Thomas Nagel

Thomas Nagel is an emeritus professor at New York University and the author of The View from Nowhere, Equality and Partiality and Mind and Cosmos, among other books.

To evaluate states of affairs we use the concepts of good and bad, better and worse. To evaluate actions we use in addition the concepts of right and wrong. The classical problem is whether there is an independent aspect of morality governing the rightness and wrongness of acts and policies – either of individuals or of institutions – or whether the only truly fundamental values are good and bad, so that standards of right and wrong must be explained instrumentally, by identifying the types of actions and policies that lead to good and bad outcomes. The latter possibility was given the name ‘consequentialism’ by Elizabeth Anscombe, and its best-known version is utilitarianism. The opposite view, that the right is at least in some respects independent of the good, doesn’t have a name, but the principles that it identifies are usually called ‘deontological’ – an ugly word, but we seem to be stuck with it. Deontological principles say that whether an act is morally permitted, prohibited or required often depends not on the goodness or badness of its overall consequences but on intrinsic features of the act itself.

By Any Means or None: Does Terrorism Work?

Thomas Nagel, 8 September 2016

The persistence of terrorism appears to be impervious to its overwhelming record of failure to ‘work’, in the normal sense. Terrorists, it seems, are at least as attached to their means as to their professed ends, and to those for whom killing is an end in itself, there is not much to say by way of rational counterargument.

Pacifists are rare. Most people believe that lethal violence may be used in self-defence, or the defence of others, against potentially lethal threats. Military action is justified by a collective institutional version of this basic human right, which sets an outer limit on the right to life. Lethal aggressors who cannot be stopped by lesser means are liable to lethal attack, and this does not violate their right to life so long as they remain a threat. Killing in self-defence is distinct from execution, the killing of someone who is no longer a threat as a punishment for past conduct.

This interesting, careful and occasionally outrageous book explores the complex interaction and competition between the attitudes of affirmation and regret that are almost inevitable as we look back on our lives and celebrate or deplore the conditions and choices that have made us what we are – that underlie our successes and failures, and our personal attachments. R. Jay...

In whose interest? Euthanasia

Thomas Nagel, 6 October 2011

It would be best not to have to die at all, but failing that, many of us would like to have some control over the time and manner of our deaths, should we find ourselves in a condition so hopeless that there is no point in going on. At this date, in most of the world, including Britain and most of North America, the legally permissible forms of such control do not include voluntary euthanasia...

Those who offer scientific explanations of the pervasiveness of religion in human life are usually not religious themselves, and their explanations are not intended to be compatible with the self-understanding of those who are. Even if scientific explanations predict the persistence of religion, they tend to undermine any claim to the truth of religious beliefs. They are essentially...

The I in Me: I and Me

Thomas Nagel, 5 November 2009

What are you, really? To the rest of the world you appear as a particular human being, a publicly observable organism with a complex biological and social history and a name. But to yourself, more intimately, you appear as ‘I’, the mental subject of your experiences, thoughts, feelings, memories and emotions. This inner self is only indirectly observable by others, though they...

Bernard Williams had a very large mind. To read these three posthumously published collections of essays (there will be a fourth, on opera) is an overwhelming reminder of his incandescent and all-consuming intelligence. He brought philosophical reflection to an opulent array of subjects, with more imagination and with greater cultural and historical understanding than anyone else of his time.

The Central Questions: H.L.A. Hart

Thomas Nagel, 3 February 2005

When I finished this book I was left wondering why H.L.A. Hart hadn’t destroyed his diaries before he died. Perhaps modesty made him think that no one would want to write about him – he was not, in spite of his great distinction, world-famous like his friend Isaiah Berlin. But he certainly could have predicted that his widow Jenifer, whose indiscretion was well established, would...

What is it about lemons? Barry Stroud

Thomas Nagel, 20 September 2001

This strange and absorbing book sets out to undermine the central metaphysical ambition which has dominated philosophy since the 17th century – that of reaching what Bernard Williams calls an ‘absolute conception of reality’. The aim is to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the world, consistent with modern science, which distinguishes between what exists objectively,...

Information Cocoons: The internet

Thomas Nagel, 5 July 2001

One of the most remarkable effects of the Internet is that it permits unlimited specialisation of contacts and information. If you’re looking for an out-of-print book on an esoteric subject, you can find out instantly where there are copies of it in second-hand bookstores from Iceland to Australia, compare prices and conditions, and order it in a few seconds. You can read what people...

Rock Bottom: legislation

Thomas Nagel, 14 October 1999

This short, assertive and engaging book has a chip on its shoulder, hence the title. In the academic culture of legal theory that Waldron partly inhabits, legislatures come in for a lot of distrust or even contempt, by comparison with courts. Courts are widely thought to arrive at their results by reasoning, whereas legislatures are thought to operate by the crude clash of partisan interests. In the United States there is substantial support for the role of courts in guarding individual rights from the depredations of legislative majorities that would otherwise trample them underfoot: this is the famous institution of judicial review, whereby laws passed by Congress or the state legislatures can be struck down as unconstitutional if they violate certain individual rights – to personal freedom as in the case of abortion, or to equal treatment in the case of racial segregation. Britain, too, may soon acquire some version of this system, in the form of a Bill of Rights.

Why so cross? natural selection

Thomas Nagel, 1 April 1999

Contempirary biologists who write for the general public usually have more to impart than scientific information. They have lessons to teach us about how to think of ourselves and our relation to the universe. This is not surprising, since biology is pervaded by Darwin’s theory of evolution, and the significance of that theory for our self-understanding remains largely unassimilated.

On occasion we are faced with acute moral choices – whether to join the Resistance or stay at home and care for our widowed mother; whether to run off with Vronsky or remain with Karenin. But largely, morality shapes our lives in ways we don’t even think about, in fact it does so partly by excluding certain options from our thoughts. Most of us, for instance, wouldn’t even consider (a) threatening to expose a colleague’s adulterous affair to his wife unless he votes our way on a contested appointment or policy issue; (b) extracting some cash from the pocketbook of an interior decorator as she inspects our house, because we think she is overcharging us; (c) stealing a kidney for a friend who needs a transplant; (d) selling all we have and giving it to the poor. It isn’t that we weigh the pros and cons and determine that the cons outweigh the pros. These things are not on the menu of options among which we feel we must choose. Such exclusions, as well as restrictions on what may legitimately be taken into account in some decisions but not others (prohibitions against nepotism, for instance), typify the complexity of moral standards and suggest that an accurate account of morality and its role in life will not be simple.’

Getting on with each other

Thomas Nagel, 22 September 1994

Liberalism of one kind or another is the dominant political tradition of Western culture; that is why it is under such constant attack. But while the conflicts between liberalism and various authoritarian, repressive, radical, romantic or theocratic alternatives produce a good deal of excitement on a world scale, a quieter and intellectually more demanding argument has gone on within the tradition concerning the best way to interpret liberalism, both theoretically and in application to concrete social and political problems. One of the most important issues in this debate is how liberalism justifies its distinctive toleration for multiple different and inconsistent forms of life and systems of value – its remarkable impartiality, in political terms, among diverse conceptions of the human good, and its commitment to allow individuals to seek their own salvation or self-realisation provided they do not interfere with the same freedom of others. Unlike those French secularists who forbid Muslim girls to wear head-scarves to school, true liberals are reluctant to interfere even with anti-liberal cultures in their midst. This is sometimes foolishly thought to depend on moral scepticism, but it doesn’t: the commitment to toleration, if it is not a mere compromise imposed by the balance of power, can be justified only by a strong moral conviction that it is right – otherwise why not suppress what we don’t like?’

On and off the page

Thomas Nagel, 25 July 1991

There are writers and artists who dislike themselves – who attempt through their work to unearth, refine and then extrude something better than they are, something detached, pure and free-standing. I was put in mind of this recently while reading Ray Monk’s painful biography of Wittgenstein, who succeeded in creating a body of philosophical work so much finer and nobler than himself that for someone who has developed a strong attachment to the work, the contrast is very disturbing. Another common element of this syndrome is an aversion to the present and a desire to create something whose timelessness will take one out of the impure and anxious clutter of temporal life, something through which one can exist by proxy outside of time.’

The Egocentric Predicament

Thomas Nagel, 18 May 1989

When I was an undergraduate at Cornell in the Fifties, it was the only American university where Wittgenstein’s later work was the object of intensive study. He had died in 1951 and Philosophical Investigations was published in 1953. I remember in those pre-xerox days sharing with some fellow students the typing of The Blue Book and The Brown Book in multiple carbons, from a set available in Ithaca – pre-Investigations texts dating from the mid-Thirties which circulated in samizdat until they were finally published in 1960 as part of the still continuing stream of volumes from the Nachlass.

Is that you, James?

Thomas Nagel, 1 October 1987

Your nervous system is as complex a physical object as there is in the universe, so far as we know: 12 billion cells, each of them a complex structure with up to sixty thousand synaptic points of connection with other cells. It is also the one piece of physical real estate of which you have an inside view, so to speak, since the events of your inner life, and the experiences through which you learn about the external world, are all immediate manifestations of what is going on in there. Since you can also study your central nervous system by external observation and experiment as you study other physical systems – by exposing its outer edges, such as the retina, to bombardment by suitably produced and therefore informative physical impulses – there arises a problem about how to bring these two views of yourself together.

Reading the law

Thomas Nagel, 18 September 1986

This important theoretical work appears in a definite political context. In the United States, theories of jurisprudence are politically controversial. The public is vividly aware that the way in which the law is interpreted, especially by Federal courts of appeal and the Supreme Court, has had and will continue to have large consequences for their lives and liberties. Controversy arises not just over specific issues like prayer in the schools, censorship, abortion, reverse discrimination, and the rights of accused criminals, but over the sorts of grounds on which cases involving these issues are to be decided. Much of the name-calling that breaks out anew with every major Court decision or right-wing nomination to the Federal bench has a distinctly philosophical character: liberals accuse conservatives of refusing to recognise individual rights; conservatives accuse liberals of inventing law rather than discovering it.

According to Professor Hare, most contemporary moral philosophers are benighted. They cannot get through their thick skulls the clear principles of moral reasoning which he has set out and developed in two previous book-length studies of ethical theory, The Language of Morals and Freedom and Reason, and which he spells out again and develops further in this one. Like a teacher of dim-witted children, he can’t always conceal his impatience at having to repeat himself, but the importance of the issues keeps him at it.


Right and Wrong

3 June 2021

Kieran Setiya denies my assertion that Elizabeth Anscombe defined the term ‘consequentialism’ as the view that ‘standards of right and wrong are to be explained in terms of good and bad consequences’ (Letters, 17 June). Instead, he says, ‘she applied the term to any view on which the foreseen consequences of an action must be weighed in determining right and wrong.’...

Central Questions

3 February 2005

Thomas Nagel writes: I agree with the writers of both these letters that the use of intimate material presents difficult issues, and that reasonable people can differ. My review expressed a personal view, that their use should be more restricted than is now customary, without the subject’s express or implied consent, until a substantial time after his death.I am moved by Joanna Ryan’s strongly...

Not Sufficiently Reassuring: Anti-Materialism

Peter Godfrey-Smith, 24 January 2013

The universe has woken up. If the scientific picture we currently have is right, this was an accident, roughly speaking, and also something that happened very locally. At various places some...

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Mind the gap

G.A. Cohen, 14 May 1992

Sidney Morgenbesser says that ‘All Philo is Philo l.’ He means, I think, that nothing is established in philosophy. At any time everything can be turned around, and the front line is...

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A Passion for the Beyond

Bernard Williams, 7 August 1986

‘It seems to me that nothing approaching the truth has yet been said on this subject,’ Thomas Nagel says in the middle of this complex, wide-ranging and very interesting book; and he...

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