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Robert Nozick (November 16, 1938 – January 23, 2002) was an Americanmarker philosopher and professor at Harvard Universitymarker. He was educated at Columbia (A.B. 1959, summa cum laude), where he studied with Sidney Morgenbesser, at Princetonmarker (Ph.D. 1963), and Oxfordmarker as a Fulbright Scholar. He was a prominent American political philosopher in the 1970s and 1980s. He did additional but less influential work in such subjects as decision theory and epistemology. His best known work, Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), was a libertarian answer to John Rawls's A Theory of Justice (1971).

Personal history

Nozick was born in Brooklynmarker, the son of a Jewish entrepreneur from Russiamarker, and married the American poet Gjertrud Schnackenberg. Nozick died in 2002 after a prolonged struggle with cancer. His remains are interred at Mount Auburn Cemeterymarker in Cambridge, Massachusettsmarker.

Nozick was Joseph Pellegrino University Professor at Harvard University.


Political philosophy

Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), which received a National Book Award, argues among other things that a distribution of goods is just if brought about by free exchange among consenting adults and from a just starting position, even if large inequalities subsequently emerge from the process. Nozick appealed to the Kantian idea that people should be treated as ends (what he termed 'separateness of persons'), not merely as a means to some other end. Nozick here challenges the partial conclusion of John Rawls's Second Principle of Justice of his A Theory of Justice, that "social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are to be of greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society."

Anarchy, State and Utopia claims a heritage from John Locke's Second Treatise on Government and tries to base itself upon a natural law doctrine. Locke only relied on natural law as God given to counteract the King of England's claim to divine right and thus claim to all the property of England. Nozick suggested, again as a critique of utilitarianism, that the sacrosanctity of life made property rights non-negotiable. This principle has served as a foundation for many libertarian pitches into modern politics.

Most controversially, Nozick argued that a consistent upholding of the libertarian non-aggression principle would allow and regard as valid consensual/non-coercive enslavement contracts between adults. He rejected the notion of inalienable rights advanced by most other libertarian academics, writing in Anarchy, State and Utopia:
"The comparable question about an individual is whether a free system will allow him to sell himself into slavery.
I believe that it would."


In Philosophical Explanations (1981), which received the Phi Beta Kappa Society's Waldo Emerson Award, Nozick provided novel accounts of knowledge, free will, personal identity, the nature of value, and the meaning of life. He also put forward an epistemological system which attempted to deal with both Edmund Gettier-style problems and those posed by skepticism. This highly influential argument eschewed justification as a necessary requirement for knowledge.

Nozick's Four Conditions for S's knowing that P were:

(1) P is true

(2) S believes that P

(3) If it were the case that (not-P), S would not believe that P

(4) If it were the case that P, S would believe that P

Nozick's third and fourth conditions are counterfactuals. Nozick calls his theory the "tracking theory" of knowledge. Nozick believes that the counterfactual conditionals bring out an important aspect of our intuitive grasp of knowledge: For any given fact, the believer's method must reliably track the truth despite varying relevant conditions. In this way, Nozick's theory is similar to reliabilism.

Later books

The Examined Life (1989), pitched to a broader public, explores love, death, faith, reality, and the meaning of life. The Nature of Rationality (1993) presents a theory of practical reason that attempts to embellish notoriously spartan classical decision theory. Socratic Puzzles (1997) is a collection of papers that range in topic from Ayn Rand and Austrian economics to animal rights, while his last production, Invariances (2001), applies insights from physics and biology to questions of objectivity in such areas as the nature of necessity and moral value.


Nozick created the thought experiment of the "utility monster" to show that average utilitarianism could lead to a situation where the needs of the vast majority were sacrificed for one individual. He also devised the thought experiment of The Experience Machine in an attempt to show that ethical hedonism was false. Nozick asked us to imagine that "superduper neuropsychologists" have figured out a way to stimulate a person's brain to induce pleasurable experiences. We would not be able to tell that these experiences were not real. He asks us, if we were given the choice, would we choose a machine-induced experience of a wonderful life over real life? Nozick says no, then asks whether we have reasons not to plug into the machine and concludes that since it does not seem to be irrational to plug in, ethical hedonism must be false.

Unusual method

Nozick was notable for his curious exploratory style and methodological ecumenism. Often content to raise tantalizing philosophical possibilities and then leave judgment to the reader, Nozick was also notable for drawing from literature outside of philosophy (e.g., economics, physics, evolutionary biology).


See also


  • G. A. Cohen (1995), Self-Ownership, Freedom, and Equality, Oxford UP. A widely-cited criticism of Nozick.
  • Robinson, Dave & Groves, Judy (2003). Introducing Political Philosophy. Icon Books. ISBN 1-84046-450-X.
  • Wolff, Jonathan (1991), Robert Nozick: Property, Justice, and the Minimal State. Polity Press.
  • David Schmidtz (Editor) (2002), Robert Nozick Contemporary Philosophy in Focus, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0521006712
  • David Lewis Schaefer, Robert Nozick and the Coast of Utopia, The New York Sun, April 30, 2008.

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