Nagel’s Useless Utopianism

A critical review of Chapter Three and Chapter Four of Equality And Partiality

Chapter Three

Utopianism is a problem for political theories since the unattainable lacks persuasive force. Nagel has a slightly unusual but workable definition of utopian; for him the unattainability comes from the fact that not everyone can be persuaded a particular system is the right one, where it is in fact the case that not everyone can be persuaded. He acknowledges the risk that a theory tied to personal motives may not embody an ideal, [which phrasing leaves open the possibility that it could].

For this type of reason, Nagel prioritizes the `motivationally reasonable’ above `the right’, because, quite apart from difficulties in identifying the latter, without the former we would be engaged in an unproductive activity. But we need to be aware of the danger of using this as an excuse to do nothing; to fall prey to excessive conservatism — [as perhaps did Aristotle, whose theories often validated the status quo]. Even so, we do not know whether an accommodation is possible.

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A spectrum exists of objectivity in political arguments. At the ideal end, political theories would just be correct, would appeal to the impersonal standpoint and people would just have to accept them. Scientific theories are not criticized because many people do not understand them — they are just held to be true, possibly only by the relevant experts.

Arguments on the less ideal end of the spectrum would appeal to a greater degree to the personal standpoint. What people want then becomes crucial in persuading them of the correctness of a system. Nagel notes that there will then be a key difficulty about imposing a political schema on individuals when practically, individuals have no or a vanishingly small influence on that decision.

The degree of required unanimity could be varied. We might seek to persuade a sufficient majority of a system such that force could be used to impose it. [This bears some relation to the current actual system, though probably the majority of voters think only infrequently of whether the political system \emph{itself} can be justified and more often only of which party within that system they prefer. And of course, in modern Western democracies, it may be the case that the average person is politically engaged only to a very limited extent.] This would be an avoidance of the question of legitimacy though.

Legitimacy requires producing a reason to accept the system to everyone. This does not mean the end of conflict; but merely that the official results of mediation should be accepted even by those who do not welcome them. Both Hobbes and Rousseau sought this type of legitimacy.

The conflict between the personal and impersonal standpoints need some resolution to attain this, and any workable solution will need to address both and balance them. One way to do this would be to divide authority between the two standpoints. People sometimes [or often] have motivations in common with others. [This does not address the problem though that I am not motivated to feed someone else purely because we are both hungry. In fact, in a situation of resource competition, my motivation to assist the other would be lessened by my own similar need.]

Nagel examines this situation with an example involving an eclair, and what impartial processes we might adopt to decide who gets it. [The example suffers from the weakness that in a real-world hard case, the question is not of who gets a luxury food item which moreover likely is high-calorie and in some sense deleterious to the `winner’ — but of starvation for the loser. He also claims that if I accept an arbitration with you under which you get the eclair, I have inhibited the motivational effect of my desire for the time being. But it is at least as plausible that this has not happened; I burn with resentment about the eclair, my motivational effect is as strong as ever, but I do not feel that I have sufficient strength to overturn existing social conventions. Imagine that one’s opponent in the eclair competition is an easily distracted infant. Would one never use subterfuge? Perhaps one never would rightly, but that is a different matter.]

[To be fair to Nagel, his later example of a life jacket on a sinking ship considers these urgent cases, but one might think he should have started with these, because they will strain more his belief that an accommodation is possible.] One exit from this dilemma is to simply acknowledge that adoption of the impersonal standpoint has limits [but this will run into familiar Kantian difficulties around the issue that drawing the lines will not itself be done impartially — we will always bend the rules in our favor when such bending is allowed. Also any solution runs the severe risks of either being ad hoc or too complex for practical application.] Nagel holds though that `socialization’ means that the individual has adopted some working balance between the two standpoints. [Nietzsche would term this cowardice — we avoid harming others so that they will not harm us.]

Nagel believes that this accommodation is part of morality, [but does not offer arguments for that or for whether morality exists or should do.] He further claims that morality involves compartmentalization of interests.

The difference between politics and ethics for Nagel is that the former may rightly result in acts which the individual regards as unethical, providing the individual has `consented’ or accepted the political system which produced the system. [We must of course be aware here of the substantial body of political theory which questions whether such consent has been or could be given. Further, note the frequently seen slogan during demonstrations in Whitehall against the involvement of British forces in the Iraq war. This involvement had been democratically supported by the House of Commons — and moreover the Prime Minister at the time argued it was legitimized by international law also — nevertheless, the protesters had placards reading `Not In My Name’. It would be difficult to persuade them that they were despite that in favor of the war and they certainly did not accept that they should be because of the parliamentary vote.]

Nagel believes that political institutions sometimes serve our interests equally, [ but this seems implausible, merely because of the scale of exercise.] Impartiality is identified with `moral equality’, [which would seem to suggest that the claim of the impersonal standpoint will be that equal consideration be given to equal claims. Note that that would not be the same as equal consideration to unequal claims, so there would not be a right for a person disadvantaged in some way to be brought up to a higher standard or an average — there would be however no allowable reason to discriminate between two `equally qualified candidates’, to adopt the language of job selection processes as an example.]

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Nagel now states the the objective as being finding a feasible accommodation, but then asks what is to be the standard of feasibility? He thinks that allowing `supposed psychological facts’ about our resistance to the impersonal standpoint free play is to capitulate to `human badness’. [The query as to whether these psychological facts exist thus becomes the same as the one as to whether humans are in fact bad — any consideration of the news events of any given day should serve to eliminate any doubt on that score, or would motivate one to allow that `badness’ is not a well-founded concept and that generally people will just do what they want to and need to to get by. There is a conflict between Nagel’s desire to deny the psychological facts but admit that badness exists — otherwise he is tilting at windmills.]

Nagel notes that sometimes it will be right to impose political solutions which many may not accept, citing the abolition of slavery as one example. The slave-owners will have regarded themselves as entitled to the profits generated by their slaves. Of course, very few people would support the reintroduction of slavery today, so perhaps a later legitimacy can support an decision which would not command unanimous support at the time it was made. A transformational project is condemned as utopian if it fails to acquire such support — [Nagel holds that support will be forthcoming if the arrangement is based on `moral equality’ — he really owes us an account of what this term means and why it will have such miraculously persuasive effects since it is doing so much work in his picture. The slave-owners presumably either do not take such equality into account in their considerations or do not believe that the slaves are in fact morally equal.]

Attempts to create classless societies have failed. [Nagel takes it as read that we should aim for this if it is possible. Of course, what we should aim for is not the absence of classes, but unlimited justified social mobility between them — in both directions. Plato of course sees this as a major source of conflict and danger in the well-ordered Republic, and allows even those paragons the Guardians to indulge in `the noble lie’ to address the problem. Nagel also believes that the problem with the abolition of private property is not that it is a bad idea which eliminates productivity, but that it cannot be sold to individuals. This does not sit well with the history and economic capacities of those nations that called themselves communist. China has not achieved 10% growth rates for 30 years by abolishing private property; quite the reverse. The problem with `comprehensive public ownership’ likewise is allowed to be stagnation and lack of motivation and the oppression needed to sustain it — Nagel does not even contemplate the idea that it is simply inefficient and unfair from the outset. Even if public services are efficient — for which thesis strikingly little evidence is available — why should the taxpayers pay for the pensions of Post Office staff when they do not carry a similar liability for FedEx workers? And why should that burden be imposed irrespective of whether the taxpayers use the services of either institution?]

Nagel claims that `class stratification’ is an evil because it is wrong that some people’s life chances are different at birth. [Here he once more confuses immobile class stratification which does indeed have that unfortunate consequence with a more mobile version. But in any case, now that he had admitted that stratification is unavoidable, why are we still discussing it’s effects? And from where does this `evil’ tag obtain its justification? And how are we to prevent people with the resources from expending them in the interests of their children or friends and why should we?]

Apparently, it is imaginable that some incentive might be available other than personal gain which could drive economic efficiency even if markets are still required, as Nagel despondently notes. [Though he does not sketch out what such an unimaginable form of incentive might take — which is just as well since no-one ever has acted from any other reason other than personal gain. Nagel is unsure whether this reveals the inadequacy of human nature or of communism; he seems to forget the third and most plausible possibility: both.]

If people could become `better’, then they would only need to give up their acquisitiveness. [This seems to lay one utopia on top of another. Expecting this change to occur over `many generations of social institutions’ does not really make this more believable, since those institutions would need to be accepted and legitimized throughout the process without taking account of the extraordinary benefits of some mythical endpoint. One might also inquire why Nagel’s pessimism about such the achievability of such utopian endpoints is consistent with his boundless optimism on the ease of taking a view from an impersonal standpoint.]

Justification of political systems must take place at both the personal and impersonal levels. [Why? And why is this no longer capitulation to badness?] The personal standpoint `has a part in morality’. [Good news. If I want it, it’s OK. The answer to this apparently is that the personal motives be acknowledged from the impersonal standpoint. Why isn’t that impossible?] We are to avoid `illegitimate’ considerations of the personal standpoint when reaching our decisions. [How do we know when we have done that?]

`Coercion […] will obviously play a part in any political solution’ — [is this not an argument for anarchy? It certainly does not seem to be one in favor of cooperation.]

Chapter Four

Restatement of the problem: we are looking to avoid both utopianism and moral `abdication’ in achieving legitimacy. If everyone’s views are taken into account, I can have no complaint against the system. [Why? Why can I not want my views to be weighted more heavily? And in fact, that would even be better from the impersonal standpoint, because I can read, unlike the 16% of the UK population who are functionally illiterate.]

We are required to be reasonable and accommodating of the interests of others. [Why? Apparently because Kant wants it.] Hobbes’s route of appealing to everyone’s need for individual security is not favored because for Nagel the impersonal standpoint will do the same job. [But it has much less motivating force. We are told currently that vigilantes are on the streets of Cairo because the seemingly outgoing dictator has removed the police and opened the prisons. This `argument’ that the price of democracy is instability and insecurity has a very direct and immediate force. Where is the impersonal standpoint in Egypt?]

Trying to do better by subverting the system is outlawed, while trying to do better within the system is fine. [How do we distinguish between the two and why is only one of these routes to self-betterment acceptable?] Nagel’s answer is that this is a virtue of a legitimized system.] An illegitimate system is open to challenge from people whose interests have not been appropriately considered. [This will apply to all systems though — there are always winners and losers from any general decision — so this becomes an argument against all systems. I don’t want to pay any tax, but everyone else wants to spend my money. No system systems are at least cheap.] We are allowed to try to subvert illegitimate systems however. [Does that include not paying tax or just leaving?]

Legitimacy and stability are not the same [although they may tend to reinforce each other]. Nagel does make the very good point that everyone spends their formative years living under a system to which they did not consent, from which they cannot exit and in which they have had no opportunity to seek change. [We do not know how much our thinking is conditioned by this; but the fact that no-one ever considers whether taxation can be justified or distinguished from forced labor is one illustration of the possibility that such conditioning is pervasive.] Nagel also observes that it is very difficult or impossible for most people to leave [ — though this seems somewhat strong, depending on what counts as leaving. If you don’t like capitalism, there aren’t many choices today. But if you didn’t like it, you would presumably not be someone for whom choice had much value anyway.]

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Scanlon’s version of contractarianism is introduced, with its caveat that the rules must be such that no-one could reasonably reject them. [Of course, there will then be immense controversy about what a reasonable rejection looks like, so this may shift the location of the problem rather than solve it.] This is linked to Kant’s categorical imperative. Any rule to which one person could legitimately object would not be capable of being willed as a universal law because we would have to apply the impersonal standpoint. [Actually, there is a difference between applying an impersonal standpoint and imagining that one is in a different personal standpoint. Only the latter has motivational force; the conflation is insidious.]

Coercion in the service of legitimate systems is acceptable. [Which may of course mean that coercion is never in practice acceptable.]

Our attachment to our personal standpoint is claimed to be mitigated in two ways: i). we recognize the equal objective importance of what happens to everyone and ii). we recognize that some partiality is reasonable. [But i). does not have motivational force and ii). is false. Partiality is unreasonable but we do it anyway.]

It is unreasonable to be more partial than is reasonable in light of the partiality of others. [This seems circular and lacks explanatory force.] And in the other direction, a system is not legitimate if it does not allow someone their reasonable quantum of partiality.]

One way for a system to be illegitimate is if it makes excessive demands on individuals. This is stated to be so only if another feasible system is available which has comparable benefits. [However, it is still illegitimate even if no better alternative is available.]

Differences in bargaining power are not to be allowed any moral weight. [This assumes that such differences have arisen illegitimately.]

The concept of agent-neutral and agent-relative motivations in introduced. The former is reasons we all have to care about everyone. [What are these? Who today is acting in accordance with universal care?] We are to enter into everyone’s personal standpoint to assess what it is reasonable to demand of him. [Why is it reasonable to demand anything at all?] Again there needs to be some mythical harmonization of dramatically incompatible outlooks.

See Also:

Nagel And Generalisation Of The Categorical Imperative

By Tim Short

I am a former investment banking and securitisation specialist, having spent nearly a decade on the trading floor of several international investment banks. Throughout my career, I worked closely with syndicate/traders in order to establish the types of paper which would trade well and gained significant and broad experience in financial markets.
Many people have trading experience similar to the above. What marks me out is what I did next. I decided to pursue my interest in philosophy at Doctoral level, specialising in the psychology of how we predict and explain the behaviour of others, and in particular, the errors or biases we are prone to in that process. I have used my experience to write The Psychology of Successful Trading. In this book, I combine the above experience and knowledge to show how biases can lead to inaccurate predictions of the behaviour of other market participants, and how remedying those biases can lead to better predictions and major profits. Learn more on the About Me page.

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