Rights and Resources—Libertarians and the Right to Life

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Abstract:

The author addresses Robert Nozick's claim that: “The particular rights over things fill the space of rights, leaving no room for general rights to be in a certain material condition.” Hence Nozick insists that rights are violated if citizens are compelled to contribute to others' welfare, however urgent their needs may be. The author argues that it is characteristic of libertarian theories that they invoke the moral sanctity of private property against welfarist or egalitarian conceptions of social justice. Nozick's version of the libertarian critique has three conceptual pillars–“right,”“thing” and “space.” On that basis Nozick claims that talk of welfare “rights” can be condemned on the plane of rights. This is true, Nozick maintains, even of “the right to life.” The author contends that this argument fails. It equivocates over the idea of “rights”; and it misconceives crucial features of property. Nozick deploys exclusive “domain rights,” whilst attacking “important-interest rights.” His historical-entitlement theory fails as a justification of private property. The author argues that, so far as material objects are concerned, private property institutions depend upon trespassory rules which do not impose morally binding obligations unless basic needs are catered for. Furthermore, private property institutions also comprise monetary resources to which the spatial metaphor of exclusive rights does not apply. Holdings vested in any particular person at any particular time are stamped, morally, with a mix of contestable and mutable property-specific justice reasons. Hence it is fallacious to suppose that ownership rights together exhaust all normative space over “things.”

The major objection to speaking of everyone's having a right to various things such as equality of opportunity, life, and so on, and enforcing this right, is that these “rights” require a substructure of things and materials and actions; and other people may have rights and entitlements over these. [≡] The particular rights over things fill the space of rights, leaving no room for general rights to be in a certain material condition. (Nozick 1974, 238)

Document Type: Research Article

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/1467-9337.00200

Affiliations: University of Oxford, UK james.harris@law.ox.ac.uk

Publication date: June 1, 2002

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