The Tale of the Slave

The late philosopher Robert Nozick’s book Anarchy, State, and Utopia contains a passage entitled “The Tale of the Slave”.  Read the short passage to better understand the point of this post.

 The story is simple enough:  there is a slave who is at the complete mercy of his master, and who over time is granted more and more marginal freedoms.  By the end of the story, the political situation in which the slave finds himself closely resembles a democracy, and the question is posed: at what point did this no longer become the tale of a slave, but rather the tale of a free man?  

I have shared this story with many people, challenging them to answer the author’s question.  Yet a response is seldom given.  The difficulty in answering this question arises because it is apparent that the fundamental lack of self-ownership that existed at the beginning is still present by the story’s end.  Thus while supporting democracy as the pinnacle of society’s accomplishments has now become the only socially acceptable stance, that this tale sheds light on the inherent lack of freedom in this system makes many readers feel uncomfortable.  

If rights are, in fact, “inherent”, “natural”, “God-given”, or “inalienable” as many profess them to be, then this debate is an important one to have.  For if rights only exist in areas and at times that are convenient for us, then they cease to be rights at all and evolve into mere societal preferences.  

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