Rebirth of Reason

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Post 0

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - 7:05amSanction this postReply
Thanks, Stephen. I'll look forward to the next two in the series.


Post 1

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - 8:19amSanction this postReply
Very interesting - looking forward to seeing the rest......

Post 2

Wednesday, August 29, 2007 - 4:39pmSanction this postReply
This is interesting. I'll look forward to reading the other articles.

From your brief remarks, it sounds as though you might have developed a similar approach to my not very exact idea about rights. Briefly, one ought to live a full life, which requires individual freedom. Therefore, if another initiates force against you, thereby impeding your natural freedom to think and act for your life, it is right to seek your life. That is, it is proper and necessary to preserve the proper means to sustaining and preserving your life. Because these means include one's freedom to act on one's ideas, it is right to use retaliatory/defensive force to preserve one's means of living. Thus, one has a right to one's life, to one's means of life, which include one's property and the right of self defense.

No doubt, there are unresolved problems with this simple approach. For example, this abbreviated explanation doesn't address why initiating force is not a proper means to living. But that's not so difficult to demonstrate, I think.

So I look forward to the rest of your article, including your insights about a minimal state.

Post 3

Thursday, August 30, 2007 - 5:58amSanction this postReply


Reading related to the preliminaries above:


“Rights” in Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations (1981 Harvard, 498–504).


Section III (pp. 150–59) of Eric Mack’s “The Fundamental Moral Elements of Rand’s Theory of Rights” in The Philosophic Thought of Ayn Rand (1984 University of Illinois, D. Den Uyl and D. Rasmussen, editors).




“Rights, Games, and Self-Realization” was written in 1987, not 1988.

Post 4

Saturday, September 8, 2007 - 6:32amSanction this postReply

Rights, Games, and Self-Realization – Part I



Rights against Personal Injury for Two in Isolation


The broad yet personal moral ideal on which I shall later rely is this: to live a life self-chosen, to be a self unified with its life (Boydstun 1984). The moral personality will revere the moral ideal realized in himself and in others, but the first layer of the rights between two people, considered as absolutely isolated from wider society, can be laid out assuming more impoverished personalities. Such people are rightly called players by game theorists. A player recognizes (superficially) his own end-in-itself value, but only his own, and all players realize that that is the situation. Players awaken. They come to moral life. Contouring their behavior to selves seeking value and meaning, to the end-in-itself value of those beings, utility functions are transformed, and the players become persons. Transformation can proceed only so far without reciprocity, but at any stage, unilateral respect for rights appropriate to the circumstances will be possible (cf. Nozick 1981, 474–535; Mack 1984, 158–59).*


Consider two players, A and B, in isolation from wider society. From the game-theoretic perspective, with each player regarding the other as having at most instrumental value, when could the deliberate use of force be justified? Self-defense easily qualifies. If A is a threat to B, then B could reasonably respond with force destructive of A on the supposition that only B is end-in-itself valuable. That is the case whether A poses a threat to B intentionally or only incidentally in the course of another pursuit. Nor would it matter that A could not have foreseen that his action could bring harm to B.


The fact that defensive force is a sound move in the game means that it must be taken into account in resorting to force. Given formidable responsive powers of an opponent and substituting game-theoretic imperatives for the moral imperatives in the formal definition of a right, we obtain a first approximation to a right against personal injury: it will be game-theoretically right to use force in self-defense, and it will be wrong (a blunder) to initiate the use of force. That is not to say that A and B could not be found in violent conflict even though both have respected the rule. The chain of violence could begin with an accident.


The amount of force that A and B may rightfully apply in response to a threat is limited by game strategy alone where neither can be sure that his attack would disable his opponent. A and B here face a natural game—call it the Engagement game—having the following four payoff possibilities, where 1 is preferred over 2 over 3.

A stops and B stops: (1,1)

A fights and B stops: (1,3)

A stops and B fights: (3,1)

A fights and B fights: (2,2)

Each pair of numbers (a,b) represents the ordinal utilities to player A and player B, respectively, for a particular combination of choices, fight or not, made by A and B.


The game known as Prisoner’s Dilemma has the following four payoff possibilities, where 1 is preferred over 2 over 3 over 4.

A cooperates and B cooperates: (2,2)

A defects and B cooperates: (1,4)

A cooperates and B defects: (4,1)

A defects and B defects: (3,3)


In Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD), each player has four distinct possible payoffs, whereas in Engagement (E), each player has only three. Nevertheless, E has in common with PD a number of strategically significant properties. Like PD, E is a game of partial conflict, rather than a game of complete opposition; there is at least one outcome (first possible choice combination) that is preferred by both players over at least one other outcome (fourth possible choice combination). Like PD, E presents an option, fight, that minimizes the damage to a player assuming the worst about the opponent; for each player in E, fight dominates stop. The implied natural outcome of E, the one that would be expected most frequently when the game is played by rational players, is continued fighting. As in PD, the natural outcome of E is an equilibrium in the sense that either player would suffer if only he were to change strategy. Finally, as in PD, the natural outcome of E is Pareto-deficient; there is another possible outcome (first possible choice combination) that both players would prefer (Rapoport, Guyer, and Gordon 1976).


Fortunately, the natural outcome of Engagement (both fight) is less stable than the natural outcome of Prisoner’s Dilemma. The payoff found in PD, but not in E, is the one that can obtain because of what is known as temptation. If either player in E can and does retreat, there is no immediate incentive for the other to inflict avoidable harm beyond that required for self-defense; if either player in PD were to cooperate, the other would have added incentive to defect. When we add into account the fact that real engagements often occur over an appreciable time interval and are naturally decomposable into subsidiary successive steps, peace becomes even easier; we then have an iterated game of Engagement. Robert Axelrod has demonstrated the strong possibilities of cooperation (assuming players do not have inordinately high time preferences) in the iterated Prisoner’ Dilemma (1984). Surely iteration facilitates cooperation in Engagement as well.


There is here no sense to any concept of corrective justice even when we bring moral concerns into consideration. It is true that if A accidentally injured B, then A morally ought to do what he can to make B whole again. It is true as well that if A aggressed against B—if A, under no threat from B, maliciously or negligently generated the force that brought harm to B—then A morally ought to make B whole and may deserve to be punished in addition (Nozick 1981, 363–97; 1974, 59–63, 137–46). However, under the circumstances we have assumed for A and B, there is no one available to forcibly punish A with impunity. In the context of two people roughly equal in power and isolated from wider society, we find that each person has, game-theoretically and morally, a right to self-defense and a right of retaliation for the sake of deterrence, but there is here no point in speaking of rights to recompense nor of rights to punish (cf. Nozick 1974, 137–42).


A right against aggression or against the use of responsive force in excess of that necessary for defense evidently does not follow from game-theoretic considerations alone in those cases where A and B, in isolation from wider society, are very unequally matched. If only B has a gun, for example, and A is a threat (innocently or not-so-innocently) to B, then B’s choice between a defense that entails killing A and a defense that does not is arbitrary from the value-impoverished, game-theoretic point of view. True, if A were to live, he might become instrumentally valuable to B in the future, but for some A’s and B’s, that is not realistic. Where A is of no plausible value to B, it would be quite all “right” for B to kill A, whether or not that is required for self-defense. Taking into account considerations of what Nozick called value-theoretic aspects (moral aspects), B ought always to respond to A as a person, to that person’s end-in-itself value in addition to any instrumental value that B might possess. B should avoid killing A if possible (Nozick 1981, 462–73; Mack 1977, 289–91).



Rights to Liberty for Two in Isolation

The labor of A might be of instrumental value to B. If B were sufficiently powerful, he could make A his slave. There would remain some sense to saying that A has a right to be free, even supposing that A has no possibility of freeing herself by force. In the course of nature, B might one day need the assistance of A to survive. A might then take her freedom through a morally right act of omission.


If A and B were of roughly equal power and if the labor of each could be of instrumental value to the other, impressment is not a game-theoretically sensible option for either player. The payoff possibilities take the form of the game I shall call Equal Power.

A no force and B no force: (2,2)

A force and B no force: (1,4)

A no force and B force: (4,1)

A force and B force: (3,3)

Here I assume that the disutility of losing his freedom is to each worse than the damage expected in defending his freedom. We see that the payoff possibilities for Equal Power are those of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. A and B here face an iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma. From game-theoretic considerations alone, each should refrain from trying to enslave the other, and each should forcibly resist attempts by the other (Axelrod 1984).


A master-slave relation is, moreover, morally wrong for the master on at least two counts. Firstly, the master is not responsive to the end-in-itself value of the person he enslaves (Nozick 1981, 470). Secondly, the interposition of a slave in the life of a master disrupts the unity of the master with his own life. Unity of the self with its life requires engagement to the process of living, to the processes that make its life. That loss of unity in the master seems to me akin to Nozick’s broader suggestion that the life of a violator of rights loses meaning in the violations. In contrast to the master and slave, persons making willing transactions (at least persons who retain a fundamentally independent existence) have their individual unities preserved (Nozick 1974, 48–51).**/***


We consider now the rights that obtain with respect to benevolent interventions between two people when isolated from wider society. Eric Mack has taken the position that individuals have a right to do anything that does not violate the rights of others. On that supposition, he then could promptly infer that individuals have a right to do truly wrong things, such as deliberately cutting off their own fingers for no good reason, so long as they do not violate the rights of others (Mack 1984, 157). I do not think that Mack’s completely general supposition can be sustained, at least not in the present context.


The intervention of A to preempt B bringing physical harm to himself could be morally right. In addition to true preemption, a measure of preventative detention could in some cases be morally justified. At a minimum, there would have to be indicia in the prior acts of B that would portend physical self-destruction to justify the intervention of A, that is, to overcome the moral presumption against intervention. We assume those prior acts of B do not materially affect A. Then, under our formal definition of a right, A has no right that B not harm himself. Furthermore, A has no right against B’s resistance to A’s intervention. To have such a right, the resistance would have to be in support of an act against which A has a right and to which A is responding.


On the other side, the only plausible meaning to be given to a right of B to harm himself is that B has a right of resistance to the intervention of A. The resistance to the intervention of A is, by hypothesis, not an act of self-defense; it is the intervention of A that defends B. The acts of B that constitute his resistance cannot be rendered right by the fact of A’s intervention; the aim of B’s resistance is to complete the bringing of harm to himself, and this we have supposed, in the present case, to be wrong. There is in this setting no right of B to harm himself.


The rightness of other-defense is justified and bounded by the moral ideal: B’s life must remain his own and A’s life must remain his own. Actions that are preludes to physical self-harm create only a prima facie case for the justness of intervention. When more is learned of a person attempting suicide, for example, it may be found that the attempt occurs in a mood of depression and outside the context of realistic deprivation. Then again it may instead by found that it occurs (either within or outside the context of terminal illness) on account of suffering or decline of personal competences. The project of suicide may be the expression of a critically evaluated rational life plan. In the end, an intervener may be morally required to retreat; to do otherwise would, in some cases, deprive individuals of rational self-mastery and the meaning they may give their lives by ending them.


The license for benevolent intervention cannot be extended beyond defense against physical harms where A and B are both adults. It is only physical harm or coercion that can preclude the possibilities for self-realization in adults. Beyond physical self-harms, individuals have an incontestable right to take any action that does not affect others, however truly, objectively wrong such an action may be. That is life self-chosen. Coercive fashioning of other’s lives under the pretext of other-defense will count as a violation of the right to liberty.


In affirming the justice of limited other-defense, when two people are isolated from wider society, we have contradicted the proposition that individuals have a right to do anything that does not violate the rights of others. We have contradicted also the principle that an initiation of the use of interpersonal force always means that a right is being violated. We have not, however, contradicted the principle that no one has a right to initiate the use of force against another. Among these contentions, which ones will also obtain when we set A and B in the surroundings of society remains to be seen.




*On this paragraph, see also Nozick 1993, 50–59, and Mack 1998.

**See also Khawaja 1997, 111–30.

***On game-theoretic and moral aspects of aggression and enslavement, see also pages 261–64, including the endnotes, of Robert Nozick’s final book (2001).




Axelrod, R. 1984. The Evolution of Cooperation. Basic Books.

Boydstun, S. 1984. The Moral Value of Liberty. Nomos 2(1):18–22.

Khawaja, I. 1997. A Perfectionist-Egoist Theory of the Good. Objectivity 2(5):95–147.

Mack, E. 1977. How to Derive Libertarian Rights. Reprinted in Reading Nozick. 1981.

J. Paul, editor. Rowman and Littlefield.

——. 1984. The Fundamental Moral Elements in Rand’s Theory of Rights.

In The Philosophical Thought of Ayn Rand. D. Den Uyl and

D. Rasmussen, editors. University of Illinois Press.

——. 1998. On the Fit of Egoism and Rights. Reason Papers 23:1–21.

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books.

——. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.

——. 1993. The Nature of Rationality. Princeton University Press.

——. 2001. Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World. Harvard University Press.

Rapoport, A., M.J. Guyer, and D.G. Gordon 1976. The 2x2 Game.

University of Michigan Press.



When A forcibly intervenes against probable self-inflicted harms of B, the intervention acts of A are otherwise morally wrong acts that are rendered morally right by the (begun or about to be) acts of B. Then why are such interventions by A not to be regarded as by right?


Because, in such cases, A acts as a surrogate for B regarded as the subject of possible harm. It is not surrogates, but victims, who initially have something materially in jeopardy and who thereby could have their rights violated or infringed. A may be right to intervene, but it is not by right in the present setting.

Post 5

Saturday, September 8, 2007 - 6:46amSanction this postReply

Rights, Games, and Self-Realization – Part II


In the Introduction, a formal definition of rights was made. That definition was rendered in terms of moral right and wrong; the connections between being right and having a right were charted. A substantive, but general, ultimate moral value was asserted.


In Part I, rights against personal injury and rights to liberty were examined in light of game theory, supplemented by the postulated moral ideal and the purely formal definition of rights. We considered rights only between two people absolutely isolated from wider society. I was seen that, in such an extraordinary circumstance, there could be rights to self-defense and rights of retaliation for the sake of deterrence, but unless the subject of aggression were far more powerful than the aggressor, no real meaning could be given for rights to restitution nor for rights to punish.


Now come property rights, first for two in social isolation, then in society. Things get more interesting.



Rights to Property for Two in Isolation


Prior to interactions between them, A and B can each venture his labor on the creation and maintenance of instruments, and each can possess those instruments. There will be, however, no need for the concept of ownership until A and B come to interact. In facing the possibilities for interaction, A and B, each possessing instruments and each foregoing the previously discussed options for conquest, face the following payoffs regarding the possession of instruments (x, y, u, and v are each either 2 or 3; 1 is preferred over 2 over 3 over 4).

A yields p and B yields q: (x,y)

A keeps p and B yields q: (1,4)

A yields p and B keeps q: (4,1)

A keeps p and B yields q: (u,v)


A initially possesses instrument p, and B initially possesses instrument q. A and B here each prefer most of all to possess both instruments, but the (1,4) and (4,1) outcomes are discouraged by the fact that if either attempts to bring about one of those results, he may trigger a violent conflict. Now A owns p, and B owns q.


Those ownerships are fully, morally rightful under the hypothetical history of the case. It is here morally right to use force to retain possession; it is wrong to use force to take possession. The moral ideal entails productivity. The production of instruments for the support and enrichment of one’s own life is good. We should value productivity in ourselves and in others.


If A and B each prefers over his own possession the instrument possessed by the other (x,y is 2,2 and u,v is 3,3), face to face exchange can proceed, the take-and-run option being deterred by the threat of immediate violence. After the voluntary exchange of instruments between A and B, each rightfully owns his new possession. There is in this situation no need to speak of a right to trade; there is here no possibility of third-party intervention.


The contemporaneous exchange is facilitated not only by the possible visitation of violence upon defectors, but by the prospects for future exchanges (and other pleasant transactions). Interest in future exchange facilitates also those exchanges that must be consummated over time, with one player fulfilling now and the other player later.


Taking the rightful possessions of A through misrepresentation or covert theft is not directly coercive; B does not initiate the use of force against A, nor does he threaten to do so. Eric Mack has articulated the senses in which such non-consensual takings are nonetheless coercive. In misrepresentation B brings it about that A acts through ignorance; B thereby renders A’s act involuntary (Mack 1977). In theft B sets aside, without the consent of A, the purposes for which A would retain the instrument.


Loren Lomasky has emphasized the importance in human life of the pursuit of personal projects, of commitment to long-term designs in light of which one orders one’s activities. He espouses “a conception of personal identity over time which incorporates not only criteria of memory retention and bodily continuity, but also persistent attachment to one’s ends. As an active being, one’s identity is not simply a given, but is created and recreated through identifying oneself with one’s projects” (Lomasky 1984, 42). Whether or not B resorts to overt coercion, he is not, in his non-consensual takings of A’s rightful possessions, properly responsive to A’s status as a project pursuer.


David Kelley correctly observes that although the non-consensual taking of another’s rightful possessions is coercive, an elementary notion of coercion will not suffice to mark off which takings are not rightful nor which possessions are rightful (1984). It remains true that no one has the right to initiate the use of force, but how do we identify the presence of force in takings that entail neither direct attack nor confinement of persons? I say as follows.


Direct coercion is clear because the boundary of a person’s body is (generally) clear. To identify property rights, we must know the boundaries of possessions and the history of their possession.


When a cigarette comes into existence, it is a possession with plain boundaries. One can stand in a strong possessive relation to the object within those boundaries over the entire history of its existence. The boundaries of the land from which the cigarette was produced, the boundaries of land use, are also objective boundaries.


One can use unowned land in various ways, and those ways can then confer various kinds of possession—all of them weak—up to the boundaries of use. Until we draw up boundaries for land to forestall use by others, we cannot possess the land in the clear way that we can possess chattel. Possession is always an incident of ownership, but in the case of land, it cannot arrive before ownership.


What Thomas Schelling said of the role of national boundaries for the process of limiting war also applies to limiting violent conflict between A and B over the use of land. A property line is useful as a stopping place. It is useful to both A and B “in default of any plainly recognizable alternative since both sides have an interest in finding some limit. . . . The rationale behind the limit is legalistic and casuistic, not legal, moral, or physical. The limits may correspond to legal and physical differences or to moral distinctions; indeed, they usually have to correspond to something that gives them a unique and qualitative character and that provides some focus for expectations to converge on. But the authority is in the expectations themselves, and not in the thing that the expectations have attached themselves to” (1960, 259–61).


The convention that a first user of land be accorded ownership of that land is a rule on which A and B can easily converge in many circumstances. There is usually enough land such that production and exchange will better the conditions of both A and B (Nozick 1974, 174–82; Rothbard 1962, 504, 522–28). It can be economically better than non-interaction. It can be far better, economically and morally, than violent conflict.


In such circumstances, it will be right for each to respect the convention, and it will be wrong to breach it. A breach will be reasonably seen as an attack. Taking care not to drop the context, we may say that a first user has a right to appropriate land and defend it.


Imperfect Rights in Land


There is a conventional element to property rights in land. We saw in the preceding section that the rule that a first user of land be accorded ownership of land first used is a rule to which two possible claimants, having available other useful land, might converge without violent conflict. David Hume’s analogies are appropriate to the circumstance: “Two men, who pull the oars of a boat, do it by an agreement or convention, tho’ they have never given promises to each other. . . . In like manner are languages gradually establish’d by human conventions without any promise” (1737, 490). No explicit contract between the parties is necessary to establish ownership in land. What Russell Hardin called contract by convention is sufficient (1982, 155–72, 208–11).


Like Thomas Schelling’s prominence solutions for certain coordination games played with restrictions on communication (1960, 54–58), a rule must possess a psychological prominence to peacefully found a convention (Hardin 1982, 141–42; Sugden 1986, 47–52). Furthermore, particularly for large groups, the rule must be simple (Hardin 1982, 188–200). The first-use rule is simple, and it remains a prominent solution for the drawing of ownership boundaries on land, however large the community.


The first-use rule is, however, not the only plausibly just rule that appears natural and obvious. Furthermore, what should count as a use is not always clear. Mere declaration of intent to use is surely not a use. Murray Rothbard maintained that first preparation of a site for use should confer ownership. As title-conferring first preparations, he would count the activities of draining, filling, clearing, tilling, or paving (Rothbard 1970, 131; 1962, 147–49; see also Becker 1977, 32–56). His focus, like Locke’s, is on productive uses.


What about the reservation of virgin land for esthetic enjoyment or ecological study? Are not those uses? What about occupation, the use of land for a place to be?


Ellen Frankel Paul offers a somewhat different rule for initial appropriation: Title should go to the one who has, through purposive activity, transformed matter into something valuable to humans (Paul 1987, 224–36; cf. Kirzner 1978, 394–406). Richard Epstein adheres to a third rule, the rule of first possession. This is the standard rule at common law. This rule, too, is natural. In addition, like the others, it has some ambiguity. What if A’s occupation is prior to B’s, but B first fenced the land? (Epstein 1985, 10–11, 23–24, 61; see also Becker 1977, 24–31, 75–80).


Even if a just rule for appropriation of parcels of surface land could be settled upon by all the possible claimants (say, Rothbard, Paul, and Epstein), there would remain the questions of the extent of ownership to be recognized above and below the surface parcel. Consider only space above the land. One obvious solution would be the ad coelum doctrine of the common law. Under that rule, ownership would extend to all space directly above the land.


Rothbard would object. He would insist that the landowner only have rights in the space above to the extent that use by someone else can be excluded if it interferes with the landowner’s own health or his use and enjoyment of the land. Furthermore, if noise from aircraft were already a regular presence when the land was acquired, the landowner should have no complaint; the aircraft owner would already own the air for her limited purposes. Epstein would object. Paul would rejoin. (Rothbard 1982, 76–81; Epstein 1985, 117–21; Paul 1987, 89–90, 128–29, 217, 258).


Conflicting reasonable rules arise also for the transfer or conveyances of land titles. Consider the future interest in land known as the possibility of reverter. Thus, A, owner of Blackacre in fee simple absolute, conveys it “to B and his heirs so ling as the premises are not used for the sale of liquor, and if the premises are so used, they shall revert to A and his heirs” (Moynihan 1962, 98). Should such a future interest be recognized? Should such an estate be recognized only for some definite period of years after its creation? (ibid., 97–103).


Consider also a simple conveyance of A’s entire estate in Blackacre to B. What conventional signs of the transfer should be recognized? If B claims, upon the death of A in this case, that Blackacre was given to him, what conventional device should be accepted by C? If B’s claims were false, C might have had a rightful chance to appropriate the land as the next “first possessor” (or user, etc.).


Conventions are social. It is not reasonable to suppose that there exists some unique and complete set of rules for just land ownership that is so natural and obvious (once discovered) that it could be a set of universally accepted conventions upon which a universal contract by convention could be based. That a particular set would be just, if only everyone would buy into it, is not, on this earth, a completely adequate basis for anyone’s particular rights to property in specific land. Justifying private property in only a general way is all too easy (Becker 1977, 23).


The general problem is this: What is required for a would-be landowner to gain a just land title that is good against the world? The solution is this: alliance.


(To be concluded in Part III.)





Becker, L. 1977. Property Rights – Philosophic Foundations. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Epstein, R. 1985. Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain.

Harvard University Press.

Hardin, R. 1982. Collective Action. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hume, D. 1978 (1737). A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford University Press.

Kelley, D. 1984. Life, Liberty, and Property. Social Philosophy & Policy 1(2):108–18.

Kirzner, I. 1978. Entrepreneurship, Entitlement, and Economic Justice.

In Reading Nozick (1981). J. Paul, editor. Rowman and Littlefield.

Lomasky, L. 1984. Personal Projects as the Foundation for Basic Rights.

Social Philosophy & Policy 1(2):35–55.

Mack, E. 1977. Natural and Contractual Rights. Ethics. 87(2):153–59.

——. 1981. In Defense of “Unbridled” Freedom of Contract.

The American Journal of Economics and Sociology 40(1):1–15.

Moynihan, C. 1962. Introduction to the Law of Real Property. West Publishing.

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books.

Paul, E. 1987. Property Rights and Eminent Domain. Transaction Books.

Rothbard, M. 1962. Man, Economy, and State. Nash Publishing.

——. 1970. Power and Market. Sheed Andrews and McMeel.

——. 1982. Law, Property Rights, and Air Pollution. The Cato Journal 2(1):55–100.

Schelling, T. 1960. The Strategy of Conflict. Harvard University Press.

Sugden, R. 1986. The Economics of Rights, Co-operation, and Welfare.

Oxford University Press.


See also:


Boydstun, S. 1985. The Evolution of Cooperation – Book Review.

Nomos (Mar/Apr):33–34.

——. 1989. Rights and Game Strategies –Hardin and Sugden. Nomos (1994):4–8.

Bubb, F. 2000. Deriving Rights as Interpersonal Moral Constraints.

A paper for the Advanced Seminar of The Objectivist Center.

Kelley, D. 2000. Defining Coercion. Navigator (Sep):15–16.

Nozick, R. 1969. Coercion. In Socratic Puzzles (1997). Harvard University Press.


Post 6

Saturday, September 8, 2007 - 6:52amSanction this postReply

Rights, Games, and Self-Realization – Part III


The word civilization brings to mind tremendous construction projects, extensive labor specialization and coordination, far-reaching trade, and wealth. It brings to mind art, writing, and literature; science and technology; law and government. Yet fundamentally, as conceived by Ayn Rand, “civilization is the process of setting man free from men.”

Rand’s perspective seems correct, understanding that the relevant emancipation pertains to individuals remaining in society. Individuals are born into societies. Our prehistoric ancestors were born into families, tribes, and chiefdoms. We are born into families and nation states. The glories of civilization, the glories of being human, are fully possible only for individuals interacting in society.


The circumstance we supposed at the outset of our investigation of the nature of individual rights—the circumstance of two interacting individuals being entirely separated from wider society—was only an analytical fiction. Freedom within society is the point of individual rights.


States emerged originally in the late Neolithic and Chalcolithic periods. They were “invented” an uncertain number of times around the globe by people having no contact with previously established states. The most certain areas of original state formation are in Mesopotamia (4000 B.C.), in China (1850 B.C.–1100 B.C.), in Mesoamerica (1000 B.C.A.D. 300), and in Andean South America (800 B.C.A.D. 700).


Agriculture was also “invented” a number of times independently. Slash-and-burn cultivation of land appears before the state. Some degree of property, individual and collective, in movables and in land, appears before the state. Large-scale intensive cultivation entailing terracing, draining, or irrigation usually arrives roughly contemporaneously with the state.


There are various routes to the formation of the state, whether an initial state or secondary state. It is a common opinion among libertarians (following particularly Herbert Spencer, Franz Oppenheimer, and Robert Carneiro) that all states arise from the conquest of one society by another. That is more simple than the truth (Haas 1982).*


The following rationale for the state is my own. It is not intended as an account of the formation of any actual state. It is meant rather to offer sound strategic and moral reasons for maintaining a modicum of the institution. Both the state and property are practical necessities for freedom in our own era. Both too, are repressive when used by people having no concept of or concern for the universal rights of individuals.



The Just State


We saw in Part II that two would-be landowners might have conventions between them sufficient to base their ownerships in land vis-à-vis each other. But in the wider social setting, each faces endless double jeopardy form countless others. Such people need to get enough others to recognize their claims so that together they are powerful enough to enforce their claims regardless of what any additional people might think of them.


To gain an adequate alliance, it is not necessary to find conventions that directly specify titles acceptable to all in the alliance; it is sufficient and easier to find an acceptable social decision procedure (a second-order convention) for the resolution of conflicts. Such a procedure (say, recourse to the coherent judgment of some select person or persons) must yield just entitlements; its only justifiable range of rule-making is over the conventional aspects of certain property rights.


The purpose of such an alliance, the universal animating interest of its members, is the security of property rights in land. Success requires strength not only sufficient to exclude reasonable alternative claimants to the lands being protected but also sufficient to defeat outright aggressors. Material support for the successful alliance must come, of course, from its members. The magnitude of combined support required is determined by the magnitude of the threats posed to the land claims of alliance members.


One form of support that can be dismissed out of hand is military conscription. Justification of the existence of the alliance has nothing to do with any vagueness about the boundaries of people’s bodies; there is nothing undefined by nature on that score and no need for conventions or alliances to fully define relevant boundaries of exclusion. The alliance is justified only to perfect and secure rights to land. The only claims upon each other that members can have in virtue of the alliance are claims upon land.


Members of a successful alliance must come up with a scheme for imposing specific dues. Recourse to a procedure for selecting a representative portion of members to decide on assessments can be expected for large alliances.

One plausibly equitable cost-sharing scheme would have all landowners in the alliance pay a single percentage of their annual rents for real estate (but see Hardin 1982, 90–100). Owners drawing no rents in a given year might instead incur an equivalent lien against their property to be extinguished by future rents or sale. The percentage required to discharge the common security burden could be varied with necessity over the years.


Real estate includes both land (and things growing upon it) and the fixed structures upon it. Subjecting the combination to assessments for dues circumvents the practical difficulty of separating the rents accruing to each component.


The inclusion of fixed structures is justifiably within the ambit of the alliance. As long as title to the lands on which the structures rest are settled and titles to the lands from which the structures were ultimately produced were settled, there is no conventionality in the resulting initial ownership of the structures. There is, however, some conventionality in the conveyance of estates in structures, and those conventions could lead to results incompatible with land entitlements; to secure titles in land, fixed structures must be subject to the conventional rules of the alliance.


It seems likely that such an argument could be made to work for additional types of property requiring convention. An example would be future interests in personalty.


Because of the reasons for the alliance, the combined lands owned by the alliance members will compose a definite, highly contiguous territory of jurisdiction. If an alliance member, an owner of land, were to die intestate, her land would not pass out of the jurisdiction of the alliance. Anyone in the world could rightfully appropriate such land, but the effective alliance would have not only the right, but the effective power to enforce its own particular choice of just convention for settlement of the estate; for example, the land shall go to the next possessor, to the next of kin, or into a lottery for the landless.


Where property rights in land are perfected justly by the existence of an alliance, the alliance has the right to resist secession. It could agree to or acquiesce in a case of secession, but against the just alliance, the individual landowner could have no incontestable right to secede. A unilateral withdrawal of land from the jurisdiction of the alliance or a withholding of the due portion of rents for support of the security burden is essentially a breach of contract by convention. Then reciprocity is ended, and we are back where we began.


Such an alliance, I submit, might as well be called a state. I call it a land state. It falls short of the usual requirement for being a state, the holding of a monopoly on the retaliatory use of force within a geographical area (Rand 1963, 107, 109; Nozick 1974 22–25, 113–18).


Legitimate organized force could plausibly be wielded by various institutions, effecting various rights of the land state, without compromising its functions. More extensive, foreign states would certainly have to deal with the land state as though it were a state, for the land state is not at all handicapped when it comes to defending the country against attack.


It is unlikely that any actual state has been formed deliberately and solely to perfect and secure property rights in land. (Indeed, the land state might already be present in the pre-state, chiefdom form of political organization.) Organizations, though, previously formed for certain group purposes often do, over the long term, come to facilitate quite different purposes (Hardin 1982, 31–35). Furthermore, the critical mass of cooperative group members required to make the organization effective in some function need not have a complete comprehension of what they are about (ibid. 195–96).


Whatever the ontogeny of actual states, I expect we shall find some form of land state, some more just than others, at the core of each enduring state.


The rationale for the just land state set forth here should be sharply distinguished from the sweeping (some would say hand-waving) argument so often advanced to justify the state. We find Epstein, for example, asserting that each individual should be “required to surrender his right to use force to the state in exchange for the like promise of every other individual to so refrain” (1986, 53–54).


Epstein presumes that individuals entering such a pact come to it with all property rights somehow already perfected (all having seen the wisdom of Epstein’s own choice of conventions?) so that the state will be seen as the protector of preexisting rights and in no part the source of those rights. Having overlooked the possibility that the state could be created and rights in land perfected at once, he is pressed into embracing taxation, the forced exchange of otherwise secure property titles, to secure whatever rights are not compromised by his social compact (Epstein 1985, 217–18, 337–38).


All rights are then in jeopardy, including those that are perfectly well defined without convention as well as those that would be well defined once land titles were secured. This forcing of individuals into such a sweeping union and into transfers of otherwise secure property titles is unnecessary and unjust (Nozick 1974, 90–95).





There are two basic ways in which actual states differ from the just land state. Firstly, they do things, in themselves legitimate, through illicit means such as taxation. Secondly, they do things that, like taxation, should not be done by anyone; they systematically violate rights.


In The Concept of Law, H. L. A. Hart analyzed legal systems as a union of primary and secondary rules. Primary rules are rules that prohibit or enjoin—rules such as “thou shalt not kill” or “though shalt not steal.” Secondary rules confer legal powers. They provide individuals with social facilities for validating their chosen arrangements of various rights and duties. Contracts, corporations, and wills are instances of such arrangements. When they are utilized, rules of the second type yield new rules of the primary type (Hart 1972, 27–28, 89–96).


Secondary rules are rules about primary rules. Among secondary rules are not only rules for recognizing, as valid, transformations in the primary rules, but rules for settling what is an enforceable primary rule and rules for determining whether a primary rule has been broken.


Secondary rules are always partly conventional. Rights that require some amount of convention for their substantive specification (such as rights in land, future interests in personalty, rights to intangible property, or rights of formal contract) require the acceptance of secondary rules before primary rules bracing those rights (such as the primary rule “thou shalt not steal”) can be well defined (cf. Nozick 1974 141–42; Regan 1986, 16–25). That is not generally true for rights to personal liberty nor for rights against personal injury, although these personal rights, like all rights, do require secondary rules in the adjudication of particular cases.


Judgments of direct attack or confinement of persons are largely perceptual. Violence and restraint are universally understood between people without common language. Against the use of force, we should all harbor a moral presumption. Force is prima facie anti-responsive to the moral value of the person forced (Nozick 1981, 48–49, 502, 564–65, 467–68, 472–73). It is prima facie anti-mind and anti-life (Rand 1957). It is aligned prima facie against life as it ought to be, life directed by the self at its center.


Individuals in society retain the right of self-defense, but have no right, good against interveners, to use retaliatory force, whether for deterrence or punishment or as a means to compensation, until the justness of retaliation has been publicly demonstrated. Prior to public trial, third parties are morally right to intervene. The act of intervention is rendered right by the act of force at hand and the prima facie case against all force. It is not attackers who should be presumed innocent until proven guilty (cf. Smith 1979, 405–11, 415–21).


Subgroups of individuals within the territory of a land state could subscribe for fees to various ongoing organizations offering to assure public and just vindication of rights (beyond rights in real property). All such organizations would have to dovetail their laws with the law of real property, they would have to recognize the particular real estate titles recognized by the land state, and they would have to derive all their revenues from subscriptions or donations. Each such agency of justice would have to earn public confidence in its justness; otherwise, like individuals, these agencies would have no right, good against third party intervention, to wield retaliatory force (Nozick 1974, 12–18, 133–34, 140; see also Hardin 1982 101–24). George Smith has given reasons for believing such agencies would have economic incentives to reach demonstrably true verdicts (1979, 411–14, 421–24).


We can expect justice agencies to be loosely federated because of interaction with each other and with the common land state (cf. Machan 1975, 149). Agencies could rightfully differ in conventional aspects of both primary and secondary rules. There might be a tendency for subscribers to come from contiguous geographical areas (Nozick 1974, 16; cf. Axelrod 1984, 158–65).


Would subscribers to a justice agency be willing to assume collective liability for the intentional harms brought to outsiders by individual members? Probably not. Even in primitive tribes, it does not work that way (French 1984, 116–19).


We saw in Part I that, for two people isolated from wider society, good-faith intervention against truly wrong physical self-harms would not violate individual rights. That seems to be the case in a full social setting as well, but here there is a new possible conflict. Acts portending self-destruction make out a prima facie case for the justness of intervention where little to nothing is known of the self-destructive person’s particular personal circumstances and self-definition. But acts of forcible intervention make out a prima facie case for aggression and for the justness of third-party counter-intervention where all that is evident to third parties is the savior’s resort to force.


Such conflicts create no great social problem because their incidence is miniscule compared to the incidence of aggressions and accidents (subsuming here and hereafter thefts and accidental conversions). However law concerning good-faith private intervention might or should develop, it is clear that no general prohibition against truly wrong self-harms can be drawn in terms sufficiently narrow to avoid running afoul of individual rights. Furthermore, it is unlikely that any acts (even objectively wrong ones) having no transpersonal victims could be criminalized under a system in which agencies of justice must rely on strictly voluntary funding; victimless crime laws could not be instituted (Friedman 1973, 171–78).


If, in full society, it is not true that individuals have an incontestable right against good-faith private enforceable contraventions of self-inflicted physical harms, then, in full society, it is not strictly true that individuals have a right to do whatever does not violate the rights of others. Nevertheless, it is very seldom false that individuals have a right to engage in an activity if it does not violate any rights of others.


This result is remarkable, for my general definition of having-a-right has no built-in compatibility condition. It asserts only that one has a right to engage in just those activities for which it is the case that one would become right to take otherwise wrong action against others contravening those activities (having-a-right definition in the Introduction).


This general conception of rights leaves open the possibility that the true rights of one person can conflict with those of another. Political rights are coercive rights. There is a moral presumption against coercion, direct or indirect. The only acts sufficient to overcome that presumption are acts of physical harm or restraint or non-consensual taking of another’s property.


Though individuals do not have a right against absolutely all coercion, it is the case nonetheless that the only true rights are rights against coercion or physical harms, and these rights can only be violated or infringed through aggression or accident. It is because we have coercive rights only against coercion or physical harms that conflicts of true individual rights can be exceptional—as exceptional as accidental harms among responsible people.


The concept of individual rights is difficult. However faintly it may be grasped, it is the concept that has given us any freedom we have or will have. It is the concept that makes it possible for us to devise our own lives and realize the value of that occasion.



*See also Haas 2001.




Epstein, R. 1985. Takings: Private Property and the Power of Eminent Domain.

Harvard University Press.

——. 1986. Taxation in a Lockean World. Social Philosophy & Policy 4(1):49–74.

French, P. 1984. Collective and Corporate Responsibility. Columbia University Press.

Friedman, D. 1973. The Machinery of Freedom. Harper & Row.

Haas, J. 1982. The Evolution of the Prehistoric State. Columbia University Press.

——., editor. 2001. From Leaders to Rulers. Kluwer Academic.

Hardin, R. 1982. Collective Action. John Hopkins University Press.

Hart, H. 1972. The Concept of Law. 2nd ed. Clarendon Press.

Machan, T. 1975. Human Rights and Human Liberties. Nelson Hall.

Nozick, R. 1974. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Basic Books.

——. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Harvard University Press.

Rand, A. 1957. Atlas Shrugged. Random House.

——. 1963. The Nature of Government. In The Virtue of Selfishness (1964). Signet.

Regan, D. 1986. Law’s Halo. Social Philosophy & Policy 4(1):15–30.

Smith, G. 1979. Justice Entrepreneurship in a Free Market.

The Journal of Libertarian Studies 3(4):405–26.

Post 7

Saturday, September 8, 2007 - 8:21amSanction this postReply
The concept of individual rights is difficult. However faintly it may be grasped, it is the concept that has given us any freedom we have or will have. It is the concept that makes it possible for us to devise our own lives and realize the value of that occasion.


It is also, tho, the means by which one can speculate the future and the extent this devising of our own lives, generationally speaking, can be valued and realized.... not that it could take place today - but that it could take place....

Post 8

Monday, April 6, 2009 - 3:48pmSanction this postReply
Timely that this came up again...

Post 9

Tuesday, April 7, 2009 - 4:37amSanction this postReply
Robert thanks for pointing that out! I think this passage is relevant to the current thread with Jordan:

Ayn Rand observed that “a right is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context” (1963, 93). If two people have no ability to affect each other in any significant way, no issue as to rights between them can arise. Each will face moral choices, but there will be in this circumstance no moral choices concerning interactions with each other. From my purely formal definition of a right, given below, it follows immediately, that without the ability of two people to affect each other, it would be futile to search for any rights between them. Furthermore, to say that an individual has a right to something is to say that she has a right to be free from specific contravening actions of others. Rights are not some sort of moral aura that hangs around individuals independently of social relations. This, too, is implicit in the formal definition.

Post 10

Saturday, May 30, 2009 - 5:34amSanction this postReply
This is valuable and worth the effort.  I located and copied the complete set so that I can go over it later.  Does anyone remember Jerry Emanuelson's algebraic proof of Ricardo's Law of Association?

Introduction (the present topic)


Part I



Part II



Part III




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Post 11

Sunday, January 8, 2012 - 4:14amSanction this postReply
Three recent substantive contributions on rights and government:

Reality, Reason, and Rights
Essays in Honor of Tibor R. Machan
Rasmussen, Skoble, and Den Uyl, editors (2011)

The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia
Bader and Meadocroft, editors (2012)

Design for Liberty
Richard Epstein (2011)

Post 12

Thursday, July 25, 2013 - 6:11pmSanction this postReply
The following is an early essay of mine published in Nomos in spring of 1984. I cited it in Part 1 of “Rights, Games, and Self-Realization” (1988). I find these ideas still stimulating and still largely right, and perhaps they are of interest to some readers at RoR.

The Moral Value of Liberty

According to the view that there are no objective values, there are no ways in which one ought to act; there are simply ways in which one prefers to act. One may prefer to treat others as if they were valuable, but not because they are actually valuable. One may prefer to believe the truth that there are no valid values, but not because one ought to believe the truth. One may doubt the coherence of this point of view, one may even suspect that there is something in the world of objective value—then one ought to read this essay.

For my understanding of the nature of objective value and of the value of individual liberty, I owe much to the work of Ayn Rand and Robert Nozick. The whole view and some of the parts of the whole presented in this essay are only my own. But the view may also serve as an introduction and invitation to the recent work of Nozick on the foundations of ethics in his wonderful book Philosophical Explanations (1981). [See too, my remarks on the ethics part of his final work Invariances*.]

~The Birthplace of Value~

A value which is valuable not purely as a means to further value beyond itself is termed by Nozick an intrinsic value. It is valuable in itself. Distinguished from intrinsic value is instrumental value. Instrumental value is instrumental to extrinsic value; it derives its value from value lying beyond itself, from the valuable end for which it is means.

In even the simplest organism, we see intrinsic and instrumental values. The life of an organism itself is of intrinsic value; the conditions required for its life are of instrumental value. In the simpler organisms, these values merely supervene the living action. They characterize and distinguish all living action, but in the absence of sufficient consciousness they do not draw the living action forth. The values displayed in the simple organism are achieved by efficient causes quite “blind” to the value they render.

Consider the butterfly. Butterflies of the Heliconious species H. hewitsoni deposit their eggs selectively on the shoots of the Passiflora species P. pittieri, selecting both this particular vine and the proper stage of its development. If the shoot is too young, the hatching caterpillars may devour the shoot before its leaves appear; if the shoot is too old, the leaves will be too tough. In either circumstance the young caterpillars would starve (Gilbert 1982). But the butterfly does not seek out the proper place to deposit eggs in order to produce progeny.

The actions of a relatively simple organism such as a butterfly, vital to itself and/or its species, are performed without the operation of final causes (sufficiently global to effect the result). The lives of human beings, however, spring largely from final causes. Because of our mode of consciousness, we are capable of being drawn towards ends extensive in scope and number. If life is not among our ends, if we do not make it an operative value of ours, then we shall tend to die on that account.

It is in a world of living things that value arises. The simple organism organizes itself into a highly interdependent system; the parts of the whole which it is produce each other reciprocally. Each part not only exists by means of the other parts but also appears to exist for the sake of the others and of the whole. In this pattern there is, as we shall see, something profoundly important for beings such as we. Organisms can operate for us as an intrinsic value; they can be of intrinsic value for us. Some things can be of intrinsic value for us, and in that very valuation we can be intrinsic value.

~Objective Value~

Objects of the self, including the self as object of its own reflection, can be of value for the self as subject. The self as subject and only the self as subject can be value. But just as the self cannot be the subject it is without having been subject to external objects, so the self cannot be the value it is without external objects of value to it. And just as the self cannot be the subject it is without also being the self-reflective object it is, so the self cannot the value it is without being of that value to itself.

Which things can be of objective intrinsic value? Robert Nozick has given good reasons to think that the objective dimension of intrinsic value is degree of organic unity. An organic unity unifies a diversity of what constitutes the parts of the whole. The degree of organic unity of X (an action, entity, event, or state of affairs) is a function of the degree of unifiedness of the unified material relative to a set of unifying relations, and a function of the degree of diversity of that material relative to a set of dimensions along which the materials differ or are similar. The intrinsic value of X is the sum of the degree of organic unity of the whole it is plus the values arising from the degrees of organic unity of each of its parts (Nozick 1981, 103–4, 415–24).

The phenomenon of organic unity appears not only in living organisms and ecological systems but also in the realm of art, in the structure of abstract theories, and in the functioning of machines and toys. A work of art, for example, by relation to its creation or contemplation, can be of intrinsic value because its organic unity contributes to the intrinsic value of the creation or contemplation.

Our lives, our selves are capable of immense intrinsic value. A familiar passage of Ayn Rand’s can here be seen in a new light:
    Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy—a joy without penalty or guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values. . . .

    And when one experiences the kind of pure happiness that is an end in itself—the kind that makes one think: “This is worth living for”—what one is greeting and affirming in emotional terms is the fact that life is an end in itself. (Rand 1964, 29)
The state of being giving rise to this happiness is not only valuable because it preserves the life of such a being; such a being is all the more valuable (and worth preserving) because highly organically unified.

That there be an objective basis for intrinsic value is not sufficient for the operation of value in the world. Nozick has taken an approach somewhat similar to Rand’s approach to bridging the traditional gap between descriptive fact and operative value. “We choose or determine that there be values, that they exist, but their character is independent of us. . . . The choice that there be value is reflexive . . . [for] it chooses that there be value in virtue of that very choosing that there be value” (Nozick 1984, 555–60). In addition, this choice is an instance of the policy of valuing value, of responding to value as value, “a policy that is reflexively and self-subsumingly brought into effect in that very choice” (560).

Although the character of the value so willed is not up to us, there is no one objectively correct set or weighting of values to be realized. The choice that there be value is made in the valuation of particular things, and not all values are compossible. We see, then, that within objective limits there remains room for creativity “in the weighting and balancing of different values, in forming a life embodying a new and original organic unity of diverse constituent values” (565).

~Ethical Conduct~

Utilizing the hypothesis that degree of organic unity is the objective dimension of intrinsic value, Nozick is able to explain how responsiveness to intrinsic value is intrinsically valuable. He further suggests that we might understand the notion of an act one prima facie ought to do, as an act that is responsive to some value. He holds, however, that value is also to be pursued because one is thereby being responsive to it as value. This suggests that value might be characterized as that to which one prima facie ought to be responsive. In Nozick’s theory, value and ought each require support from the other notion (529–31).

The moral ought is distinguished within the wider concept of ought by the kind of value giving rise to it. The characteristic of ourselves and of others in virtue of which both are owed ethical behavior is being a value-seeking I. This fundamental characteristic, an end in itself, is intrinsically and highly valuable.

From this characteristic arises the fundamental principle of ethics: Treat one who is a value-seeking I as a value-seeking I. Treat her as (or in accordance with her closeness to being) that value. Such responsiveness is only possible to one in one’s capacity as a value-seeking I. Only a value-seeking self can adequately queue and shape his behavior to another’s being one; only by exercising his own basic moral characteristic can he respond to that characteristic as that characteristic in another (or in himself). In treating another in ways morally responsive, he unifies himself with the intrinsic value she is; the intrinsic value of his life is thereby magnified. The person who treats another immorally places himself in a relation of disunity with her intrinsic value, thereby rendering the self he is less valuable (451–69).

In ethical interpersonal relationships which are not close, one must respond
    to the fact of another’s subjectivity, to her being a self, a value-seeking entity, a choice-making and meaning-seeking entity, but one need not respond to every modulation in the content or focus of these characteristics. Ethics responds to the fact that these characteristics are there, perhaps also to some general traits of their content, while more intimate relationships respond to the particular way these characteristics specify and express themselves. . . .

    But if, as I believe, there is a general principle calling for responsiveness to value as such, not merely the value embodied in the basic moral characteristic, then there will be differences in how we (are to) appropriately respond to different people. While these differences will not involve violating the rights all share in virtue of being value-seeking I’s, they might involve choosing to aid or save some rather than others in situations where not all can be helped. (470–72)

~The Right to Liberty~

Individual rights are a class of moral claims for which enforcement is morally permissible. The deliberate use of force is prima facie anti-responsive to the basic moral characteristic of the recipient; there is a moral presumption against its use—any use. The true rights of individuals must be based upon moral claims sufficient to overcome this presumption, and force must be used only to effect these rights.

Since the rule of law entails the existence of general standing orders backed by credible coercive threats, we identify the activities of government (agents as government agents) which are morally permissible when we identify individual rights. A delineation of the morally proper sphere of individual liberty delineates also the morally permissible uses of deliberate force. Elsewhere I have presented the view that the proper sphere of liberty of interacting individuals may be discerned by reference to the circumstances of individuals presently incapable of interaction (Boydstun 1983). From that view it was seen that the fundamental right of each interacting individual is the right to full formal liberty.

Material liberty was defined as the extent of what an individual can in fact do independently of another. The right of full formal liberty was specified as the right of each against the reduction of his material liberty by another. It was then seen that from this fundamental right there flow rights against personal injury, rights to private property, and rights to privacy.

Were the legal uses of force restricted to the enforcement of these rights, individuals would be left fully free, within the realm of the possible, to respond to value and to become value. The life of each would be his own—his alone to destroy, his with others’ to love, to nurture, to glorify.

Boydstun, S. C. 1983, June. Political Liberty and Property Rights. Illinois Libertarian.
Gilbert, L. E. 1982, Aug. The Coevolution of a Butterfly and a Vine. Scientific American.
Nozick, R. 1981. Philosophical Explanations. Harvard.
Rand, A. 1964. The Virtue of Selfishness. NAL.

Post 13

Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 1:52pmSanction this postReply


The Paradox of Modern Individualism

by Mark S. Weiner,

author of The Rule of the Clan

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Post 14

Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 3:12pmSanction this postReply



I read the article by Mark Weiner and came up with mostly negative reactions.  Maybe I'm missing something.


Many conservatives argue as a basic tenet of their political thought that individual liberty thrives when the state is limited and weak.

I would argue that state should be strong but limited. The "limited" is the most important - limited to defending individual rights. But once that is settled, it makes no sense to call for a weak defense of individual rights.

Although the state can be an instrument of tyranny, robust government capable of vindicating the public interest is vital for individual autonomy.

What does "vindicating the public interest" mean?

...a strong central state provides the most effective means to ensure that persons are treated as individuals, not merely as cousins. In its absence, people are forced to look to other institutions to address their social and legal problems, and the most enduring such organization in human history is the extended family, the clan—for which group loyalty trumps individual rights.

Did the strong central state of Nazi Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union, or any other "strong central state" ensure that persons were treated as individuals?  His claim here appears to be that the family, or any other non-government organization will be a greater violater of individual rights than a strong central state.  There could be an argument made for differing levels of individualism (not rights) in different cultures. But, in so far as rights go, they are only violated by initiation of force and that is either protected against, or caused by, government.


I certainly agree with the author that clan honor/shame, clan liability/authority, and any government structure or policy that is based upon these would damage individualism, but this argument shouldn't conflate individual rights with a culture of individualism, and clan oriented cultures shouldn't be pointed at as a justification for strong, central government without any reference to explicit limitations relative to individual rights.


I see the argument against central authority and for decentralized authority as one of safety against a government that exceeds proper limitations - any government.  It is hard to imagine a strong, central authority that isn't a greater risk to individual liberty than the decentralized authority.  As to the individual rights, someone whose rights are violated is as harmed regardless of how central or decentralized the authority that harmed him. (The author makes clear that he is a strong supporter of the decentralized federalism of the American context, as am I, which leaves me wondering why the article tilts to a central government.)

In addition, the modern self is a creature of state development. In historical terms, the modern self is a legal and governmental achievement as much as a cultural one.

I don't agree with that at all.  Ideas are born of an individual's mind.  The ideas are picked up and distributed over time and may grow till they form those parts of the culture that are influential in the creation of the government. The state's influence on the individual comes later.  The state defines some boundaries that people and the culture adjust to. Apart from a violent coup, I don't see any way to impose a kind of state that is basically out of sync with the culture. ("People get the kind of government they deserve.")

Equally, to maintain its legitimacy, government must seek to address the needs that the rule of the clan meets far more directly. It must pursue policies that moderate economic inequality...

"Legitimacy" isn't derived from matching the rules of the clan.  And economic inequality is just a Marxist mis-direction kind of argument, and in reality, it is just as often a product of crony capitalism as anything else. And if merit, intelligence, or effort are unequal, then it would be unjust to have equal outcomes.


I could have been less critical of this article if had been cast as an argument of how to influence a clan-based tyranny to change towards those cultures that support greater amounts of liberty.   But it didn't read that way. Too often, the academic approach to a subject goes awry when it doesn't arise from an explicit purpose.

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Post 15

Sunday, June 22, 2014 - 6:48pmSanction this postReply


Eric Mack is one of the contributors to The Cambridge Companion to Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia, which I linked in #11. Prof. Mack has today contributed the entry Robert Nozick’s Political Philosophy to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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