Tag Archives: Thomas Nagel

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.