Robert Nozick, one of my favorite philosophers, died last week. This morning I went down to the basement and found my old copy of his Anarchy, State, and Utopia --- yet another book that I've browsed but never persevered enough to finish. Maybe I should try again. Glancing at it, a passage jumped out that also stuck in my mind when I first read it a more than decade ago:
We can illuminate the status and implications of moral side constraints by considering living beings for whom such stringent side constraints (or any at all) usually are not considered appropriate: namely, nonhuman animals. Are there any limits to what we may do to animals? Have animals the moral status of mere objects? Do some purposes fail to entitle us to impose great costs on animals? What entitles us to use them at all?
Animals count for something. Some higher animals, at least, ought to be given some weight in people's deliberations about what to do. It is difficult to prove this. (It is also difficult to prove that people count for something!) We shall first adduce particular examples, and then arguments. If you felt like snapping your fingers, perhaps to the beat of some music, and you knew that by some strange causal connection your snapping your fingers would cause 10,000 contented, unowned cows to die after great pain and suffering, or even painlessly and instantaneously, would it be perfectly all right to snap your fingers? Is there some reason why it would be morally wrong to do so?
Nozick goes on to explore other delightfully improbable situations, with occasional digressions into reality. Thinking back, I suspect that his parables were a major influence in the mid-1990s on my decision to become a vegetarian.
In a rather different vein, the New York Times obituary by Christopher Lehmann-Haupt tells of zigzags over the years in Nozick's personal political positions --- and the sensibility, as he argued, of such variation in local and national government. It's a matter of taking turns. No single party or posture can cover all the range of human aspirations. Best in Real Life to pursue what in game theory is called a "mixed strategy". Eschew doctrine ...
(see also LearningAndLosing, 23 Dec 2001)