Reflections of a Moral Realist: On Thomas Nagel’s “Moral Feelings, Moral Reality, and Moral Progress”
By Kieran SetiyaOctober 24, 2023
Moral Feelings, Moral Reality, and Moral Progress by Thomas Nagel
Puzzled by this phenomenon when he contemplated bats in 1974, Nagel went on to embrace a radical metaphysics in which there is an essentially subjective aspect to everything that exists, from human beings down to fundamental particles. We don’t know what it’s like to be a quark, but on this view, it must be like something. To make sense of consciousness, and the evolution of reason, Nagel holds, we need a conceptual revolution. But not just that. According to the subtitle of his most notorious book, Mind & Cosmos (2012), we need a scientific revolution too: “[T]he materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false.”
The scandal over Nagel’s anti-Darwinism made the pages of The New York Times in 2013. Once-admiring colleagues rued his amateur speculations, such as questioning the likelihood that complex life would evolve by natural selection “in the available geological time.” As the philosopher of biology Peter Godfrey-Smith complained, “intuitions are worth nothing” when it comes to probabilities compounding over billions of years, and Nagel hadn’t done the math. Simulations indicate that natural selection could transform light-sensitive skin into an eye in as little as a few hundred thousand years.
Why assume, anyway, that the evolution of consciousness or reason was especially probable? Maybe Earth got lucky. Nagel’s own explanation, on which nature has a primitive, non-Darwinian teleology, aiming at conscious reason, is at least as puzzling. To the journalist for The New York Times, Nagel’s picture of a universe “gradually waking up” through the emergence of consciousness “sound[ed] oddly mystical—the atheist analytic philosopher’s version of ‘spiritual, not religious.’” More concretely, if Nagel is right, why are conscious, rational beings so cosmically rare?
It would be a shame, however, if the contention over Mind & Cosmos cast a shadow over Nagel’s earlier career. Before he was an evolutionary provocateur, Nagel was a humanistic voice in moral philosophy—as he continues to be. The publication of his new book, Moral Feelings, Moral Reality, and Moral Progress, is an opportunity to map the progression of Nagel’s moral thinking over more than 50 years, and to ask how it illuminates the problems of the present.
Thomas Nagel was born in 1937 to German Jewish refugees in what was then Yugoslavia, but he was raised in and around New York City, where his parents fled in 1939. Nagel was 21 or 22 when he published his first philosophical essays—one about dreaming, the other on the moral and political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. He went on to study the philosophy of mind, laying the groundwork for his question about the bat. But his first major publication was a monograph in ethics called The Possibility of Altruism (1970), based on a PhD thesis supervised by political philosopher John Rawls.
The Possibility of Altruism is an austere, uncompromising book. It purports to demonstrate, on logical grounds, that each of us should care about everyone else’s life as much as we care about our own. To do otherwise is to fail to recognize oneself “as merely one person among others”—a kind of dissociation Nagel likens to the failure to recognize that one is “equally real at all stages of [one’s] life.” I won’t try to summarize his complex argument, which is half metaphysics, half machinery derived from Gottlob Frege, the German logician who has been called “the father of analytic philosophy.” Even the book’s admirers would concede that its reasoning slips in and out of focus, as if you’ve dreamed a flawless proof of Kant’s categorical imperative but upon waking can’t recall the steps. Critics found it difficult but original. The New York Review of Books likened Nagel’s prose to “a tight-fitting scuba-diving rig, in which he moves so rapidly that it is often hard to keep up with him”—while commending the book as “an extremely tough, polished, and altogether stimulating piece of work.”
There was not much reason to predict that Nagel’s next book would be Mortal Questions (1979), a collection of lucid essays on topics ranging from death, absurdity, and meaning to sexual perversion, war and massacre, affirmative action, and equality—essays that could, with a little editing, appear in a venue such as this. It was as if he’d set out to prove his stylistic detractors wrong. In Mortal Questions, Nagel’s prose is a comfortable summer suit with a crisp white shirt, no tie; this is a book that anyone could read.
What followed was Nagel’s last major work of moral theory—though he has since written books about political philosophy and taxation. Published in 1986, The View from Nowhere ranges widely, positing a systematic tension between “objective” and “subjective” perspectives on the world, a tension that shows up not just in relation to consciousness but also in ethics, and in the allegedly mysterious fact that I am identical to a particular objectively observable human being. I could have been anyone: Socrates, Napoleon, Thomas Nagel—but instead I’m Kieran Setiya. What are the odds? And what are the moral implications? I am forced to reconcile first-personal commitments and attachments with a vision of the world in which KS is no more, or less, important than anyone else. It seems that we can’t avoid, but can only manage, the sort of dissociation Nagel once condemned.
Philosophers have strong feelings about The View from Nowhere. Most admire its depth, range, and vivid human interest. Others miss the pure high notes of Nagel’s first book, preferring it with a passion, like fans who venerate the debut album of an indie rock band from before the group sold out. You don’t have to be Ludwig Wittgenstein—for whom the problems of philosophy turn on confusions of language—to conjecture that the mystery of my identification with KS will be solved not by appeal to essentially subjective facts but by reflection on the workings of the pronoun “I.” Nor do you have to be Immanuel Kant to miss the stark ambition of Possibility. Maybe we should meditate, once more, on that recurring dream in which we prove, at last, that everyone matters in the same objective sense?
In Moral Feelings, Moral Reality, and Moral Progress, Nagel takes for granted that we know we matter, in order to ask exactly how. He is interested in the clash between two ways of thinking about the value of human life. According to “consequentialism,” value lies entirely in the outcomes of our actions: we matter only as inhabitants of those outcomes, whose lives make them better or worse. Utilitarianism is the most well-known consequentialist view. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and their contemporary followers hold that we should act so as to maximize aggregate well-being: the greatest happiness of the greatest number. “Deontology”—from the Greek word for duty—contests these claims: in Nagel’s words, “we must regard each person, including ourselves, as immune from subjection to others—the center of a morally protected sphere of individual autonomy that can be granted equally to everyone.” If you could save two lives by killing an innocent person, utilitarians think you should—assuming you can get away with it. Deontologists object that there are rights you cannot trespass against simply to achieve the greater good. The value of human life is what Immanuel Kant called “dignity,” not “price.” What has a price can be replaced by something of equal value with no net loss; what has dignity cannot.
The clash between consequentialism and deontology is one that Nagel explored in The View from Nowhere. It’s at the root of arguments about free expression, purism and political compromise, the morality of war, the limits of the market, the basis of the welfare state, and—as we’ll see—the recent fashion for “longtermism.” In his new book, Nagel is concerned less with adjudicating issues like these than with asking how they are to be adjudicated. In the first part of the book, Nagel answers those who hope to sidestep moral argument by way of cognitive science. In the second part, he turns to moral progress and the limits of what argument can do.
The cognitive science by which Nagel is provoked draws on a contrast between “thinking fast”—the psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s term for using heuristics that sacrifice reliability for ease and speed, as we do in unconsciousness, automatic cognition—and “thinking slow,” as we do in explicit reasoning. Emotions play a role in thinking fast, and they play a role in deontological judgments too: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex is involved in both. We have a negative emotional response to the idea of killing one person to save two. Critics of deontology conclude that the very idea of “moral rights” is nothing more than a useful heuristic, a product of thinking fast. That we recoil in horror at the prospect of killing the innocent is generally for the best, yet we should see it as an efficient but unreliable strategy for producing good outcomes, not an insight into moral truth. Where the situation is unusual or complex—if we can save two lives by taking one, for instance—we should slow down and do the math.
Nagel is rightly unimpressed. Even if feelings serve as mere heuristics in other domains, we can’t infer that they are suspect guides to right and wrong. What distorts in one area may illuminate another. The only way to tell is to appeal to our best understanding of the truth in that area. When it comes to heuristics for probability, we can draw on mathematical proof to show that the heuristics are flawed. But when it comes to morality, all we have, in the end, are our reflective moral judgments. If we are not already utilitarians, we have no reason to reject the emotional verdicts of thinking fast as morally unreliable. For deontologists, the feelings with which we recoil from violating rights put us in touch with something real: the inviolable dignity of the individual. As Nagel argues, there is no standpoint independent of morality from which to show otherwise: we cannot outsource moral thinking to cognitive science.
This leaves us with the burden of knowing right from wrong. Nagel calls himself a “moral realist,” meaning not that he’s a moral cynic but that he believes in moral truth. There may not be Platonic forms of “Justice” and “the Good,” but there are standards of good reasoning in ethics, as there are in science, that are not a function of subjective sentiments or contingent social norms. For Nagel, moral reasoning is no more occult than our capacity for justified beliefs about unobservable phenomena, the distant past, and the far-flung future. It’s hard to separate doubts about the possibility of objective moral knowledge from doubts about the rationality of science. Both involve reasoning that goes beyond what is given in experience; in both, the standards for how to reason well are subject to perennial dispute; and in both, it’s possible to hold internally consistent but unreasonable views that no form of proof conclusively refutes. (The kicker is that Nagel finds both science and morality mysterious enough to doubt that they evolved by natural selection: hence the scandal of Mind & Cosmos. But we need not follow him there.)
In the second part of his new book, Nagel sets out what he now sees as a contrast between moral and scientific truth. In science, as a rule, the truths we learn were true before we learned them: Earth has always orbited the Sun, and the water we drink was made of H2O before we had the concept of covalent bonds. Nagel thinks morality is different. Take the idea of human rights: before there was a global system of nation-states, how could one frame the very concept of rights owed to individuals beyond the boundaries of the state? We can’t fault the moral reasoning of ancient Greek philosophers oblivious to this: they had no access to the moral reasons we now have. That there are basic human rights to which we owe respect may be a moral truth, Nagel argues, but it wasn’t true until the point in history at which we could make sense of it. Moral truth is not historically static: it changes over time.
It’s up for debate, in a given case, what was true all along and what became true. If they had no reason to acknowledge universal human rights, Nagel intimates, the ancient Greeks could still have understood—and should have recognized—the injustice of the master-slave relation. But historical developments like feminism or industrial capitalism drive a conceptual invention that shifts the moral order of the world.
It’s not entirely clear what’s at stake for Nagel in describing shifts like these as transformations of moral truth. Why not say, instead, that the truth was there all along, although we can’t blame those who lacked the necessary concepts for their inability to see it? Nagel takes the first view, but a footnote contemplates the second. Either way, the point remains that, in moral thinking (as, for Nagel, in the theory of consciousness), progress may depend on conceptual change. It follows that one way to resist moral progress is to refuse to grasp the concepts needed to make sense of it.
Nagel finds conflict over concepts in contemporary debates, from sexual harassment to global justice. But he avoids some of the more contentious: gender is one; the future of humanity is another. In each case, we should ask his question: how far is conceptual conservatism, or conceptual revolution, at work?
Take the ideology of “longtermism,” which has become increasingly influential in philosophy and public life, joining contemporary philosophers with billionaires like Peter Thiel, Sam Bankman-Fried, and Elon Musk, who hype the risk of AI apocalypse and fantasize about the human colonization of space. Longtermism begins with the moral truth that future people matter just as much as we do. If we think about the future on the scale not of decades but of millennia, then the number of people it contains may be inordinately vast, and what we do today affects the quality of their lives. We should take this burden seriously. Yet concern for posterity quickly morphs into an argument for maximizing future population—hence the urge to colonize other planets—even at considerable cost in the years to come. Longtermists tend to minimize the climate crisis. From a sufficiently distant perspective, climate chaos may be no more than a blip. So long as we survive to multiply (a lot), the suffering of millions or billions in this century will be dwarfed by the flourishing of future trillions.
The ideology of longtermism draws on the conceptual frameworks of “population ethics,” which tend towards the promotion of aggregate well-being. Our best-developed models for evaluating population distributions, the ones that are most mathematically and conceptually tractable, imply that concern for future people entails concern that there be more of them, not just that their lives go well. Maximize population! Worse, they have the upshot that quantity compensates for quality—so that trillions of mediocre lives, spread across the solar system, make a better outcome than mere billions of blissful lives on Earth.
The invitation to flee our planet for an impoverished existence elsewhere strikes me, and many others, as dystopian. Nagel’s book suggests a diagnosis and a cure: if population ethics has been limited by its concepts, then moral progress lies in finding better ones. This won’t be easy. It’s hard to think about the long-term future in ways that are coherent, systematic, and morally sane. But the right response is not to cede the future of humanity to dystopia; it’s to call for conceptual change. In times of moral confusion, our plight is to see the need for new moral concepts, but not how it can be met.
Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017), Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (2022), and a Substack newsletter, Under the Net.
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