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Thomas Nagel (July 4, 1937)

Personal & Academic Life

Born in Serbia in 1937[1], Thomas Nagel is a well-known contemporary philosopher and scholar. Currently a Professor of both Philosophy and Law at New York University, Nagel has also taught at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley[2].

A graduate of Cornell, Oxford and Harvard Universities, Nagel studied under the supervision of another prominent modern philosopher, John Rawls, who has influenced much of his work.

The majority of Nagel’s work has focused on political and ethical philosophy, with special attention to the inner workings of the human mind.


Social Contract Theory of Morality


As first defined by Thomas Hobbes, traditional social contract theory of morality suggests that ethical standards are guided by a contract among rational, self-interested individuals which seeks to explain the political and legal obligations of the state, be it the monarchy or a legislative body, in the affairs of individuals.

Influenced heavily by theorists Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, Thomas Nagel is a strong advocate of the rationalist approach proposed by this theory.

In his most influential work, The Possibility of Altruism Nagel goes even further than his academic mentors though, examining the philosophical reasoning and motivations behind the moral decision-making process.

Categorized as a dual contract theorist[3], Nagel believes that ethics must always deal with the conflict between the personal standpoint of the individual and some level of impartial reasoning. He believes that when individuals view matters from this perspective, they are able to think critically and reasonably accommodate a solution which the majority can accept[4].

Nagel draws upon Rawls concept of the Original Position to further explain his belief that the impartial and personal viewpoint can converge. Nagel contends that by entering the Original Position, Rawls is encouraging a common standpoint, which in turn will lead to mutual agreement. However, he contends that given the role of Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance, the lens through which individuals determine these common principles are shaped by their own personal definitions of what is morally acceptable[5].

Nagel’s own definition of the ethical principles of morality and justice are closely linked, with a strong belief that individuals are equally motivated by both an impartial sense of fairness and by the pursuit of their own individual interests, commitments and goals[6].

Nagel agrees with Hobbes in his belief that moral obligation is something which plays a part in all deliberations, specifically in situations in which an individual might otherwise not be motivated to act.

However, Nagel further defines his interpretation of this concept by stating that he believes any feelings of obligation or of what an individual ‘ought’ to do, are tied to self-interest; according to Nagel, it is only logical that an individual should follow the rules and act from a moral position, as the preservation of an organized and stable society is in the best interests of each and every one of us[7].

Further cementing his dualist approach to contract theory, Nagel contends that a logical description of the theory stems from the distinction and similarities between agent-neutral and agent-relative principles[8].

Nagel describes agent-neutral values as those which give everyone a reason to promote or prevent an event or action,while agent-relative values are still universal, but apply to the goverance of each individual’s own conduct and actions[9].

Nagel’s original interpretation of agent-neutral values as “objective” and the agent-relative approach as “subjective” [10] was later modified to its current form by British theorist Derek Parfit . Nagel adopted the terms in his own work soon thereafter.

Much like his interpretation of the Original Position, Nagel believes that the reasons behind both value positions are universal. Therefore, while the position from which an individual is incented to act may differ, the justification or motivating factor is actually a combination of both value principles[11].

When it comes to criticisms of this approach, Nagel himself often addresses the vague and sometimes contradictory nature of the dualist approach to social contract theory as one of its biggest weaknesses[12].

References

[1] Thomas Nagel Biography. (n.d.) Retrieved on September 27, 2012 from:
http://www.jrank.org/literature/pages/5150/Thomas-Nagel.html
[2] Thomas Nagel Faculty Biography. (n.d.) Retrieved on September 28, 2012 from: https://its.law.nyu.edu/facultyprofiles/profile.cfm?section=bio&personID=20156
[3] Hill, Greg (1995. Reason and Will in Contemporary Social Contract Theory. Political Research Quarterly, 48(1), 101 – 116.
[4] Nagel, Thomas (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[5] Nagel, Thomas (1987). Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 16(3), 215 – 240.
[6] Nagel, Thomas (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[7] Nagel, Thomas(1959). Hobbes Concept of Obligation. The Philosophical Review, 68(1), 68 – 83.
[8] Nagel, Thomas (1995). Personal Rights and Public Space. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 24(2), 83 – 107.
[9] Nagel, Thomas (1986). The View from Nowhere. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
[10] Reasons for Action: Agent-Neutral vs. Agent-Relative (2005). Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy Retrieved from: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/reasons-agent
[11] Nagel, Thomas (1995). Personal Rights and Public Space. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 24(2), 83 – 107.
[12] Nagel, Thomas (1970). The Possibility of Altruism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. AND Nagel, Thomas (1987). Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 16(3), 215 – 240.


Photo Credit: The New York University School of Law (2010), The Law School Magazine