Nagel, Thomas (1937–)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 24, 2024, from

5. Moral philosophy

Nagel uses the distinction between subjective and objective viewpoints to articulate a non-metaphysical understanding of moral realism, to explain the bifurcation in moral philosophy between consequentialist and deontological approaches and to argue against consequentialism, even while showing that the tension between more and less impartial moral outlooks often cannot be reconciled (see Consequentialism; Deontological ethics). Nagel’s discussion of these issues illuminates the differences between the role of the objective standpoint in moral as opposed to factual or empirical thought.

According to Nagel, ‘the view that values are real is not the view that they are real occult entities or properties, but that they are real values: that our claims about value and about what people have reason to do may be true or false independently of our beliefs and inclinations’ (1986: 144). To be ethical is to examine one’s reasons for acting from more than one’s own particular perspective. Hence, unlike factual understanding, moral understanding ‘is not a question of bringing the mind into correspondence with an external reality which acts causally on it, but of reordering the mind itself in accordance with the demands of its own external view of itself’ (1986: 148). Consequently, while the truth about the empirical world may completely transcend our theoretical reason, the truth about how we should act could not completely transcend our practical reason. Hence, unlike metaphysical versions of moral realism, Nagel’s normative realism is not associated with the possibility of moral scepticism according to which the objective viewpoint shows that there are no values, only facts about people’s inclinations and motives.

Since consequentialism has been understood as advocating an impartial point of view, that of an impartial spectator, Nagel’s discussion of moral theory in terms of the possibility of undertaking an impartial or objective viewpoint is not entirely new. However, Nagel gives a more complete and nuanced treatment of both deontological and consequentialist approaches by distinguishing between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons in terms of two correlative distinctions that are also generated by our dual viewpoints: the distinction between what we do and what happens and between choosing actions as opposed to choosing states of the world. Reasons that are relative to the agent are ‘specified by universal principles which nevertheless refer ineliminably to features or circumstances of the agent for whom they are reasons’. Reasons that are neutral with respect to the agent ‘depend on what everyone ought to value, independently of its relation to himself’ (1991: 40). As agents, we act on agent-relative reasons because even though actions affect what happens in the world, in the first instance one’s choice is necessarily between one’s own actions. However, each of us also has an objective self which views the world in detachment from one’s particular perspective. Consequently, the objective self chooses between different possible states of the world and its choice is based on agent-neutral reasons. So, moral conflict is due to the fact that ‘every choice is two choices’, every choice is at once a choice between actions and between states of the world. Moral conflict arises when the agent’s choice concerning what to do conflicts with the objective self’s choice concerning what should happen.

Nagel thus explains that consequentialism gives primacy to the agent-neutral values on the basis of which the objective self chooses between world-states. In contrast, deontological theories give primacy to certain agent-relative reasons which restrict agents from acting in certain ways. His own position is both complex and modest. It does not allow for a general championing of one kind of reason over another. Against consequentialism, Nagel argues that not all values are agent-neutral. But he also voices some uncertainty about whether there really are agent-relative reasons. However, while he does not argue for their existence directly, he explains them, especially the most problematic deontological ones, in lucid and compelling terms. The modesty of Nagel’s position lies in his conviction that we are far from a developed moral outlook. In contrast to his view that subjective and objective facts are irreconcilable, Nagel believes that it is possible, in principle, to develop our agent-relative values to be more consonant with agent-neutral values. However, as we will see in Nagel’s discussion of political theory, he finds little hope that the actual conditions of human life will allow us to school our moral outlook (see Moral realism).

Citing this article:
Sedivy, Sonia. Moral philosophy. Nagel, Thomas (1937–), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DD087-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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