Opposition Of Value Systems


I will discuss what happens when there is opposition of value systems. I will do this by looking at the arguments presented in Nagel: Equality And Partiality Chapter Fifteen.

Opposition Of Value Systems: Legitimacy Through Unanimity

Nagel suggests that the only way to make value systems legitimate is by requiring unanimous support. However, this is impracticable because it is obviously impossible.

It is impossible to meet Nagel’s suggested legitimacy through unanimity approach. Some value systems are so opposed that they cannot allow each other without compromising themselves.

Nagel’s two examples are abortion and Israel. Both of these turn on religion, which is protected against “discrimination” by him in the same way as sex and race.

An obvious solution is available. No one really needs the freedom to believe that there are fairies in their garden. We can raise a further question. How many intractable problems are caused by religion? This would appear to be a significant number in the US not 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. Moreover, these events frequently happen. But this may require a “higher order moral ideal.”

We cannot solve the problem globally. It is still difficult even on a national basis. This is true, but some nations exhibit more cultural unity than others. 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. “Xenophobia” 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. The situation is better now. 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 affected wealthy countries much more severely. That reduces inequality on his rather shortsighted view, so is a good thing.

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.

Nozick’s Counter

Even though these would lose a great deal from abolition, they still may not enforce their system. Nozick though 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 this exchange is permissible, and I agree. Those unsure should consider a further modification. Perhaps the medicine does not yet exist. The costs of research and production are very high. 100 parents must agree to become slaves to pay for it. Are we sure we should prevent them if they all agree? It is clearly of the highest importance to this argument that only the criterion of consent selects the group that become slaves.

Nevertheless, the impersonal “renders irrelevant” the personal here. We can all agree that slavery is completely impermissible. Or perhaps admissible only under exceptional circumstances such as those outlined above. But 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. He claims to have derived it from finding it to be true in this one example.

Opposition Of Value Systems: Poor Countries

India and China are poor countries to be compared with the US. This is ironic. Nagel could not have known when writing that these two would be prominent members of the BRIC nations, from whom strong growth has been seen. Almost all the reduction in extreme poverty in the last two decades is in China. Moreover, this growth is not coming from collective agreements but from the free interplay of markets.

Photo by Ruiyang Zhang on

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.

Opposition Of Value Systems: Global Average Levels Of Wealth

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 reasonably reject the offer. But also the offer represents the most we can demand from 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.

Is The World In A Last-Lifejacket Scenario?

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 Nagel seeks this unworkable approach 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 all solutions are reasonably rejected, then solutions may be imposed.

Revolution may be legitimate, and for Nagel current levels of inequality permit revolutions. Thats true even if they cause a “radical drop in the standard of living of oneself and one’s family.” This could be a call for the end of democracy.

International Aid

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. The poor in the UK would not vote for this. How can Nagel can balance these competing demands? But the thrust of his position supports 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. 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. The Opposition Of Value Systems does not require everyone to be equally poor.


Nagel believes that technological superiority produces strong military power. Again, certainly a factor, but questions of manpower are also significant. The US did not win the Vietnam War despite huge technological superiority. 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. This 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 less nationalistic than their less intelligent compatriots, but these are to be allowed their nationalism as one of the inalienable freedoms within the personal perspective.

But 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. He has not said anything valuable about the Opposition Of Value Systems

See Also:

John #McDonnell’s Characterisation Of #Finance Is Misconceived

Merleau Ponty’s Phenomenology: What Is It And How Cogent Is It?

Theories Of Reference: Evans On Russell

Should Nozick Call Darwin As A Witness?