Mind the gap

G.A. Cohen

  • Equality and Partiality by Thomas Nagel
    Oxford, 186 pp, £13.95, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 506967 6

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 pretty close to base camp.

A book by Thomas Nagel proves Morgenbesser’s point. There is no better philosophical primer than Nagel’s What does it all mean? A Very Short Introduction to Philosophy (1987). It works with its intended, adolescent audience, but (this is what supports Morgenbesser) it is also an education for old hands.

If Nagel’s Introduction takes the beginner to the frontier, his less pedagogical writings bring the subject back to basics: his whole oeuvre shows, par excellence, that what Morgenbesser says is true. To explain the nature of Nagel’s achievement, I have to say something controversial (but not eccentric) about the foundational role of intuition in philosophy.

Philosophers ask general questions such as What is knowledge? What is justice? Are we free? And they construct their answers to those questions under the constraint of intuitive belief – belief, that is, for which no (or only a very short) argument is given, because the opposite of the belief is considered to be something which, like a contradiction, cannot coherently be thought, or because the belief just seems right, even though its negation could readily be entertained. Intuitions bearing on the questions paraded above are, or might be, that I can know only what is true; that it is unfair for one person to have less than another through sheer bad luck; that, if I could not have done otherwise, then I did what I did unfreely. Intuitions can be mistaken. You can even wrongly think that something is not coherently thinkable, because, for example, you haven’t exercised enough imagination. But, fallible though they are, and although they vary in strength, and sometimes contradict one another, intuitions shape the search for answers in philosophy. And while harmony between intuition and the desired answer is a matter of complex negotiation, in which some intuitions may have to be disregarded, it remains true that a satisfying conclusion is at peace with intuition, or, anyway, with the stronger or less deniable part of it.

Nagel has been at the centre of Anglophone philosophical endeavour for twenty-five years because he goes to, and operates with mastery at, the intuitive heart of every issue he addresses. He does not fit his arguments up with elaborate qualifications that are there to block all the objections professionals could push. Nor does he devise fancy counter-examples that shimmy through the holes in the arguments of others. He stays close to intuition, and, being both exceedingly sensitive to what it says and remarkably creative about what to do about what it says, he has had a transforming influence on many parts of philosophy.

One example of the efficacy of Nagel’s operations with intuition is his essay ‘What is it like to be a bat?’, which was part of a campaign against ‘reductionist euphoria’ in the philosophy of mind. There is something it is like to be a bat. Since sonar perception looms large in bat consciousness, we do not know what that something is, and we know, intuitively, that perfect knowledge of bat neurophysiology would not relieve our ignorance. An essential truth about the mental, that there is something it is like to have a mind, escapes the notice of reductive materialism.

Another example of Nagel’s intuitive penetration is his suggestion about our confidence that we enjoy freedom of choice: namely, that what threatens it is not, as we usually suppose, causal determinism, but something more general, which Nagel calls ‘the objective point of view’. From that point of view, what happens in the world is, precisely, a sequence of happenings, one event after another, and the agent’s awareness of a domain of choice that lies before her goes unrepresented, whether or not the train of events is deterministically conceived. ‘The real problem of free will stems from a clash between the view of action from inside and any view of it from outside. Any external view of an act seems to omit the doing of it.’

The examples indicate that Nagel is not just rare at identifying intuitive paths and shortfalls, but that he also proposes a theory of intuition, one that explains why we are burdened with the conflicting intuitions that keep philosophy going. We cannot forsake the objective point of view, yet we cannot pretend that there is not something it is like to be conscious, or that it is not up to us what we do next. We have philosophical problems because we find it hard to put together what the different points of view – subjective and objective – that we cannot choose not to occupy disclose to us.

In an earlier diagnosis of the intellectual conflicts that engage philosophy, whose great exponent was Gilbert Ryle, the Dilemmas (1954) have an illusory character: they come because we misconstrue ‘non-competing stories about the same subject-matter’ as ‘rival answers to the same questions’. We get into a jam about free will because we let the ordinary discourse of personal responsibility run up against the extraordinary discourse of psychological theory. They should be kept apart, and the philosopher’s job is to put up ‘ “No Trespassing” notices’. In Nagel’s less sanguine alternative conception the ‘stories’ told from the discordant standpoints really do strain against one another (whether or not they concern the same subject-matter). For Ryle, you just have to be clear about what you’re trying to do. There’s this vocabulary, and then there’s that one: use one at a time and you can’t go wrong. For Nagel, there is an irrepressible drive to unify what the different standpoints disclose, a drive that it may not always be possible to satisfy.

The subjective/objective polarity governs not only metaphysics but also ethics, and Nagel argues, in the book under review, that the task of political philosophy is to reconcile the opposed deliverances of two standpoints. In the personal point of view, everything gets its value from my distinctive interests, relationships and commitments. But I can also look at things impersonally, and then I realise that the interests and projects of others are just as important as mine are, that my life is no more important than anyone else’s is.

Since we occupy both the personal and the impersonal standpoints, ‘we are simultaneously partial to ourselves, impartial among everyone, and respectful of everyone else’s partiality.’ We see both that ‘1. everyone’s life is equally important,’ and that ‘2. everyone has his own life to live.’ 2. means that organising people’s lives entirely in order to suit the egalitarian dictate of 1. is in admissible. But 1. ‘implies some limit to the licence given by’ 2. to live a life unencumbered by social obligation.

A political system is legitimate if – and only if – it honours both truths. It is then unanimously acceptable, which is not to say that everyone would in fact accept it, but that no one could reasonably reject it: equivalently, a system enjoys legitimacy if and only if whoever rejects it does so unreasonably. And, corresponding to the two numbered truths, there are two grounds of reasonable rejection: ‘What makes it reasonable for someone to reject a system, and therefore makes it illegitimate, is either that it leaves him too badly-off by comparison with others (which corresponds to a failure with respect to impartiality), or that it demands too much of him by way of sacrifice of his interests or commitments by comparison with some feasible alternatives (which corresponds to failure with respect to reasonable partiality).’

And so, in a general way, we know what conditions a legitimate society must meet, but Nagel is confident that, in our current state of understanding, we do not know how to satisfy them together. We do not know how to do ‘justice to the equal importance of all persons, without making unacceptable demands on individuals’; and, what is worse, such justice may be inherently inconceivable, for ‘the two conditions pull in contrary directions,’ and an acceptable compromise between them might not be possible, even in theory.

The problem is not (in the first instance) that actual systems fail to realise an ideal but that ‘we do not possess an acceptable political ideal’ (my emphasis), and there might actually be none. And whether or not an ideal solution is possible in situations different from our own, no policy for modern society that sufficiently respects both standpoints can now be designed, and even the inadequate best that we could design would have no chance of being realised. Nagel’s gloomy ‘conclusion’ is ‘that a strongly egalitarian society [one that is egalitarian enough to satisfy condition 1.] populated by reasonably normal people is difficult to imagine and in any case psychologically and politically out of reach.’

Our present situation is such that ‘any standards of individual conduct which try to accommodate both [personal and impartial] reasons will be either too demanding in terms of the first or not demanding enough in terms of the second.’ In our unequal world the rich should sacrifice to help the poor. But how much should they give up? There is a level of sacrifice so modest that the rich could not reasonably refuse it, and a level so high that the poor could not reasonably demand it. If those levels were adjacent, then a coherent ideal could be stated; and, if they were not adjacent but near one another, then something resembling an ideal could be aimed at. In fact, however, there is between the two thresholds of reasonableness a substantial ‘gap, within which fall all those levels of sacrifice which the poor would have sufficient reason to impose if they could and which the rich have sufficient reason to resist if they can’. Note that, by ‘Sufficient reason’, Nagel means, not ‘self-interested reason’, but ‘good reason’, or ‘justification’: the rich plainly have a self-interested reason to resist what he thinks they could not reasonably (that is, with good reason) resist and the poor a self-interested reason to demand what he thinks they could not reasonably demand.

The diachronic implication of the impasse is that ‘the poor can refuse to accept a policy of gradual change and the rich can refuse to accept a policy of revolutionary change, and neither of them is being unreasonable in this. The difference for each of the parties between the alternatives is just too great.’ Three places where this gap occurs are mentioned: in Mexico, in India, and in the world as a whole. Obviously, many more nation-states might have been singled out.

I shall argue that, in this description of the current position, Nagel defers more than he should to the exigencies of the status quo. But notice that he is not offering a simple defence of it. For he is clear that the rich could not reasonably reject an amount of transfer which is much greater than their political spokespersons now envisage. And, even with that much transfer continually occurring, while the rich could reasonably refuse more, the poor, so Nagel also says, could reasonably fight for more: no one could blame them for swarming towards the Western shores, even though no one could blame the rich for putting them back in their boats once they got there.

Nagel’s distinction between the impersonal and personal standpoints is profound and unavoidable. He has given us a novel and intriguing apparatus, but many of the judgments he uses it to frame are highly contestable, and some strike me as just dogmatic. Much of the trouble lies in Nagel’s over-confident use of the idea of what no one could reasonably reject. For the notion of reasonableness is fuzzy, not, to be sure, through and through, but at the edges, and some way in. When we try to say what it would be unreasonable not to accept, the question can appear nebulous, and there is a temptation to get a handle on it by grasping and sticking to customary judgment (‘custom’ being the name Nagel himself suggests for one of the forces that spoil the innocence of intuition). For my part, I find Nagel’s intuitive renderings of unreasonable too easy to associate with a particular historical and social emplacement to grant them authority as markers for philosophy.

It is undoubtedly true ‘that the freedom to arrange one’s own personal and family life ... has an importance for almost every individual that can hardly be exaggerated.’ Yet, while Nagel acknowledges that such freedom must be restricted in deference to the legitimate demands of others, he is also certain with respect to some controversial uses of it that it would be wrong to criticise them, and his confidence puzzles me.

Consider, for example, the ‘modern liberals’ who buy exclusive education for their children while claiming to support state promotion of equality of opportunity. Nagel insists, plausibly enough, that a liberal is not a hypocrite merely because she favours her own child in her private choices: but where does he get his certainty about how far such favour can go before a charge of hypocrisy begins to stick? Think of the liberals who buy superior education not to protect their children from a blackboard jungle but to give them what Nagel calls a ‘competitive edge’. How can he be so sure that ‘scorn’ for their particular double act is ‘quite unwarranted, for it is simply another example of the partition of motives which pervades morality’? Criticising their private choice just because it is self- or family-serving is indeed misguided, but what about criticising it because it is insufficiently sensitive to the requirement of ‘ensuring everyone a fair start in life’? Does Nagel think that well-to-do progressive people who insist on sending their children to state schools because they don’t believe in giving them a ‘competitive edge’ display a ‘pathological inhibition of natural family sentiment’?[*]

Pathology is out of bounds since, as we saw, the problem is how to legislate for ‘reasonably normal people’, a set that includes ‘almost every individual’. But it is not fussy, in the present context, to ask what kind of qualification the words ‘reasonably normal’ impose here. If the truth of the sentence (‘a strongly egalitarian society populated by reasonably normal people is difficult to imagine’) in which the phrase occurs depends on its presence, then, with suitably abnormal people, an egalitarian society would be possible. So who is abnormal? Mother Theresa? Dedicated Oxfam activists? Do such people lack the personal point of view? Do they not feel their own hunger with special urgency, dote on their own hopes, care especially about their own parents and children? Of course they do, and, far from being universally considered to be freaks, they are widely regarded as models that put the rest of us to shame. A suspicion arises that the metaphysical distinction between subjective and objective standpoints lacks the fertility for moral philosophy that Nagel expects to find in it. Even Mother Theresa is not metaphysically abnormal, and when Nagel exercises his intuition on the question of how much right we have to pursue our own interests in a miserable world he may be using an instrument unfitted to the issue at hand. He would think it a parochial mistake to regard bat sonar as a not quite genuine form of sensory consciousness. Maybe it is a partly similar mistake to rule exceptional forms of motivational consciousness out of court in a philosophical discussion of ideal societies.

Whether or not such scepticism about Nagel’s approach to political philosophy is finally right, I shall now argue that various of his statements about reasonable rejection generate an inconsistency at a politically sensitive point.

Nagel is aware that his endorsement of rich people’s opposition to radical redistribution ‘may seem to authorise pure selfishness’, but, he says, ‘that is too harsh a word for resistance to a radical drop in the standard of living of oneself and one’s family.’ That word might be too harsh, but Nagel’s verdict that the rich need accept only a moderate (that is, non-radical) drop in their wealth is too soft. Officially, and, in my view, rightly, he depreciates the moral weight of the status quo, but the status quo seems, in the end, to preponderate in his judgment.

The restriction Nagel lays down on the role of the status quo in political morality is related to his affirmation of a principle of negative responsibility at the societal level: ‘we are responsible, through the institutions which require our support, for the things they could have prevented as well as for the things they actively cause.’ Accordingly, the status quo is just one system among others, the one that happens to have been chosen up to now, and, in the problem of social choice, ‘all systems of allocation’ are ‘prima facie equally eligible’. It is a crucial consequence of this doctrine that, when we ask how much sacrifice people could reasonably reject, we measure ‘by comparison with possible alternatives rather than by comparison with the status quo’. There is no ‘moral bias in favour of the status quo, except in so far as losing what one has is somewhat more reasonable to reject than not getting what one doesn’t have. I don’t believe that that should be a large element in the calculation’ (my emphasis).

In fact, however, the status quo plays a major role in Nagel’s assessment of what the rich could reasonably reject. The reasonable demands of the poor mean a ‘radical drop’ in the wealth of the rich, and it is only because they are asked to give up what they have, and not merely what they would have in an allocation that enjoys no particular salience within the set of possible allocations, that the sacrifice facing the rich can seem so tough, and that it can therefore seem reasonable for them to resist it. To see this, suppose that the status quo happened to be an equality in which everyone had 10, and in a possible alternative most would have 5 (which is just about a decent minimum) and some would have 20 (a ratio of wealth to poverty dwarfed by what prevails in the real world). Would we not regard rejection of the equal status quo by those who, like everybody else, have 10, but who would get the 20 while the others go down to 5, as far less reasonable than rejection, by those who have long since actually had 20, of a shift from a 20/5 status quo to a condition where everyone has 10? I am certain that we would, and that, notwithstanding his declaration to the contrary, Nagel’s estimate of the size of the gap between the reasonable claims depends, inappropriately, on how hard it is to give up what one has.

If ‘the main thing is the identification of the feasible alternatives, and the size of the difference a choice among them would make for each of the parties,’ if we cover up the caption saying ‘status quo’ when we train our reasonableness intuitions on the set of alternatives, we will not, when we return to reality, excuse as much resistance of transfer to the poor as Nagel does. For it is much harder to give up what one has than to forgo what one could get, and it is only if our judgment of what constitutes a just distribution wrongly tracks that fact, so that we then regard it as more than ‘somewhat more reasonable’ to cling to what one has, that we can agree with Nagel about the rich. But that is an inappropriate basis for agreement, since it allows the status quo to have more influence on our judgment than Nagel (rightly) says it should when he is speaking at the level of principle.

If the status quo lacks moral significance, then we cannot say what Nagel does about the rich who would refuse drastic change, but it does not follow that we must condemn them in Savonarolic terms. We cannot say that, since their resistance to a large drop in their wealth is justifiable, radical redistribution is legitimate, but we can say that, even if it is legitimate, they are not monstrous to be unwilling to give up the riches around which they have built their lives.

I believe that Nagel has misinterpreted a forgivable resistance to a just claim as a reasonable rejection that defeats a would-be claim of justice. In some life-situations that call for self-sacrifice, either you are a moral hero or you are unjust: being averagely just is not an option. That might be the situation of the rich.

Speaking of India, Mexico, and the world as a whole, Nagel says that ‘inequality can be so extreme that it makes a legitimate solution unattainable, except possibly over a long period by gradual stages each of which lacks legitimacy, or (improbably) over a shorter period by a cataclysmic revolution which also lacks legitimacy.’ Here inequality has to be the inequality of the status quo, and it is remarkable that Nagel gives Mexico and India as instances, since their inequalities are, by his standards, spectacularly unjust, and there is little reason to think that those who are on top in India and Mexico would occupy even the same ordinal position in the smaller inequalities that would be produced within the framework of legitimate (by Nagel’s lights) institutions. Accordingly, it is impossible to see how Nagel’s endorsement of the resistance to revolution of the Mexican or Indian rich draws on anything beyond the thought that it is painful to lose what one has. (This is not to deny that there might be reasons other than ones of justice to oppose revolution, of the sort that are hinted at in Nagel’s parenthetical ‘improbably’ – which suggests that revolutions fail to achieve their aims – but those are reasons for anyone to be against it: they have nothing to do with the apparatus of reasonable rejection.)

It must be because he thinks that inequality is by pertinent measures larger in the poorer countries that Nagel refers to Mexico and India, and not the United States or Great Britain. The other outsize inequality that he mentions is the wealth difference between rich and poor nation-states. This inequality is, in Nagel’s technical sense, a ‘gaping’ one, for he says that ‘at least on the plausible assumption’ that Western wealth is causally unconnected with Southern poverty, ‘the degree of sacrifice by the rich that it would be reasonable for die poor countries to insist on in some hypothetical collective arrangement is one that it would not be unreasonable for the rich to refuse.’ Now, Nagel-style negative responsibility operates through ‘common social institutions’, and it would therefore appear to lack world-wide application, since, arguably, global inequality did not develop under common global institutions, and it certainly did not do so if Nagel’s ‘plausible assumption’ is correct. This should mean that a stance of refusal by the rich countries becomes reasonable at relatively low levels of sacrifice, if, indeed, there is any sacrifice at all called for by Nagelian justice at the global level. Nagel makes it plain that he favours a lot of immediate ameliorative sacrifice, but I do not know how it would be justified on his principles and factual assumptions.

I have focused on the issue of distributive justice, which is the central topic in Nagel’s book, and the one that exercised me politically. This has left no space to report on Nagel’s refined discussions of inequality in cultural goods, the foundations of rights and the grounds of toleration, all of which are characteristically original and compelling.

That is my review of the text of Equality and Partiality. But I would also like to review part of its blurb, the bit that says: ‘Egalitarian communism has clearly failed.’ It is no accident that both the subject and the predicate of that sentence are ambiguous. Exactly what has failed, and what does it mean to say that it has failed?

If ‘egalitarian communism’ is just a name for the Soviet experiment, then it has failed, in every sense. But one may not infer, as the ambiguities invite us to do, that the social form, egalitarian communism as such, cannot succeed.

The other ambiguity is in the meaning of failure. And in this connection I want to protest against the mix of political malevolence and intellectual fatuity within the horde of clercs who show triumphant confidence that no one with any sense can still be called a socialist.

Before Mikhail Gorbachev took office in 1985, there was already broad agreement among socialists and anti-socialists who read and wrote for papers like this one that the Soviet Union had utterly failed to achieve a classless, or even a decent, society. And there was a serious and honourable disagreement about the reasons for that failure, with the Right referring it to the very nature of the social form that the Bolsheviks had set out to realise and the Left assigning failure to some combination of adverse circumstance and human error. Nothing that has happened since 1985 settles that important question. What has happened is that Soviet civilisation has failed in a further sense, beyond failing to achieve its objectives, in the further sense, that is, that it has collapsed, disappeared from the scene. Yet the Right, and not only the Right, inters that the debate about why it had failed in the first sense (that is, to achieve a classless society) should now be concluded, in favour of the old right-wing answer. It is understandable that people should want to make that inference, since it would be a relief not to have to think about the matter any more, but the inference remains unjustified. ‘Egalitarian communism has clearly failed’ is a cheating short cut around a crucial question of our age. The premise that the would-be egalitarian society has collapsed is true, but uncontroversial. The interest of the sentence lies in its cheap insinuation that we now know that an egalitarian society is unachievable. This new conclusion is cheap because it is bought at no extra cost of evidence or argument.

Nagel’s own reflection on the matter of the Soviet collapse is decently nuanced (see page 28). If you favour vigorous crudity in political thought, read something else.

[*] Persons to Nagel’s right will wonder about other certainties he displays: that a social democratic solution which ensures a high basic minimum but also allows large inequalities is an inadequate ‘response to the impartial attitude which is the first manifestation of the impersonal standpoint’, and that swingeing inheritance and gift taxes do not violate its second ‘manifestation’, which respects the individual’s desire to benefit his family.