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Strategic Planning Session

There is nothing to winning, really.
That is, if you happen to be blessed with a keen eye, an agile mind and no scruples whatsoever.

- Alfred Hitchcock

Source: Funny Times January 2001

But Freedom to What?

The Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick died Wednesday, 23 January 2002.  He was 63 and had suffered from stomach cancer for many years.  Nozick was born in Brooklyn, New York, obtained an associate bachelor's degree from Columbia College in 1959, and master of arts and doctor of philosophy degrees from Princeton in 1961 and 1963, respectively.  He wrote his dissertation on theories of rational decision.  After stints at Princeton and the Rockefeller University, Nozick came to Harvard as a full professor in 1969, at the age of 30.  He became Arthur Kingsley Porter Professor of Philosophy in 1985 and in 1998 was named the Joseph Pellegrino University Professor.

A former member of the radical left who was converted to a libertarian perspective as a graduate student, largely through his reading of conservative economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, Nozick was never comfortable with his putative status as an ideologue of the right.  In a 1978 article in The New York Times Magazine he said that "right-wing people like the pro-free-market argument, but don't like the arguments for individual liberty in cases like gay rights - although I view them as an interconnecting whole..."

Nozick is considered to have written at least one significant book - Anarchy, State and Utopia, published in 1974 and winner of the National Book Award the following year; it covered epistemology, personal identity, free will, and the foundations of ethics.  The book was something of a revelation - an analytical philosophy not only intelligible, but in fact readable and actually enjoyable.  It set forth the moral basis of rational government.

In Anarchy, State and Utopia, Nozick embraced the idea of philosophy as an art form, and of the philosopher as a literary creator who works with ideas.  And such ideas!  It, for example, lists "quality of orgasm" as one of the essential variables for evaluating a person.

Nozick is able to cast cultural controversies (such as whether all truth is relative and whether ethics is objective) in a wholly new light.  For all its quirks, Anarchy, State and Utopia is a serious work of political philosophy.  Nozick delivers a series of fatal blows to the concept of social justice that had been more or less taken for granted.  Last generation, freedom and social justice were thought to be compatible - an egalitarian society, based on redistributive taxation, could be both ethically right and rationally mandatory - and achieved without coercion.  (We now know better.)

According to Nozick there are three sets of rules of justice, defining:

  1. how things not previously possessed by anyone may be acquired;
  2. how possession may be transferred from one person to another; and
  3. what must be done to rectify injustices arising from violations of (1) and (2).

A distribution is just if it has arisen in accordance with these three sets of rules.

Robert Nozick argued that, "No patterned principle [of social justice] can be realised without continuous interference with people’s lives...  Any distributional pattern with any egalitarian component is overturnable by the voluntary actions of individuals over time."

Imagine, he said, that utopia has arrived and your preferred egalitarian distribution has been achieved: everyone now has the same bundle of material resources.  However, there is a particular sportsman who is in great demand.  People want to see this sportsman play, and will happily pay extra to do so.  When they buy their ticket for a game, there’s a special box into which they must drop an extra 25¢.  The money goes to the sportsman.  In the course of a season, a million people watch him play, each one paying the extra 25¢.  As a result, the sportsman ends up with $250,000 - a much larger sum than anyone else has.  Nozick then asks: if the original egalitarian "distribution was just, and people moved voluntarily from it to the new, inegalitarian one, transferring parts of their shares they were given [under the egalitarian distribution], isn’t the new distribution also just?"  (It depends - should the 25¢ have been used to buy milk for the children?)

There is no way round a central truth: individual free choices will destroy every attempt to maintain an egalitarian pattern of social justice.  Thus social justice as an ideal has dropped out of mainstream political argument (though not necessarily from political hopes and plans).

Are consumer decisions such as buying dot-com stock, paying more for name-brands or buying a product on credit you want but can't afford counted as freedoms?  Do they have moral value?  Is it permissible for the state to force people not to make them, and so "to forbid capitalist acts between consenting adults" (as Nozick put it)?  Dictators may find an ideal based on continuous and colossal state coercion attractive but not many other people do.

Nozick classifies theories of justice as

bulleteither end-result or historical, and 
bulleteither patterned or unpatterned. 

The entitlement theory is historical and unpatterned.  It does not demand that the distribution resulting from just acquisitions, transfers and rectifications be patterned - that is, correlated with anything else (such as moral merit, need, usefulness to society).  People are entitled to things got by chance or gift.  Any distribution, irrespective of any pattern it may or may not have, is just provided it has the appropriate history, provided it did in fact come about in accordance with the rules of acquisition, transfer and rectification.

Nozick’s demolition of "patterned" theories of social justice, of the claim that it is rationally compulsory for justice to ignore the differences between individuals’ capacities, and for redistribution so as to benefit "the least well off" to the greatest possible extent, is effective.  People are born with unequal talents.  Nozick felt, "Whether or not people's natural assets are arbitrary from a moral point of view they are entitled to them, and to what flows from them."  People often note that wealth is unequally distributed, and proceed immediately to discuss how it might be made more equal.  But on the entitlement theory one cannot decide whether redistribution is necessary merely by looking at the prevailing pattern of distribution.  Whether it is  just depends on how the distribution came about.  If it came about in accordance with the rules of acquisition, transfer and rectification, then it is not unjust, however unequal it may be.

When a person makes a thing, or finds it unowned and appropriates it, why must others not use it without his permission - no matter how great their need, no matter how such things are distributed?  Nozick's answer is that such constraints express the inviolability of other persons; a person is not to be used to benefit others - this would not sufficiently respect the fact that he is a separate person, that his is the only life he has.  There is no transcendent social whole for the sake of which individuals can be sacrificed, there are only other individuals.

Nozick produced a plethora of provocatively memorable aphorisms: "taxation is a form of forced labour"; a man "faced with working or starving chooses to work voluntarily"; "There are only individual people, different individual people, with their own individual lives.  Using one of these people for the benefit of others, uses him and benefits the others.  Nothing more.  Talk of an overall social good covers this up."

Nozick insisted that the only state that is morally justified is one which is limited to the "night watchman" function of protecting against force and fraud, and the enforcement of contracts is based on a conception of "natural rights".  One consequence of his "historical, entitlement theory of justice" is that America actually belongs not to the CEOs with stock-options but to the native American, since it was their legitimate property when it was unjustly taken from them by force and fraud by the settlers from Europe.  (Likewise, much of New Zealand, Nozick would feel, belongs to the Maori.)

Nozick distanced himself from the corporate types who saw in his defence of property, and his relentless attack on every conceivable reason for taking it away, a moral justification for their own greed.  All the same, the failure of Nozick’s own search for a foundation for his moral position means that he appears to defend each individual’s right to use whatever powers he has for whatever purposes he chooses.  The subtext is overwhelming: morals are only for suckers, for those too stupid not to have "seen through" them.  You are pulled out into a sea of limitless selfishness.

In its evisceration of all arguments for constraining the power of the strong so as to benefit the weak, in its subtle, sleek celebration of the "right of the strongest", Nozick's philosophy in Anarchy, State and Utopia reverberates in a peculiarly disturbing way.

When these matters are considered by practical people, the standard of justice depends on equality of power to compel, and in fact the strong do what they have the power to do, and the weak accept what they have to accept.

Those words weren’t written by Nozick, but by Thucydides.  He records the Athenian ambassadors as saying them to the inhabitants of Melos, an island which the Athenians wanted to start paying tribute.  The Melians refused, so the Athenians used their superior power to blockade and besiege the island, eventually killing the men and enslaving the women and children.  It is an outcome Nozick would've found repulsive.

Toward the end of his life, Nozick had come to feel that ethics has normative force because of the connection between ethics and conscious self-awareness.  He asked what function principles serve in our daily life and why we shouldn't simply act on whim or out of self-interest.  In his last published work, Invariances: The Structure of the Objective World (2001), he looked at the nature of truth and objectivity and examined the function of subjective consciousness in an objective world.  He scrutinized truth in ethics and discussed whether truth in general is relative to culture and social factors.

With one exception, Nozick never taught the same course twice.  The exception was "The Best Things in Life," which he presented in 1982 and '83, attempting to derive from the class discussion a general theory of values.  The course description called it an exploration of "the nature and value of those things deemed best, such as friendship, love, intellectual understanding, sexual pleasure, achievement, adventure, play, luxury, fame, power, enlightenment, and ice cream."

The American Psychological Association described Nozick as "one of the most brilliant and original living philosophers."

Source:; article by Alasdair Palmer, public policy editor of the Sunday Telegraph © The Spectator;;

Nozick came to feel that ethics has normative force because of the connection between ethics and conscious self-awareness?  I wonder what he'd have thought of the following...

Software Offers Key to Ethical Dilemmas

by Angela Gregory

Big Brother may soon not just be watching you but helping solve ethical dilemmas involving you, like those faced daily by health workers.

An Auckland medical ethics expert believes the computer can be a key tool in resolving difficult decisions in the health sector.  Professor David Seedhouse, at the Auckland University of Technology, is developing ground-breaking software to help medical staff decide on issues which invariably involve value systems and subjective judgments.  Professor Seedhouse, who is director of the National Centre for Health and Social Ethics, says the program helps by presenting the problem both visually and in simple, well-defined language.  "Language can often camouflage or obscure what people really mean ...  Over the years I've been trying to develop decision-making tools which blow away the smoke."

Professor Seedhouse, who is trained in philosophy, has designed an "ethical grid" where individuals can use a computer to clarify their position in situations where choices and compromises have to be made.  The resulting image produced by the computer can then be compared with others involved in the decision-making process.  Professor Seedhouse said people processed information more effectively when they used pictures.  They could more easily see how they differed in their perceptions or approaches to a problem, and get straight to the core of it.

He saw the system being used in clinical decision making where there were difficulties or disagreements.  Professor Seedhouse said hospital staff usually held meetings to consider difficult cases, but that could waste time and achieve little.  "In healthcare people often overstate," he said.  "Rather than sit around chewing the cud they could use this system to quickly and efficiently cut through a lot or rubbish ...  Ethical dilemmas can be created by people not being clear about what they are doing."

Professor Seedhouse said the system made its users define what they meant and could highlight conflicts and self-contradictions, as well as areas of compatibility with other users.  "It saves time, confusion and heartache so people can get on with the job."  He has tested the system with doctors and nurses who were amazed at how differently they reached a point of view.  They did not realise just how differently they approached problems, he said.

Professor Seedhouse said the system would also be a useful tool for patients frustrated that they had not been able to get the health system to work for them.  "At least by using the ethical grid they can have an equal voice."  He said the system took away personal pressures and allowed people to reflect calmly.  There could be resistance from those who thought they did all right already.  "But only the most ultra-defensive will object."

The software was still in prototype form but there had already been interest from Britain.

Professor Seedhouse said he planned to market the software with AUT for use in hospital departments, health management and medical schools.  He also foresaw its use in many non-health markets such as the justice system.

Angela Gregory is the NZHerald health reporter

Source: 7 October 2002

People who don't agree with Seedhouse are "ultra-defensive"?  Gosh.  I don't want to be accused of that.  Let's let computers replace judges and legislators as well.  Politicians, too!  (They may even do a better job...)

The Origins of Culture?

Take a cage with apes.  In the cage hang a banana on a string and put stairs under it.  Before long an ape goes to the stairs towards the banana, but as soon as it touches the stairs, all apes are sprayed with water.  After a while the same ape or another one makes another attempt, with the same result: all apes are sprayed.  Later, if another ape tries to climb the stairs, the others will try to prevent it.

Take one ape from the cage and put in a new one.  The new ape sees the banana and tries to climb the stairs.  To his horror all other apes attack him.  After another attempt he knows: if he wants to climb the stairs, he is beaten up.  Then we remove a 2nd ape and replace it by another new one.  The newcomer goes to the stairs and gets beaten up.  The previous new ape takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm.  A 3rd old ape is replaced by a 3rd new one.  The new one makes it to the stairs and get beaten up as well.  Two of the apes who beat him, have no idea why one may not climb the stairs.  Replace the 4th old ape, and the 5th, et cetera until all apes which have been sprayed with water have been replaced.  Nevertheless, no ape ever tries to climb the stairs.

"But Sir, why not?"

"Because that's the way we do things here, lad."

Pauka, Tom and Rein Zunderdorp "The Banana becomes Open to Discussion: Cultural Changes in Administrative and Political Groningen." Nijgh and van Ditmar, 1988, 1 March 2006 <>.

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