Friday, April 16, 2021

Revisiting Nagel's "Libertarianism Without Foundations" (Part 2)

One of Nagel’s central objections to Nozick is that he places far too much moral weight on property rights. It seems reasonable to take some of a person’s property when needed to, say, save a life. Nagel writes, “It is far less plausible to maintain that taking some of an innocent man's property is an impermissible means for the prevention of a serious evil, than it is to maintain that killing him is impermissible. These rights vary in importance and some are not absolute even in the state of nature.” Later he elaborates:


There is no reason to think that either in personal life or in society the force of every right will be absolute or nearly absolute, i.e., never capable of being overridden by consequential considerations. Rights not to be deliberately killed, injured, tormented, or imprisoned are very powerful and limit the pursuit of any goal. More limited restrictions of liberty of action, restrictions on the use of property, restrictions on contracts, are simply less serious and therefore provide less powerful constraints.


Nagel’s objection to Nozick is sensible. But he fails to recognize that it applies with equal force against liberal egalitarianism. Rawls, for instance, claimed that the protection of basic liberties enjoyed lexical priority over competing social concerns—that is, these liberties are “never capable of being overridden by consequential considerations.” Thus, limited restrictions on basic liberties are impermissible, even to prevent a serious evil. By way of example, Rawls’s stance on bodily autonomy implies that the state may not compel a 15 second blood draw even when needed to save a life. So here again, Nagel misses Nozick’s point, which is that Rawls holds personal property to a different standard than all other basic liberties.