November 1938; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 23 January 2002)

political philosophy, epistemology, metaphysics, theory of rational decision.

Nozick is probably best known for his philosophy of libertarianism in political philosophy and his idea of the “minimal state.” He also made significant contributions in the areas of epistemology and the theory of rational decision in philosophy, as well as metaphysics, philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, and ethics.

After obtaining his BA degree (1959) at Columbia University in New York City, he earned his MA degree (1961) and PhD (1963), both at Princeton University in New Jersey. He then taught at Princeton and at Rockefeller University in New York City before coming in 1969 to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became university professor and also served as chair of the Philosophy Department. Some of his most important works include Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), which won the National Book Award; Philosophical Explanations (1981); The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations (1989); The Nature of Rationality (1993); and Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (2001).

According to Nozick’s libertarianism, the only just kind of state is a minimal one, in which rights of individuals are primary and the role of the state is limited to the protection of these rights, such as protection against violence, theft, and breach of contracts. His Anarchy, State, and Utopia advocates limited government, individual liberty, and the importance of private property. This book critiques the liberalism of his Harvard colleague, John Rawls, and Rawls’s idea of redistributive justice (the idea that the state should be allowed to and should reallocate wealth in order to promote more equal distribution and to aid the disadvantaged); thus, Nozick, famously, opposed the idea of a welfare state.

In his Philosophical Explanations, Nozick argues for the epistemological view that belief is knowledge just in case the belief in question “tracks the truth” basically, that is, belief is knowledge just (only) in case the believer would have belief in the proposition in question if and only if the proposition in question were true. This is intended to be an answer to some versions of skepticism about the possibility of actual knowledge and as an “externalist” alternative to more traditional “internalist” views of knowledge (according to the latter of which, basically,

a knower must be aware of the factors that constitute warrant for the belief in question). His Philosophical Explanations also develops his “closest continuer” theory of personal identity, a metaphysical issue.

Nozick’s most famous contribution to the theory of rational decision is his 1969 article, “Newcomb’s Problem and Two Principles of Choice,” which introduced Newcomb’s problem to philosophers. In this decision problem, there are two boxes before the decision maker: one transparent, which clearly contains one thousand dollars, and the other opaque, which is known to contain either one million dollars or nothing. The choice is between taking the contents of only the opaque box—act A—and taking the contents of both boxes—act B. So far, it seems that the obviously correct choice is B. But now suppose that the agent is fully (or highly) confident of the following about how the contents of the opaque box were determined: there is a very rich and very accurate predictor (of choices in just this kind of situation) who earlier placed the one million dollars in that box if and only if the predicted act was A—thus almost always rewarding those who choose A (reward equals one million dollars) and not so richly rewarding those who choose B (reward equals one thousand dollars). The agent could reason in either of these two ways: (1) if I choose A, then, since the predictor is so accurate, I will probably walk away with one million dollars, where choosing B would probably give me only one thousand dollars, so I should choose A; or (2) the rich predictor has already made the prediction and put, or did not put, the one million dollars in the opaque box, and either way I get one thousand dollars more with B than with A, so I should choose B. Nozick develops his own solution to the puzzle—involving whether or not there is a cause-effect relation between acts and states of affairs. This introduction of the puzzle has spawned a voluminous literature in the philosophy of rational choice.

In addition to the National Book Award, Nozick was also honored by, among other things, becoming a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and by delivering the John Locke Lectures at Oxford University. He also was active very in practical ways, having, for example, participated in the preparation of a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court urging the protection of individual rights in the matter of whether one should be allowed to have a doctor’s help in ending one’s own life, assuming mental competence and terminal illness.



“Newcomb’s Problem and Two Principles of Choice.” In Essays in Honor of Carl G. Hempel, edited by Nicholas Rescher et al. Dordrecht, Netherlands: D. Reidel Publishing, 1970.

Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Philosophical Explanations. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981.

The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

The Nature of Rationality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.


Albert, Max, and Ronald A. Heiner. “An Indirect-Evolution Approach to Newcomb’s Problem.” Homo Oeconomicus 20 (2003): 161–191.

Feser, Edward. On Nozick. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. Paul, Jeffrey, ed. Reading Nozick: Essays on Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Littlefield, 1981.

Schmidt, Christian. Newcomb’s Problem: A Case of Pathological Reality? Montreal: Groupe de recherche en épistémologie comparée, Université du Québec à Montréal, 1995.

Schmitz, David, ed. Robert Nozick. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Sobel, Jordan Howard. Taking Chances. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Ellery Eells

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