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Stands to Reason

Mortal Questions

by Thomas Nagel
Cambridge University Press, 213 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Thomas Nagel’s book of essays might almost have been designed as an answer to the not uncommon complaint that our academic philosophers, frivolously abdicating their responsibilities, busy or amuse themselves with abstruse arguments and technical problems and offer no guidance on the matters which engage and trouble perplexed humanity: war, sex, and death; the claims of equality and the proper use of political power; human life in general and its meaning or lack of meaning. Mortal Questions is addressed to these vital matters, though not to these alone; discussion of them sits, and sits naturally, alongside discussions of professionally more familiar themes: free will and responsibility; the nature of personal identity; the relation of mind and body.

As Nagel remarks in his preface, “Large, relevant questions too easily evoke large, wet answers.” It is one of the great merits of his book that its individual themes are all handled with admirable clarity and sobriety. There is no windy rhetoric or pretentious obscurity here.

The book aspires to another merit: that of unifying its apparently disparate themes by representing them, or many of them, as illustrative of a single ineluctable general tension, or conflict, in human thought. In his last chapter Nagel speaks of this as a tension between the “subjective” and the “objective” points of view. The distinction is not to be understood as a simple dichotomy. Rather it is a matter of degree. We move toward objectivity in proportion as we detach ourselves, first, from the particularities of our personal situation in the world, then from those of our time, class, and society, and finally, and most generally, from those of our biological species. The strong intellectual appeal of such movement lies in the thought that in progressively discarding from our conception of reality what are no more than appearances owing to the particularities of our merely personal, or of the merely human, situation, we approximate ever more closely to the true view. We are drawn, in quasi-Kantian fashion, along this path by the “regulative” and evidently unattainable ideal of grasping how things really are or are in themselves, i.e., from no point of view at all (except possibly, as some might say, from God’s).

Conflict or tension arises, according to Nagel, not because grasping things in themselves is unattainable, but because we find ourselves simultaneously occupying different and incompatible positions on the subjective-objective scale. We are unable simply to reject as illusion or reduce to objective terms all that presents itself, from some subjective viewpoint, as fact or value. Yet, drawn by the thirst for impersonal and detached understanding, we are at the same time able to occupy, and find ourselves occupying, a relatively objective viewpoint from which these obstinate subjective features are seen as lacking all reality: as simply absent. Hence there occurs a conflict, or polarity, peculiarly unacceptable to the philosophical mind which characteristically aspires to a unified world-view. But it is a conflict which, says Nagel, must nevertheless be accepted—“creatively” accepted, he says.

How does this very general description fit the particular questions Nagel discusses? He does not try to make it fit them all; in particular the essays on death and on sexual perversion stand out as exceptions. More of them later. The first two problems he claims can be fitted into his general description are those of the meaning of life (“The Absurd”) and the freedom of the will (“Moral Luck”). Viewed naturalistically, the world contains no such thing as objective value (cf. Forster’s Mrs. Moore, “Everything exists, nothing has value” and Wittgenstein, “There is, in the world, no value”). Our cherished purposes and values reflect only the contingencies of our constitution and hence a relatively subjective point of view. If we recognize these contingencies and abstract from them the conclusion that nothing is intrinsically or objectively important or valuable, then we are inclined to see as absurd our own eager pursuit of those smaller or larger purposes which we take so seriously. Yet we cannot give them up; we remain inescapably committed to striving for ends which we recognize to be objectively pointless.

What resource, then, have we? Nagel dismisses as self-pitying romanticism the attitude of “scorn and defiance” which Camus recommended (and, once, Russell also, in a passage of embarrassingly inflated rhetoric). Instead of heroics or despair, he recommends irony: “we return to our lives, as we must, but our seriousness is laced with irony.” One may wonder whether there isn’t here also more than a touch of self-admiring romanticism. If we are to be absurd anyway, we might as well be wholeheartedly absurd.

The parallel with the case of moral responsibility and free will, as Nagel presents it, is fairly close. On the one hand, we tend to see and to treat human beings and their actions, including ourselves and our own actions, as proper objects of the familiar range of moral attitudes and reactions—approval and admiration, guilt and remorse, blame and indignation. And such reactions, where felt as appropriate, seem to require an attribution of some ultimate responsibility, for his actions, to the agent of them: they must be essentially his doings, under his control. But by a quite natural extension of the considerations which are normally allowed to cancel imputations of responsibility, the whole notion of responsible agency is seen to come into question. No one has been able to state intelligibly what the condition for it would actually consist in.

So, in the limit, when we see ourselves and others and their and our actions objectively, as what they are, namely as natural objects and happenings, occurrences in the course of nature—whether causally determined occurrences or chance occurrences—then the veil of illusion cast over them by moral attitudes and reactions must, or should, slip away. What simply happens in nature may be matter for rejoicing or regret, but not for moral approval or blame or moral self-approval or remorse. Yet, in the face of this reasoning, we remain as inescapably committed to such subjective reactions as to those subjective purposes which we continue to pursue in the face of our sense of their ultimate arbitrariness. Nagel offers no solution to this problem; if there is one, he thinks, it would consist in a reconciling account of the notion of responsible agency; but he confesses that he has no such account to give.

These philosophical doubts about the significance of human life or the moral significance of human action bear a resemblance, Nagel says, to traditional epistemological skepticism—to doubts, e.g., about our knowledge of the existence of an external world of physical objects. All three skepticisms are overridden in practice by our natural commitment to human purposes, to moral assessment, and to common-sense belief. Reason presents us with doubts which reason cannot dispel; and nature overrides them. There is here a difference, however, implicit in Nagel’s own position, which he does not mention. Epistemological skepticism simply puts our ordinary beliefs in doubt; it does not deny them or offer a rival viewpoint from which things can be seen as they really are. But Nagel’s doctrine of the objective view, as applied to the notion of ends and the notion of moral responsibility, appears to do just that. Hence there is an appearance of conflict or contradiction in which, it seems, the rational man, even with the aid of irony, cannot comfortably, or with a good intellectual conscience, simply acquiesce.

But this appearance may be illusion. Nagel himself seems to acknowledge that the notion of how things really are in themselves, from no point of view at all, is without significance. So our notion of the real must, at a sufficiently high level of generality, be made at least modestly relative to a point of view. We are not, by this admission, committed to a wholesale relativism; for we often recognize, in the case of different and mutually contradictory verdicts on the real, delivered from different points of view, the existence of a standpoint, external and superior to both, from which we can adjudicate between them. But in the cases of goals and moral responsibility, there is no such standpoint, or none that we can occupy. So, in each case, both of our apparently conflicting types of judgment of the real remain subject to clauses which make them relative and remove the appearance of contradiction between them. Relative to the standpoint to which we are naturally and inescapably committed as social beings, human actions, or some of them, really have moral tones and properties in the diverse ways signified in our rich vocabulary of moral appraisal. Relative to the detached naturalistic (or, to give it its pejorative name, scientistic) standpoint which we can sometimes occupy, the same actions really have no properties but those which can be described in the vocabularies of naturalistic analysis and explanation (including, of course, psychological analysis and explanation). Evidently, particular deliverances from either standpoint are subject to internal criticism, criticism from within that standpoint. But that is all. We have no rational warrant for declaring one standpoint metaphysically superior to the other.

Such a resolution in both the case of the morality of (some) actions and that of the value of (some) ends is unlikely to be found satisfying. For temperaments continue to clash after reasons have given out.

Nagel’s subjective-objective antithesis is a versatile instrument. Having discovered that at one level the objective standpoint puts the whole matter of morality and value in question, he then finds that at another level, at which the seriousness of these matters is not brought into question but taken for granted, the antithesis breaks out within the region of the ethical. Here the “objective” position is that of a comprehensive consequentialism, or utilitarianism, which would represent the rightness or wrongness of all actions as depending entirely on whether or not they contribute to the best overall outcome for those affected by them. The “subjective” or agent-centered position, by contrast, is more restrictive in one way, more permissive in another: it is more restrictive in stressing the absolute wrongness, irrespective of outcomes, of certain ways of treating people, more permissive in that it allows more scope for each individual’s pursuit of his private ends or projects without regard to their contribution to the general good.

Nagel pursues, and enriches, this antithesis through a number of topics: the limits of what is morally acceptable in war; the differences between the obligations to which a person is subject as a private person and as a holder of public office (as the latter, he is required to be more impartial and permitted, or required, to be more “consequentialist”); the policy of “affirmative action”; and egalitarianism in general. These essays together constitute a substantial contribution to ethical theory, rationally argued and undogmatic in tone, balanced and civilized in treatment. While Nagel argues for the relevance of ethical theory to practical decision, he stresses also the disparateness of the values which move us and insists that no unique strategy or system of principles can be relied upon to deliver the right answers; in the end the gaps left by system must be filled by the Aristotelian faculty of judgment, by a “practical wisdom” which will not submit to systematic codification.

Two points on which doubt may be felt concern the notion of natural (or human) rights and that of equality. On the matter of equality Nagel returns once more to the question of what may be said to be deserved and what may not. No man or woman, he writes, deserves credit for the gifts of nature: cleverness, superior energy, or beauty. It is fitting, he concedes, that those who posses these qualities should occupy positions which give scope for their exercise (or display?). But such positions normally carry with them advantages of other kinds: notably, greater esteem, greater freedom, and greater wealth. Nagel wistfully envisages a situation in which these unmerited advantages could be neutralized and equality with respect to them secured without loss of liberty. He concludes, sadly, that this is hardly to be expected. Flaubert would have agreed: “Qu’est-ce que l’égalité si ce n’est la négation de la liberté, de la supériorité et de la nature elle-même?” Nagel might also have considered that one of the “disparate values” he speaks of, namely the existence of a high level of cultural achievement, is difficult to imagine dissociated from the existence of a privileged minority. But the whole subject of equality is one on which it is hard to speak with clear minds or pure hearts, let alone both at once.

As to rights: Nagel is disposed to derive the absolute obligation of a person to refrain from certain types of harm to others from the “rights” of men not to suffer such harm at the hands of their fellows. If the talk of rights is no more than a tautological rephrasing of the tall: of obligations, well and good; though then the order of derivation—of rights from obligations—should be reversed and its purely logical nature recognized. But if the talk of rights is meant to be more than this and the derivation is supposed to have a more substantial character, then skepticism about the more that is meant may tend rather to weaken than to strengthen what it is designed to support. The house of morality stands more securely without dubious metaphysical foundations.

Metaphysics is in place again in the later chapters of Nagel’s book, where he addresses himself to the mind-body problem—a problem which he finds as intractable today as it has seemed in the past. He sees the effort to achieve objectivity of view as tugging philosophers toward some variety of materialism: toward a neo-behaviorism or toward the currently fashionable physicalism which identifies mental with physical states or toward a combination of the two. Against this he sets the irreducibly subjective character of conscious experience, whether it be that of our own species or the unimaginably different experience of other species (“What is it like to be a bat?”).

It may seem easy enough to find the first steps of a way between a monistic materialism (which denies the evident reality of the subjective nature of conscious experience) and a substantial or Cartesian dualism of soul and body (which generates its own problems and which almost nobody now accepts). For why should not a single substance or organism, person or non-human animal, be credited with two irreducibly different types of state or property? But Nagel finds these easy steps leading to a metaphysical conclusion which is hard indeed: hard to accept and hard to understand. The causal dependence of mental states or properties on physical states or properties is undeniable. Nagel rejects a view of causation based on the mere empirical regularity with which one type of event is followed by another. He regards the causal relation as one in which effects are intelligibly necessitated. He is therefore unable to accept the view that consciousness simply emerges at a certain level of complexity of physical organization and concludes that we may be driven to accept a form of panpsychism, viz the thesis that the ultimate constituents of the physical organism—constituents which could equally well have formed part of what we regard as nonanimate things—themselves have mental properties which, appropriately combined imply or necessitate the subjective experience we know.

The argument is more complex than this summary suggests; and Nagel does not positively embrace the thesis of panpsychism or regard it with any complacency. Instead, he claims only that it “should be added to the current list of mutually incompatible and hopelessly unacceptable solutions to the mind-body problem.” Of the ways he mentions of escaping the panpsychist conclusion, the least repugnant to common sense might be to reduce, in this perplexing area at least, the demand he makes on the concept of causation.

Finally, a word on “Death”; and another on “Sexual Perversion.” Nagel disposes effectively of the standard arguments designed to show that death cannot be regarded as a misfortune to the one who suffers it. From the subjective point of view of each person it is a great, perhaps the greatest, misfortune, and loss of life the one irredeemable loss. But it is striking that in this essay Nagel makes no mention of the other side of his unifying antithesis: the objective point of view which we are supposed to be able to occupy and from which life is seen as absurd and therefore, presumably, as Housman put it, as “nothing much to lose.” Perhaps this is a point of view which becomes more accessible with the years.

Life, to be sure, is nothing much to lose,
But young men think it is and we were young.

The master-thought of Nagel’s chapter on sexual perversion is the reasonable one that the essence of any perversion can be understood only by first understanding the essence of that of which it is a perversion. So the first step is to be an analysis of sexual interaction between two persons in a complete or ideal form. Nagel gives an account of increasingly complex levels of mutual awareness of desire and of heightened self- and other-perception, leading through physical contact to sexual union and gratification. There is a certain inverted primness in Nagel’s dissociation of sex and love, justified by the comment that the phenomenology of sexual desire is already complicated enough in itself. There is even a touch of the comical in the two-page illustrative example which blends, not wholly happily, the style of the analytical philosopher with that of the novelette. “Suppose a man and a woman,” it begins, “…are at opposite ends of a cocktail lounge, with many mirrors on the walls which permit unobserved observation….”

Still, the account itself, in its general form, is both appealing and accurate enough. As Nagel acknowledges, not all of what are commonly regarded as perversions—notably homosexuality—represent deviations from this norm, though many do. And not all deviations from the norm are commonly viewed as perversions: much of standard or conventional sex is probably less exciting and mutually rewarding than his account suggests. Nagel reckons with this point: the distinction between good and bad sex is not to be confounded with the distinction between unperverted and perverted sex. His attempt to deduce the nature of perversion cannot, then, be accounted a complete success. Nagel is good on (good) sex; but leaves the nature of sexual perversion a little misty. He concludes on the cheerful and generally acceptable note that even bad sex is generally better than none at all.

All in all, the book is a fine achievement. Few professional philosophers have written so rationally and agreeably on such a variety of difficult and serious problems; and perhaps fewer still, in their anxiety to canvass solutions, have shown such a consistent and undogmatic respect for the problems themselves.

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