Thomas Nagel on objective values

Thomas Nagel has spent much of his career worrying at the problem of whether there are objective values, and a fair bit of that trying to defend an objectivism about values. I’ve been mostly unimpressed – it is difficult to get any such defence off the ground without begging the question against opponents.

Admittedly, there seems to be a widespread tendency for human beings to believe that objective values exist, so perhaps those of us who are sceptical ought to be able to say a bit about why this might be if objective values do not, in fact, exist. All the same, the idea of objective values seems odd when you look at it closely… or so it appears to me.

Meanwhile, I’ve been re-reading Nagel’s Equality and Partiality, mainly to try to get a better understanding this time round of Nagel’s complex views on distributive justice (which will play no further role in this post!). As I have before, I came across a passage in the Chapter 2 (the first substantive chapter after the introduction) where Nagel makes what seems to me a very weak attempt to defend the existence of objective values. The argument seems to go as follows:

P1. You cannot maintain an impersonal indifference to the things that deeply matter to you.
P2. You are much like others human beings in relevant ways.
P3./C1. You must come to regard the most important things (to you) as being objectively valuable. (From P1.? Or is this meant to be a separate point, with P1. as a kind of spare wheel in the argument?)
C2. Some things are objectively valuable (or are known to be objectively valuable) because you value them. (From P3./C1.)
C. Some things are objectively valuable (or are known to be objectively valuable) because other human beings value them. (From P2. and C2. by analogy.)

So the argument is supposed to show that there are some things that are objectively valuable, even though I don’t actually value them (at least in the first instance), namely certain things that other people value deeply. And so, I should treat those things as if I valued them. Presumably, this might include the lives and welfare of other people. Thus, even if I feel no sympathetic identification or concern for those people I should regard their lives and welfare as objectively valuable, and respond accordingly. This might then lead into something like a utilitarian moral system, though based on a sort of Kantian argument.

Surely, though, the above argument is a hopeless mess. P1. and P2. may well be true, but so what? P3./C1. does not follow from P1., if that is how the argument is supposed to work. Nor does P3./C1. seem like something I must accept without any deeper support for it. The fact is that we all value various things, and we may, in unreflective moments, simply see them as valuable. But it by no means follows that we must assent to the proposition that they possess objective value in any strong sense (e.g. that another rational being which fails to agree that they are valuable is making a mistake about the world).

I can go on intensely valuing all sorts of things (such as my own continued life and health, the safety and welfare of my loved ones, or whatever) without at all believing they are objectively valuable. So if P3./C1. denies this, it is simply false. Even if it were true, C2. would not follow. I.e., even if, as a matter of human psychology, I am forced to regard certain things as being objectively valuable, it does not follow that they really are objectively valuable.

So even if we accept the analogical step at C. (which I am prepared to do), the argument fails.

This argument, as I’ve presented it, is so bad that it is difficult to believe that it is what Nagel is trying to say. However, as far as I can work out he makes very similar errors in, for example, The Last Word. Furthermore, I’ve seen other Kantian rationalists present similar arguments to this, always, as far as I can work out, disastrously. I’m not sure what conclusions to draw from this. I’m tempted to say that many philosophers feel under so much psychological pressure to demonstrate the existence of objective values that they can fool themselves that even very weak arguments are actually strong. But who knows? Perhaps they’re saying something, or trying to say something, that I just don’t “get”.

Anyway, I won’t be buying a theory of objective values on the basis of anything remotely like Nagel’s approach.

Leave a comment ?


  1. The Limits of Objectivity p110

    Suppose he and some other people have been admitted to a hospital with severe burns after being rescued from a fire. “I understand how my pain provides me with a reason to take an analgesic,” he says, “and I understand how my groaning neighbor’s pain gives him a reason to take an analgesic; but how does his
    pain give me any reason to want him to be given an analgesic? How can his pain give me or anyone else looking at it from outside a reason?”

    This question is crazy. As an expression of puzzlement, it has that characteristic philosophical craziness which indicates that something very fundamental has gone wrong. This shows up in the fact that the answer to the question is obvious, so obvious that to ask the question is obviously a philosophical act. The answer is that pain is awful. The pain of the man groaning in the next bed is just as awful as yours. That’s your reason to want him to have an analgesic.

  2. Sure, as long as you care about such things you have a perfectly good reason to act. If you are an even remotely normal human being, yes the question is crazy.

    But if someone or something (say, a malevolent but intelligent alien) just doesn’t care, I don’t see how Nagel or anybody else can kind of beat it into them with logic. I think Naqel’s quest to do so is futile.

    That said, I suppose I can understand the urge to try to do this – to try to make things like the value of someone else not being in pain somehow objectively binding on you, even if you’re, say, a psychopath or a malevolent but intelligent alien. People like Nagel want values, including moral ones, to have some kind of justification that transcends, or is deeper than, and more secure than, our sympathies, etc.

    But an awful lot of philosophical time and energy has been spent trying to accomplish this with no results that strike me as even vaguely convincing.

    Your mileage may vary.

  3. Hi Russell,

    As I find philosophical arguments depend so much on the particular words used, I had a look to see if I could find the argument online in Nagel’s own words. I found the relevant paragraph in Google Books, and the crucial sentence seems to be this one:

    “You cannot sustain an impersonal indifference to the things in your life which matter to you personally: some of the most important have to be regarded as mattering, period, so that others besides yourself have reason to take them into account.”

    I note that what you call “objective values” Nagel calls “things that matter, period” or “things that matter impersonally” (as opposed to only mattering personally to people). I interpret the crux of his argument as follows:

    P1. Other people have reason to take into account some things that matter to you (namely, some of the most important to you).
    P2. Other people can only have reason to take into account things that matter to you if those things matter impersonally.
    C. Some things matter impersonally.

    The word “reason” here is potentially ambiguous. It’s trivially true that some people care about my welfare, and so there are causal reasons why those people will take into account what matters to me. But this can be true without any need for those things to matter impersonally. All that’s needed is for my welfare to matter to other people. So on this interpretation P1 is clearly true, but P2 is clearly untrue.

    It seems more likely that Nagel has in mind some sort of normative (perhaps moral) reason which requires those people to take into account what matters to me. Anyone who denies the existence of objective values (or things that matter impersonally) is very likely also to deny the existence of such normative reasons, and therefore deny P1 (as I do). And if there do exist any people who deny one and not the other, they are almost bound to deny P2. So this argument seems tantamount to begging the question. That’s not surprising, really. We cannot expect to settle difficult philosophical questions with such trivial arguments.

    Perhaps the argument seems plausible to Nagel because he is conflating the two meanings of “reason”.

    To be fair to Nagel, he says that he has argued this point before. Presumably he did so at greater length. So it may be unfair to judge his argument on the basis of this briefest of summaries. (Disclaimer: I didn’t read the whole chapter. Perhaps Nagel casts more light on the argument later in the chapter.)

  4. Doesn’t it all come down to empathy in the end ? We, and other primates to varying extents, have empathy because it has helped us proliferate our genes. See

    The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society by Frans De Waal

  5. Another potential reason Nagel may want to establish objective values is to be able to speak of values at all. All the time I see people who deny the existence of objective values (in arguments of objective vs. subjective values) told something along the lines of: ‘Well, since in your view there are no objective values, your assertion that [this or that particular value, such as ‘it’s wrong to kill babies for pleasure’] has no foundation and is therefore meaningless.’

  6. Thanks Richard, the author’s own words can be very useful.

    “You cannot sustain an impersonal indifference to the things in your life which matter to you personally”

    “some of the most important have to be regarded as mattering, period, so that others besides yourself have reason to take them into account”
    Completely false wishful thinking.

    What matters to you, or the rest of humanity (or pachydermy) may well be subjectively valuable and important to you, but the rest of the universe is free* to be ambivalent about it.

    Your burn patient may elicit a sympathetic reaction in your mirror neurones, but I, or some alien, may well look on with curiosity and zero sympathy seeing it as a valuable learning experience. There is no objective value to the situation and no moral compulsion (for pretty much the same reason).

    It does seem the same poor reasoning and wishful thinking go into objective values, objective morality, free will and life after death. Not always by the same people, but the same mistakes are made repeatedly.

    *Best not to look too closely into this word.

  7. Geraldine O'Connor

    The Human Rights Act is objectively valuable and is Utilitarian. I have been sharing human rights advice with other disabled people who are appeal their Atos/DWP Work Capability Assessments (WCA). Human rights law is objective insofar as all legislation produced by all Ministers in all Government departments have to comply with it and are subject to it. A lawyer wouldn’t need to have personal “sympathetic identification” with a client in order to bring a case of breach of Article 3 of the HRA. The lawyer would only need to present proof that a breach of Article 3 has occurred and then leave it to a judge to set damages. According to Michael Meacher MP, 10,000 disabled people have died since the introduction of the WCAs including his constituent Colin Traynor who died as a result of a massive epileptic seizure. Many others have committed suicide. The Nazis exterminated thousands of disabled people. Now, legislation introduced by the British Government is having the same result.

  8. Hi Russell

    I think you are being slightly uncharitable to Nagel. To return to the hospital scenario we can see that the pain from our sever burns gives us a reason to want that pain to stop, and we can understand that others are similar to us in wanting their pain to stop.

    Here we should pause and note that there are objective values in the world in the sense that regardless of whether I care about another person’s severe burns and pain, this is a state of disvalue for them like it is for me.

    So there are values or better disvalues in the world that are independent of my valuing or disvaluing them. The same sorts of states being in pain are a disvalue for me as they are for others.

    The next move (if this indeed is a problem) is connecting the objective values or disvalues into a theory of morality where other people’s pain becomes a reason for our alleviating it.

    The term “reason” here is ambiguous between motivating and justifying. Whilst anothers pain need not motivate me to help them, it seems difficult to get around saying that it does not justify helping them.

    If my pain warrants me getting treatment why doesn’t it also warrant others in a similar state getting attention?

    Your response is:

    “But if someone or something (say, a malevolent but intelligent alien) just doesn’t care, I don’t see how Nagel or anybody else can kind of beat it into them with logic. I think Naqel’s quest to do so is futile.”

    Well if someone does not care about morality – acting for moral reasons, then logic cannot convince them otherwise, but this does not mean they are justified in not caring.

  9. Geraldine O'Connor

    If I decide to take the British Government to court for breach of Article 3 of the UK Human Rights Act (No Torture), the best logic in the world won’t persuade a court to compensate me the sum of say £30,000 (if it can be proved they have broken the law). Ethics and history, on the other hand, can persuade a court in such a case.

  10. I always get confused—is it Thomas NAY-gel or NAH-gel? There was another guy whose name was pronounced the other way round, and I cannot seem to remember which was which.

  11. Objectivity. If a client came to me with a problem and I could see that I would not be objective because of my values, I would

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