[This article was submitted to The Occasional Review (in perhaps the late-1970s) for inclusion in that journal’s symposium on the theories of Robert Nozick and John Rawls.  Murphey considers it unfortunate that it wasn’t included in that symposium, since he believes the criticisms he makes are of major importance in the context of the methodology of the social sciences and of moral theory.] 


Axiomatic Moral Philosophies: Some Problems of Method and Validity 

Dwight D. Murphey


            When The Occasional Review invited manuscripts for an issue devoted to the philosophies of Robert Nozick and John Rawls, I was somewhat puzzled.   What did Nozick and Rawls have in common that would cause them to be considered together?  Maybe there was justification enough in the fact that each of them had in the recent past authored a major book on moral and political philosophy.  And perhaps there was some tie, as well as some intrinsic interest, created by the fact that both men are on the faculty of the same department at the same preeminent university—the department of philosophy at Harvard.

            But the similarities seemed to end there.  Nozick’s is a libertarian philosophy.  It starts with the autonomous rights of the individual and works from there to justify, at most, a “minimal state” which, in Nozick’s words, is “limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on.”[1]  Rawls’ philosophy, on the other hand, is much more avowedly egalitarian and statist.  It is true that he gives liberty an absolute priority, but he understands liberty as not including economic freedom; and this permits Rawls to be indifferent as to whether it is welfare liberalism or democratic socialism that issues from his principles.[2]  So great an ideological difference seemed to invite comparison only by way of contrast.

            But to me this contrast did not seem interesting enough, by itself, to justify an article.  Not that it isn’t worthwhile to compare the views of two academic giants.  My problem, I am sure, is that I did not see Nozick and Rawls as giants.  I know this is a heresy in light of the attention each of them has received—but The Occasional Review is a publication of sufficiently wide scholarly dimension that I have reason to hope that even so obstinately perverse a view as my own will receive a respectful hearing from its readers.

            Both Nozick and Rawls have been praised effusively.  Nozick himself speaks of Rawls’ A Theory of Justice as “a powerful, deep, subtle, wide-ranging, systematic work in political and moral philosophy which has not seen its like since the writings of John Stuart Mill, if then.”  This is high praise, indeed—to which he adds that “political philosophers must now either work within Rawls’ theory or explain why not.”[3]  For his part, Nozick was recently described as having “presented a modern and stunning defense of the classical liberal or limited state positions”; he is “one of the most respected defenders of individual liberty and minimum government.”[4]  In light of such praise, I cannot help but be aware of the heresy that is involved when I express my own judgment: that I have found relatively little that is really valuable in either of their philosophies.  As a classical liberal, I am at least in the ballpark with Nozick’s conclusions; and I have found in him an amazing ability to formulate striking and insightful examples.  But both Nozick and Rawls rely overwhelmingly on purely formal structures of argument.  This means that substantively there is little in either of their books for someone who doesn’t accept the beginning structure.  Stylistically, the formalism has produced for Rawls a book that is stilted beyond anything I have ever read; it would be surprising if it has any appeal to anyone who is not trapped within the pedantic neo-scholasticism of contemporary academic life.  My point about their respective formalisms will be spelled out more fully in the remainder of this article.

            As I have thought about their philosophies, what has become interesting to me—so much so that my erstwhile apathy has turned to genuine enthusiasm that there is something significant to say in discussing them—has been certain important issues of method.  It seems to me that despite the dissimilarities in the substance of their philosophies, and even in the outward content of their formal structure of argument, Nozick and Rawls have committed the same fundamental errors.  Each philosophy is formed by and suffers from the same basic methodological inadequacies.  The significance of these weaknesses extends far beyond Nozick and Rawls themselves.  The problems are so fundamental that they are shared by many others in moral and political philosophy.

            Both Nozick and Rawls approach their subject through what we might call an “axiomatic” method.

            Nozick starts by asserting the existence of certain basic rights held by the autonomous individual.  Reverting to the theory of the “state of nature” that was so popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he asserts that “in a state of nature an individual may himself enforce his rights, defend himself, exact compensation, and punish (or at least try his best to do so).”[5]  From that starting point, the process is entirely deductive.  Nozick rationalistically examines the implications of these rights in a number of hypothetical contexts relating to the state of nature.  What is moral is what is consistent with these rights and with voluntary interactions based on them.  He sees his theory as a theory of “entitlements,” since people start by being entitled to certain rights and since the justice of every situation can be determined by seeing whether, at least hypothetically, the situation could have come about without a violation of those rights.  This process of moral deduction is intended to be a strict one; that is, it is “purist” in the sense that Nozick intends not to introduce extrinsic social perceptions or value judgments from time to time to alter or supplement the system.  Whether he completely succeeds in this is a question that can only be answered by a close examination of his text.

            Rawls, too, arrives at a deductive system which operates from certain axioms, but he differs considerably from Nozick in how he reaches the beginning principles.  Robert Paul Wolff has described Rawls’ system as invoking a “bargaining game” format.  “The game consists of a series of proposals made by each player in turn for consideration by all the rest, and play terminates when there is unanimous agreement on a single set of principles.”[6]  Elaborate rules are set down in establishing the model.  The players are assumed to make their choices from behind a “veil of ignorance” that assures their impartiality; and they “are assumed to be rationally self-interested, as in all such games, but they are assumed also to operate under a single additional constraint not deducible from the definition of rational self-interest: it is posited that once they have agreed upon a set of principles, chosen though they have been on the basis of a calculation of self-interest, they will abide by those principles in all future cases.”[7]

            Rawls then makes a giant leap by asserting that under such conditions the players would unanimously agree upon two principles, with the first always to be paramount to the second: The first is that “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others” (except that it later appears, through an almost subconscious ideological presumption on Rawls’ part, that economic liberty is not included in this).  The second principle is that “social and economic inequalities are to be arranged” in certain ways.  The reader will immediately notice that this has serious statist implications.  This second principle has two aspects.  The first is what Rawls calls “the difference principle.”  It is that any inequality is justifiable only if it can be “reasonably expected to be to everyone’s advantage,” including even “the representative man who is worse off.”  The second aspect involves a “principle of fair opportunity.”[8]  Some additional principles are brought in, too, but my purpose is to give the reader a quick picture of Rawls’ model rather than an elaboration of it.

            So far, I have simply said enough to show the types of “axiomatic” method applied by Nozick and Rawls.  This has said nothing about the methodological sufficiency of their approaches.  But now I would like to turn my attention to that—because I think each is seriously deficient.

            The premise upon which my criticism is based is this: that every social, political, moral philosophy must be prepared at some point or other to consider on the merits, and not simply to exclude as irrelevant because of the method used, every assertable human value and every assertable perception of social reality.  At least this is methodologically imperative if the philosophy purports to speak authoritatively to the moral sensibilities of mankind; it would not have to be true of a purely hypothetical system that makes no claims about relating to reality and that only seeks a self-contained logical system such as we are accustomed to seeing in pure mathematics.

            If a philosophy is either unable or unwilling to meet this condition, it is seriously incomplete.  The excluded values and perceptions could conceivably alter its scheme, either entirely or in part, if they were allowed to be considered.  A practical drawback that is associated with this is that the philosophy automatically renders itself unacceptable to anyone who holds to the excluded value or perception.  That person is bound to consider such a philosophy, at least to the extent of the omission, irrelevant and naively foolish.

            It is probably true, as a simple matter of fact, that all social philosophies suffer from this exclusionary defect, at least in varying degrees.  John Stuart Mill made this point eloquently in his essay On Bentham and Coleridge.  He said that most philosophies capture a certain part of the truth, but not all of it; and that they tend to err more in the truths they deny than in the propositions they affirm.  I should think it is safe to say that no one can have a fully sensitive awareness of the kernel of truth that inheres in virtually all the viewpoints that differ from his own.  No mind is sufficiently comprehensive and empathetic to accomplish that.

            But although this is true of every philosophy, the exclusionary defect is almost certainly going to appear—as a prominent invalidating factor—in those philosophies that adopt the “axiomatic” method.  At least this is true unless those formulating the philosophy are highly sensitive to the problem, which they rarely are.  Certainly Nozick and Rawls have not been.  What is necessary is to understand that in any philosophical system that consists of deductions from axioms, all of the substantive considerations relating to values and social perceptions are per se pushed forward to the pre-axiom stage.  That is to say, all of the really difficult questions of social, political, moral philosophy need to be considered fully as a part of the process of selecting the axioms, or principles, that are to become the basis for the future deductions.  If they are not considered in that pre-axiom phase, they will not be considered at all (except to the extent they are smuggled in).  Once the principles are selected and the deduction begins, everything that is not included in the principles becomes purely extraneous, to be brushed aside.

            We can readily see that the pre-axiom stage takes on an importance surpassing that of the deductive phase.  It is here that the thinker is left to grapple with all of the contending interpretations of social reality and all competing values.  Only after he has resolved those issues to his own satisfaction is he really prepared to arrive at the principles that are to “lay down the law” the rest of the way.  Until then, his province is not that of a law-giver.  His task at the earlier stage is to resolve those complex issues of interpretive fact that are so important about social reality; and to decide, in light of those facts, where his values lie.  The ultimate choice of axioms and the ensuing process of deduction should not permit the thinker to escape any of those difficult issues.  He simply confronts them at an earlier stage.  The “law-giving” phase should be the culmination, not the beginning, of moral philosophy.

            Even in the deductive phase new considerations may come to the thinker that he has not taken into account before.  If, for example, he finds that his principles have untoward consequences because he now finds that other values need to be weighed in the balance, too, he should hold himself free, in effect, to revert again and again to the pre-axiom stage to take those things into account.  Otherwise, he is the prisoner of a prematurely assumed mantle of omniscience.  This is what I have had in mind when I have argued in my earlier writing that “I cannot know what my principles are to be until I have considered their consequences” and have criticized those who say that “I will hold to my principles regardless of the consequences.”[9] 

            The “axiomatic” thinker characteristically fails to see these things.  He almost always short-circuits this essential beginning stage by an overly quick choice of axioms, and he frequently sees merit in sticking with his principles regardless of the now-extraneous factors that should cause him to rethink them.  This has the effect of making him a doctrinaire who uses his method as a way of pushing aside the desiderata that are pressed upon him from differing points of view.  Once he has “locked in” the components of his system, he is on the move, following what he strives to make an inexorable course.

            Nozick and Rawls each offers an excellent example of this exclusionary defect.  So, too, do Robert LeFevre and Ayn Rand, in their respective ways; but I have to be careful not to bite off more than I can chew or the reader can digest.  Since, as we have seen, Nozick and Rawls each has a different approach, we will need to consider them in turn.

            It won’t take long.  Because there is no way I can quote the omissions in Nozick’s book, since they are not there in quotable form, I must count on the reader’s having read the book for himself.  If he has, he will recall that Nozick starts his Preface by saying that “individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)” and that at no point thereafter does Nozick consider it necessary to justify his statement that such rights exist.  He simply posits them and goes on from there, discussing what they are and what their implications are.  He does not devote a thousand pages to determining whether they should be considered to exist in light of all that must be taken into account about mankind; he doesn’t even devote a chapter.  The pre-axiom phase is for him non-existent.  For this reason, I read considerable significance into a passage in the interview in the December 1977 issue of World Research INK.  He explained that “I think (that) when I was a socialist I was really an entitlement theory socialist.  I thought, in other words, that workers were entitled to the fruits of their labor and that they were not getting it.”  The interviewer asked him, “What was the source of that conviction?” and he responded that “It just seemed obvious to me… It wasn’t a highly intellectual position.”  He then began a sentence “It was…,” but apparently paused.  The interviewer filled in “A gut level position?” and Nozick picked up on it: “Gut level, yes.”[10]

            My purpose in writing this analysis is not to be mean.  I am attracted to Nozick as a personality.  But it seems clear from his book that he is still holding to entitlement theory on a gut level.  Even now, he does not realize that a body of moral principles is the culmination of philosophy, not its beginning.  This is a devastating criticism of his book from a philosophical point of view.  Fortunately, there is another dimension worth mentioning—and it is more hopeful.  It has to do with his intellectual progression.  Young philosophers in their exuberance tend to elaborate their intuitions and principles before they know why they hold them.  We can look forward with justified anticipation to the next phase of Nozick’s mental development—in which his questioning and searching will perhaps lead him to explore ever more deeply the reasons for his initial premises.

            Before we leave Nozick, it is worth considering the nature and importance of at least some of the issues that he has left untouched.  For example, he has not taken up and rebutted the objections the Burkean conservative would make to his autonomous individual.  To that view, only the powerful centripetal forces of organic community, tradition, and religion can keep this individual from drifting away from the true reality, which is God, and from running afoul of his inherent weakness of flesh, appetite and will.  Nor has Nozick explained how his autonomous individualism is justifiable in light of the central worldview of most socialists.  To them, individualism means that the strong are left free to take advantage of the weak.  It is a mockery, they say, to consider such a society a “free society,” since the weak are enslaved or at best systematically exploited.  The overriding need, to the socialist, is not to affirm the rights of the autonomous individual.  In fact, that is the very opposite of what they consider desirable.  Instead, the need is to use the power of the collective as a transcendent force to overcome the exploitation and create the structural prerequisites for a non-predatory existence.

            It should be noticed that these other philosophies express widely differing interpretations of social reality.  If either of their interpretations were correct, it would falsify Nozick’s initial premises.  Those premises simply hang out in the air, unsubstantiated, in the absence of a justification of them.  That justification needs to take the form of Nozick’s own interpretation of the human condition and of his reasons for rejecting the many competing interpretations.

            A reader may object that Nozick knew he was writing for libertarians and that accordingly he could just assume, without making it explicit, a certain view of social reality.  I would suggest, however, that this is not correct.  I am myself a classical liberal and I share many of Nozick’s ideas, but for a number of reasons I do not find a Lockean state-of-nature formula that starts with a set of immutable rights in an autonomous individual a useful intellectual device in formulating an adequate philosophy for a free society.  I would rather pursue a calculus of means and ends, taking into account a broad range of human values and seeking principles by which to accommodate as many of them as possible.  In this calculus, I endorse the processes of voluntary interaction because my interpretation of social reality tells me that coercion has been one of the central problems in human life—and that a voluntary nexus is capable of working well for human productivity and dignity.  This approach is prudential rather than dogmatic; it is open to hear all desiderata and weigh all values.  It is principled, because principles serve an essential prudential function in society; but the principles, while sacred in light of their importance, are open to constant reexamination.  They are also formulated with an eye to their practical adequacy; they are to be ample principles, capable of satisfying a broad public that a free society really is workable.  Nozick’s principles, as they relate to specific issues, are theorems derived by strict deduction from his initial premises; mine result from a much more diverse weighing process.  The advantage of the weighing process is that it isn’t exclusionary; it holds itself open to take all relevant values and insights into account.

            A comprehensive classical liberal philosophy needs to consider a great many specific issues.  We can easily see, though, that the two methodologies lead to widely varying results.  An exclusive preoccupation with the rights of the autonomous individual will tend to lead only to the “nightwatchman” state, which Nozick calls the “minimal” state.  The other method will usually wish not only to serve the autonomy of the individual, but also to look to the satisfaction of the many preconditions of a free society, taking a number of things into account.  We need to be aware, of course, that even thinkers who are applying the same method will differ among themselves.  But the “autonomous individual-only” viewpoint will tend to oppose any state action against “victimless crimes,” voice a principled objection to conscription, oppose anti-trust legislation, see no justification for any governmental role even in the funding of education, oppose the power of eminent domain—and so on through a long list of issues.  The other method, however, will look at each issue in turn and weigh multiple criteria.  The result will often be that state action, hedged and delimited in keeping with certain classical liberal procedural preferences, will be seen as enhancing the framework and processes of the voluntary nexus.

            This difference is no small matter.  It is important intellectually.  It is also important in the on-going competition among the various philosophies for ascendancy in the minds of men.  In my opinion, classical liberal thought has been seriously hurt by the tendency to fly into the exclusionary narrowness of the nightwatchman school—or beyond that into anarcho-capitalism.  A decade ago when the more alienated members of the American intellectual community split off of contemporary “liberalism” to form the New Left, an historic opportunity existed for an ample classical liberalism to make its appeal to the many less-alienated liberals who stayed behind.  No doubt many obstacles stood in the way, but the chance for a striking reorientation of American intellectual history toward classical liberal values and perceptions was clearly present.  What has happened, however, has been that this opportunity has fallen onto relatively sterile ground.  It has been forfeited as large numbers of classical liberals, adopting a psychology of “I’d rather be right than persuasive,” have steeped themselves in “purist” methodologies.  This would be unfortunate but understandable if the “purist” approach were sound; it is no less than an historic tragedy, though, when the exclusionary method is both unpalatable and unsound.

            I have devoted considerable attention to the implications of Nozick’s method.  Much of what I have said can serve as a foundation for the discussion of Rawls’.  His philosophy, too, places great stress on rigorous deduction from a tightly circumscribed set of initial principles; and he, too, fails to realize that vastly significant issues of social interpretation and of values need to be considered in the pre-axiom stage.

            Rawls excludes these issues by simple naivete.  After setting up the “original position” of his hypothetical decision-making game, he jumps quickly and effortlessly to the conclusion that the players would unanimously adopt his two principles.[11]  He does this so quickly that what he is really doing is simply positing them, in much the same way Nozick posits the moral rights of the autonomous individual.  Rawls does at least acknowledge that “there are many different contract theories… depending upon how the contracting parties are conceived, upon what their beliefs and interests are said to be,” and the like.[12]  This has the advantage of permitting him to escape some of the pretense involved in dogmatism.  But it doesn’t do so entirely; and neither does it relieve him of his naivete.  This is evident when we see that he goes on to affirm that, from among the many alternative contract theories, his is the only correct view because it gives the “one interpretation of the initial situation which best expresses the conditions that are widely thought reasonable” and because it comports with “our considered judgments in reflective equilibrium.”[13]  What he is doing is smuggling in his own unspoken preferences and those that make up the conventional wisdom of his intellectual peer-group.  What else are we to make of his two criteria as he expressed them in the quote just given?  At no point in his book does he give any hint of realizing that such concepts as “considered judgments” and “conditions that are widely thought reasonable” have to be justified by showing what they are and that they reflect a sound interpretation of social reality.  Just as with Nozick, Rawls simple-mindedly avoids grappling with the competing interpretations of the human condition and showing which interpretation he adopts and why.  He brushes aside the mountain of modern discourse and treats Burkean conservatism, classical liberalism, Marxism, the New Left, and countless other systems of thought and of cultural preference as though they hardly deserve consideration.  He does the same thing again later when he automatically, not self-consciously, leaves economic freedom out of his concept of “extensive and equal liberty.”  By the incredible naivete of simply embracing a certain conventional wisdom and dressing it up as intuition, Rawls has adopted a methodology that is almost as exclusionary as Nozick’s.           

            In light of the analysis just made, I would be remiss if I didn’t comment more broadly on what it has to tell us about the sort of work that is now so prevalent in American philosophy and the social sciences.  Almost a century ago, American thought came heavily under the influence of the German Historical School, with its insistence upon statistical and mathematical technique, specialization, and narrowly empirical monographs.  It remains so to this day.  I am by no means entirely opposed to this methodology; in its sounder forms, it has much to contribute.  But it is impossible to be around academic life for long without seeing the extent to which it has become, to use one of Hayek’s terms, an abused “scientism.”  Quite often, contemporary academic methodology becomes the haven for the mediocre, the trite and the provincial.  When it combines these qualities with the additional quality of being highly technical, it fully deserves the name “neo-scholasticism.”

            In the interview mentioned earlier, Nozick commented that “I think the current atmosphere, in the United States at any rate, is that in order to work at political and social philosophy, one really has to learn economics plus connected things like decision theory, game theory, utility theory, etc.”[14]  Rawls’ A Theory of Justice is an extended example of the pitfalls in this elaborate academic gamesmanship.  He is able to have, according to Nozick, “a great effect on the philosophy profession” despite the severity of his naivete and provincialism; he meticulously adopts all of the accoutrements of rigorous and exhaustive method, as though he is touching all bases and omitting nothing; he even carries this affectation to the point of a stifling dullness.  And when he is all through, his book provides nothing for those who do not already share his unspoken prejudices.

            That is not to say that a student today should not master the techniques of all this gamesmanship.  If he does not, he is excluded from the fraternity of academia and is unable to speak its language.  But as he studies its intricacies, he should do so with a sensitive eye toward what is sound and what is pure puffery; and he should seek to supplement it by tapping the many reservoirs of thought that do not depend on it. 

            Before I conclude my remarks, I would like to raise a subject that should be fundamental to all moral philosophy, but that both Nozick and Rawls have ignored.  A moral philosophy purports to speak to the oughts of life and seeks to establish an authoritative basis for why its precepts should be followed.  Accordingly, one of its essential features must be to show the source of its authority.  It must be prepared to say from whence it receives its ultimate “legitimating stamp.”  Since it claims authority to censure and perhaps even to punish (or at least claims these for whoever is to carry out its precepts in real life), it must tell why it is an imperative to which all men must lend obeisance.

            Nozick may possibly believe he has avoided this aspect of moral philosophy by embracing a libertarian principle.  “To each his own” may seem to command nothing at all; in affirming freedom it is the antithesis, in fact, of command.  But a moment’s reflection shows that this isn’t so.  All sorts of imperatives are placed upon people by it; there are lots of things they may not do.  If, for example, a Calvinistic majority wants to put a few heretics to the stake in Geneva (as they did a few centuries ago), Nozick must be prepared to tell them the source of his authority for saying they shouldn’t.  I doubt that he could convince them, if they were determined enough, whatever he said; but my point is that his philosophy (and any other philosophy of freedom) is not exempt from the need to establish the basis for its authority.

            Rawls, for his part, simply refers, by way of justification for his principles, to the two criteria of “considered judgment” and “conditions that are widely thought reasonable” that I discussed earlier.  I have already criticized this justification for its naïve exclusion of entire worlds of thought.  I will now criticize it for the cavalier way it treats the whole question of legitimacy.  Somehow, Rawls assumes that his readers follow him in thinking that if moral principles emerge out of the “original position” that he postulates in his game theory and if they meet these two criteria (which tell us nothing at all), they should command assent.  This is not, however, something that should be assumed; it needs to be addressed convincingly, or else the reader of A Theory of Justice will have every reason to ask “so what?” to the moral principles themselves and to every inference from them.

            I mean merely to point to the fact that Nozick and Rawls have ignored this issue, which is both logically essential to a system of moral philosophy and important as a part of the human dialogue about such matters.  I do not mean to suggest that anyone, including myself, is able to supply a definitive answer, in the sense of a permanent answer that is acceptable to all people.  The world is too divided in a multitude of ways—by differing understandings of the cosmic setting of human life, by opposing interpretations of social reality, by conflicting interest, etc.—for that to be possible.  I think there is wisdom in a humility that will admit that the issues are too complex and the human perspective too inherently myopic to make a total comprehension even possible. 

            What I suggest as the validating source for moral principles is based in part on what I have already said about proper method.  Whatever the case may be with regard to physical reality, it seems clear to me that with regard to social reality we can hardly know it directly.  This is why the contending philosophies—the differing systems of interpretation,” (i.e., the “ideologies,” if we use the word without a pejorative meaning), so to speak—are so important.  Before anyone is prepared to say what the moral imperatives of human life are, he must have resolved as satisfactorily as he can the vast issues of social interpretation.  He has to know the truths of human life and the processes of cause-and-effect.  So as a first step in the validation of any moral theory, the theory must have grappled with all the great issues.  To the extent someone believes it to have resolved them satisfactorily, it will have laid at least part of the foundation for its authority; to the extent the person remains unconvinced by it, it will have failed.  (The reader will notice that all of this is housed in the context of the intellectual consideration of the subject, which is something very different than someone’s absorbing the moral views that prevail within his culture.)

            This part of the validation is both pluralistic and individual.  For the theory actually to win a consensus, it must convince a great many people that its view of the world is the correct one.  For the theory to gain authority with me or with any other thinker, though, a “counting of noses” isn’t quite to the point; the moral thinker needs to be persuaded, in light of all considerations that come to mind, that its view of social reality is sound.

            This is just the first step.  The issues that divide men are not entirely matters of factual understanding; they also involve values.  A moral philosophy does not intellectually command assent just by being factually correct, even though that will have taken it a long way toward validity.  There is the substratum of preference, of values, by which its behavioral directives and its dispensation of approval and censure are to be judged.

            Values do not, however, entirely hang out in a limbo by themselves.  They are arrived at and justified to the individual through an interplay of preference and interpretive fact.  Almost nothing can be an end in itself; something is an end in the context of causal relationships in which it is valued because it is perceived as not producing undesired consequences that outweigh it.  Values are not fully separable from the great issues of social interpretation, which take consequences into account.

            Nevertheless, there is ultimately an element of sheer preference.  When all is said and done, the individual must simply decide.  There comes a point at which he must simply say, “Yes, I assent to that” or “No, I don’t.”

             This Yea or Nay should not be envisioned simplistically.  It is a complicated matter.  It is made in full view of the world as he understands it.  The individual makes the decision , and in doing so provides the stamp of ultimate validation; but he does so without in any way having to drop the context of what he understands to be true.  If he believes in a given religion, his assent or dissent will probably reflect that fact; if he doesn’t, it will reflect his other values, with which he is abundantly supplied by the very fact of being alive and by the many influences that have come to bear on him.

            The reason this final validation has to be personal is ontological.  It is people who are to be bound by moral imperatives.  But people exist as separate conscious entities, even when they are ensconced within larger human structures.  Each person can continue to ask “so what?” to any imperative ad infinitum.  Nothing outside himself can remove this question; he can only remove it himself.

            This exercise of ultimate preference need not be egoistic, although it can be.  There is nothing about it that dictates that the individual must base it on what he sees as his “rational self-interest.”  He could just as well continue to ask “so what?” to any such imperative.  Most people’s value-systems, including my own, embrace a number of things: their rational self-interest, their “fellow-feeling” for others, their basic cosmic and social understandings, and even a desire to serve the continuity of civilization.  If a young man knew that he would die tomorrow, for example, there is nothing about his rational self-interest that would keep him from committing rape.  One reason he doesn’t is that he is acculturated not to.  But another reason is that he does indeed value other people, and not simply himself.

            When I point to individual preference as the ultimate validating stamp for a moral philosophy, this will seem to many as no answer at all.  It is, however, the best that can be done in light of the ontological fact to which I have pointed.  What it really means, as I said in my article in the very first issue of The Occasional Review [Note to reader: this article is number A8 in these collected writings], is that moral philosophers should give up entirely the pretension of trying to force their philosophies onto people by invoking theological or metaphysical validations, which are founded on something other than the decision-making of a conscious being (i.e., an individual human being).  Unconscious entities, I argued, cannot by their very nature have preferences.  Moral philosophers should, instead, settle for explaining their overall interpretations of social reality and how the imperatives they suggest are instrumentally serviceable to the values they themselves hold and to the values of the many individuals they hope to persuade.

            It may seem, if this is all there is to it, that I should not criticize Nozick and Rawls for ignoring the issue of validation.  If there is no validation—which in one sense there isn’t, if it is ultimately a matter of appealing to personal preference—why talk about it?

             The answer is that a failure by them to address the subject leaves them with implicit pretensions to a validity they cannot justify by appeal to theology or metaphysics, and have not tried to justify instrumentally to appeal to the individual mind.  What I have said by way of answer to the riddle does not mean that the subject is not important.  It must be spoken to as an inherent part of the logical structure of any moral argument.



[1]   Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1974), p. ix.

[2]   John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1971).  At page 273, Rawls speaks of “both private property and socialist regimes” and then says: “Which of these systems and the many intermediate forms most fully answers to the requirements of justice cannot, I think, be determined in advance.  There is presumably no general answer to this question… The theory of justice does not include these matters.”

[3]   Nozick, Anarchy…, p. 183.

[4]   Interview with Robert Nozick, World Research INK (San Diego: World Research, Inc.), Vol. 1, No. 14, Dec. 1977, p. 2. 

[5]   Nozick, Anarchy…, p. 12.

[6]   Robert Paul Wolff, Understanding Rawls (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), p. 17.

[7]   Wolff, Understanding Rawls, p. 17.

[8]   Rawls, A Theory of Justice, pp. 60, 78, 87.

[9]   See the discussion in my The Principles of Classical Liberalism (Wichita: New Liberal Library, 1972), at p. 27.

[10]   Nozick interview, World Research INK, p. 2.

[11]   His claim to unanimity is possible appears at Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 263.

[12]   Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 121.

[13]   Rawls, A Theory of Justice, p. 121.

[14]   Nozick interview, World Research INK, p. 3.