Nozick’s Cavemen


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Sometimes I come across a piece of writing and think to myself: “This. If I could just get enough people to read this.” The thought is usally followed by imagining a kind of widespread epiphany that improves something, be it a social or political issue, a way of thinking, quality of life, etc.

This imagining is then typically trailed by an acknowledgment that nothing’s so simple.

That happened the other day as I was preparing for class. The reading for the day was Chapter 10 of Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. I had read it before, a few times, but not in a while. In the world of philosophy, Chapter 10 had been relatively neglected compared to other parts of the book. There was much more attention paid to early chapters in which Nozick critiques some of the ideas in John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, and the beginning part of the book in which Nozick sets forth his state-of-nature argument for a libertarian “minimal state.” In Chapter 10 he makes a different kind of argument for his libertarianism, based on a discussion of the idea of utopia. And regardless of whether you find his libertarian political vision appealing or his arguments for it compelling, the chapter is worth reading.

Here’s the line that prompted the “this” reaction:

“It is helpful to imagine cavemen sitting together to think up what, for all time, will be the best possible society and then setting out to institute it. Do none of the reasons that make you smile at this apply to us?”

This is a thought experiment surprisingly rich for its brevity.

It first leads us to reflect on the cavemen’s knowledge. There is so much the cavemen do not know. There is so much that they cannot even imagine. They have a rather limited set of experiences upon which to draw. With only a small sliver of human history behind them, there are no shoulders of “giants” upon which to stand, not even much in the way of a heap—composed of the grains of knowledge accumulated over history through the efforts of the ordinary and long-forgotten—to climb. We don’t have any confidence in their ability to even understand the matters we, today, expect a society to be able to address, let alone devise ways to address them. And the idea of “the best possible society” might itself strike us as a kind of ignorance based on their lack of encounters with a wide range of different forms of human life.

The thought experiment then asks us to compare ourselves to the cavemen, turning our concerns about their ability to plan an ideal society back on ourselves. Humanity may continue for tens of thousands of years or more. In terms of knowledge and experience, don’t we stand in relation to distant future generations (or perhaps even intelligent lifeforms elsewhere in the universe) as we imagine the cavemen standing to in relation to us? Nozick’s thought experiment is intended to prompt intellectual (and political) humility, particularly in those tempted to impose more regimented and detailed versions of their ideal society on others—but also the rest of us, who, probably like the caveman of yore, think we have a pretty solid understanding of all that we think we need to understand.

Thought experiments may outrun their authors’ intentions, and our egos (rightly—and righteously—informed with nearly 50 more years of society absorbing an appreciation of diversity) may lead us to react to Nozick’s poke at us today by tollensing his ponens: “maybe,” we might think, trying to rescue our own epistemic standing, “those cavemen could have come up with the recipe for the best possible society.” Continuing in this line of thought, we might think, “while it’s true that they wouldn’t be able to prospectively deal with the variety of issues we confront today, social problems are at least partly endogenous to society’s organization, and so maybe we would not be confronting those issues had we just lived as the cavemen prescribed. And if the cavemen can be so defended, we needn’t lose confidence in our ability to devise the best possible society today.” I don’t think this argument works, but thinking about why could be very informative and interesting.

Others may readily find reason to reject such romanticizing conjectures, pointing to the biases our imagined cavemen are likely to have. For one thing, what about the cavewomen? How come they aren’t part of the conversation? While we don’t have a lot of detailed knowledge about women’s roles or gender bias in the paleolithic era, it’s not unreasonable to think there was some discrimination or limitation on women’s opportunities because they were women. And what about the disabled? What about people who looked very different? These biases are with us today, and though we don’t have much information here, it is hard to believe our cavemen would be more free of bias or better able to overcome their biases or better at recognizing their biases than we are. So let’s not give the cavemen too much credit.

Yet note what has happened here: our discussion here of the limitations of the cavemen to build the best possible society is based on the recognition of our own limitations, and holds out the worry that we, too, may not adequately understand ourselves.

The degree to which we’re susceptible to that worry may depend on our judgments about the ways in which humans have made progress up to now. And this speaks directly to the effectiveness of Nozick’s thought experiment. After all, the mere possibility that our ignorance is relevantly similar to that of the cavemen is not itself evidence that it actually is. Or is it? Nozick’s little thought experiment thus raises another interesting question.

* * * * *

At the heart of Chapter 10 of Anarchy, State, and Utopia is an appreciation of diversity. Nozick’s ideas here have predecessors, especially in John Stuart Mill’s defense of “experiments in living” in On Liberty. He starts by noting that his subject in the chapter is “the best of all possible worlds,” but then continues:

“For whom? The best of all possible worlds for me will not be that for you. The world, of all those I can imagine, which I would most prefer to live in, will not be precisely the one you would choose. Utopia, though, must be, in some restricted sense, the best for all of us; the best world imaginable, for each of us. In what sense can this be?”

Nozick argues that “utopia will consist of utopias.” What that means, and what bearing it has on our actual world, are among the questions he takes up. You can read the chapter online here.

2 responses to “Nozick’s Cavemen”

  1. J. Shields Avatar
    J. Shields

    This thought experiment failed to engage my 17 year old, who is taking AP Comparitive Government. Granted, he was listening to music and drawing on the walls of his cave.

    I am imagining that it would equally have failed to engage those cavemen.

    Perhaps illustrating the price of the meta – love of wisdom displacing wisdom. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John Birchler Avatar
    John Birchler

    Imagine it continues as follows:

    β€œUpon reflecting that they just obtained fire, and now could not imagine a utopia without it, they decide to not think about utopia until they have full knowledge. Does the elemental sadness you now feel not turn the first paragraph on its head?”


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