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.

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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?


Do Human Rights Do Too Much?

Equality And Partiality IX Chapter Thirteen

The chapter opens with a pair of dramatic assumptions: there are human rights, and they are currently well-protected. They include rights to medical care. These, as is well-known from the work of Buchanan and others, are in fact unfeasible. Either the level to be provided to everyone is low, in which case some will use private resources to improve on the public provision, or it is high, in which case it is unaffordable. In addition, some people are so unwell, indeed terminally so, that their health-care could cost infinite amounts. And all of that of course continues to ignore global inequalities. No mention is made of anyone’s putative right to retain their legitimately earned income and not have it arrogated by the state in pursuit of Utopian ends.

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[In general, my view is that the number of `rights’ is to be minimized in order to treat them properly as serious entities. Multiplying rights maximizes situations of conflicts of rights. We should aim instead for a small number taken very seriously, if we are to have any at all.]

Hume is cited with approval to the effect that it is `natural’ for people to uphold rights associated with personal security. [This may be true, but how would we distinguish between a situation in which they were upheld as a result of nature or were on the other hand a product of culture? Or more simply, just pragmatism. Maybe there are no rights at all, but I refrain from physical violence merely as a way of reducing the probability that such means are used against me.]

There are rights against undue interference by the state in the lives of individuals, and to have the state prevent such interference by one individual against another. The exact form of property rights will depend on the long-term economic benefits as well as the protection of individual liberty. [These of course may radically conflict, though one may hope not. It appears that strong individual property rights are a key to overall economic development; one issue hampering economic progress in developing nations has been lack of title to land. Improving this facilitates lending against collateral. But we still need to ask what would happen in the case of conflict. If there were a choice between protecting individual liberty and overall economic progress, would we not have to choose the former? To make the other decision would involve i). official certainty on the likely future effects of individual economic choices, which seems unlikely to be available and ii). mean that we vetted economic decisions for rationality. That might mean the officials would decide what was economically rational and what was unjustified risk-taking, and experience suggests that public officials are exactly the wrong people to make such decisions. Indeed, one might suspect that they entered public life precisely to avoid such an arena, seeing that their talents did not lie in the appropriate areas. Nagel does not say, but we can imagine that in such a conflict scenario, he would fall into the `official’ camp rather than the `individual camp’.]

The state has negative responsibilities to prevent violations it could have avoided. [This requires specification. Recently the British Prime Minister apologized for less than excellent situations obtaining in respect of the evacuation of Libya for UK citizens. Now, if those people were sent there by an oil company, one might expect that company to make arrangements for their return. But why should the state have a responsibility to bring people home who went there of their own choice aware of the risks? Why should we all cover everyone else for all risks?]

The test for limits is that they should be such as to not be capable of reasonable rejection by anyone who `honestly seeks to accommodate everyone else’s point of view’. [Why is this right? Are there not a group of people whose point of view is essentially that everyone else should support them and protect them from all risks despite the fact that they make essentially no contribution at all? Why should we accommodate that? If not, does not Nagel’s entire program fail because unanimity will never be available?]

Nagel `argues’ that no-one could reasonably reject a system that included taxation, because taxation is `not an intolerable violation’ of personal freedom. [Why is this not an argument of the form `p therefore p’? And do we not just accept taxation because it has always been there? And where are the limits? We already know that Nagel’s preferred system of providing — just — health-care to everyone at public expense is unaffordable so how would we provide the other goods as well?]

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There is no expectation in advance that a society will not restrict voluntary transfers. [Why not? Why is there not an expectation in advance that a society will not restrict anything voluntary unless it impinges on the freedom of someone else?]

Nagel on balance is against restriction of freedom of expression where this is ostensibly done to prevent expression of sexist, racist or contra-religious views. [These laws exist in the UK, which would presumably mean I was committing an offense when I stated in a previous post that in my view, religious people must suffer from some form of cognitive deficit in the area of evidence assessment and would therefore in general be less suitable for occupations involving that, such as scientifically-based ones. I again think there is a mistake made in lumping together responses to the religious views of persons, which they have chosen, with responses to their sex or race. Not only have they not chosen these characteristics, but there is little or no evidence that those characteristics will in general affect employment skills in a way that could usefully be taken into account.]

Nagel deprecates the involvement of the state in suppressing sexual behavior that is offensive to the majority. [I have a rare point of total agreement with him here — but surely it prompts the question as to why he is so enthusiastic about interference and suppression of the individual in the economic sphere where he accepts this is inadvisable in the sexual one. Presumably he would respond that sexual behavior does not harm or indeed affect anyone not involved, whereas my economic decisions will `harm’ others because everyone is `involved’ in some tenuous way.]

It is conceded that conservatives do have an interest in preventing the behavior of others that offend them because of the `cultural climate’ thereby created. [This is extraordinary, and dramatically at odds with the previous paragraph. We can see that Nagel’s brief conversion to liberty was at most skin-deep.] The conservatives needs the right cultural climate such that they can `inculcate’ their values in their children [ — this is deeply disturbing and totalitarian, and the whole idea that anyone can have anything like a right to control everyone else in order to protect their environment from pollution has already sold the pass.]

The question becomes one of whether the `control’ of sexual behavior should be for majority decision, or a protected area of individual rights. Homosexuality is the test case, and Nagel says persons could reasonably reject a system that prohibited it [ — with which we can agree without even going as far as questions of enforceability –] because of the personal costs to homosexuals. These costs are not outweighed by the benefits to conservatives [ — even if we accept this type of trade-off at all.] It is noted that the problem with conservatives is that they have convictions about how others should live. [This is the appeal through consistency to libertarianism, which suggests that the state should be equally uninvolved in interfering with the individual in both social and economic arenas. It is strange that conservatives wish to protect liberty in one sphere and not in the other. It is also strange that Nagel does not notice that he is making the counterpart error.]

It is stated that one murder may not be committed even to prevent five other murders. [Perhaps this is the type of case where argument is not the correct response, but other views do exist and the trolley problems produce plenty of discussion.] The argument for this is that such views lend a protected status to individuals [ — which nevertheless does not extent to their economic lives.]

Nagel will choose an increase in his likelihood of being murdered instead of abolition of his legal right not to be murdered. [This seems bizarre. Do dead people care about their legal status? Again, there seems to be a strange concentration on the abstract as against the real, the impersonal standpoint as against being alive.]

The stability of illegitimate states is noted. [The questioning of this is one of the major implications of current developments in the Middle East.] This stability follows from the tendency of people to follow rules. [Heidegger. Should we not fight against such tendencies? Otherwise we are assuming the status quo is always right.] And this leads to `the German problem’, to which the solution is democracy. [Hitler was elected though.] We should aim for a situation in which officials do not avail themselves of a `just following orders’ defense.

Chapter Fourteen

Different conceptions of value will lead to conflict over what the state should support [ — unless we side-step this by taking the obvious precaution of removing the state from enforcement of values.] And some of these conflicts are too severe to be resolved in the political arena, for example religious ones. This leads to the idea that some domains should be protected. [Again, why only some? And which ones? And can I have a religion that has `taxation is theft’ as a holy tenet?]

Defenders of toleration often in fact support the behaviors that would be banned by intolerant legislation, so those against a ban on homosexual behavior or contraception do not see any problems with those things. [This is true. And so the response should be that banning any behavior is to be avoided — right up to the point where someone else is severely affected by it.] This is `against religion and in favor of sex’. The contradiction for Nagel is that liberalism affects to protect religions. [Not my version. But Nagel is right to point up the inconsistency. The fact that some religions are opposed to homosexual behavior is an additional reason to ignore them and remove protections against discrimination for religious people that are deserved by persons who fall victim to sexism and racism.]

It is `politically suicidal’ to defend toleration by attacking religion [ — this may be a US-centered view. Toleration of religious intolerance is another reason why Nagel’s dream of finding a system that no-one could reasonably reject is hopeless, unless we agree that religious principles are unreasonable. Which seems fine, but again, hard to sell in the US.]

Why should I take the impersonal standpoint and accept the lending of some weight to religious or moral principles when I think these same principles are wrong? [Good question.] It implies impartiality between different conceptions of the good. The defense relies on Kant’s second formulation, that we should treat no-one merely as a means, and we would be doing that if we failed to obtain unanimity.

There are four reasons for coercion: i). those accepted, ii). those that would be accepted by the reasonable, iii), those that would be accepted under an accepted principle and iv). those that are not accepted by an individual even if everyone else disagrees. Type iv). is exemplified by enforcement of religious or sexual orthodoxy. [Is state enforcement of atheism an enforcement of religious orthodoxy? Let us worry about that once we have eliminated state support for religion.]

Nagel believes that there is a distinction between cases when opponents may be described as irrational. Those who do not accept the germ theory of disease are irrational, but atheists may not describe religious people as irrational. [Why not? Belief in the germ theory rests on evidence. Religious belief does not. Why is not respect of evidence evidence of rationality?]

The role-reversal argument is appealed to as a standard for judging ethical theories — how would I like it if someone did that to me? [I would not like it, presumably. But that happens all the time. So is not the answer to reduce the amount of interaction or required interaction with others? And that means more personal autonomy.]

Restriction of freedom of worship would indeed appear justified to a religious person, because those who do not follow the true faith are damned. [Is this not further evidence of the insanity of the religious and the inadvisability of taking any account of their views?]

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Is there a difference between accepting democratically decided-upon policies in defense, say, and accepting a similarly democratic policy opposing atheism? [Yes. The latter would be an argument against democracy. Why do we not have prayer instead of tanks? Alternatively, we could very simply insist that all democratic policies should be evidence-based. If a majority of a population is religious, that is another reason not to let them vote.]

Altruism generates conflicting standpoints. [Commit it then to the flames.]

Democracy is to be saved by removing conflict from the arena of discussion. [So how do we deal with what people care about?]

A common standpoint can be reached in some controversial areas such as defense because everyone sees some policy is needed. [No. A policy is arrived at despite immense disagreement because everyone sees that in fact their ability to do anything about it is effectively zero.] Religion differs from this and so everyone should be left to follow their own path. [Again, here but not economically.]

This tolerant regime could be seen as a form of coercion, being a kind of liberal sect. Would that not destroy its legitimacy? The answer is that a liberal state avoids imposing a conception of the good. [Why does this permit the state to employ taxation then?] Legitimacy trumps helping others when they may not want to be `helped’. [Why do I have to help them financially when they do want that?]

Liberal toleration may allow the spread of religious orthodoxy, and so it may not be neutral as between different conceptions of the good. [Is this not an argument for doing nothing, since we cannot choose a positive position if we cannot even be sure that avoiding taking a position is neutral? At least let us not be guilty of actively choosing something wrong, even if we are already.]

Public support of an established church is wrong. [So we have plenty of work to do here. Freedom from taxation of religious charities would have to go, and the current fashion for faith-based initiatives also.]

The state should not be involved in activity which conflicts with the views of citizens about the meaning of life. [This already takes a position by assuming that there is one.]

There are some things the police should not do because individuals should not do them. [The police, though, are trained specialists expressly intended to do just things that I should not do. The power of citizen’s arrest, while it exists, is used very infrequently for various reasons, but one of them will be the general lack of understanding of the law.]

The state cannot treat criminals harshly even where doing so would reduce crime. [How do we know this? What is the argument?]

Some conceptions of the good cannot be accommodated within the Kantian position, and Nagel hopes that such fanaticism will eventually die out. [I hope not.]

Next Section: The Opposition Of Value Systems


Individual Choices And Unacceptable Inequality

Nagel: Equality And Partiality VIII Chapter Eleven

Individual choices which are in themselves `unexceptionable’ can combine over time to produce unacceptable inequality. [How is that possible? Is not the result to be considered in the question as to what is `exceptionable’ and what Draconian punishments should we imagine for such disallowed choices? Or are they fine?] The effects are `grossly unequal’. [And what is the problem with that? The implied and bogus comparison in the title Partiality and Equality rears its head again.]

Family sentiment and differences in natural talent are not a problem because they are simply a `reflection of the way the world is’. [This is helpful. If everything in the world is fine as it is, and is so solely in virtue of that very fact, then we can stop worrying. We have a way of arguing from `is’ to `ought’ — or more accurately, we do not need one since they are the same thing.   Since that is impossible, we can dismiss Nagel’s argument here.]

Nevertheless, it is not possible to make a value judgment about these resulting inequalities, they are `neither right nor wrong’. [Really? If the causes are unexceptionable, why are not the effects equally so? Or are we saying that the causes combine in an unacceptable fashion but because they are part of the way the world is, we cannot form a judgment on the overall picture?]

Although they do not require justification, it might be desirable to eliminate them. [Is not something it might be desirable to eliminate not exactly something that needs justification? If it had a justification, that would mean it could not be desirable to eliminate it.]

Nagel cites this as Rawls’s view in opposition to Locke with his `mixing of labor’ approach to generation of property. They key difference is whether labor is the dominant factor (Locke) or social factors (Rawls).

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Since we are not responsible for our talents, we are not entitled to any deriving benefits beyond `the most immediate’. [What does `immediate’ mean? If any are legitimate, why not all? What would be the status of borderline benefits on the boundary between legitimate derived benefits and illegitimately derived ones? What type of theory could provide such a distinction?]

Benevolence, even were it to exist, is unequal to the task of manufacturing washing machines, because such tasks are uninteresting. Only economic benefit which accrues to the those adopting a personal standpoint could persuade people to perform such necessary tasks. The market is the only source of crucial directing information via price signals. Mill is cited to observe that the closeness of the connection between a man’s labors and his rewards is directly related to the enthusiasm with which he pursues uninteresting work. [This failure to adopt the impersonal standpoint was the reason for the failure of communism.]

Such acquisitiveness need not dispel the motivation to provide a social minimum, provided this can be done at reasonable cost. [This seems possibly true, but is not relevant because the actual cost is crushing viz. UK social security spending at £220bn p.a., cf. health ca. £120bn and education ca. £80bn. And even spending at these levels is inadequate apparently.]

The answer is to design a system that produces incentives without producing inequalities. [This is impossible because it is known from the `keeping up with the Jones’s’ effect that it is in fact more the inequalities that \emph{are} the incentives. A man is very happy with a high salary up until the moment when he learns that the man at the next desk earns £5 more. And people are made dissatisfied by seeing the lifestyles of wealthier people on television in the well-known phenomenon of `status anxiety’.]

Since there is (and likely to continue to be) substantial opposition to reducing inequalities due to class and talent, the choices left open to egalitarians are to attempt to move in the direction of the aim without arriving at it or hope for better people. [This seems to assume that currently no redistributive efforts are being made which is a long way from the truth. Also the implication is that class and talent are equally illegitimate sources of advantage which Nagel has previously admitted is not the case. There would be much more support for elimination of class-derived benefits than for talent-driven ones. Though of course that might just be because everyone thinks they have (some) talents while most people are aware that they are not members of the aristocracy. It would certainly be best for the rest of us if Nagel and his egalitarian cohort opts for the second choice of waiting for more egalitarian people, while we can remain optimistic that further `improvement’ is unlikely. Better yet, maybe people will improve in the opposite direction and become less risk-averse.]

Nagel expresses unease about the existence of extreme poverty in relatively wealthy societies. [Is this not exactly the wrong way around? We should be most worried about poverty in poor societies because those people can do little about their situation. Poor people in the UK have been fortunate enough to be living in the fourth largest economy in a world of 200 countries and have still failed to make anything of any of the manifold opportunities for financial advantage. These are so apparent to the larger world that people make dangerous sea voyages merely to gain entry to Europe.]

Everyone is to have `decent conditions’ at public expense. [Again, in the UK context, if £220bn of social security spending is inadequate in the context of government income of £500bn and total spending of £700bn, what is? What justification can there be for borrowing at those levels such amounts from future taxpayers, some of whom will be poor, to fund a social minimum today? Why are current taxpayers to be privileged so dramatically over future ones?]

A negative income tax is proposed, which would have the effect of subsidizing low wages. [How is this compatible with the admitted crucial importance of price signals in the market for efficient allocation of labor? And in any case, the current UK regime of tax credits in fact embodies this idea. And in fact we have a growing suspicion now that Nagel is arguing for the status quo. Or more accurately, since he does not fully appreciate how even the current system is too egalitarian, for a reduction in the current levels of progressiveness in the taxation system.]

The provision of the minimum would eliminate any queasiness of individuals earning far above the social minimum. [Do any such individuals actually exhibit such unease currently? Perhaps Nagel imagines that in his new utopia, such rather squeamish types could be high earners. Why would that be?] This attitude will allegedly do nothing to dampen the necessary competitive instincts that drive creativity in the economy. [This is exactly false, since progressiveness in the tax system is precisely damping those instincts. As we were previously reminded by Mill, the enthusiasm of the laborer is correlated to the closeness of the relation of reward to effort. Provision of the social minimum reduces the effects of the incentives of inequality and reduces that correlation.]

There is a task of avoiding moral hazard among the group subsidized up to the social minimum which Nagel thinks `should be soluble’ without specifying the answer. [Unfortunate, this, since the problem of high marginal ‘tax’ rates has proved immensely difficult for decades with Iain Duncan Smith making the latest high-cost and and high-risk attempt to address the problem currently.] The solution will rely on the fact that most people want more than they have. [True, but that does not seem to be motivating the poor very strongly at present.]

`Severe relative deprivation’ (my emphasis) is one of the `worst aspects’ of inequality. [How is addressing this compatible with the recent remarks about people being free to pursue, without any pangs of conscience, earnings far above the social minimum? By doing so, they are hardly reducing relative inequality. Would not this imply that they should restrict themselves to earning amounts just above the social minimum? Presumably brain surgeons would do this by working one day a week. That might be a problem for people in need of their services, but they could take comfort from the fact that such services would be equally unavailable for persons on the social minimum. And all comfort comes from being the same as everyone else, in the same way that all distress results from difference.]

The `right’ of everyone to a decent minimum is again qualified as being subject to economic feasibility. [And again, it is not noted that we already can see that it is not feasible because even the current approach to it is dramatically inadequate from the perspective of those advocating the minimum and also totally unaffordable. While we are discussing progressiveness, why do not some bad philosophers — indeed, some people not equipped or interested in pursuing the topic — receive unpaid assistance from experts so that they too can publish philosophical articles in academic journals? Why does society permit such an outrageous insult to the public sources of self-respect of many deserving individuals?]

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One positive development for Nagel would be general disapproval of those who earn high wages. [We certainly see this today in the controversy around bankers’ wages. But has Nagel not noted that this very disapproval is a motivating factor for some of those receiving the wages? His positive development would in fact be counterproductive for his aims.] We would not be happy going to Italy on holiday unless everyone could. [Has Nagel actually been to a popular holiday destination recently? It is already bad enough.]

Competitive instincts are to be replaced by `peer approval’. [Is it acceptable if one’s peers are denizens of an investment bank trading floor? Presumably not, although Nagel thinks that only clear definition of standards and judges are required. Nagel here admits inter alia that he is only familiar with academic life, which surprises no-one.]

Only in corrupt countries can civil servants and the military be motivated to do their work well. [This is strange. The financial rewards in the public sector are highly adequate at the higher levels and include excessively generous pension benefits. And the military as a group do not sort well with the class of civil servants.]

`Market socialism with medals’ is the term for the replacement of economic incentives with peer approval. [But even Nagel does not think this is credible. Why should we?] Admitting this as impossible, Nagel retreats to the first option of gradualism. [So again, we can show him how much gradualism we already have and ask where the line is to be drawn. He thinks we are far short of it at present. What is the correct number for social security spending? £300bn? £400bn? Finally Nagel reverses himself and says that we must continue to lust after the impossible and have more egalitarianism.]

Chapter Twelve

The stated aim of the chapter is to reduce any impression that Nagel is hostile to all inequality. Nagel notes that it is difficult to prevent the disease egalitarianism from `infecting’ other values. [This is surely true because if it is right in one sphere, what reasoned founded set of distinctions would prevent it from being right in all of them? Why do I not have a right to date movie stars some times, since some people do — thus, incidentally, riding rough-shod over my fragile self-esteem, based as it is on public respect.]

Educational and aesthetic stratification can also cause unease. [The plastic surgeon’s knife awaits. There is no reason why it should not move people downwards to the decent social minimum of beauty as well. And everyone should be awarded a PhD.]

Mill has attempted to address this in the context of an assumption of the equal value of persons by further assuming an unequal division of value in uses of time or pleasures. [This rather crucially depends on the definition of the undefinable term `value’.] Nagel notes that this destroys the formal equality of value because some people are not fitted for or do not choose to pursue `higher pleasures’. Nagel’s response is to divorce the value of some things from the pleasure of their enjoyment. And the pursuit of the more valuable is to be accorded a higher `moral weight’. [This presumably means that if I can be used to work harder at the cost of my lower pleasures in order to fund your higher pleasures, that is the correct decision. But if I want to go to the opera, you can starve. Or more of you can than if I wanted to play dominoes.]

There is no evidence for the value of something beyond the value that people put on it (Mill). [How is this compatible with the existence of higher and lower pleasures?] The value of an object is distinct from the enjoyment that people derive from it. [Yes, but would not a ranking in the latter inexorably entail the same ranking in the former? Or do some people prefer less pleasure than they could have had?]

Nagel agrees that `moral equality’ does not entail any other equality [ — without noting the absurdity in context of moral equality claims therefor.] Preserving natural beauty because of its value to individuals is to get things the wrong way round. [So we should be happy about a planet devoid of people but retaining the Grand Canyon.]

Artistic and educational excellence may be permitted since its products eventually benefit everyone. [What about those Nagel admitted were unfitted to appreciate the higher pleasures? The answer is that beauty is valuable even if only a few appreciate it. There is a pleasure to be had in burning cats to death, even if the relevant cognoscenti are few in number. We learn later that he `judgment of experts’ is to be trusted here, so we can consult experienced cat-torturers on the best ways of furthering their enjoyment, which is not related to how much they enjoy actually watching a burning cat, but is more related to the intrinsic value of that pursuit, beyond its instantiations. Maybe thinking about burning cats is where the value lies.]

Nagel notes that there is a problem for his theory of intrinsic value in that if everyone went blind, destroying all of the paintings in the Louvre would not be a further loss [ — but does not explain how to counter this rather devastating objection. It may be that that is just true of art, he thinks.] There is value beyond value for persons. [Value for cats, for example. Paintings visible only in the ultraviolet would be unedifying for humans, but doubtless fascinating for bees.]

If these intrinsic values exist, they should be fostered by the state. [They do not. But even if they did, why? We would be removing value pursuit opportunities from individuals to pursue other `value’. What would legitimize that, beyond a certainty that the `public committee on value’ was more likely to be right about these questions than individuals making decisions for themselves?]

Nagel cites Rawls as being in favor of something that looks like a balanced budget argument, though he himself thinks this goes to far. [Which is just as well, because such a thing would have a catastrophic effect on social security spending, by far the largest line item in government expenditure.] Further expenditure on intrinsic values is to be allowed. [How does that work, since we are unable to afford even the provision of the social minimum Nagel wants? Are we to subsidize the opera ahead of giving everyone food who needs it or not? If not, we will never get to the opera. Nagel is dividing up some theoretical cake into seven parts each numbering 80$\%$ of available resources.]

Amazingly, Nietzsche is enlisted in support of the idea that in artistic respects, societies should be anti-egalitarian. [Why only there? Is it because of the absurd consequences in this domain of Nagel’s favored approach in economics?] Equally amazingly, the tendency towards equality in the public school system is to be `distrusted’ and is `inexcusable’. [How can Nagel maintain this consistently with any of the other claims he has been making?] The lower classes can not escape the mediocrity which is their lot if they are state educated. [This assumes that there are no examples of the state educated having achievements of any stature, which is false.]

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The effects of class status `never depend on choice’. [What about the choice to remain in one’s original class? What about the choice to spend one’s leisure time on football rather than opera? Since the public committee has decreed that the latter is a higher and the former a lower pleasure, then it must be possible for people to make mistakes about what is valuable for them.]

We now come to the question as to why art and science are different to money [ — by way of a plea for lower academic salaries. Because scholarship is to be its own reward.] The answer is that a life of luxury and refinement is good for the person who leads it rather than good in itself. And that cannot be accepted because of the deleterious effects on those who miss out. The deleterious effects on those who miss out on a prominent scientific career can be accepted however because those careers either are intrinsically valuable or because they benefit anyone. [How does an illiterate drug addict living on social security benefit if the LHC discovers the Higgs boson? And would they vote for it?] Egalitarianism is not be allowed to eliminate haute cuisine just because not everyone can have it. [But is not that exactly what will happen if people earning well above the social minimum are deprecated and take such deprecation seriously? Or will the public values committee allow some rich people to spend their own money in restaurants providing they also have enough social achievement medals?]

Next Section: Do Human Rights Do Too Much?


Are Personal Aims Acceptable?

Nagel: Equality And Partiality

Chapter Nine

Generously, our personal aims are to be left free to have some `influence’ on how we live our lives. Any claims made by those with natural advantages that they should be free to use them are to be `neutralized’ such that they go no further than they would in the strongly egalitarian system Nagel favors.

It is agreed that there are more agent-relative reasons to want something than agent-neutral ones [ — but why is this not the wrong way round since there are so many more people we are not than ones we are — or is Nagel in fact wrong that the impersonal standpoint has meaning and efficacy? And what about the relative importance of both? Surely that cannot be quantified by counting.] The best solution would be for the system we all agree on to cope with the agent-neutral reasons, leaving us free [though disqualified from using any natural advantages] to look after our own agent-relative reasons.

It is questioned what would produce general acceptance that a social system is legitimate [ — could anything? What does `legitimate’ mean? Does it mean anything beyond `generally accepted’ — if not, then we have a vacuous entailment here.] The impersonal standpoint is to provide the acceptance of the system. [This could work, if it is understood to mean something akin to `I accept the costs imposed on me by the system in order to provide insurance should my position become much less advantaged’. Of course, the resource-rich, taking that term to be of wider application than simply financially strong, would still on that line have no interest in accepting the system.]

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Unfortunately this division of labor cannot work, as Nagel admits. The amount of legal interference in the economy needed to maintain socio-economic equality would also stifle efficiency and creativity and enough space for personal life. A constitutional approach would be too broad and also would fail to command allegiance by virtue of becoming inevitably mired in the controversies of the day. Nevertheless, the constitution could mandate medical care, housing and a slew of other benefits.

[It is interesting to note that something similar is causing immense problems in the US at present. It is necessary to cut spending or continue to borrow — i.e. spending the money of others being future taxpayers — at unsustainable rates. Since the great bulk of spending is on `entitlements’ such as Medicare, cuts fall at a disproportionate rate on the 12% of discretionary spending. The entitlements are politically untouchable even though are created merely by legislation; how much more severe would the problem be were they constitutionally enshrined. One error undergraduate philosophers are warned against is `changing your mind half way through the essay’; Nagel seems by the end of the paragraph to be advocating a system he described as impossible at the beginning.]

But this Utopia is merely one step towards a yet more comprehensive equality. And an inadequate one. To go further, legislation is needed. And in addition, the impersonal standpoint must play a much larger role. Nagel notes that democracy does not work in favor of the poor unless they are in a majority [ — that forgets the prudential reasons one might have for a safety net one never uses, but also the system that he advocates would share one feature with the status quo: the median person would be a net drain on public resources. Thus he could relax in the expectation that there will be a democratic majority of benefit claimants to back his system. But what happened to unanimity?]

Again, Nagel acknowledges that human nature just will not back such a system though, and that ethnic diversity is one of the reasons for that. The argument against such pessimism is held to be that the world has progressed away from social inequality. [Indeed it has. But why? Is it because governments have imposed frameworks or is it because the deference culture ended and people got ahead on their own? Would you rather be in the US or North Korea?] Examples of such progress are the abolition of slavery, enfranchisement of women and prohibition of child labor [ — none of which has actually occurred, with the possible exception of the middle item. But to what extent do women exercise political power in modern Saudi Arabia? Nevertheless, we may concede to Nagel that general conditions are much better today than in the middle ages while disputing his description of the cure.]

Perhaps progress towards apparently Utopian goals can be made only in steps, such that the Utopian impossibility gradually disappears. [How does someone become gradually less enslaved, or how do women become partly enfranchised?] Perhaps we can make apparently impossible progress in such steps, and maybe the dominance of the impersonal standpoint in politics over personal motives is one such piece of impossible progress. But even then, the operation of personal motives in the economy will frustrate egalitarianism. The private sector is essential to productivity, and the advantages are created by individuals acting in their own interests. [Thus we all benefit if everyone abandons the mythical impersonal standpoint.]

Competition is what drives efficiency, but this is against the grain of socialism because there are winners and losers. The efficiency of capitalism is `wonderful’ but the inequality created by the necessary incentives remains a concern for Nagel. [Though he understates to the largest possible extent the benefits of capitalist production by characterizing it as extra ice cream flavors or different shoe colors. It is of course much more to do with entirely new products and for example labor saving devices, not to mention the commercialized products of scientific endeavor such as the computer or the internet.]

Nagel makes the point that the desire for consumer goods is a result of advertising brainwashing but then dismisses it. [Is this perhaps a little quick? Why do people want things they don’t need? Are these the same people who are going to abandon the personal standpoint at about the same time they abandon their favorite brand of soap?]

The problem is more difficult here because economic equality is not an absolute requirement, `as it is with voting’. [This is not argued for. The logic of the situation is surely that we should dispense with both. Why should not some people have more votes than others? Would not literate people make better decision at the ballot box? Why are we trying to maintain the opposite fiction? Why is the UK government going to great lengths at present to attempt to maintain its ban on prisoners voting?]

Chapter Ten

This chapter will seek to progress beyond the impasse outlined by considering `transformations of motive’. Nagel wishes to do this because of the paradox between what he sees as the `inextinguishable appeal’ of egalitarianism [ — why is there this appeal and why is it not contradicted by the general lack of adoption of the impersonal standpoint?] and its failures. The institutions that will impose equality must reflect what `enough’ people feel [ — again, were we not looking for institutions that no-one could reasonably reject?]

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Progress in sex and race equality reflects not just assertiveness by the victims, but acknowledgment by the beneficiaries that any advantages so gained are illegitimate. Personal views have followed legal changes. Bad consciences preceded these changes. But this is not the case in respect of economics: the successful consider themselves lucky or deserving. The difference in income between the skilled and unskilled is not regarded as problematic. [Nagel might be able to make this point out more in the direction he wants in modern post credit crunch times, though that of course would only be because few people understand economics.] These attitudes would have to change in Nagel’s system [ — thus advantages could not be legitimate even when they flowed from superior skills.]

An egalitarian system would have to abandon claims that inequality is the result of exploitation, because it would sever the link between economic contribution and receipts entirely. Some people would receive much more than they contribute [ — are we still calling this egalitarian? What will the justification be for a differently slanted playing field?]

A further distinction to be dispensed with will be that between what the state does and what it permits: the state will be responsible for everything including income, health etc. and that must be clear to everyone. And thus they will be responsible for how things are. They will have to understand that the current position is that we have made a positive choice to allow rewards to flow to the most productive. [Interestingly, the current spate of `banker bashing’ does not say that rewards should not follow productivity — but that the bankers were not productive and now, in the recovery, they are not productive enough to justify their rewards.]

A laissez-faire system such as this should not be regarded as the natural position, because it results from the state enforcing only some subset of rights smaller than a maximal set. Contract rights are enforced; rights to equal income are not. [How do we know there are any rights? Does not this show that there are none? From that perspective, a smaller set of `rights’ would be more `natural’ than a larger one. But is not all of that simply the naturalistic fallacy in any case? And if we cannot avoid that trap, we should do nothing.] So the state is responsible for not imposing equality.

Nagel mentions that arrangements which favor the productive also favor their heirs, under the current system. [This does indeed seem questionable. While the genetic lottery problem can be mitigated by saying that I have to work to monetize my skills, this does not wash. I do nothing to receive my inheritance. But that would be an argument for, say, setting inheritance tax to 100% rather than for egalitarianism.]

The negative responsibilities of the state mean that any system must be justified; all distributions are questionable. [Again, does this not mean that in the absence of a justification for any system, we should do as little as possible? That means the Nozickian minimal state.] Nagel notes that his views contrast with those of Locke, for whom the state steps in only when individuals fail to work together.

There are three major sources of inequality: prejudice (e.g. racial), inherited advantage, variation in natural advantages. These are for short termed Discrimination, Class and Talent. To these may be added Effort. There are also random factors. Nagel believes people should to a large extent get on with their luck. [Why? Why is that factor allowed to win? Why does not the full egalitarian system eliminate the effects of luck as well? If you win the lottery, so should I.]

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The four factors can be independent, but often are correlated. Effort will always help [ — unless you are trying to construct a Utopian political ideal.] A social structure is to be evaluated by how it allows these four sources of inequality to operate. Only effort is really a responsibility of the individual. Egalitarianism as Nagel wishes to see it will only seek to eliminate advantages for which the individual is not responsible. [To which no-one can object, but we need to see how we can disentangle the four factors and how we can avoid being dramatically harmed by a system in which the talent of ourselves and everyone else is unrewarded. That means no better chances of playing for England for good football players — though this could be a blessing in disguise…]

[Are we sure that one is responsible even for effort made? Could not the lack of propensity to akrasia not be an inherited characteristic? Nagel cannot afford this to be the case of course, for then he would be committed to eliminating rewards for effort, thus preventing him from discriminating between the brain surgeon who performs three operations in a day and the one who stays home watching TV.]

Naturally healthy people are allowed to be so. [But why is this consistent with the negative duties of the state? Remember, it is responsible for everything and cannot rely on not taking any action as a justification of a staus quo. Thus, it must intervene to weaken the health of the robust. On average, people are relatively unhealthy since some of them are old and many are not young. So the young will suffer quite a lot. We must all limp because some cannot walk. This will apply across dozens of parameters and will require significant expenditure of resource and on an ongoing basis also. If I get a cold, they may have to cease making me short-sighted.]

Nagel’s most clear divorce from utilitarianism comes with his rejection of some Pareto-superior switches. Thus, he objects to a change which benefits the well off at no expense to the poor because it increases inequality.

[Is it not the case that we would have to be insulated from all the effects of our decisions for good or ill in order to maintain equality?]

Although only effort is the only parameter for which we are responsible, on Nagel’s view, there seems to be a hierarchy of unfairness with the others. Very few people are in favor of discrimination, people have less developed views on class in general, and they are happy about talented people making progress. [Why do we care what people think?]

Class differences result in the special favor people show their children, and `no sane person’ would wish to abolish this. [We must pause to note that Nagel has just committed Plato to the asylum. And we are about to see that the thrust of his position will demand just this insanity.] We can lean against it with, for example, anti-nepotism rules. But there is an interesting contrast in that giving your child a job is wrong whereas private education is fine.

Religious discrimination is on a par with sexual and racial discrimination for Nagel. [This is inconsistent with his views. People are responsible for their religious views as they are not for their sex or their race. Since there is no evidence for any religions, religious people can be seen to be cognitively deficient in ways relating to evidence assessment that would disqualify them for some careers involving just that, such as for example scientific ones. Thus failing to select them would be a reasonable choice rather than an example of discrimination.]

It would be a gross change but not unthinkable for people to no longer see a good reason for someone’s being rich that his parents were. But that would not be enough to eliminate class because the advantages of growing up in a wealthy household would be so significant. [Hence The Republic…This cannot be fixed without eliminating `natural’ family feeling. Again — it may be natural, but does it have to be right therefore? And if we are allowed to take that line, why not our natural resistance to egalitarianism?]

Talent drives income inequality, and we somehow, laments Nagel, fail to grasp that talent is undeserved and thus should not drive rewards. Nagel thinks this is because we could imagine being a different class more easily than we could imagine having different talents. [Why do we care about what we can imagine? How does that attain to any force in the actual world? What are we going to say about supermodels, who are born so beautiful that people pay them vast sums just to show up?] Nagel admits that solving this is impossible unless we abolish competition. In fact we should promote the gaining of advantage of talent just as we eliminate the gaining of advantage due to class.

Nagel notes that incentives that generate inequalities are essential to economies. [He does not observe that it could be the very fact that these inequalities are what people seek. After all — he was right when asked whether we needed 27 ice cream flavors. I only need that if you cannot afford it. There is plenty of research to show that absolute income is less important to self-esteem than relative income.]

The circle will be squared by trying to reconcile the two opposed positions that rewards for talent are simultaneously necessary and `tainted’. [This is the latest incarnation of the personality conflict to which we are invited. And what does tainted mean? Tainted by what? Inequality?]

The conclusion is that it will not be possible to limit inequality to that for which the individual is responsible.

Next Section: Can Individual Choices Produce Unacceptable Inequality?


Equality Under Law

Nagel: Equality And Partiality Chapter Seven

The question is how far to extend equality before the law into social and economic questions. Nagel wants more egalitarianism (even) than is available under modern welfare states but wonders to what extent this is utopian in that it requires people much better than we are. Impartiality is the driver for this; otherwise there would be no need for more equality than is required for stability. [Currently, it seems that quite significant levels of inequality can produce stable systems. Nagel assumes wrongly that all inequality is the result of partiality which is false across the board but especially so in the case of income distributions. Some people do deserve to earn more.]

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It is `appalling’ that substantial inequalities exist, if every human life matters equally. [Once again, this has not been argued for and without this assumption, Nagel does not even claim to be saying anything. He is merely talking about what would be the case were that assumption to be true.]

The impartial attitude comes from our ability to abstract from who we are. [Again, it is assumed that this is possible in some format more arresting than a theoretical arena, and Nagel engages the hypothetical mode once more thus not even pretending to make claims if the unsupported antecedent is not true. If we have this standpoint, we will be egalitarian. The error here mirrors that of Rawls who assumes that everyone will be infinitely risk-averse, presumably because he was. This impartiality is what is held to support the view that every life is of equal value. The conflations here are between any of `I can imagine being other people’ and `I should worry about other people because I could be them’ and further `My circumstances could change/could have been such that I would be in the position of those other people’. The first is questionable, the second clearly false and the third may be true in some modal sense — but the point is that Nagel thinks all of these are the same statements which seems unlikely given they are arrayed all over the spectrum of truth-values.]

The value we assign to everyone’s values starts from what that person values. [Nagel employs the term `preliminary’ here so that he has some way later to avoid wanting his system to avoid producing the result that we harm serial killers by not allowing them to indulge in their proclivities. We could imagine such a case where someone gains such enormous pleasure from such activities that the utilitarian calculus indicated allowing them to proceed as the best course of action. We await the restrictions Nagel will place on his system to prevent this.]

Egalitarianism now means that everyone has an equal weight in the system of values now produced by summing over all values of everyone in the system. Diminishing marginal utility — the value of $1,000 to someone with $500 is greater than that to someone with $50,000 — is enlisted to show that the system would be inherently egalitarian. [The usual error made again here is that wealth is handed out by governments as opposed to created by use of capital, labor and innovation. As the FT reports today on UK taxpayers, the `Top 1% poised to pay 25% of income tax’ which should be in line with what Nagel wants. It’s only fair, and egalitarian. Because no-one with that money can possibly deserve it. We know that from first principles, even though they may be unstated ones.]

If everyone counts the same, we should equalize all resources. [We now face Nozick’s objection to Rawls’s wish for a similarly flat-patterned distribution. How would we police it? No-one would be allowed to pay for services from someone who was better off than them, because that would result in a new inequality. And why would anyone bother to do anything? This outcome though is held to be so wonderful that it is worth pursuing even if the poor benefit by less than the rich are punished.]

Having started with this claim which Nagel modestly thinks is uncontroversial, he will now turn to something more challenging. Impartiality should mean favoring the poor more than the rich, even though some weight should be given to improving the position of everyone. [Is this because some of the rich have clearly been able to help themselves, and do not thus need the benefits of Nagel’s leveling largesse?] Both the number of people to be benefited and the amount by which they are benefited will feature, with the emphasis on the former. Priority will be given to the worst off. [There is no discussion of the moral hazard problem, whereby I am encouraged by such a system to squander any resources given me such that I remain a member of the worst-off group and can rely on future transfers for an indefinite period.]

The combination of values will be such that the worse-off person ranks in front of every person who is better off. [Impecunious serial killers are to be assisted in fulfilling their dreams in front of better-off serial killers, who can be left to their own resources. If anyone has any of their own resources left. We are now in the position where we can presumably imagine expending unlimited resource stolen from everyone less one person in a society to benefit that one person who is the very worst off. That benighted person will be in such poor conditions that it will be a difficult enough task merely to keep them alive, let alone bring them up to the average position in society. But are we to do that? There will be someone who is 0.001% better off than them who will this become the new `worst-off’ person once we have improved marginally the position of the previous incumbent — who is thus disqualified from further support, unless they cleverly take advantage of the moral hazard escape route previously mentioned.]

These worst-off people are to be helped despite the fact that they may be inefficient users of resources because they have other problems than poverty. [They may in fact be poor because they are for example drug addicts, but we are to take money from people who are not drug addicts to support the habits of the worst-off drug addict. That individual may continue to expend unlimited resources taken from others providing he always spends all of his loot. All of these types of difficulty are grouped under the generic term `evils’ so it is clear that no-one can be blamed for such issues — they are exogenous, we are to assume. No one deserves to any extent their poverty in the same way that no-one deserves to any extent their wealth.]

We are to assume the impersonal standpoint by imagining that we are all one of the 6.898 bn people on the planet and that that life is the only one we have. [Nagel surely employs understatement when he characterizes this as a `tall order’. This is supposed to belong to the same `moral outlook’ as the one requiring unanimity but we are not told what a moral outlook is, why its has parts that go together and why it is correct as an approach or meaningful as a term.]

Advantages to the better off are conceded on the generous terms that they do not harm the worse-off. [That of course is impossible and contradicted by Nagel’s previous statement that self-respect is partially driven by material prosperity. If that is true, the better off harm the worse off merely by existing in public and that would suffice to limit their allowable advantages to anything beyond the level of the worst-off. Unless they live in secret somewhere else. We are told that revolutions are started by TV pictures of lifestyles of the rich and famous…]

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Economic inequality is wrong because it leads to class oppression, and the world is a terrible place on these grounds, we are told. [So at least now we know we are in fact working on a global basis, and so the worst-off person to whose upkeep we must all spend all our resources until everyone is in the same place is the worst-off person in the world. This one imagines is a baby born to a family of 12 in a famine zone under armed conflict with no food or prospects of obtaining any and several terminal diseases. This is our destination.]

There are two ways of privileging the worst off. One way would be to set an absolute minimum and prevent anyone falling below. But Nagel wishes to support the stronger claim that the worst-off should always have priority irrespective of the amount by which their position has improved. They have a `basic need for self respect’ which otherwise we would harm [ — because after all, we are all responsible for everyone else’s self-respect.]

Nagel’s argument for this claim has several parts, of which the magisterial first is that it seems to him to be intuitively correct. [This is a contender for the most stupid remark in the book so far, but there is competition.] We are to be helped to see this by considering the order of priority in which we should help the working class, the middle class and the upper class. [Nagel has clearly forgotten he has introduced the global scope. In a famine, few people even get as far as working class.]

The absolutely needy are a smaller group than say the working class, so we should help the larger group. [Why?] The unskilled are to be helped before the skilled. [No success no matter how limited can remain unpunished.] Nagel’s intuitions fortunately give out along with his imagination when he considers whether the position of a multimillionaire and a middle manager are different in terms of whether we should help the latter before the former. [They are both sources of cash who can be safely ignored for him from the impersonal standpoint. Why doesn’t the middle manager stop working and become worse off in order to benefit more?]

The second argument is that general egalitarianism is favored by impartiality, because comparisons do not stop at some minimal level. [This argument is invalid because it assumes that inequalities can only result from partialities.]

Nagel accepts that unequal distribution of advantages is not bad per se but only when the unequal distribution results from factors beyond their control. [Thus the stupid should command more resources in order to support their gaining admission to UCL and the resources to be supplied should be directly proportional to their stupidity and the hopelessness of their pre-intervention case. People with no hands should be supported in their choice to become surgeons. The blind should fly planes — surely we can afford these things.]

This leads to the large question as to the extent to which someone deserves their abilities. [It seems difficult to argue that anyone deserves to be intelligent, for example. And so that would suggest that we should not allow anyone to benefit from their undeserved, random intelligence. We are told that this problem will be solved later.]

Since it is acknowledged that even those people who can miraculously occupy the impersonal standpoints are not saintly [really?] — the system will have to be better than they are, it will have to impose egalitarianism on them [ — why would anyone accept this?]

A further form of super-egalitarianism is mentioned, whereby inequality is to be reduced even if it harms the position of the worst-off. [Nagel does not support this extreme version fortunately, but that does leave us to wonder how and why his alternative is different and better.] Rawls’s Difference Principle gives absolute priority to the worst-off. [But Nagel’s threat is clear — he wants much more egalitarianism than currently exists in democracies.]

Chapter Eight

We are to imagine a more egalitarian form of life than we currently have, which might for example embody very progressive taxation regimes. [In the UK in the 1960s, the top rate of tax was 95% with investment income being taxed at the remarkable rate of 136% in 1967\footnote{}] — you really were better off without it.] The question is whether anyone would accept this. It is not to be an empirical question — [fortunately, for then we would have a very quick answer before we even consider the points that such a Draconian regime would have to apply everywhere in the world and that there would really be no point in engaging in high-income generating activities.] Instead, it is to be the Kantian question as to whether everyone \emph{could not reasonably reject} such a system.

Nagel believes that a strongly egalitarian system would not be rejected by the worst-off [ — he forgets that some of those people will have some sense of belief in themselves and what they can achieve and would therefore not like the fruits of their endeavors to be confiscated and given to their less dynamic class compatriots.] But the question of acceptability must turn on the inevitable winners and losers that emerge from any proposal. The better off will be the predominant losers under a more egalitarian system [ – assuming it does not permit any further inequalities to arise — ] and so this is the group to be considered in order to form an overall view of acceptability. This group can complain that the system is not in fact impartial since they have to give up opportunities and others do not. [Apparently the claim that a system is not legitimate because `it does not do enough for me‘ unless it is put forward as a more general argument.]

The alternatives to general egalitarianism to be considered include some common elements as given: freedom of conscience for example. [This allows me to believe anything I like, and so would include religious views. The Taliban’s views on education of females would be protected presumably. Nothing is said on conflicts of rights, such as are inevitable when one promiscuously applies that term to a large array of putative `rights’.] The egalitarian system will also include these elements.

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The first alternative is utilitarianism, involving maximizing benefits across individuals. The second is restricted egalitarianism which applies only to some goods termed `basic’. [Once again, this basic set includes the infamous right to self-respect at public expense. Why do these people not look to themselves to find some self-respect? Does not the very act of attempting to give it to them undermine itself?]

The utilitarian challenge is met by claiming that egalitarianism is superior in terms of the motivational burdens imposed; i.e. the better off should be happier paying for egalitarianism than utilitarianism. This derives from impartiality concerns. [But is the slogan `everyone must be the same’ more correct than `everyone must benefit as much as possible and how would we know what correctness looked like anyway? We are in any case to accept impartiality in the interests of supporting the principle that everyone counts the same, so we can quickly dispense with both.]

[It has been noted previously that the worst-off are inefficient users of resource in that they may be hard to benefit because they suffer from manifold non-poverty disadvantages. We have also learned that the justification for punishing the better off is that of diminishing marginal utility. Does not Nagel also owe us an argument that the latter is outweighed by the former? What type of economics would show that?]

Even though only some people are making sacrifices, `each person is being treated the same’ and cannot therefore complain. The problem with utilitarianism for Nagel is that it might increase utility to benefit the better off — if there are enough of them and they benefit to a sufficient extent. Yet this seems psychologically unappealing since it is easier to make sacrifices for those worst off than oneself. [This again assumes that one will never become one of the better off. And is it really easier? Is it not just as annoying to give up one’s college place for a poor person as for a rich person? And would it not be more so if the poor person would not even have been applying had they not benefited from resources taken from you?]

Rawls’s Difference Principle requires only the top-down sacrifice transfers and so is asymmetric in comparison with utilitarianism. Nagel notes Rawls’s objection to utilitarianism and cites him as follows: `it seems quite incredible that some citizens should be expected, on the basis of political principles, to accept lower prospects of life for the sake of others’. This is all Rawls writes, but Nagel quite tendentiously takes him to be saying that it would be incredible only if the others who benefit gained advantages greater than oneself. [This of course he needs to say to be consistent with his own position, but is it not more plausible to read Rawls as meaning exactly what he says — how can mere politics and theory persuade anyone to give up anything for someone else, when the things being given up are life chances over the whole of one’s life?]

The perspective from the guaranteed minimum alternative is stated to be that both utilitarianism and egalitarianism are `extravagant’. It is claimed that there is a mistake in holding that the worst off cannot object to a system which gives them a guaranteed minimum, because they would be forgoing benefits they could have above the minimum in order to avoid taking those benefits from the better off above the minimum. So if the better off can object, so can the worst off: both parties can object to the sacrifice of benefits above the minimum level in order to provide the better off with those benefits. The problem is to equate the guaranteed minimum with some level of normality as a baseline for comparisons. [The mistake in the mistake is once again the false assumption that the better off have only become so because the system has made them that way. It has illegitimately given them all their resources and they have not earned them at all. Since they have not earned them, they can legitimately expropriated. Should not the worst off object to this because a system which allows expropriation harms everyone?]

The upshot could be that both utilitarianism and egalitarianism fail the universal acceptance test. [Nagel needs to defeat that possibility — and will attempt do so by arguing that all systems would fail such a harsh test if they differentially benefited different parties above the minimum. Is that not an argument for laisser faire?]

Once again, the mythical impersonal standpoint rides to the rescue. It is supposed to provide us with a desire to see more done for others than the provision of a basic minimum. [But even that basic minimum can scarcely be provided globally. And if it were, would not the resulting increases in population in poor countries bring larger difficulties?]

[One can see the envy inherent in Nagel’s position when he suggests that the solution available to the better off when reflecting on the position of the worst-off is to `drown their fellow feeling in claret’. Has he not drowned his claret in fellow feeling? Who is right? Why can we not just enjoy ourselves, or must everyone in the world be happy before anyone is?]

Next Section: Are We Allowed To Follow Our Personal Aims? Nagel says Maybe


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?


Nagel’s Useless Utopianism

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


Nagel Equality and Partiality: A Review

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Q1: Is `justice’ a concept for angels or for men?

The question asks whether Nagel is attempting to put forward a Utopian concept of justice, impartiality or equality which could not be realized by any other than perfect beings. Nagel acknowledges that this is a problem because if it is Utopian, then it is pointless discussing it, unless we can expect advantages to accrue from merely pursuing an unachievable objective, or that even moving in the direction of achieving the objective is worth something on its own.

One problem Nagel seems to have is that he suffers from the Rawlsian problem of being much too nice for the real world. Rawls was apparently described as `saintly’ by those who knew him personally, and this caused his philosophy also to suffer from an excessive faith in humanity. There remains some hope that Nagel will be able to avoid this extreme — he does manage a favorable reference to Nietzsche on p. 135 — but that remains to be seen.

Of course, angels do not actually need justice. Or at least, they would not need external sources thereof, for they would naturally treat each other in just ways. So the concept may not even be coherent.

This discussion feeds into the second question, because justice is supposed to arise from one of the two standpoints.

Q2: Are the `two standpoints’ plausible?

These are the personal and impersonal standpoints. The first one is the one with which we are familiar — it merely means the perspective from where we stand, taking account of our own interests. The impersonal one is the more general de-personalized view. It might be seen as being somewhat akin to a legal viewpoint: laws do not mention specific individuals but classes of them.

Nagel says he will argue that the impersonal standpoint produces `a powerful demand for universal impartiality and equality’; moreover, this is the case `in each of us’. This claim in the strong version is simply false, as I merely need to mention that I for one feel no such claim arising in order to falsify it. I doubt I am alone in that, but it does not matter: I am unaccompanied sufficient to disprove the claim.

Let us assume that this is somewhat poetic; perhaps Nagel can make out that many people would support him. Maybe so — but what of it? Are we to assume that what people think is right? If so, to what end do we pursue philosophy? We scarcely need some advanced theoretical underpinning to support what people are already doing.

Does this impersonal standpoint even exist? Certainly I can imagine considering a question from the perspective of unnamed individuals. Thus I can give you an answer probably on questions such as `is it right to provide tax deductions for married couples?’, or at least rehearse the arguments on both sides despite the facts that I am not myself married and could not give you the names of everyone who is. But that is just an abstract way of thinking about political questions; it cannot suffice for the strong claims that Nagel makes about a perspective having potent normative effects on our thinking. It is this latter I do not recognize.

In any case, there is a dramatic discontinuity in plausibility between the two claimed outcomes of this putative pair of standpoints. The fact that there is value in impartiality does not entail that there is in equality, and moreover, we are not told which equality we are dealing with. If it is equality of outcome, it is undesirable; if it is equality of opportunity, then it is unfeasible.

To see the former point, observe that it requires leveling down. To see the latter, consider what level of resources would be necessary to provide an equal opportunity of UCL entry to persons with an IQ of 70 and one with an IQ of 150. And what would the justification look like for taxing the latter in order to permit the equal opportunity of the former?

To some extent we must suspend judgment, for Nagel has as yet in the Introduction only claimed that he will so argue and has not yet done so. And yet we are entitled to remain skeptical pending such argument.

We are later told that `everyone has reasons deriving from the impersonal standpoint to want the world to be arranged in a way that accords better with the demands of impartiality’. It is notable that while again no argument is produced for this assertion, equality has been dropped from the text. So it is to that extent more plausible.

Yet it may be capable of being challenged. Although there is no positive reading of `partial’, despite common misconceptions to the contrary, maybe we would want it anyway. A criticism of Rawls’s views on what we would choose in the original position may equally be made of Nagel and that is that both philosophers present conceptions on which we are all immensely, in fact infinitely risk-averse.

And we aren’t. Nor should we be. If there is going to be some rolling of the dice, we may as well have some stakes to make it more interesting.

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Finally, there is a further problem for Nagel in that even if he is right, we may not want him to be. These two standpoints can only conflict. His view would need to be suppressed even if it were correct, so fortunately, it isn’t.

See Also:

The Opposition Of Value Systems

‘Both A Black Raven And A Red Herring Confirm The Claim That All Ravens Are Black.’

Quine And Fine on Reference and Modality

Nagel And Generalisation Of The Categorical Imperative


Equality And Partiality

Nagel: Equality and Partiality Ch. 1 and Ch. 2

The title `Equality And Partiality’ is highly ambiguous, though not for the reasons commonly thought. We are initially invited to consider whether lack of impartiality is the cause of inequality. That assumes that inequality is a bad outcome, an error Nagel will compound in the introduction: this question is exactly the one at issue and should not be prejudged.

There is no positive reading of `partiality’. It is a synonym for `bias’ and prejudice’. When making some type of decision, perhaps as an umpire or an interviewer, impartiality is a prerequisite. That means that there should be a linear function mapping input data (e.g. relevant characteristics in the job applicant) to the output (e.g. a decision as to which candidate should get the job). Any lack of impartiality will mean that non-relevant characteristics such as sex or race have figured in the decision.

People fail to understand this because they think that partiality means the same as making a selection. This is false. They claim that sentences like `perhaps it is acceptable to be partial to your family members’ make sense. They may be being confused by the secondary meaning of `partial’, i.e. to like something. In the primary meaning, we would need an argument to show that bias in favor of one’s family members was acceptable. Of course, that happens all the time. But not in job selection processes. That type of partiality would be nepotism which would be frowned upon.

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Perhaps we are intended to think that we are partial to equality. Nagel suggests this indeed — see later. But that of course could be a problem.

The figure on the cover is also highly ambiguous. It is a sketch by Goya, ostensibly of a beggar. But is it a beggar or a brigand? The stick looks very sturdy and more appropriate for attacking someone than as an aid for walking. The hat is equally well poised for suggesting indigence and lack of threat but equally well could be thrown over the eyes of a victim who comes in range of the stick. The suspicious looking gaze of the `beggar’ is directed downwards and to the left. This is, either way, not a figure to be approached or pitied.

Chapter 1

In discussion in the Introduction of current political systems, they are described as failing to reach `an ideal that we should all recognize as correct’. Really? Is not an argument required for this? Calling it an ideal prejudges the question at issue. It is not possible to support the status quo already in Nagel’s system. And what is the scope of his view? His point would be more plausible when looked at globally, perhaps. But cannot it be claimed that in the US and the UK, perhaps, it is possible for anyone who has the ability to work hard and take risks can become wealthy and no-one starves? Is that so unacceptable?

Nagel’s view is that the source of political conflict and his dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs is the existence of two viewpoints within each person. These are the personal and impersonal standpoints. Again he assumes without argument that working together is automatically the right answer. (Perhaps we will see such argument later in the book.)

But the weak always favor federal systems. Those who can survive alone prefer not to be dragged down by those who cannot swim, or cannot be bothered to. UCL is no longer part of the University of London, because no particular reason can be given for an institution which is always strong to support the weak. And failing to eliminate weaker institutions means that the average quality is held down also. Why is this good? Moreover, level playing fields harm those who can score uphill.

Why is there a value in equality? And what is meant? No one supports equality of outcome anymore, because of what the Australians call `tall poppy syndrome’. No poppies will grow tall if those are the ones that stick out and get harvested. So people retreat, weakly, to `equality of opportunity’. This of course is unfeasible. What would it cost to give someone with an IQ of 70 an equal chance of entry to UCL with someone with a score of double that? How much partiality would we need to provide that equality? And on what grounds would we take the necessary resources and the place from the second person? Why are some groups to be favored and why should they be the weak rather than the strong? Do we have no interest in overall quality of the cohort?

Apparently, we live `in a world of spiritually sickening economic and social inequality’. This is either meaningless or false. The insertion of the world `spiritual’ suggests only that Nagel has been informed of this ultimate truth by supernatural beings, perhaps fairies at the bottom of his garden. Ignoring that element, we are still left with the unfounded claim that inequality is sickening. It doesn’t sicken me. If it is justified, then isn’t it just the appropriate reward? The argument for this is that `most people feel it’. So what? Most people are wrong about most things most of the time. Even if that’s right.

Nagel is writing around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. For a time then it appeared that a New World Order was at hand. The US would spread its benign influence unopposed by communism. Fukuyama could write about the end of history. Unfortunately, since then, al Qaeda have restarted history. Also a global financial crisis has strengthened the appeal of directed economic systems. China is one of Goldman Sach’s celebrated BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) from whence all growth will henceforth come. And yet, recent events in Tunisia —

— in which an authoritarian government was forced from power by the people in a new continent provide some hope for the future.

We learn that the fundamental problem is how to do justice to the`equal importance of all persons’ — again, just asserted as a desirable objective — is that it cannot be done without making `unacceptable demands on individuals’. It is moreover not explained why any demands at all on individuals are acceptable even were this aim to be a good one.

On p. 6, we see the remark indicating that Nagel thinks we are partial to equality: `communism owes its existence in part to an ideal of equality that remains appealing however great the crimes committed […] in its name’. Just so. Of course, because partiality is wrong, we are mistaken in this attachment to equality. And communism exists either nowhere or in very few places today.

Nagel later claims that we can trust our moral intuitions even when we cannot state underlying principles. This is not argued for, which is just as well since it is completely implausible. Hard-nosed realism is castigated as well; presumably a does of irrationality or dream-like immersion in the unreal will be of more assistance. The argument that moral intuitions needs not be corrupt or self-interested because sometimes they are not is remarkable.

The aim of having everyone agree with the system of state power on a unanimous basis is laid out. This is clearly impossible. If it is a system with highly equal outcomes, those who would have done much better had they not been punished for their abilities will not consent. In an unequal system, those at the bottom will claim that their treatment has nothing to do with their abilities or efforts.

Chapter 2

It is assumed that we can take the view from nowhere by abstracting away from our beliefs, desires and characteristics and look out from behind the Rawlsian veil. But how do we know this is possible? And why would we have any motivations left in the original position?

`No one is more important than anyone else’

— what about Einstein and an imprisoned rapist costing the state significant resources in prison maintenance?

Weighting improvements in the position of the worst off above other improvements means in practice that all resources arrogated from the better off will be expended on the worst off. Globally also there is a `Singer and Pogge’ problem in that if this is true, almost all surplus economic product from the developed world must be shipped to Africa, where there is enormous deprivation. This is a consistent argument and the two responses to it are to agree that such transfers should be made or to deny the equal value of all persons. Few people have the intellectual courage to affirm the second, even though it is correct.

It is argued that from the impersonal standpoint, everyone’s life matters as much as mine. Even if that is so, it does not say anything about the personal standpoint, from which my life is more important. At least Nagel acknowledges that the personal standpoint is not to be ignored but must feature in his political theory. But the idea that we are to discuss how we should live given that some of our motives are not impersonal does not allow for the entirely coherent and in fact plausible possibility that some people may have only personal standpoints. How do we know they are wrong? Why can’t they look out for themselves? And all the more so if they are one of those who is short of resources. the very group that Nagel wishes to assist.

Nagel acknowledges the severe internal conflict likely to arise by attempting to combine personal and impersonal standpoints. Is not this prima facie cause to avoid the attempt altogether?

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There is a claimed symmetry between the difficulties of resolving the conflict between the two standpoints for those at different ends of the resource spectrum. The well-off are concerned about how much is to be taken from them. But equally, apparently, the poor are worried by the extent to which they can legitimately make claims on the better off. Is this plausible? Why would they care?

Nagel also believes in something Rawls terms `the social basis of self-esteem’. It seems remarkable that someone so weak as to require validation from others should need any consideration. And what are we supposed to do for such people in any case? The claim that we would have to move a considerable distance in harming the rich before their resistance becomes legitimate needs scope setting. If the scope is global, there is another version of the Singer and Pogge problem.

But why is it legitimate to take resources legally acquired from anyone in any case? There seems to be an underlying idea that wealth is created by governments and then distributed unfairly. Were this to be the case, then we would presumably seek to arrange that it should be arranged equally. But that view is completely false. Some individuals create wealth and the state removes part of it from them for various ends, which may or may not be legitimate. In fact, they probably are not.

The idea that nothing matters from the impersonal standpoint is dismissed as an extreme skeptical viewpoint which presumably no-one reasonable could hold. This seems to be a bad case of impartiality however.

The final paragraph of chapter two includes Nagel’s acknowledgment that impartiality is the goal; this of course is a confirmation that partiality is always wrong. It also notes that we are all suppressing our sense of the impartial standpoint. Nagel thinks this is a bad thing and a denial of our humanity. But that is just the naturalistic fallacy, even if it is true. Which it isn’t.

Next Section: Is “Justice” A Concept For Angels Or For Men? Review of Nagel: Equality and Partiality