In the Possibility of Altruism, Thomas Nagel argues that the self can be divided into the first-person and the third-person. In the same way, our actions can be divided into first-person and third-person actions. According to Nagel, subjective reasons (first- persons reasons) are agent-relative: “the content of the reason makes essential reference back to the agent for whom it is a reason.” For example, “Anyone has a reason to honor his or her parents.” On the other hand, objective reasons are agent-netural: “the content of the reason does not make any essential reference back to the person for whom it is a reason.” For instance, “Anyone has a reason to promote the good of parenthood.” Such a distinction makes it possible to have objective reasons to be good.
What is striking about agent-neutral reasons is that it is a variant of universalization within Kant’s categorial imperative. This is a move even Derek Parfit has been said to make in his recent, weighty tome, On What Matters. This move is indeed very attractive, since it pulls morality out of the rabbit hole of subjectivism, and grounds it in impersonal objectivity.
Despite his simple and beautiful distinction between subjective and objective reasons, Nagel doesn’t seem to be very clear on how to deal with disagreements. He claims that “when one thinks reflectively about ethics, one comes to see that every other agent’s standpoint on value has to be taken as seriously as his, since his perspective is just his take on an inter-subjective whole, so that which one took to be his personal set of reasons is swamped by the objective reasons of all others.” Does this mean that an objective reason backed up by a majority is how we ought to tackle disagreements? Or, does this mean that these objective reasons have been epistemically justified, while the personal view has not? What happens when two objective reasons clash? Shouldn’t there be a way to discern which one is always true?
As someone who has only read available excerpts of the Possibility of Altruism, I will assume that Nagel has already answered my questions in the book. Unfortunately, I do not have much money at this moment; thus, I cannot afford the book. Since I am highly interested in meta-ethics, this is a topic of great importance. Therefore, if you’ve already noticed (the title is Moral Realism: Manifolds Part 1), I will continue to write on this topic. I will read more related literature, such as the whole of the Possibility of Altruism, Russ Shafer-Landau’s Moral Realism: a defense, Derek Parfit’s On What Matters, Shelly Kagan’s The Geometry of Desert and the Limits of Morality. Hopefully, I will get onto reading these ASAP, but don’t count on it. I will be traveling to South Korea, Japan, and Argentina for the next two months, so I will be pretty busy. Nonetheless, I promise myself and to you that I will dive further into the ocean of meta-ethics.
P.S. I will soon be posting my thoughts on the current book I’m reading: Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter. This book is concerned with Strong AI, consciousness, functionalism, mathematics, and logic. It is a delightful read, and I hope you will one day read the book or my analyses as well.