A few months ago, I promised to read Thomas Nagel’s the Possibility of Altruism. Since then, I read most of the book in Argentina and finished it a few weeks ago in Boston. I could not get myself to write an in-depth analysis of the book due to personal reasons; but alas, here I am:

The main argument of the book is that one can objectively justify and motivate someone to perform an ethical act. Nagel argues for this by 1) showing how the opposing position – that actions can only be justified and motivated subjectively –leads to paradoxical consequences in prudential actions, and 2) showing a parallel between prudence and morality. I will summarize these two points in two parts and then analyze the book’s implications in my conclusion.

What motivates me? Desires or rationality?

There are two types of views on moral motivation. The first is internalism which is the view that motivation is so tied to the truth of ethical statements that when person X has a reason to do Y, X must have a motivation for doing Y. The latter is externalism which is the notion that in order for person X to do Y, one needs something external to ethics – Psychology, etc. Nagel first presents Hume and Hobbes as two different versions of the externalist view – for Hobbes, self-preservation motivated X to do Y; for Hume, sympathy (and later general benevolence) buttressed by self-interest motivated X to do Y. This externalist view –especially Hume’s version – is the position that Nagel opposes and he explains them away for us to have a concrete grasp of them since they will be constantly mentioned from here on out.

Nagel then moves onto Kant’s internalism: “what makes the requirements valid for us must itself determine the capacity of our motivational structure to yield corresponding action.” (p. 12) And Nagel, unsurprisingly, reveals that this is his position: “On this view the possibility of appropriate motivation must be guaranteed by the truth of the moral claim itself.” (p. 13) So why does Nagel find internalism more sound than externalism?

Because Nagel believes that Hume was wrong when he said “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” (T 2.3.3 p. 415), Nagel subscribes to Kant’s view as described below:

“Kant observed that rational motivation is unique among systems of causation because any explanation of action in terms of the theory refers essentially to the application of its principles by individuals to themselves in the determination of their actions.” (p. 22).

In other words, I apply the principles of a particular theory to my actions when I am motivated rationally, and it is a unique motivation. Such rational motivation is unique, because as Aristotle pointed out, it does not assail us like some desires –for example, appetite. Furthermore, rational motivation does not need a desire to have a reason to perform an act: If an action is motivated by the desire to perform Y based on X reasons, and if X stems from external factors, then the desire is not necessary for the existence of X.

Not only do we not need desires to have reasons to do X in a rational case, those reasons also transmit their influence over the relation between ends and means. For instance, if I have a reason to do X and Y is the means to do X, then I must do Y in order to do X. This is true even in peculiar cases. For instance, if a deranged person hits person A, then it’s because of a deranged reason rather than love or self-preservation. Let’s go to another example to help us think about the ways in which reasons transmit their influence over the relation between ends and means. If I’m thirsty and I put a dime in a vending machine, does that mean I desired the means to my end (soda)? What makes me do this?  I see a reason to do X (put a dime in the vending machine) in order to do Y (to acquire the soda). Such reason-spotting is a general feature of motivation.

Given that rational cases do not need desires to motivate one and that reason-spotting is essential to motivation, Nagel moves the arena to prudence –the effect of present action or beliefs on my future interests. If one were to take up the Humean view – I have a reason to further future interests because I have a present desire to do so– then A) one “does not allow the expectation of a future reason to provide a reason for present action.” (p. 38) B) “allows present desire for a future object to provide a reason for present action in pursuit of that object.” (p. 38) These implications are problematic because 1) we regularly allow future reasons to provide a reason for present action –I have a reason to go to college to get a job; thus, I pursue college. 2) allowing B leads to paradoxical results –even if I knew I would have desire to do X in the future, I would not pursue X because I do not have that desire right now. This is paradoxical because it argues as if only my present desires are my interests. My future interests are also my interests, because my present self is merely one among many person stages throughout my life.

Such dissociation of one’s present self from her other person stages –her future and past selves– is a critical flaw of the Humean view. When owe observe the formal structure of how we see our present and past selves, we see that we have the capacity to impersonally regard our present self as one among many person-stages. This is a rational, impersonal process because the person is not feeling the desire right now so she cannot be motivated by her desires. It has to be from the rational recognition that reasons are timeless and tenseless. For instance, if there is a reason to be kind to one’s lover, then it does not matter whether it is Donald Trump or James Brown. A person –any person– has to a reason to do so. In the same way, it does not matter whether Rick James is in the year 500 BC or the year 2069. There is always a reason to be kind to one’s lover. Formally expressed it goes like this:

“Every reason is a predicate R such that for all persons and events A, if is true of A, then has prima facie reason to promote A.” (p. 47)

This is why Hume’s account of motivation is flawed, because it ignores this capacity of human beings. It ignores our ability to impersonally spot timeless reasons and apply them to ourselves. Not only does it ignore this ability, it also gives too much influence to desires in motivating our actions. As Nagel has shown, the Humean view of motivation from desire –particularly present desires because we can’t feel past or future desires – fails in prudential actions. As G.E.M. Anscombe once succinctly said, “no one wants anything in the future… without a reason derived from the expectation of a reason.” (p. 44)

I am one among many

Reasons are timeless and tenseless. This means that even practical moral judgments –judgments regarding what to one ought (because it is moral) to do or ought to practice – reasons are tenseless. If one accepts the tenselessness of reasons, then one would be opposed to Ethical Egoism. What is Egoism? Let me give you a thought experiment to ethical spot Egoism and see difference between it and Nagel’s tenseless view. Suppose that Arnold Schwarzenegger is extremely ill and I am the doctor who has to decide whether or not to perform a surgery that will surely save his life. Commonly, if one were to express this practical reason impersonally, one would say, “anyone must perform the act that will prolong his life.” However, there are actually three possible ways formulating this sentence.

Anyone must perform:

a) the act that will prolong Arnold Schwarzenegger’s life
b) the act that will prolong his life
c) the act that will prolong someone’s life

These may look identical, but they are in fact different. For instance, b) is subjective and is representative of Ethical Egoism. This is so, because anyone ought to prolong his life. All such actions are for him -the egotistical agent. Ethical Egoism rejects the tenselessness of reasons and believes that all reasons only apply to the interest of each individual. Egoists, in fact, are convinced by the notion that there are only subjective ends. Nevertheless, Nagel points out that not all subjective reasons are egotistical. For instance, “everyone must defend his country,” requires extreme sacrifice. Furthermore, if one were to make sure that all subjective reasons were egotistical, then one would have to inevitably make an objective value judgment that all agents and circumstances must be manipulated to satisfy the interest of him. This is a strong blow to the common sense belief that–especially after the advent of postmodernism and American libertarianism–that morality is subjective and that each person must do all to satisfy his needs. But, one cannot be a subjectivist, which includes altruistic subjective actions as well as egotistical, and be an egoist at the same time. “It must be emphasized that such an egoist cannot even assign objective value to the circumstance in which everyone behaves in accordance with his favored principle, for that would immediately let in objective, non-egotistic reasons to promote that desirable state of affairs, and he would no longer be a pure egoist.” (p. 96) Egoism is indeed incoherent. It yearns to be subjectivist as well as an objective egoist. However, this is not the only problem with Egoism.

Another problem of Ethical Egoism is that if it insists upon defending its position by claiming that one cannot formulate sentences that are tenseless –since all human beings can only be selfish; and thus all altruistic actions are self-interested –this effectively turns into ethical solipsism. This is obviously false, because we can formulate tenseless sentences. Even a sentence like “Alfred Yun should do what will keep him alive,” does not necessarily depend on whether the agent is Alfred Yun or not. One could be deluded into thinking that he is Alfred Yun, but it still matters whether Alfred Yun lives or not; and ultimately, one can formulate such a sentence. Moreover, we have already established that prudential actions can be formulated impersonally. This means that one can think of oneself tenselessly, and in this case, one can think of oneself as one among many.

Earlier in the book, Nagel asserted that “altruism itself depends on a recognition of the reality of other persons, and on the equivalent capacity to regard oneself as merely one individual among many,” (p. 1) and that “[altruism] is not a feeling.” (p. 1) By recognizing that reasons are timeless and tenseless, one can conceive of the statement, “I ought to help prolong my life,”as, “anyone ought to help prolong someone’s life.” This allows one to step outside one’s subjective concerns and recognize that everyone has a reason to perform certain acts; and it allows one to regard oneself as merely one among many agents who ought to or has reason to perform such acts.


What are the implications of this theory? First and foremost, rational motivation is possible. Second, moral motivation can be objective. And finally, there is another argument for rational moral motivation one must read to absorb to one’s moral framework for the purpose of assimilation or refutation. A few months ago, I pointed out from reading the Wikipedia description that this theory does not sketch a fully spelled-out ethical theory with little to no room for disagreement. In fact, it is compatible with quite a lot of ethical theories. Parts of Nagel’s arguments have been used to buttress utilitarianism and Nagel himself has used his theory to argue for his own version of Kantian ethics in his later books. So, even after reading this book, I cannot see how this theory will help bridge the gaps between competing ethical theories.

Nonetheless, I learned much from this book. It was my first experience reading a book full of dense, high-level, professional philosophy. I’ve read difficult articles, but 10-20 pages of such writing and 200 pages were as different as chalk and cheese. It was also my first experience reading an in-depth analysis of moral motivation, and I learned a great deal of the different positions and arguments discussed in this topic.

One part of the book that really interested me was Nagel’s insistence that he was not a Platonist. “The account which I shall propose… is a metaphysical one. This is not to be taken in a Platonic sense; I do not suggest that the objectivity of altruistic or prudential requirements could be guaranteed by the contents of a super-sensible realm… The metaphysics to which I shall appeal is a metaphysics of the person, and it will support the objective validity of prudential constraints by interpreting them as the practical expression of an awareness that one persists over time.” (p. 58) How the veracity of objective reasons is grounded does not matter much in this book, so he obviously glossed over that aspect; and I wish he had further developed on what he thought was the foundation of truth and knowledge.

I have been watching and taking notes from online lectures on epistemology; and I think it’s time for me to delve further into that topic. For a philosopher, how truth is grounded is an essential question and one cannot just read small articles here and there if one wishes to be a serious philosopher. Massimo Pigliucci and many other philosophers have claimed that Everything Must Go by James Ladyman argues for a scientifically respectable version of Platonism. I believe it is time for me to soon move onto epistemology after finishing my current books on consciousness (Daniel Dennett’s Consciousness Explained and Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach) and the philosophy of science (Massimo Pigliucci’s Nonsense on stilts: How to tell Science from Bunk and Daniel Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).

I also own two books I have yet to read: Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons and Shelly Kagan’s The Geometry of Desert, both of which are concerned with Ethics. Ethics is how i first encountered Philosophy and what made me fall in love with Philosophy. It is my home base. It is the field of which I’m most knowledgeable and which I find supremely fascinating. Hence, I feel a bit guilty as I plan to venture further into other areas of Philosophy rather than using my brain, which is probably at the peak of its intellectual capacity, for the topic to which I owe much of my life’s passion. However, I have an objective reason to pursue these other topics: a philosopher must have a coherent web of belief and ethics is only one branch. Plus, reading other fields of philosophy may help me become a more skilled reader of philosophy so that even if my brain is less capable in the future I can read higher-level works with more ease than I do now. Therefore, I will keep pursuing all of my passions with zeal and wonder.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s