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.

Elizabeth Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Mary Midgley and Iris Murdoch all matriculated at Oxford in the late 1930s. When most of the men went off to war, they found themselves, as women philosophy students, in a very unusual situation – not in the minority and on the on the periphery, but central and predominant. Distinctive and talented though each of them was, it seems no accident that such a stellar group emerged from this atypical moment.

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...

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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