Thomas Nagel
Thomas Nagel; drawing by David Levine


This discussion will be concerned with an issue that runs through practically every area of inquiry and that has even invaded the general culture—the issue of where understanding and justification come to an end. Do they come to an end with objective principles whose validity is independent of our point of view, or do they come to an end within our point of view—individual or shared—so that ultimately, even the most apparently objective and universal principles derive their validity or authority from the perspective and practice of those who follow them?

This is the question Thomas Nagel raises in The Last Word, and the answer he gives in his subtle, compact, and forceful book is firmly and eloquently of the first kind—a “rationalist” answer, as against answers that he variously calls “subjectivist,” “relativist,” and “naturalist.” We, most of us, have a moral outlook which is (very broadly speaking) liberal: we support universal human rights and are in favor of toleration. Others, elsewhere, do not have that outlook, and neither did most people in the past. We favor the medicine of medical practice over the medicine of medicine men, and think that we have scientific reasons to do so; medicine men have a different view. Nagel wants to vindicate our rationality, and the justifications that we offer for our beliefs, against people who say that these ways of thinking are simply the ones that we are culturally used to and happen to favor.

Some people who say this, Nagel’s relativists, just leave it at that: “This is our way, but who are we to say that those others are wrong?” The subjectivists among us go a little further, and say that those who disagree with us are wrong, but they are very impressed by the thought that there is no objective point from which the disagreement can be resolved. Others, more skeptical still, pretend that we can do without “true,” “wrong,” and so on altogether, except as decoration or rhetoric, and urge us to see these disagreements and arguments as simply one or another sort of politics.

Nagel wants to show, against all these parties, that “understanding and justification come to an end…with objective principles whose validity is independent of our point of view.” By this he means that if the argument between conflicting positions or interpretations were pursued far enough, and if the parties were fully rational, they would have to accept one resolution of the debate or another, or at least agree with each other that for mutually intelligible reasons it could not be resolved. They could not retreat to merely explaining each others’ outlook in psychological, social, or political terms.

In putting forward these ideas, Nagel sees himself as addressing a currently important intellectual and cultural question, and indeed he is. But it should be said at once that The Last Word is a work of philosophical reflection, not a polemic. The book is a significant contribution to the culture wars of our time, particularly to the recurrent and untidy disputes over the extent to which objective understanding and argument can be saved from skeptical suspicion (which claims that a sophisticated thinker should believe virtually nothing), and, equally, from a promiscuous relativism (which allows one to believe just about anything one likes). But there is not much in Nagel’s text to show how it relates to any particular controversy. Almost the only examples that he gives of what is at stake are an obligingly self-refuting quotation from Richard Rorty (which I shall come to) and, in the matter of ethics, some opinions of mine. Readers who hoped to see their enemies or their friends skewered will be disappointed.

Who, in these discussions, are “we”? Is every claim to the effect that our understandings are relative to “us” equally threatening? When we reflect on what “we” believe, particularly in cultural and ethical matters, we often have in mind (as the relativists do) ourselves as members of modern industrial societies, or of some yet more restricted group, as contrasted with other human beings at other times or places. Such a “we” is, as linguists put it, “contrastive”—it picks out “us” as opposed to others. But “we” can be understood inclusively, to embrace anyone who does, or who might, share in the business of investigating the world. Some philosophers have suggested that in our thought there is always an implied “we” of this inclusive kind; according to them, when cosmologists make claims about what the universe is like “in itself,” they are not abstracting from possible experience altogether, but are implicitly talking about the way things would seem to investigators who were at least enough like us for us to recognize them, in principle, as investigators.

Whether those philosophers are right in thinking that all our conceptions are relative to “us” understood in this abstractly inclusive way is certainly an important question in metaphysics. But does it matter to the culture wars and to the disputes about relativism and subjectivism that are Nagel’s real concern? Nagel says that what he is attacking is the idea that we cannot ultimately get beyond a conception of the world as it seems to us. What is really disturbing, however, about the relativists and subjectivists is surely not this idea in itself, but rather their insistence on understanding “us” in such a very local and parochial way. Their suggestions—suggestions made at least by the most extreme among them—that all our ideas, including our theories in cosmology, are simply local cultural formations, and that there is no “truth of the matter” about such things as history, are indeed unnerving, and they have deep cultural implications, because they suggest that there are no shared standards on the basis of which we as human beings can understand each other—that there is no inclusive, but only a contrastive, “we.”


These problems about the reach of human understanding, like many others in modern philosophy, go back to Kant. Kant was rightly impressed by the thought that if we ask whether we have a correct conception of the world, we cannot step entirely outside our actual conceptions and theories so as to compare them with a world that is not conceptualized at all, a bare “whatever there is.” He concluded that we cannot get beyond thinking of the world as it might appear to creatures who resemble us at least to the extent of being intelligent observers, and so belong in the ultimately inclusive “us.” With moral thought, however, Kant supposed that the situation was different. Kant did not take morality to be a matter of knowledge. It was concerned, rather, with practical principles which bind any rational person in dealing with other rational persons, and this leads to the result, at first sight surprising, that for Kant morality is less relativized to the ways in which the world affects us than science is. Kant’s morality applies to us just because we are rational creatures. The “we” of morality is potentially broader than the group that could share science.

Nagel is sympathetic to Kant’s unregenerately rationalist view of ethics, but he thinks that Kant’s revolution in the understanding of science and of our everyday knowledge of the world was the beginning of the rot.1 Kant, as much as anybody, is the “modern” in “postmodern,” and there is a long story (though Nagel does not tell it here) of how, after Kant, critical reflection on our relations to the world went on to sweep away Kant’s own assurances about what we can know and what we ought to do. Moral claims, the humane disciplines of history and criticism, and natural science itself have come to seem to some critics not to command the reasonable assent of all human beings. They are seen rather as the products of groups within humanity, expressing the perspectives of those groups. Some see the authority of supposedly rational discourse as itself barely authority, but rather a construct of social forces.

In a further turn, reflection on this situation itself can lead to a relativism which steps back from all perspectives and sees them all at the same distance—all true, none true, each of them true for its own partisans. Eventually we reach the kind of incantation produced by someone quoted by Alan Sokal at a meeting in New York about his hoax, to the effect that there is no fact of the matter as to whether Native Americans originally arrived on the continent across the Bering Strait, or by ascent from the center of the earth; both accounts are true (for someone: or something like that).

This is the kind of jetsam to be found on the further shores of what Nagel is against, but he is equally against everything on the way to those shores: anything, that is to say, that represents beliefs or statements which should be understood to be straightforwardly about the way things are as statements that depend on “us”—whether “us” means humans and anyone humans could understand, as in Kant’s case; or humans; or us here and now; or maybe some of us here and now, as in various postmodern constructions. Nagel is not very interested in the differences between wider and narrower understandings of “we,” just as he is not interested in identifying particular theorists of the relativist and subjectivist tendency. He wants to get rid of the idea that seemingly objective truths depend in any sense on “us.” He believes that he has an entirely general, abstract set of considerations which will do this, and which will persuade us that reason and objectivity should have the “Last Word” that appears in his title.



Nagel’s basic idea is that whatever kind of claim is said to be only locally valid and to be the product of particular social forces—whether it is morality that is being criticized in this way, or history, or science—the relativist or subjectivist who offers this critique will have to make some other claim, which itself has to be understood as not merely local but objectively valid. Moreover, in all the cases that matter, this further claim will have to be of the same type as those that are being criticized: the relativists’ critique of morality must commit them to claims of objective morality, their attempts to show that science consists of local prejudice must appeal to objective science, and so on.

We shall come back to some details of Nagel’s basic idea, and to how it works out in practice. First, however, there are some questions about his approach, and the very general style of argument that he uses. If he is right in this approach, he can stop the subjectivist and relativist attack before it gets very close to any particular target. This has the same advantage as the proposed Star Wars defense system, that if it works, the explosions occur in the stratosphere and nothing one cares about gets damaged. It has the same disadvantage, that if it does not work and there is no guaranteed interception, you have no way of telling how much of what you care about may survive.

This is one reason why the strategy seems to me misconceived: not everything that is threatened by subjectivism, or relativism, or naturalism is in the same situation. Some of the types of thought that have been questioned in these ways are in worse shape to face the attack than others. Parts of our morality, for instance, or our longer-haul historical narratives, or our models of personal self-understanding, are more open to suspicion, more liable to be shown in an unsettling way to depend on a narrow and parochial “us,” than our science or our logic are. If so, this cannot be for entirely general reasons that apply equally to them and to those other types of thought. It will be for reasons special to them. Moreover, it may be for reasons special to them at this time: as with other illnesses, no diagnosis that ignores their history is likely to succeed.

In addition, they are our own illnesses. Another reason why, as it seems to me, Nagel’s strategy is misguided is that it installs a long-distance, high-powered, all-purpose defense system to fight what is in fact a guerrilla war. The irrationalists or relativists or skeptics are among us. I do not mean the Invasion of the Body Snatchers situation suggested by some conservative fantasists of the academy, who seem to think that pods delivered secretly to departments of literature have yielded creatures that take over the scholars. I mean that the seeds of skepticism are there to germinate in anyone who thinks seriously about our intellectual and cultural situation as it is now. Nagel is quite right in saying that these kinds of skepticism cannot become total, this side of insanity. If we are to think at all, we cannot regard logic, or science, or history, as just local fancies. But the hard question is how far skepticism or relativism can go while remaining on the right side of insanity, and (to change the military metaphor) Nagel’s policy of they shall not pass! does not seem to me to give enough help in answering it.

Nagel puts his basic idea by saying that there are some thoughts “we cannot get outside of.” To understand ourselves, and more particularly to arrive at the conclusion that some of our thoughts or beliefs or experiences are merely “appearances,” a function of how we are rather than of how things are, there are other judgments which we must think “straight”—that is to say, in a way that commits us to the objective truth of those judgments. If we can relegate some of our thoughts to being mere appearances, this implies that we have an objective view of a world—a world that is really there—to which we, and those appearances, belong. Insofar as it depends on taking an “external view of oneself,” the “discrediting of universal claims of reason as merely subjective or relative has inescapable built-in limits.” There are, Nagel says,

some types of thoughts that we cannot avoid simply having—that it is strictly impossible to consider merely from the outside, because they enter inevitably and directly into any process of considering ourselves from the outside, allowing us to construct the conception of a world in which, as a matter of objective fact, we and our subjective impressions are contained. [Nagel’s emphasis]

There are, Nagel insists, limits to the extent to which we can criticize our thoughts from a disengaged standpoint. We may indeed come to the conclusion that some of our apparently objective beliefs are an expression of some local peculiarity:

Someone who has been brought up to believe that it is wrong for women to expose their breasts can come to realize at a certain point that this is a convention of his culture, and not an unqualified moral truth. Of course, he might continue to insist, after examining the anthropological, historical, and sociological evidence, that it is wrong in itself for women to expose their breasts…. But this response is unlikely to survive the confrontation; it just doesn’t have enough behind it…. [Nagel’s emphasis]

If the original belief disappears in such a case, the change will have been produced through other moral argument. So reflection in this style could not possibly reduce all moral belief and argument to sets of local peculiarities. The same applies, Nagel believes, to all the fields of thought that he considers. One cannot ultimately get outside these styles of thought. One has to go on in the same way. In the end, anyone who tries to make the case against objectivity in a certain field will be involved in making claims in that field which, once again, have to be understood as objective.

A case that illustrates the merits of Nagel’s idea, but also the limitations of his totally general approach, is that of the objectivity of science. He puts this question as a matter of a choice between two equally abstract outlooks. One is the “realistic” attitude taken by most people, including most scientists, to the effect that there is a world which exists independently of us all, and which has a determinate character which scientists’ theories try to capture. The other is the “attempt to reconstrue the ordered world picture as a projection of our minds.” (This reconstruction, I assume, may or may not take a relativistic form, depending on how “our” is understood, but Nagel is not much concerned with relativism in this connection.) This second outlook, he argues,

founders on the need to place ourselves in the world so ordered. In trying to make sense of this relation, we are inevitably led to employ the same kind of reasoning, based on the search for order. Even if we decide that some of our apprehensions of order are illusions or errors, that will be because a better theory, by the same standards, can explain them away.

At this quite general level, Nagel must be right. It is impossible for anyone totally to get outside, or “place,” or disown as parochial, realistic thought about the world, or indeed attempts to understand it by some principles of order. Those who try will, in order to make their point, have to take up the commitments of thinking and talking in the ways that they are trying to set on one side.

However, it is not clear how much this tells us. There have been many things written about scientific realism and the alternatives to it. There have been and no doubt still are some writers, for the most part ignorant of science, who seem to think that science is merely invented, or determined by ideological forces. But very few who know anything about the subject think this.2 The point is, rather, that science is a complex social activity, and the fact that some branch of science at a given time settles on certain theories or models rather than others is not an outcome straightforwardly determined by perception of the world, but rather by scientists’ habits and practices, including their ways of selecting and interpreting observations. This is not an abstract philosophical point; it is the conclusion of detailed historical studies.3

Nagel himself, in fact, seems willing to accept this; he is not disposed to think that the world, with a little experimental encouragement, inscribes itself into scientific journals. But he does not take up the question of where exactly that leaves us. Within the limits of what Nagel claims here, we could agree with Lichtenberg that “the lofty simplicity of nature all too often rests on the unlofty simplicity of the one who thinks he sees it.”4 If this line of thought is correct, who or what, precisely, has the “last word”? Our science certainly engages with the world, but that leaves room for the reflection that nevertheless it is a function of “us” to a greater extent than is naively supposed. As often with such issues—as with our images of the past or our understanding of other people—the question is not whether we grasp anything objectively, but how much we grasp, and the answer to that may be obscure enough to leave us with some of the unease which, I take it, Nagel’s strategy is supposed to dispel.

However this may be, Nagel does show that no one can disown scientific discourse altogether; if someone says, for instance, that science is just our local mythology, he will need a picture of the world that contains people and their mythologies, and if he is to sustain that picture, he will have to address himself to science. Nagel also effectively exposes a familiar style of attempt to disown a kind of discourse and at the same time to stay within it. Richard Rorty is especially fond of this kind of statement. He writes, for example,

What people like Kuhn, Derrida and I believe is that it is pointless to ask whether there really are mountains or whether it is merely convenient for us to talk about mountains…. Given that it pays to talk about mountains, as it certainly does, one of the obvious truths about mountains is that they were here before we talked about them. If you do not believe that, you probably do not know how to play the usual language-games which employ the word “mountain.” But the utility of those language-games has nothing to do with the question of whether Reality as It Is In Itself, apart from the way it is handy for human beings to describe it, has mountains in it.5

Nagel rightly insists that Rorty and his friends had better come clean (cleaner than he does in that statement) about the mountains. No doubt it is handy for human beings to have words for mountains, but it is very hard to explain why this is so without mentioning the fact that there are mountains. It is revealing, too—and Nagel might have added this as an illustration of his general argument—that Rorty unquestioningly accepts that it pays to talk about mountains. He does not merely say that it pays to talk about its paying to talk about mountains.

Perhaps from the same fastidiousness that keeps him from citing much of what he opposes, Nagel stands at some distance from Rorty’s arguments. He reproves his errors. But Rorty does not simply fall into error, he places himself there, and it is worth looking more closely at his rhetoric. The capital letters with which Rorty invests “Reality as It Is In Itself” suggest the metaphysical idea of a world not yet conceptualized at all, to which we are supposed to compare our concepts—the idea which Kant saw to be useless. But how is this metaphysical idea of Reality related to everyday, lower-case, reality, such as the mountains that there really are?

This is a question that has been addressed by much philosophy after Kant. Rorty, moving in and out of references to an upper-case Reality, declines to address that question, and this is the point: he wants, as he often says, to change the subject. Now Rorty is not wrong in thinking that philosophy moves on, more often than not, by changing the subject; as Bertrand Russell said about witchcraft, it was never disproved but merely ceased to be interesting. Rorty’s mistake is to think that the way the subject changes is by someone’s simply announcing that it has changed.

Rorty’s rather lightheaded view of what is involved in the intellectual landscape changing—that is his problem. But equally there is a problem for Nagel. Why, on Nagel’s view, have the outlooks of subjectivism and relativism and so forth got so much hold? Why are things as bad as he says they are? It is hard to find his answer in the book. He seems to think merely that from slackness and laziness and perhaps a desire for fame people do not think very well about these things. There is a hint of disappointed moralism in this, which sometimes lends a slightly Blimpish tone to his writing. He argues against his (mostly unidentified) opponents from where he is, rather than trying to see where such people might be going and what might be drawing them there. The danger in this is that he may not notice that the questions which he is addressing really have, in some degree, changed. Philosophy wants to make things clear. Unfortunately, few things that are really interesting are in the first place clear: what needs clarifying, this new thing, cannot usually be picked out using simply the categories available before it happened. This means that in order to locate what has to be understood, we need to ask how it came about, and this is one reason why philosophy needs history.

Nagel’s approach is of course shaped by the history of philosophy, to a considerable extent the history of recent philosophy, but the way in which he sets out what needs to be discussed and explained is resolutely untouched by history. This is quite deeply connected with his own position, and with his very ambitious aim, which is really nothing less than to turn back the clock on the whole of modern philosophy. Nagel resists Kant’s attempt to make philosophy start from a reflection on the powers and limitations of observers such as ourselves. When Kant introduced this philosophy, he called it the critical philosophy. The process of critique that Kant initiated subsequently undid much of his own philosophy, and among the results of this process are the strategies and ideas of relativism and subjectivism now current which Nagel regards with alarm and distaste. It is hard to go on from here as though none of this had happened. We should not forget that the style of philosophy to which Kant self-consciously opposed his critique he called dogmatic philosophy, meaning that it took the supposed deliverances of reason at their face value, without asking how they were grounded in the structure of human thought and experience.

Nagel’s philosophy is certainly not dogmatic in tone or intellectual manner: it is patient, honestly open-minded, attentive to argument, and willing to pursue the discussion with any moderately rational objectors. It is also not dogmatic in the sense that it invokes anyone else’s dogma; his book is meant to be a defense of reason. Yet, in the spirit of Kant’s distinction, it is dogmatic, because it is not interested enough in explanations. It draws, as it seems to me, arbitrary limits to the reflective questions that philosophy is allowed to ask.


Let us go back to Nagel’s principle that one cannot “get outside” various forms of thought and discourse. In the case of logic, the critic is bound to use logic even in putting a criticism; with natural science, as we have seen, the critic is committed to forms of inquiry which eventually lead him back to arguments which accept conclusions of natural science. These are very good cases, but we need to ask: What exactly, and how much, is shown by the fact that we cannot “get outside” a given kind of discourse or reasoning?

Suppose we consider a world which lacked human beings and their perceptions. Some of the descriptions which, as things are, we base on our perceptions we apply straightforwardly to such a world: we say that dinosaurs moved among green leaves, even if dinosaurs were themselves colorblind. We are probably less disposed to say that some laughable dinosaur misadventure was funny (really), though the humorless dinosaurs failed to notice it. We are more likely to say that some things are funny to us, but nothing was funny to a dinosaur. We more readily adopt the relativist tone when it comes to humor than we do with colors. It is very significant, however, that with regard to other human beings, this is not always how we speak even about humor. Many of Nagel’s readers will think that much of what people found funny in the past, those jolly japes of humiliation and brutality, were not funny at all (really).

What is the basis of these differences, and how deep do they go? Our concepts of greenness and funniness are both, surely, rooted in our sensibility and in our ways of responding to the world. In neither case can we get rid of the idea altogether; we cannot say and think just what we do say and think about either greenness or funniness without using those concepts, or concepts like them. In that sense, it is true of both these cases that we must “go on in the same way”:we can’t stand entirely outside them. Yet that in itself seems not to tell us anything very deep about objectivity.

To the extent that he considers such cases, Nagel is primarily preoccupied with reduction—that is to say, with the question whether we can get rid of our familiar concepts altogether and replace them with concepts that lack the features typical of our experience. “Behavioristic reductions and their descendants,” he writes,

do not work in the philosophy of mind because the phenomenological and intentional features that are evident from inside the mind are never adequately accounted for from the purely external perspective that the reducing theories limit themselves to, under the mistaken impression that an external perspective alone is compatible with a scientific worldview.

We can agree with Nagel, against some scientistic programs in the philosophy of mind, that reduction in this strong form is not possible for any aspect of our experience that raises such questions. So the failure of reductionism in itself is not going to tell us whether some of these various kinds of experience are more “objective” than others. It is more helpful to think in terms of explanation rather than reduction. If we ask why almost all human beings find some things or other funny, though they do not all find the same things funny, we may have little idea of what the answer should be, but we are fairly certain that it will not involve describing things as funny before we get to them—funny, as one might say, anyway.

Nagel also puts a certain amount of weight on the issue of whether in fact we speak in a relativist way. But it is unclear how much follows from our speaking or not in a relativist way. The case of funniness suggests that if we, in some cases but not in others, prefer the language of objective fact and error to the language of relativism, this may say more about our attitudes than about what the world contains. (Perhaps after all there is something in Rorty’s point, that it can be part of our language game to deny that it is a matter of our language game.) Similar reflections, if more complex, will be involved in thinking about aesthetic judgment, which Nagel, rather surprisingly, does not discuss.

When we recognize that our capacities to have various kinds of thought are to be explained in different ways, this can affect the ways in which we understand our disagreements with others. To the extent that our local disposition to find some things rather than others funny or hideous can be explained without (seriously) taking the world to contain things that are already funny or hideous, we may also be able to understand why other human beings do not necessarily find those same things funny or hideous. Of course, not everyone agrees about what counts as an explanation, or about what needs explaining. This is important, and I shall suggest that, particularly in the case of ethics, the striking fact that Nagel is so sure of his objectivities while others are so confirmed in their suspicions of them itself comes from a disagreement about what needs to be explained.

Sometimes Nagel’s limited interest in explanations seems to leave him unnecessarily thinking that something is inexplicable. He has an intriguing section on our understanding of the infinite. “We seem to be left with a question,” he writes, “that has no imaginable answer: How is it possible for finite beings like us to think infinite thoughts…?” “If there is such a thing as reason, it is a local activity of finite creatures that somehow enables them to make contact with universal truths, often of infinite range”: a simple example is our knowledge that there are infinitely many natural numbers. There is a reductivist temptation to deny that we grasp infinite truths, but reductivism will not do. “The idea of reducing the apparently infinite to the finite is therefore ruled out: Instead, the apparently finite must be explained in terms of the infinite.”

Descartes used an argument rather like this to prove the existence of God. He reasoned: “I am a finite being, but I have the idea of an infinite Being. Such an idea could not have come from any finite source, such as myself. So it must have come from just such an infinite Being, and the fact that I have this idea shows that God exists.” No one thinks that this is a very convincing argument. One reason is that it uses a very simple principle of explanation, to the effect that any thought with infinite content must have an infinite cause. It was for reasons similar to this principle (and which form part of its history) that Plato thought that if we reflect on our capacities for geometrical knowledge, we can recognize that it is not in utter nakedness that we come into this world: there is a realm of geometrical truth which we must have (so to speak) visited.

There is a hint of something like this in Nagel, too, in a revealing phrase that he uses in a passage I have already quoted: “…enables them to make contact with universal truths…” (my emphasis). Whatever explanations there may be of the human capacity to do mathematics, they are not going to involve mathematical truths in the extraterrestrial way that this phrase suggests. Can it really be that merely by thinking about the nature of mathematics, we can rule out in advance the prospect that there might be some, broadly speaking, biological explanations of our capacity to think mathematically? Though the subject of mathematics has, of course, a cultural history, the basic capacities involved must be the product of evolution by natural selection, or be the byproduct of some other capacity which has emerged in that way. (One thing that evolutionary explanations will have to do is to make clear what these capacities are.)

Nagel seems to deny, in effect, that there could be such an explanation: it is certainly not going to “explain the apparently finite in terms of the infinite,” as he requires. He assumes, I think, that any scientific explanation of mathematical capacities would have to be reductive in the drastic sense that it would rob mathematical thoughts of their infinite content altogether, so that we would end up denying that every natural number has a successor and that there is no greatest prime.

Any explanation which had that consequence would certainly be a bad explanation. But nothing Nagel says shows that there could not be a better explanation linking mathematical capacities in an illuminating way with other characteristics that human beings have as a result of evolution. This would be a naturalist explanation, in a broader sense than Nagel, at least in this connection, acknowledges. What we want, here as elsewhere, is naturalism without reductionism. We want not to deny the capacities we undoubtedly have, but to explain them; the aim of explaining them is to make it intelligible that they can be the capacities of creatures like us, who have a certain evolutionary history and a very special ethology, one that involves culture and self-conscious history.


The question of how explanations of our thoughts might affect our understanding of them and of ourselves takes on a rather different, and particularly pressing, form when we get to ethics. Nagel allows in principle that there might be unflattering explanations of liberal ethical ideas:

To take some crude but familiar examples, the only response possible to the charge that a morality of individual rights is nothing but a load of bourgeois ideology, or an instrument of male domination, or that the requirement to love your neighbor is really an expression of fear, hatred, and resentment of your neighbor, is to consider again, in the light of these suggestions, whether the reasons for respecting individual rights or caring about others can be sustained, or whether they disguise something that is not a reason at all. And this is a new moral question. One cannot just exit from the domain of moral reflection: It is simply there. All one can do is proceed with it in light of whatever new historical or psychological evidence may be offered. It’s the same everywhere. Challenges to the objectivity of science can be met only by further scientific reasoning, challenges to the objectivity of history only by history, and so forth. [Nagel’s emphasis]

This is the ethical version of the theme that one cannot get outside a type of thought, that we have to “go on in the same way.” But it raises again the question of how much is settled by those formulae. For what is “the same way”? How various might “moral reasons” be? The relevance of cultural, psychological, or economic explanation to ethical values does not lie simply in its providing a challenge to them all collectively. Nagel’s argument may deal effectively with that challenge, but in doing so it at most defeats ethical nihilism, and does not touch the concerns of the relativists and subjectivists. The cultural and other explanations of ethical beliefs help to remind us that those beliefs vary from place to place, and, further, that our own beliefs have a peculiar history and probably a peculiar psychology as well. Those considerations should make us think differently and more reflectively not only about the content of our beliefs but about the style in which we argue for them.

In particular, there is the matter of how we think of our ethical differences from other cultures, such as those of past people who did not share our liberalism. Nagel writes:

Faced with the fact that [liberal] values have gained currency only recently and not universally, one still has to decide whether they are right—whether one ought to continue to hold them….The question remains…whether I would have been in error if I had accepted as natural, and therefore as justified, the inequalities of a caste society….

But how much do I have to decide? Here there is a crucial distinction. Nagel is absolutely right to say that the liberal, if he really is a liberal, must apply his liberalism to the world around him, and the knowledge that few people in the history of the world have been liberals is not itself a reason for his giving up being a liberal. If there are reasons for giving up liberalism, they will be the sorts of considerations which suggest that there is something better, more convincing, or more inspiring to believe instead. In this, I entirely agree with Nagel—though an interesting question is left, why people do tend to lose hold of their convictions in this way, and I shall come back to it.

So the liberal must take his ideas seriously as applying to the world. But to how much of the world? Does it follow, as Nagel puts it, that, “presented with the description of a traditional caste society, I have to ask myself whether its hereditary inequalities are justified…”? Most of us will agree that if we are presented in actual fact with such a society we have to ask ourselves some such question. But is this the case if we are presented with the description of such a society, one from long ago, let us suppose, belonging to the ancient world? Of course, thinking about this ancient society, I can ask myself Nagel’s question, but is it true that the force of reason demands that I must do so, and what does the question mean? “Would I have been in error if I had accepted its inequalities as justified?”—Would who have been in error? Must I think of myself as visiting in judgment all the reaches of history? Of course, one can imagine oneself as Kant at the Court of King Arthur, disapproving of its injustices, but exactly what grip does this get on one’s ethical thought?

In particular, is it really plausible that one makes this imaginary journey only with the minimal baggage of reason? Granted the notable fact that no one had the liberal world view then, the ethical time-traveler must take with him implicitly the historical experience which has made him the liberal he is, and that experience does not belong to the place he is visiting.

The basic idea that we see things as we do because of our historical situation has become over two hundred years so deeply embedded in our outlook that it is rather Nagel’s universalistic assumption which may look strange, the idea that, self-evidently, moral judgment must take everyone everywhere as equally its object. It looks just as strange when we think of travel in the opposite direction. “To reason is to think systematically in ways anyone looking over my shoulder ought to be able to recognize as correct,” Nagel says near the beginning of his book. Anyone? So I am reasoning, along with Nagel, in a liberal way, and Louis XIV is looking over our shoulder. He will not recognize our thoughts as correct. Ought he to?—or, more precisely, ought he to have done so when he was in his own world and not yet faced with the task of trying to make sense of ours?

We are brought back to the demand for explanations. If liberalism is correct and is based in universal human reason, as Nagel seemingly takes it to be, why is it that earlier times did not think of it or accept it? Kant had an answer in his theory of progress and enlightenment: human beings had grown up from a long period of tutelage, and for the first time could decide rationally how they should live. Hegel and Marx gave related, if more conflictual, answers, filled out in historical and economic terms.

Nagel suggests no answer and seems not to want one. I would say that Nagel lacks a “theory of error” for what he calls moral correctness, but whether we put it like that or not, he surely lacks an explanation of something that cries out for one. He cannot take it for granted that explanations of various ethical beliefs will at most modify their content, in the way illustrated by the anodyne example of bare breasts, which I mentioned earlier. If we come to understand historically and psychologically how our own and others’ ethical thoughts came about, this can change the way we think about the status of our thoughts, and about their relation to other people’s. To neglect this possibility does seem to me to constitute a form of dogmatism in Kant’s sense, a refusal of the kind of critique that has made modern philosophy (including the deformations that Nagel rightly rejects) what it is.

Readers of Nagel’s book will look for clues to the underlying outlook which sustains him in this approach. So far as ethics is concerned, I am struck by two assumptions that he makes. One is that if one does not think of one’s morality as universally applicable to everyone, one cannot confidently apply it where one must indeed apply it, to the issues of one’s own time. I said earlier that some people do seem to think that if liberalism is a recent idea and people in the past were not liberals, they themselves should lose confidence in liberalism as applied to the modern world. This is, as Nagel says, a mistake. But why does the unconfident liberal make it? I suspect that it is precisely because he agrees with Nagel’s universalism: he thinks that if a morality is correct, it must apply to everyone. So if liberalism is correct, it must apply to all those past people who were not liberals.

Why did those people not think this themselves? Some say it was because they were collectively wicked and selfish: the unconfident liberal (rightly) thinks that that is a silly thing to say and explains nothing. Others, believers in enlightened progress, think it was because past people were poorly informed, superstitious, and so on. But the unconfident liberal has lost faith in the ideas of enlightened progress, and (very reasonably) cannot see how advances in science and technology have revealed the truth about liberalism. He becomes less sure that liberalism applies to those past people, after all. So, he begins to think, liberalism cannot be correct. That is not the conclusion he should draw; what he should do is give up the universalist belief he shares with Nagel. This does not mean that we must slide into a position of irony, holding to liberalism as liberals, but backing away from it as reflective critics. That position is itself still under the shadow of universalism. We only have to recognize that new times mean new needs and new powers. In many important respects, we are like no one else who has ever existed, and one of those respects is that we have liberal ideas, and ways of living to which they apply.

A second reason for Nagel’s position in ethics is, I think, his rigid understanding of what it is to “go on in the same way.” He does mention, at one point, the possibility that a whole activity or way of going on may be rationally rejected: he gives the almost defiantly trivial example of prediction by tea leaves. He presumably thinks that such things are properly rejected because they are primitive operations of thought in the same line of business as science, and science does better. But who said that this was the relevant line of business? As anthropologists remind us, there are other ways of looking at practices such as augury. What determines which of several different practices counts as the “same way of going on”? One thing is clear, that the practitioners cannot simply determine it themselves. The aged oracle among the Azande says: “This is what counts as being an oracle, and I don’t count what these newcomers are doing as the same thing.” But for all that, his customers may move to the new hospital.

So Nagel says: The content of my morality may be modified by new discoveries, but this way of arguing, this universalist, rational enterprise, just is what we count as morality. This determines what it is to go on in the same way. Then Nagel’s opponents, the naturalists and disaffected inheritors of Kant’s critique, reply: You cannot just determine what counts as the same. We say that your peculiar morality has purposes; not to mention the less friendly ones, it tries to help us to live together, to formulate pictures of a life worth living, to make sense of one’s desires in relation to other people’s desires and needs, and so on. There have been other ways of doing these things, and no doubt there will be others in the future. Understanding this, it is we who in a broader sense go on in the same way, living as best we can by what makes sense now, remembering that it has not always made sense, trying to pick up hints of new things that no one can yet understand. What you call “going on in the same way” represents just one style of ethical thought, one which, in particular, tries to forget that it has a history.

Of course, those of us who think in these terms cannot determine, any more than Nagel can, what counts—what will have counted—as going on in the same ethical way. Nothing can do that, finally, except the future itself. The Last Word, as always, will lie with what actually comes about.

This Issue

November 19, 1998