Review of Nagel: Equality And Partiality Ch. 15

Chapter Fifteen

It may be impossible to meet Nagel’s suggested legitimacy through unanimity approach because some value systems may be so opposed that they cannot allow each other without compromising themselves. Nagel’s two examples are abortion and Israel. [Interesting that both of these turn on religion, which is protected against `discrimination’ by him in the same way as sex and race. An obvious solution presents itself, along with the further question as to how many such intractable problems are caused by religion. This would appear to be a significant number in the US at least.]

Justice cannot regulate the differences between parties as to the correct form of justice. [This must be true at some level, in that there could not be a just solution to a 50/50 split on the correct way to decide questions of justice. But people could vote on constitutional reform, including for example on the independence of the judiciary and the way of electing representatives — and these events frequently happen.] But this may require a `higher order moral’ ideal.

The problem cannot be solved globally but is still difficult even on a national basis. [True, but some nations exhibit more cultural unity than others. Could it be that those are the ones with less religion and in addition, fewer different religious sects? To be fair to Nagel, he does cite `religious xenophobia’ as one of the issues here. Note that this term means `fear of the unknown’ though rather than `fear of the different’.]

Extreme inequality may also make a solution unobtainable. [Nagel is clear here he does mean globally, but since he has just abandoned even the idea of finding a global solution, it is unclear what agenda he is pursuing here. A case can be made that the situation has improved since he wrote, but as it would be at best an improvement in the absolute conditions of the poorest countries combined with a relative decline, or perhaps a minor reduction in inequality, he probably would not accept it. He would also welcome the global financial crisis, since it has affected wealthy countries much more severely.]

Revolution and minor aid for the poor at the expense of the rich may both be legitimately rejected by the obvious parties and thus are not legitimate for Nagel. The `reasonable rejection’ criterion is satisfied in both cases by the amount one party has to lose. However, this does not generate reasonable rejectability in all cases, with the example being slave-owners. Even though these would lose a great deal from abolition, they still may not enforce their system. [Nozick has a counter-example to the idea that absolute prohibition of slavery is the correct approach, based on the supremacy of consent. He considers a situation where someone has a terminally ill child, with medicine available from only one quarter. Presumably this medicine is extremely expensive, and so it is available only on the condition that the parent sign themselves into slavery. Nozick thinks we should be permitted to make this exchange, and I agree. Those unsure should consider the further modification that perhaps the medicine does not yet exist, and the extraordinary costs of research and production can only be met by say 100 parents agreeing to become slaves. Are we sure we should prevent them if they all agree?]

Nevertheless, the impersonal `renders irrelevant’ the personal here. [While we can all agree that slavery is either completely impermissible or only to be admitted under exceptional circumstances such as those outlined above, this is a different question as to whether we should ever allow the mythical impersonal to so trump the personal as to eliminate it entirely. Nagel does not argue for this but claims to have derived it from finding it to be true in this one example.]

The canonical examples of poor countries to be compared with the US are India and China. [This ir ironic. Nagel could not have known when writing that these two would be prominent members of the BRIC nations, from whom strong growth is expected in the near future. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that this growth is not coming from collective agreements but from the free interplay of markets.]

Nagel ascribes this superior development of the West as due to technology. [That is certainly one factor, but more important according to the World Bank at least are the rule of law and freedom from corruption. Since these are common goods not provided by the market, Nagel has perhaps missed an opportunity to support his views — he could argue here that only a collective agreement could provide such goods.]

The rich countries may therefore reasonably refuse to fund the poor countries to reach some type of average level in the same way that rich individuals may refuse to do the same for poor people within national boundaries. The poor may reasonably reject what is offered, while also acknowledging that the what is offered represents the most that may reasonable be demanded of the rich. [Can this be true? Is it not the case that an acknowledgment that a change is reasonable cannot also include necessary means which are themselves unreasonable? And again, do any of the poor actually think like this? Perhaps it is our job to do this for them.]

It is possible in addition for a group of entirely reasonable persons to fail to find a reasonable agreed-upon solution. The example is the last life jacket case — no parent would be unreasonable in seeking it for his child. [So the question becomes the extent to which the actual world resembles the last life jacket case. At one level, this is not the case. We could certainly feed many more people than we do currently without ourselves starving, though this would result in significant decrements to the Western lifestyle currently enjoyed. But that is not enough to resolve the issue, because it might well be the case that such an approach would in fact create the last life jacket situation. It would be a world of substantial transfers from rich countries to poor ones, for at least as long as the economies of the former could bear it. That time would be quite strictly limited by the fact that the rewards of effort and talent would not be flowing to their possessors — in fact exactly the unworkable approach Nagel seeks elsewhere. But for as long as they lasted, the additional resources would create population expansion in poor countries. Then we would be in the last life jacket situation and one moreover greatly exacerbated by our actions.]

This does not result in support for the status quo for Nagel. [He does not explain why no action is the correct course when all options for inaction appear unreasonable.] If no solutions are not reasonably rejectable by no-one, then solutions may be imposed. Revolution may be legitimate, and for Nagel current levels of inequality permit revolutions. These are correct even if they cause a `radical drop in the standard of living of oneself and one’s family’. [Since this will never be accepted, are we to infer a call for the end of democracy? That would be a further though unexpected `mildly Nietzschean’ note.]

A move to improved levels of international aid is as justified as the move to further domestic support. [The numbers involved here are interesting. It is indeed the case that domestic support dwarfs international aid spending. The UK is one of the few countries to meet the international aid norm of 0.7% of GNP. This amounts to some £11bn at present. Social security spending was recently £220bn but will drop probably to around the £200bn level in the next years. So we can see that if Nagel is right, we should dramatically switch the order of priorities. Setting aside the radical implausibility that the poor in the UK would vote for this, or the question as to how Nagel can balance these competing demands, it would actually appear that the force of his position could be used to support this sort of claim. He thinks that all persons have some type of equal moral value, which would mean the poor win out in virtue of their greater numbers. But arguably, they would qualify for greater support even without moral equality, whatever that means. This case can be made by noting that poor people in poor countries are dramatically less able to become rich through exercise of talent and effort than poor people in rich countries. But that type of argument supporting his position is barred to him by his refusal to countenance rewards flowing to those in possession of talent and perseverance. Nagel seems confused by the end of his paragraph, as he finally conceded that the wealthy countries may reasonably protect their wealth.]

Nagel believes that technological superiority produces strong military power. [Again, certainly a factor, but questions of manpower are also significant.] If that changes, then the economic order will also change. [This is a suggestion that poor countries with large populations would simply take the resources they want. At present, the development seems to be that military power is closely linked to economic power — as has been the case throughout history, for obvious reasons including that even if Nagel were right that technology is the key, heavier spending capacity would win out as in the Cold War he cites without much understanding.]

For these reasons, there can be no legitimate world government, and nothing can be done about injustice in other states. [Iraq and Afghanistan may be failed initiatives, but does not Nagel’s position imply that they necessarily had to be? Why would we think that?]

`Cosmopolitan intellectuals’ are often less nationalistic than their less fortunate compatriots, but these are to be allowed their nationalism as one of the inalienable freedoms within the personal perspective. [Why?] Solidarity with a group means non-solidarity with outsiders. The preservation of high standards of living `depends absolutely on strict controls on immigration’. [The error Nagel makes here is well known in economics; it is called the `lump of labor’ fallacy’. It is not the case that imigrants `take jobs’. They create employment as well. If this were not true, then countries with large populations would have higher rates of unemployment. And why would that be true? Ironically, many observers attribute a large part of the economic success of the US to its historical openness to immigration. And this is a very good reason not to allow the non-cosmopolitan non-intellectuals not to have their way here in a final closing inconsistency of which Nagel remains unaware. Lack of any economic insight or knowledge or numbers is not really excusable in political philosophy.]

Author: Tim Short

I went to Imperial College in 1988 for a BSc(hons) in Physics. I then went back to my hometown, Bristol, for a PhD in Particle Physics. This was written in 1992 on the ZEUS experiment which was located at the HERA accelerator in Hamburg ( I spent the next four years as a post-doc in Hamburg. I learned German and developed a fondness for the language and people. I spent a couple of years doing technical sales for a US computer company in Ireland. In 1997, I returned to London to become an investment banker, joining the legendary Principal Finance Group at Nomura. After a spell at Paribas, I moved to Credit Suisse First Boston. I specialized in securitization, leading over €9bn of transactions. My interest in philosophy began in 2006, when I read David Chalmers's "The Conscious Mind." My reaction, apart from fascination, was "he has to be wrong, but I can't see why"! I then became an undergraduate in Philosophy at UCL in 2007. In 2010, I was admitted to graduate school, also at UCL. I wrote my Master's on the topic of "Nietzsche on Memory" ( Also during this time, I published a popular article on Sherlock Holmes ( I then began work on the Simulation Theory account of Theory of Mind. This led to my second PhD on philosophical aspects of that topic; this was awarded by UCL in March 2016 ( -- currently embargoed for copyright reasons). The psychological version of this work formed my book "Simulation Theory". My second book, "The Psychology Of Successful Trading: Behavioural Strategies For Profitability" is in production at Taylor and Francis and will be published in December 2017. It will discuss how cognitive biases affect investment decisions and how knowing this can make us better traders by understanding ourselves and other market participants more fully. I am currently drafting my third book, wherein I will return to more purely academic philosophical psychology, on "Theory of Mind in Abnormal Psychology." Education: I have five degrees, two in physics and three in philosophy. Areas of Research / Professional Expertise: Particle physics, Monte Carlo simulation, Nietzsche (especially psychological topics), phenomenology, Theory of Mind, Simulation Theory Personal Interests: I am a bit of an opera fanatic and I often attend wine tastings. I follow current affairs, especially in their economic aspect. I started as a beginner at the London Piano Institute in August 2015 and passed Grade Three in May 2018!

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