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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Poor Thomas Nagel

Well, I can't feel too sorry for Nagel, since he is one of the most successful and celebrated philosophers in the world today. But I'm currently re-reading his lovely book Equality and Partiality, and wondering why it is has never gained the same sort of fame as, say, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice. Admittedly, it is much shorter and less comprehensive, but for my money it is superior in lucidity and insight.

I say this even though I disagree with Nagel's starting point - the foundation for the whole argument - that we are required by reason to value the interests of all people equally. The argument for this is only sketched, but Nagel has developed related arguments elsewhere. He is prone to argue along Kantian lines, and I believe that all such arguments must fail. Thus, he bases a pressure towards egalitarianism in attempts at Kantian reasoning, without relying on such (more Humean) bases as natural human sympathy for the repressed or the destitute. For reasons that I won't go into here, this is a hopeless quest.

That said, Nagel then spends the book worrying at the obvious facts that we are beings with personal interests and that political systems somehow have to take this into account along with any moral pressures toward a comprehensive egalitarianism. He struggles with this in such detail, and with such sensitivity, that I find myself enlightened by almost every paragraph. I can't stop annotating the pages.

His ultimate political recommendation is to move towards a much stronger form of social democracy - this is something that I actually agree with, but on other grounds. In a sense, he could have saved himself all the heartburn and doubt if he began without a system that wants to find objective values in the universe, but the result isn't something to be regretted at all, since he ends up producing a brilliant, in-depth explanation of why creatures like us cannot adopt an entirely impartial, egalitarian stance that goes beyond the institutions of social democracy.

For Nagel this is not a welcome conclusion, but to me it is both sensible and reassuring: there is something that we are capable of achieving without feeling some sort of guilt at our inability to move further to a much more utopian system. Although the book has a flaw in its assumptions throughout, it's like the bit of grit in an oyster that leads to the production of a pearl. Nagel's Equality and Partiality is a small masterpiece of political philosophy that deserves more attention.

1 comment:

Blake Stacey said...

My reading list grows one book longer!

In unrelated matters, I cited your NOMA essay in replying to "Three Things About Carl Sagan", Respectful Insolence's entry in the Sagan Memorial Blog-a-Thon. My own contribution to the festivity lives here.

Not having a blog of my own, I continue to clutter other people's sites with my thoughts. Perhaps this keeps me civil; at any rate, I'd like to think so.