Nagel, Thomas (1937–)

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

6. Political philosophy

While political theory is typically understood as dealing with the relationship of the individual and society, Nagel holds that it deals with the relation of each individual to themselves, since each one of us occupies both a particular individual viewpoint and the detached standpoint of the collectivity. So the problem of designing morally justified social institutions that would reconcile the conflicts between the individual and society is the problem of designing social institutions that would allow each of us to reconcile those two standpoints within ourselves.

Nagel argues that a justified political system would be a unanimously supported, strongly egalitarian one, because in taking on a more objective standpoint, we see that everyone is equal not only in the sense that no person’s life matters any more than any other’s, but in the sense that it is more important to improve the lives of the worse off than to add to the advantages of the better off. The conflict between this impersonal, strongly egalitarian dictate and our personal motivation to lead our own lives could be resolved by general principles that can be universalized in a Kantian manner: principles that each of us can will to be universal laws. That is, we need to find our way to wanting ‘to live by principles that anyone can accept’ (1991: 48).

Nagel holds that we need political institutions to help integrate and develop our dual motivations. He suggests that the ‘general form’ of a solution is ‘a moral division of labour between individuals and institutions’. According to such a division, the social institutions in which we participate would allow us to act on our impartial, egalitarian motives. This would allow us to act on our personal motives outside of our social roles. However, Nagel argues pessimistically against the possibility of developing such institutions given the initial duality of motives. In sum, since he is drawn to a strongly egalitarian social ideal, to whose recognition the duality of standpoints is necessary, but to whose realization the duality of standpoints seems to present great obstacles, Nagel does not see how to embody that ideal in a morally and psychologically viable system (see Equality).

Citing this article:
Sedivy, Sonia. Political 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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