The Oppression of Obligation, Research Time, 26/09/2014

Every now and then, I link one of my posts on a few sub-reddits, just because the audience there responds rather well to them, and it sparks some enlightening conversation. Two of my most widely viewed individual posts, about my falling-out with my radical right-wing libertarian friends, and my comparison of Peter Kropotkin’s thinking to contemporary libertarianism, became so because of links through reddit. After all, reddit was formed largely through a group of libertarians who dreamed of the internet offering a utopia of free thought and expression. They certainly got free expression.

Reddit can become very intense if you let it.
As I’ve said before, it’s impossible for anyone to write a book that resurrects anarchist critiques of the state (and any institution or organization that gains too much coercive power) today without an engagement with libertarian thinking. It’s simply the most popular anti-state political philosophy in my generation. It’s the closest thing to a grassroots anti-state movement that we have (aside from Occupy, of course, which still exists, just without such a big mouth except for key moments).

So engagement with libertarian philosophy will be a key part of the critical sections of the final third of Utopias. This is why I’m reading Robert Nozick, and why I’ll probably have to revisit at least the fundamentals of Ayn Rand (even if she is an intellectually lazy hypocrite who was never critical as much as she was contrarian and egomaniacal). And I recently discovered an interesting point in Nozick that helped make sense of a strange comment I got on reddit in the comment threads to my link to the Kropotkin piece.

This was a comment taking issue with the notion that moral obligations to our neighbours and friends is how we hold our communities together. I received the reply that moral obligations were themselves a kind of repression, that a moral obligation was a form of violence against an individual.

It utterly puzzled me. Then I found the exact same idea in Anarchy, State, and Utopia, in an argument about the limits of persuasion. It was part of an explanation of the nature of promises: that when I make a promise to my friend, I give my friend permission to force me to fulfill it. True liberty, in this conception, is the ability to do whatever I want as long as it doesn’t impinge on the liberty of others. And so holding someone to a promise is forcing them to do something, a violation of their liberty, the highest crime against a person.

Under this mode of thinking, every obligation is an opening to be violated: if I am obligated to someone at any intensity, then that person can force me to act according to his will, even if I don’t want to. Since obligation is an entry to coercion, obligations, whether through promises or shared moral beliefs, are inherently immoral.

One recurring framework of thought in Nozick’s writing is the notion that the primary rational justification for a decision is a cost-benefit analysis: will I ultimately gain more from an action than it will cost me to perform? This is why, in his discussion of harms and retribution, compensation was a central concept. A harm is redressed when the victim receives an equivalent compensation. For this to make sense, each harm would have to be mapped to an economic value for which monetary compensation could be calculated.

Sometimes you just have to do the show, Bob, no matter
how weird it gets. You can't just walk away from
a promise just because some nutter's farm report is part of
the show. You're on air in five. I hope you're ready.
Nozick conceives of obligations to a community in the same way. He describes a community of people who share a nightly radio broadcast; their only obligation is that one of them, in a rotation among all the community’s members, must host the show for one night. When it’s Nozick’s turn, he says, he should be allowed to skip it if he does not consider the benefit of being able to listen to the radio show worth the cost in money and time of preparing and recording an evening’s programming. 

Maybe Nozick doesn’t listen to the show very often, or he doesn’t like a lot of what his neighbours program, or he would rather go camping and read. The point is that he prefers not to produce his evening of programming when it’s his turn. He needs no other reason to ignore his obligation to his fellows than that he doesn’t want to do the show. Because the paramount value is liberty.

A promise is an oath, the honourable bond of your word. To stand faithful to a promise, or a more generally-aimed obligation of a system of morality that you and your community have developed and hold, is to uphold your virtue of honour, to be a person of integrity. Someone for whom their liberty to break their promises is more important than their moral obligations can never be an honourable person. 

The ethics of bonds, friendships, and solidarity in the face of difficulty and personal weaknesses is entirely foreign to Nozick’s philosophy. And since Nozick’s philosophy seems to have become the universal backbone of modern libertarianism, even when his basic ideas are taken to be obvious in reddit threads, engaging with libertarian politics means engaging with Nozick as its clearest philosophical expression.


  1. I wonder whether you read Nozick too unsympathetically here (though in a way that is conducive to your case against him). I see his point about promises not about discouraging us from undertaking obligations but about rationally legitimising the conditions under which 'violence' is permissible. In a truly free society, people contract into violence, just as they do everything else. When we promise things to each other, we jointly create a sphere of possible violence in case of one or another party reneges. This is important to the line of reasoning that led the US founding fathers to declare war against Britain. The centrality of establishing liability and compensation in liberal jurisprudence is all about rationalising this sphere of permissible violence still further.

    1. I agree with your interpretation. Really, it's not that I'm arguing with Nozick himself when I talk about the problems of conceiving of promises and obligations as involving possible violence. I'm arguing with the political movement of libertarianism that has grown from Nozick's thought.

      But I actually think you're being too kind to Nozick, in terms of how he expresses his ideas. Like I said, I've actually spoken with people who sincerely believe that moral obligations in all their forms oppress them and destroy their liberty. It's not that they potentially involve violence when parties renege on their promises. Nozick's example of the guy who doesn't want to record his community radio show when it's his turn interprets the simple fact of making promise or living under a moral obligation as itself being a violent act. He defines violence as any kind of force to enable an action that I wouldn't otherwise choose to do.

      Nozick openly says that no one has any reason to be faithful to promises or obligations precisely because they repress your personal liberty. If you go back to ASU §4, he's describing this scenario as the central thought experiment to make his point about moral obligations in totality. And the person he describes who doesn't want to record his show, even though his entire community takes part, if I can speak in terms of virtue ethics, comes off as a total prick.