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Thomas Nagel: A Major Contemporary Philosopher

December 22, 2009

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[Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament: Essays 2002–2008 • By Thomas Nagel • Oxford, 2010 • 171 pages]


Thomas Nagel has a remarkable ability to penetrate to the essence of important issues; and this collection of his recent essays and reviews displays his characteristic depth. I should like to concentrate first on "The Problem of Global Justice," which addresses issues of crucial importance for libertarians.1

Nagel is decidedly not a libertarian, but he poses the issues in a way that even those who differ with his conclusions will find illuminating. Much influenced by his teacher John Rawls's Political Liberalism, Nagel rejects the conception of justice common among libertarians. It is not just that he has different views from those of libertarians; he sees justice in an entirely different way. As libertarians see matters, persons have property rights, which do not depend on the state for their existence. Everyone possesses the same moral rights, regardless of the political community of which he is a member.

The libertarian position is an example of what Nagel calls a cosmopolitan view of justice:

According to the first conception, which is usually called cosmopolitanism, the demands of justice derive from an equal concern or a duty of fairness that we owe in principle to all our fellow human beings, and the institutions to which standards of justice can be applied are instruments for the fulfillment of that duty. (p. 66)

He holds, by contrast, a political conception: the requirements of justice are relative to a political community. By no means does he maintain that all rights are relative in this way. Freedom of speech and religion are liberties to which everyone is entitled, and societies that do not recognize these rights are acting badly.

The protection, under sovereign power, of negative rights like bodily inviolability, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion is morally unmysterious. Those rights, if they exist, set universal and prepolitical limits to the legitimate use of power, independent of special forms of association. (p. 73)

But property is another matter. People in a society may establish the property rights that seem reasonable to them.2 "Reasonable" here should by no means be equated with "rationally self-interested"; unlike, e.g., John Harsanyi, Jan Narveson, and David Gauthier, Nagel does not derive the requirements of justice by asking what would command agreement among self-interested contractors. Rather, he thinks that people in society are morally bound to each other in ways that generate egalitarian obligations. He does not endeavor to fix exactly the strength of these obligations: that is a matter left to the citizens of each particular society.

Nagel's view puts him at odds with many followers of Rawls. Because he takes justice to be relative to political communities, Nagel denies that the obligations of justice extend worldwide. Rich nations, like the United States, stand under no obligation of justice to redistribute wealth to residents of less prosperous societies. There are, Nagel holds, humanitarian duties to relieve distress; but these obligations do not fall under justice and do not require any approximation to equality. Nagel declines to support a global Rawlsian difference principle.

In taking this stance, Nagel finds himself at odds with many followers of Rawls, though not with Rawls himself. In The Law of Peoples, Rawls likewise drastically limited the scope of international redistribution.3 Nagel and Rawls, to reiterate, stress the political context of justice. In the absence of international institutions that can subject nations to their control, the bonds that establish obligations of justice do not cross national borders.4

Oddly, libertarians are here allied with Rawlsians who favor international redistribution. Both support cosmopolitan justice, rejecting the political conception. Libertarians maintain that one's natural right to property holds against everyone: it is not limited to the confines of a particular political society. In like fashion, the cosmopolitan Rawlsians also apply their notions of justice universally. (I do not mean to suggest that no cosmopolitan could hold that there are special obligations regarding justice that are confined within a particular society. Rather, what defines this position is that justice at least in part extends beyond such confines.)

Nagel, who characterizes his position as Hobbesian, begins from an initial possession of territory by a political society. Justice, to reiterate, applies once such an initial appropriation has taken place: it does not extend "all the way down." (Incidentally, readers should not miss Nagel's brilliant early essay on Howard Warrender's interpretation of Hobbes, "Hobbes's Concept of Obligation," Philosophical Review, 1959.) Nagel here adopts the same view as a more extreme Hobbesian thinker, one whose thought is in most respects antipodal to his own — Carl Schmitt. Schmitt also held that a society's initial possession of territory was primary, requiring no justification.5

Libertarians might at first imagine that it is easy to escape from the egalitarian demands of Nagel's conception of justice. If people have special obligations that stem from the bonds between them in a political society, can they not refuse to enter a society that imposes demands that they reject? Libertarians, after all, have nothing against voluntarily assumed egalitarianism.

But Nagel cannot be shunted aside this easily. Because Nagel does not accept natural rights to acquire property, he would not acknowledge that those who prefer not to belong to an overly egalitarian polity can decamp with "their" property. Precisely what he denies is that people do have property rights independent of society.

But why does Nagel reject libertarian property rights? In his famous review of Anarchy, State, and Utopia ("Libertarianism without Foundations" in Other Minds: Critical Essays 1969–1994), Nagel contended that Nozick had arbitrarily postulated such individual property rights. It is not intuitively obvious that such rights exist, and in the absence of strong moral intuitions that support them, argument on their behalf is required.

Nagel goes further. In a later work, written with Liam Murphy, The Myth of Ownership, he contends that it is a conceptual error to deny that property rights rest on convention. If a libertarian were to say to Nagel, "Disagree with Nozick all you like. But surely his Lockean view counts as a theory; he and other libertarians haven't simply misused the concept of property," I imagine that Nagel would reply in this way: Even if one were to concede that individuals in a society must be afforded the opportunity to acquire property individually, surely it is undeniable that the overwhelming bulk of property is purely conventional. What items may be owned and exactly what ownership rights entail depend nearly entirely on the laws and customs of particular societies.

I do not think that this consideration suffices to rule out libertarian accounts of property rights. One may concede that the specific details of property rights in a particular society must be settled through convention. But a supporter of natural rights may consistently hold that in settling such matters, the conventions must conform to prior claims that individuals acquire through natural rights. In particular, the state, or other agency that establishes the legal limits of property, is not free to take over income or wealth as it sees fit. Its function is purely that of filling in an arrangement of property that it did not create.

An analogy may clarify this contention. Free speech in a society cannot exist without a body of regulations that set forward the content of free-speech rights. But it does not follow that the right to free speech exists entirely by convention; it is entirely coherent to think that whoever sets these regulations is strictly bound to respect preexisting rights and cannot overturn them. Libertarians think exactly the same about property.

To claim that the libertarian view of property rights is coherent does not suffice to establish its truth. Rather than pursue the matter further, though, I should like to raise a problem for Nagel's position. If justice is a political matter, confined in scope to particular societies, why are citizens of less prosperous societies obligated to respect the property arrangements of those situated in more fortunate circumstances? If justice rests on an "arbitrary" distinction, why cannot an equally arbitrary effort endeavor to replace an existing arrangement with something else? The members of the dissatisfied society, by hypothesis, are not bound by the special relationships that create obligations of justice. There may well be prudential reasons that counsel against interference by one society with the property arrangements of another, or moral reasons besides considerations of justice; but on Nagel's view, justice seems not to apply here.

Nagel addresses another issue that libertarians will find of interest. Much controversy has arisen in recent years over teaching alternatives to Darwinian evolution in public schools. The Intelligent Design movement defends "teaching the controversy": its vociferous opponents claim that this movement is religion disguised as science. From a libertarian standpoint, intractable controversies of this kind are the near-inevitable results of public education. In a system where the great majority of children attend public schools, how can disputes over controversial areas of study be avoided? With private education, by contrast, these problems do not arise, since parents can select schools in accord with their preferences.

Nagel's remarks on Intelligent Design are of great philosophical significance. He is an atheist and does not accept the view that a designing mind directed the evolutionary process. But he opposes what he deems a contemporary prejudice in favor of reductionist naturalism. He doubts that Darwinism can adequately explain the existence of objective value and looks instead to an immanent teleology in the world.

Although he does not accept Intelligent Design, Nagel refuses to dismiss the movement as merely religious. Critics claim that design cannot be a legitimate scientific hypothesis; but at the same time, they maintain that the theory can be shown to be false. Nagel pertinently asks, how can both of these assertions be true together? Further, Nagel sees no constitutional obstacle to teaching Intelligent Design.

Nagel's opinions on this issue have led to a remarkable episode. Brian Leiter runs a blog, Leiter Reports, which is read by philosophers, owing to detailed accounts of promotions, jobs, and other news about philosophy departments. Leiter's comparative rankings of philosophy departments also attract much attention. Leiter obtrudes his own political and social views on his audience; were he to present these in a separate venue, it is a safe bet that his audience would vastly diminish. Among Leiter's many aversions, the Intelligent Design movement ranks among the foremost: he often attacks what he calls the "Texas Taliban."

When Nagel's article on Intelligent Design appeared, Leiter could not contain his rage (see here and here). We were presented with the unedifying spectacle of Leiter's speaking in abusive and condescending terms about one of the foremost philosophers of the past half-century. Nagel's The Possibility of Altruism, The View From Nowhere, and the essays collected in Mortal Questions are classics of contemporary philosophy.

Matters worsened when Nagel recommended in The Times Literary Supplement Stephen Meyer's Signature in the Cell as one of his "Best Books of the Year." Meyer is a leading proponent of Intelligent Design, and his book argues that naturalistic accounts of the origin of life on earth confront severe difficulties. Only a designing intelligence, Meyer contends, can account for the intricately specified information contained in DNA. Nagel did not endorse Meyer's conclusion but praised the book for its account of the "fiendishly difficult" problem of life's origin.

This recommendation aroused Leiter to new heights of contumely. It seems quite likely that Leiter never bothered to look at Meyer's book. He quoted from an English professor of chemistry protesting Nagel's claim that natural selection cannot account for DNA because it presupposes its existence. The chemistry professor, echoed by Leiter, said that natural selection exists in the preorganic world: was not Nagel ignorant to deny this? Both Leiter and the chemist ignored the fact, much emphasized by Meyer, that such resorts to natural selection are controversial. To appeal to the fact of their existence against Nagel is to assume what is much in dispute. Leiter extended his attack to accuse Nagel of ignorance of the relevant fields of study. Nagel has never claimed authority in biology; but had Leiter bothered to read Nagel's well-known essay, "Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness," he would discover that Nagel has more than a passing acquaintance with neurobiology.

I have gone on at some length about this, because the attempt by Leiter and others to block inquiry that challenges naturalism seems to me altogether deplorable. To some people, evidently, the first line of the False Priestess in In Memoriam is Holy Writ, not to be questioned: "The stars, she whispers, blindly run." But even if these avid naturalists are correct in their metaphysics, debate needs to be encouraged rather than suppressed. Perhaps Leiter should reread On Liberty. Pending that happy event, one can only say of his abuse that the barking of Bill Sikes's dog just tells us that Bill Sikes is in the neighborhood.

The book contains much else of great value, e.g., Nagel's appreciative essays on Bernard Williams, a major thinker with a much more skeptical view of moral objectivity than his own; and a penetrating discussion of Sartre on other minds.

In his range and speculative daring, Nagel reminds me of his friend Robert Nozick. Nozick's Philosophical Explanations and Nagel's The View from Nowhere are contemporary philosophy at its best. Those who have not previously read Nagel will find Secular Philosophy and the Religious Temperament an ideal introduction to his thought.

  • 1. I have discussed this essay on an earlier occasion but I now think that I understand it better. See The Mises Review (Spring 2005).
  • 2. The parallel with T.M. Scanlon's conditions it would not be reasonable to reject is apparent. See Scanlon, What We Owe to Each Other.
  • 3. See my review of The Law of Peoples in The Mises Review (Winter 2000).
  • 4. In response to criticism by Joshua Cohen and Charles Sabel, Nagel allows that there may be a "continuous function" theory of international institutions that does lead to obligations of justice, on a sliding scale.
  • 5. See Carl Schmitt, The Nomos of the Earth and my review in The Mises Review (Spring 2003).

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