Generalisation Of The Categorical Imperative: Nagel

Chapter Five

The chapter begins with discussion of Kantian generalization claims. The view derives from the categorical imperative and holds that I should make decisions about my behavior based on what life would be like if everyone in similar circumstances made the same decisions. [This of course assumes that I want the same outcomes for everyone else as for myself, which is false because globally many people have poor and unsatisfying lives — indeed many are unable to remain alive at all — and this is not a fate in which I wish to participate. So a more realistic strategy will be to make decisions that are optimal for me providing everyone else behaves as I expect them to. To the extent they impair their own chances unnecessarily by looking out for others, so much the better for me. I am not required by any rule of logic to join them.]

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The response of Kant to this problem is at least pragmatic. It takes the form of insurance. I should help others because I may one day require their assistance. [This is in fact helpful because it absolves me of any concern with others if I can be confident that I will be able to pay for any services I require. Anyone who doubts that this can be done should consider the question of what they have themselves received in their lives from anyone which was not in some way paid for. This question is wider than services received in exchange for cash. Bear in mind that a man might have friends if he is charismatic, amusing and informative. Is he not paying for his friends’ time by being so generally charming? Does he not expect that they will return the favor in some ways? Do we not see people who are friendless because they cannot pay this price viz. they are dull, uninteresting and ill-informed?]

Nagel acknowledges this problem by agreeing that people confident in their own resource situation need not fear destitution. [He does make the mistake of being too narrowly focused on cash however. I might be short of financial resources, but confident that my other resources (people who regard me highly, people who value my time) will see me through providing my personality and charming qualities are not destroyed by a disease such as Alzheimer’s.] He introduces a hypothetical to the effect that even wealthy people would want to be helped \emph{were they to become destitute} even if that outcome is extremely unlikely. This is true [but is it relevant? If I were transported to Mars, I would doubtless want an oxygen mask. How does this affect my behavior here today?]

We are told that applying the categorical imperative requires us to adopt the infamous impersonal imperative. [If Nagel is right about that, then it constitutes some type of reductio in relation to the possibility and advisability of attempting such application. We will see later that Nagel shares these concerns about the imperative but does not see how such issues track directly through to his favored impersonal standpoint approach.]

Nagel notes that all results of the generalization involved in the application of the categorical imperative will involve conflicts of interests between various different impersonal standpoints. For example, the poor person will want to take resources from the wealthier person whereas when one occupies the latter position impersonally, one will resist that. The Kantian test is whether we could consistently will a law to be generalized when we have `occupied’ all standpoints. In addition, this should produce an outcome such that everyone will agree. Nagel rightly notes that this seems fantastically difficult. [People in wealthy countries do not agree on the right level of taxation; consider how much harder such agreement would be when other people depend on taking my resources to avoid starvation. Once again, consistency arguments combined with the facts presented by Singer and Pogge would require all wealthy people to reduce themselves to a global average level of wealth. Vote for that if you want it.]

There are two perceptive criticisms of the categorical imperative. Nagel wonders whether it is not an empty procedure because applying it will in fact require use of the very moral judgments which we are seeking to formalize using the Kantian procedure. Further, Nagel notes an objection due to Hare that utilitarianism is the outcome of summing over standpoints, because no other outcome could be rational than adding up all the benefits and disbenefits of any particular decision. [The objections to pure utilitarianism are legion and need not be rehearsed in detail here; one standard one would be the justification of public executions because the disbenefit to the person executed would be outweighed by the comcomitant pleasure of a sufficiently large number of spectators, no matter how minor that pleasure in each individual case.]

Nagel rejects these objections however, and claims that he will show that generalization is indeed an approach which will delineate some moral cases into unacceptable and acceptable categories without dismissing the personal standpoint. [We await this with anticipation, and also wonder why some theoretical procedure for validating ungrounded moral intuitions will be of assistance.]

The conflict between two asserted principles is noted. The principles are:

1). Everyone’s life is equally important;
2). Everyone has his own life to lead.

[We continue to await an argument for 1); and also some explanation as to how anyone who does not devote their lives to the global poor can be said to believe it. Alternatively, it could be explained why `I believe X’ is consistent with `I act at all times in ways consistent with not X’.]

The question now becomes what shape and size of space remains for 2) [after the devouring predations of 1). In a world with a population rising rapidly from 6,898,621,512 (US Census Bureau,, 10:31 UTC (EST+5) Feb 08, 2011), that space is certainly at a premium; we may wonder whether it is meaningful to enquire about the shape of something approaching point-like nature.]

Nagel suggests that a moral argument gives someone reasons for action independent of what he wants. [What are these? Has there ever been an example of such a case? Kant will escape the trap by not allowing anyone to be moral because they want to be. Moral value does not come from people who wish to be seen to do good things. They have to do them grudgingly from duty.]

We are told that the requirement for unanimity will resolve the conflict between `the usual mix’ of personal and impersonal standpoints. [Does not this claim about a mix founder on the previous insurance example? We learned then that the reason to adopt the impersonal standpoint was to make sure that we would be in reasonable shape were we ever ourselves to fall on hard times. Why does that not then collapse back into the personal standpoint? This is to be railroaded through by adulterating the unanimity principle beyond recognition to allow anything to which no-one could `reasonably object’. We may instantly be assured that it will turn out that all objections will transpire to be unreasonable.]

The unhappy outcome of this is that the only solution available is a `merely political’ one, in which undesirable outcomes are forced on some people by those with the power to do so. [It is left open whether these possessors of power are the few but dominant rich or the poor by virtue of superior numbers.]

We are to seek `harmony’ between the actions of individuals such that this will form an element of the solution of the conflict. [Indeed. This is the question. We are in chapter five now. When will Nagel stop promising us the moon and deliver some cheese?]


There are two types of `reasonable’ acceptance. The first is to accept something because it is acceptable. The second is to accept something because it has been imposed by force. We are to aim for the first [– being boldly unafraid of circularity.] Standards are to be acceptable by individuals who are reasonable under those very standards. [Here the circularity is more valuable, because now we can imagine a world of pure, Schopenhauerian conflict. As long as our band of joyful assassins sweeps the world, their swords singing with blood, it will be a moral outcome — providing of course they have some common code of knightly honor. Now we see how Nagel can inherit Nietzsche’s whirlwind.]

Once again, the conflict between impersonal and personal standpoints is rehearsed. [The inviting nature of joining this multiple-personality disorder is not lessened for our author by his insurance example, where the conflict becomes a much more manageable account of risk assessment. I can answer questions as to what is the appropriate amount of resource I should expend now to cater for adverse outcomes that may arise for me in the future without entering some hellish world of mental health issues. So I will. Maybe I will make a mistake. But isn’t that my problem, not yours?]

One way to resolve the conflict is for the impersonal standpoint to eliminate the personal one. Nagel notes that this is impossible and undesirable [ — without also observing that any admixture of the impersonal would create conflict and therefore it is best omitted altogether.]

Rather despondently, Nagel admits at this point that he has no solution to the conflict, which will not be either too demanding of individuals or insufficiently demanding to meet the needs of the many. Kant’s view that equal liberty for all is not held to be adequate. [It sounds like a start though. Can we all have equal liberty to retain our current resources?]

The fourth example of Kant’s is reconsidered. It is canvassed that the right solution may be for the wealthy person to be required to assist others at some minimal level, but to have discretion beyond that point. Nagel observes correctly that were this to be enforced in relation to everyone who could benefit from our help, it would have unacceptably deleterious consequences for everyone’s personal projects and well-being. [It would end this and all philosophy however, as we all labor in the fields or wherever we can be most effective in generating sufficient resource to stuff the planet with billions of the indigent.] There should be however some zone of agreement where there is sufficient space left for the personal as opposed to the impersonal. [Why? If the impersonal is not to be weighted by numbers of individuals, why will it not be arbitrary where I draw the line to protect my personal domain? Other people die to let me read books right now and they still will.]

Nagel notes that there is a counterpart to the standard conflict — how much should the rich give to the poor — in that the poor should be asking themselves how much they can reasonably take from the rich. [Is this plausible? Are none of the poor in such state because they lack some cognitive abilities? Translating ourselves into that position — being very careful to be clear that considering what might be my personal standpoint in the future is entirely divorced from adopting an impersonal standpoint — would be ask that question when we were hungry?]

Nagel abandons the attempt to square this circle, and states that his task will instead to identify the circumstances under which it could be circled. And then we should move towards those circumstances.

Chapter Six

The right type of answer will resolve the conflict within the individual [why not just avoid it by not having it?] by harmonizing private and public roles. This is to be done institutionally [which handily allows us to escape any niggling feelings of charity by devolving them on to the government.] This is to be done by working with the grain of our naturally divided selves, rather than trying to create new humans [some pragmatism here then.]

The self is to leech out into the surroundings somehow. This will provide a good conscience via fulfilling social roles. [What is a good conscience? Why is it desirable or correct in its pronouncements?]

The tradition is reviewed. Hobbes appeals to personal security concerns to validate the state. [No impersonal standpoint here, though Nagel tries to gloss this as a less unhelpful for him absence of conflict between the standpoints.]

Bentham’s pleasure principle, that everyone seeks what they want, led him to utilitarianism as a way of maximizing the amount of people who get more of what they want. The pay of governors of poorhouses should depend inversely on the survival rate of their inmates. This arrangement would be imposed on the governors because it would not be in their interests, so it would be unstable in Nagel’s terms; it would lack sufficient harmonization between the standpoints. [We seem to have something like this now. Hospital management will be dismissed for unacceptable performance; possibly they will suffer more in the private sector in terms of pay.]

Hume and Rousseau are held to consider the conflicting standpoints however. Hume believes that we have a motivation which is moral in source to obey the political institutions even when disobedience would not harm our interests. This is held to arise from an impersonal standpoint. [It is hard to imagine either. How many people have paid parking tickets which technically they were liable to pay but for some loophole? Who would bother? The lack of plausibility here is similarly evidence against the mooted division of the self.]

Rousseau sees membership of society as an aspect of the self [conveniently ignoring that small but not non-existent group of largely asocial types. Do these people lack elements of the standard issue self? Or do they just behave non-conformistly?] The space left over from serving society is allotted generously to the personal aims of the individual. Both philosophers are stated to believe that a harmonization is possible [– so we have an excellent argument of the well-known appeal to authority type here.]

Liberalism — held to be something like democracy and law — is admired as resilient and widely-accepted. [We will see how that works if all of the Arab regimes become fundamentalist.] The contribution it requires from each of us is described as `limited but significant’ [–where `practically unlimited and crushing’ would also have done.] The history of liberalism is held to be the history of resolution of the conflict between standpoints. [This, amazingly, rings true, and so must count as evidence in favor of Nagel’s claims.] The problem seems to be that development of liberalism has made the burdens of supporting others seem over-whelming. [We need to be aware of geographical linguistics here. In the US, the term liberal is highly pejorative, whereas in Europe, its analogs would meet with significant support; this fact being true not solely in virtue of a more communitarian outlook in that latter continent generally.]

Inequality is held to be incompatible with impartiality. [This is a catastrophic error which lies at the heart of this book and indeed its very title. The mistake is to conflate `justified selection and preference’ with an unjustified counterpart.]

What are termed `recent developments’ in the US and UK are described as discouraging from an egalitarian standpoint [ — which term is fortunately left unexplained as to do so would reveal its undesirability probably. It is unclear what the subject of these remarks is. The book was written between 1987 and 1990, which means Reagan/Bush and Thatcher at the very end of her administration. One imagines that Nagel’s problem is more lack of sympathy with these governments than any specific developments.] The Scandinavian model is held up as one often discussed as egalitarian [ — and it is indeed true that those countries display high taxation and low income inequality.]

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The US model is held to embody too sharp a conflict between individual entrepreneurial instincts and public protection. There is a tendency of not just the rich but the middle to oppose redistribution [ — this is held to be an outcome of unfortunate psychology. which is a more convenient diagnosis for Nagel than the more inconvenient possibility that people wish to retain their legitimately owned property.] We are to ignore any resistance that such people might put up to moving to a more equal society because this just reflects their unjustified attachment to the status quo.

The value of everyone’s life depends on its value to them [ — can we murder people who fail to commit suicide?]

Nagel admits that preservation of individual freedom is `as important’ a condition as equality. [We have not seen much attention paid to the former so far. Is this a reflection of a feeling on Nagel’s part that in practice the balance has been tilted too far in that direction? Where is the right balancing point? How would we know we had reached it?] We are to change ourselves and our motives. [How? Why? Can I also change people to be more like me?] Altruism must grow. There is a conflict between the generalization the fosters altruism and the specialization in roles that modern society depends on [ — and the fact that no-one wants it.]

We are to be allowed by society to believe that we benefit from the misfortune of no-one. [Does not everyone exploit everyone else all the time? I wear clothes. The person who made them would doubtless have preferred to have been at the beach.] Social conventions will change us. Rousseau’s social contract achieved this. [Here we see the third meaning in the dedication `to John Rawls, who changed the subject’ — it also means that Rawls changed what we understand by the terms `self’ or `subject’.]

The form of the solution is going to be a harmonious interplay of over-lapping roles, both public and private, voter and philatelist. [How is this different from what we have now? In what way does it give us a blueprint for action? When will this book tell us something? Apparently the intermediate objective is to remake the world in the image of the US. That should be an objective in whose support Nagel can enlist the neo-cons, at least.]

Next Section: How Far Should Equality Under Law Extend?