Currently, perhaps one of the best ways to maintain American dynamism, egalitarianism, and social mobility (all vital to the health of our nation) is by preserving the rights of individuals. Perhaps one way to define those rights (and expand upon them) is as Robert Nozick does, after John Locke. From page 10 of Anarchy, State And Utopia:
‘Individuals in Locke’s state of nature are in “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they think fit, within the bounds of the law of nature, without asking leave or dependency upon the will of any other.“‘
Nozick reasons that the only morally legitimate state is a minimal one, a state that arises out of necessity, a necessity that arises from the interactions of individuals with one another, all of whom possess the rights which Locke defines (also on page 10) as:
“The bounds of the law of nature require that “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions.”
So, on one hand what is nature, and how do we come to know it? I suspect Nozick, after Immanuel Kant, views the law of nature (and laws of nature, though Locke meant something different) as being discovered through our reason. Our reason, as Kant suggested:
“…only perceives that which it produces after its own design; that it must not be content to follow, as it were, in the leading-strings of nature, but must proceed in advance with principles of judgement according to unvarying laws, and compel nature to reply its questions.”
After Kant, this would be something like modern-day physics: using equations and a lot of math to try and explain what we actually observe of nature and understanding its laws.
Yet from his thinking, Kant also developed the categorical imperative, and the categorical imperative requires us to behave as though our actions could be willed to a universal law; or something like the golden rule.
So, on the other hand when applied to civil society and human rights, the Kantian approach is one that expects people to be remarkably free, and remarkably responsible for their actions.
This is where, for many readers, we’re getting into utopian territory. As you may have noticed, people steal, rob and murder.
Don’t we need a police force (if not corrupt) that protects and serves all of us against violence? Doesn’t it need to be arbitrary and have the threat of force behind it? Isn’t that best handled by the state?
Nozick is well prepared for those counter-arguments, which constitute much of his book. This quote found here sheds some light on Nozick’s approach:
“There are various philosophical views, mutually incompatible, which cannot be dismissed or simply rejected,” he wrote in “Philosophical Explanations.” “Philosophy’s output is the basketful of these admissible views, all together.“
Worth a read if you’re flirting with libertarianism.
More On Nozick and his thinking here, at the Internet Encyclopedia Of Philosophy.
Addition: I realize this analysis to be Kant-heavy, due to my own reading lately. More on Locke here at Stanford.
Also On This Site: Of course, what if the central ideas upon which Kant’s philosophy rests are logically flawed…as his metaphysics certainly aren’t a prerequisite for studying the sciences (and might hinder them for all I know) A Few Responses To Kant’s Transcendental Idealism
Also: What does a Kantian influence look like in political science? Daniel Deudney on Bloggingheads