By Any Means Necessary

Laws will not save the oppressed. Only power. Pompeo’s statements on Israeli settlements remind us once again that laws without power are toothless. The liberal delusion is that if we submit ourselves to the law, we will arrive at a neutral, self-correcting system. What liberals don’t tell you is that in order to assert the rule of law, it must be enforced by a powerful entity — the state. This entity must be more powerful than you and me. It surveils and confines our dissent to that which is least threatening to the liberal state and its laws. This is why MLK Jr, Malcolm X, leftists, and feminists were sabotaged by the FBI (COINTELPRO), but capitalists and white supremacists were allowed to have an outsized influence.

COINTELPRO is a great example of the priorities of the liberal state, because around the same time another famous scandal occurred: Watergate. Most people have heard of Watergate, but not COINTELPRO. Watergate is basically one half of business elites spying on the other half of business elites. What a scandal! On the other hand, the world’s most powerful government spies on its own citizens, wrongfully imprisons them, smears individuals and groups by planting false reports, arms fascists militia groups to suppress them, and resorts to violence including assassinations? Most people have never heard of it. This is COINTELPRO, and many of these tactics are still used and practiced today. Inarguably, this is much more serious than Watergate. However, the victims of COINTELPRO did not have the state or the law on its side. It doesn’t matter that the FBI broke the law in many cases. The law doesn’t come from nowhere; it comes from the state — and states have interests. Under capitalism, states are run by business elites and their servants. There is no disinterested state or party in politics. Centrism just means the interests of certain business elites.

If we look at politics in this way, Trump’s statements on Israeli settlements is quite revealing. Liberalism’s conceit is over. The right has long abandoned the pretensions of liberals politics. Liberals who follow the law, rather than create them; liberals who decry Trump’s illegal gestures, but ignore the much larger cost of his legal wrongdoings; liberals who believe in compromise with capitalists and fascists; are toothless in facing a foe that plays outside the rules. How are liberals going to check Trump’s brazen disregard of international law with regards to Israeli settlements? Shame him? Convince the US government that has been largely complicit with Israeli violence to suddenly change its mind? Liberals have no answer. The same can be said about virtually every significant issue. We cannot compromise on climate change. There is no time. You cannot be pro-immigrant, if you follow the law and deport millions like Obama. The laws need to change, and our perspectives must be challenged — transformed.

In order to do so, we must come together and exercise our power. Agendas must be set by us, the people, not passed down to us by lawmakers and their donors. These agendas will be unfamiliar and uncertain. This is just the nature of life. Those with a future have multiple paths and embrace the uncertainty that accompanies change. In contrast, the certainty of death is what awaits us under capitalism. Everything always appears so certain and measurable, because capitalism rejects radical transformation. It rejects futurity altogether. There are always cracks of potential and movement within the illusion, of course. For example, the rise of Bernie Sanders and the supposed certainty of Hillary’s victory. Instead of treating these cracks as aberrant, we must regard the illusion itself as pathological. These cracks are opportunities, and we better catch onto ‘em quick, because the certainty of death is looming larger than ever. If liberals get in our way, we must confront them with everything we have. We must gather the power to transform the world. Do not be hampered by liberal sensibilities in your quest for power. As Malcolm X often said, “by any means necessary.”

Gordon Ramsay = Donald Trump

Gordon Ramsay is just like Donald Trump. Maybe even worse, because many liberals regard his old fashioned capitalist authoritarianism as some kind of “realness.” The boss talks down the workers, who must simply obey and listen to their boss who “knows better.” The managerial class of capitalism knows better than the “uneducated” working class. Listen to the economists who gave us the 2008 recession. They still know better than the “unruly” mass.

But, Gordon Ramsay is a Michelin star chef! Yes, a star chef who mostly runs shit chain restaurants, with a few fancy ones for rich people. In fact, he’s no longer a chef. He’s a businessman. A celebrity CEO like Donald Trump. He isn’t really a working chef anymore; moreover, prestige and mastery do not warrant sexism and body shaming. Some might respond:  “well, that’s just how it is in the cooking industry.” But, this is not really a response, because bullying workers was just how it worked in the factory too. It doesn’t mean we should keep allowing it to happen,

I understand the appeal of Trump and Ramsay. They’re a departure from the faux respect of 21st century capitalism. Workers are still subordinate to their boss, yet they cannot regard that relationship as exploitation anymore. The boss is a “relatable” person who cares about their workers. We all know, deep down, that the corporate structure cannot produce a genuine relationship between a worker and their boss without power dynamics. Yet, we have to pretend that capitalism now has a human face. Trump and Ramsay break apart that illusion. They give us the “real” face of capitalism.

However, it is dangerous to conflate their “realness” with reality. The reality is that a Trumpian CEO exploits us just as much as, or perhaps even more than, the CEO with a human face. Trump and Ramsay reap most of the profits of their businesses, while their workers — who produce most of the profit— make, more or less, minimum wage. Exploitation is still exploitation. The hyperreality of Ramsay is surely intoxicating. I am often entertained by Ramsay yelling at his contestants too. Our dull lives are shocked by the old face of capitalism. We escape into reality TV, because its hyperreality feels more “real” than the monotous lives of late capitalism. We live in the age of Francis Fukuyama, who proclaimed that welfare capitalism is the end of history. There is no system beyond capitalism; effectively, it means we have no future.

A society without a future is dull, because it has no vision. Our attempts to “fix” our problems always invoke the “good old past:” MAGA or New Deal Capitalism. Accordingly, the workplace has no future. It’s an everlasting present, in which we work from 9 to 5. Like a clock, it ticks the same way over and over again. You cannot care about a life that escapes the flow of time. Death and the uncertainty of the future make us care. This is why we need to be shocked into a semblance of caring through reality TV. Nonetheless, it is important to note that caring about hyperrality is distinct from caring about our actual lives. Trump or Ramsay as your real boss might not be so exciting. Furthermore, hyperrality does not have a future. It is a recording of staged events. Perhaps, it is time for us to reckon with our atemporal lives. To bestow upon it a future. The best things in life require uncertainty. Love is the act of falling for the other. To succumb to uncertainty. Similarly, caring requires us to head towards the future. Perhaps, it is time to be shocked by uncertainty rather than hyperreality.

Bernie Sanders, North Korea, Fear-mongering

Recently, Bernie Sanders has criticized Trump for talking up North Korea, accusing him of harboring admiration for dictators. Such criticisms are everywhere nowadays. I have a problem with Bernie Sanders’ approach to this issue. We were always at war with North Korea. Sanctions are not meant as a surgical blow against the leadership of any country, they’re meant as a general destabilizing strategy aimed at making life so unlivable, that in theory they might rise up against their leadership. It is considered by military experts as a “soft-war” strategy. In the course of US-SK military drills, the most advanced bombers in history, stealth B-2s and B-52s, carried out simulated nuclear bombing attacks right on North Korea’s borders. In 1994, Bill Clinton almost bombed a nuclear facility in North Korea. George W. Bush provoked North Korea by putting it in the “Axis of Evil,” and then pressured banks to freeze all North Korean transactions, including legitimate trade. Trump tweeted about nuclear Armageddon a few months ago. We were always at war.

Then, Trump met with Kim Jong Un. This is the greatest step towards world peace in my life time. Yet, Bernie Sanders’ priority is to lump North Korea together with Saudi Arabia and Russia, while perpetuating the stereotype that North Korea is irrational, violent, and dangerous. First, this doesn’t even make sense logically. Saudi Arabia was always on America’s good side. Just a few months ago, Trump was calling the North Korean leader Rocket Man on Twitter. They cannot be grouped together as part of a trend. Second, this same rhetoric was used by Bush to put NK in the “Axis of Evil.” It was also used in South Korea to drive up nuclear tension to an unprecedented level. Bernie Sanders is more concerned with the partisan politics of deposing Trump by calling him a dictator than world peace.

What makes this worse is that Sanders knows how his criticism is going to be received by the Liberal base. Rachel Maddow is selling conspiracy theories about Russia controlling this entire peace process. U.S. Democratic Socialists are spreading false memes about North Korea’s track record on denuclearization pledges (they didn’t drop out, because they’re crazy; Bush called them the “Axis of Evil” and didn’t live up to his side of the promise.) Political cartoons of Kim Jong Un as a chink with a tiny penis is spreading everywhere. Some Liberals are claiming that Trump should have criticized Kim at the summit; some even think he should have been arrested. It is dangerous for half of America to lose sight of the importance of this meeting.

Plus, there is no evidence that Trump is trying to be a dictator. Franklin Roosevelt celebrated Joseph Stalin as “truly representative of the heart and soul of Russia.” Richard Nixon, in a toast on his historic first trip to China, compared Mao Zedong and the communist leadership to George Washington and the other leaders of the American revolution. Ronald Reagan was equally enthusiastic about Rios Montt, the genocidal president of Guatemala. “I know that President Rios Montt is a man of great personal integrity and commitment,” Reagan said in 1982.

Do not lose sight of what is important. Do not let your base fall into jingoistic paranoia. Instead of merely criticizing this meeting, Dems should be adding to the greatest step towards peace. America is the most important piece of this puzzle. The US army is there, the sanctions are killing NK, and the US controls the South Korean military. America cannot be so divided on this issue. John McCain and many conservatives despise this deal. Dems cannot be another source of division. I have a sense that they want this to fail. I expected better from Bernie Sanders.


Donald Trump is not a liar

Donald Trump is not a liar; he’s a bullshitter. There is a fine difference. The philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt believed the difference between lies and bullshit is that lies are necessarily false; on the other hand, bullshit may happen to be true or false. In essence, a lie is a conscious act of deception, whereas a bullshit entails an indifference to how things really are. In order to lie, one has to implicitly acknowledge the existence of the truth — and then deceive another of not believing in such truth. However, a bullshitter does not care whether there exists a truth or a falsity. For example, I can bullshit a test by writing a bullshit answer. It doesn’t matter to me whether the answer is true or false. I just need to write some bullshit. If it happens to be true, I get a good grade. If it happens to be false, it doesn’t matter because I never bothered studying for the test to begin with.

Nietzsche believed that foregoing objective truth would be life-affirming. JL Mackie argued that disbelief in objective truth regarding morality would not be catastrophic. Some, however, worried that it could be very dangerous. If there is no objective morality, then why be moral? If there is no objective truth, then how do I make sense of things? In general, I think it is not so dangerous for people to not believe in objective truth regarding morality or the external world. We are hard-wired to care about certain values and facts; and I doubt that we would stop caring about them even if it turned out to be the case that they were not objective. I think this is especially true regarding morality. For instance, Foucault or Nietzsche still argued for certain virtues despite their skepticism of objectivity. The problem isn’t anti-realism. The problem is bullshit — antipathy towards objectivity. Trump is, in this sense, a bullshitter. He doesn’t care whether what he says is true or false. He spouts a ton of lies, but they are not calculated. They are not conscious acts of deception. It doesn’t matter to him whether his statements are true or false. A liar would try to show how his lie is the truth; Trump doesn’t provide any evidence. As we have seen, such bullshit has been extremely pernicious. Lies require effort and responsibility; one has to support them. Bullshit does not, and it can easily destroy a society when wielded by the powerful. Bullshit is worse than the nightmares of a postmodern world reigned by Nietzsche and Foucault, once feared by many. Anti-realism is not the problem; bullshit is.

Trump and the Crisis of Identity

Donald Trump will be our president. Despite the looming dangers of a Trump presidency, I think we have learned a valuable lesson: Identity is central to politics. Trump garnered support by appealing to the sentiment that our country is being taken over by them. Sanders rallied his supporters by pointing out the fact that they —Wall Street, moneyed interests, etc. — have been taking over our country. Like I said, identity is central to politics.

On both sides, we wanted someone who did not compromise and fought for the values we actually believe in. Why? Because politics as usual has never delivered to us the policies that affirm our identity and values. Identity is not a good that we can compromise. For example, I can share a loaf of bread with others, but I cannot as easily compromise my religion or feminism. So what would be the solution to bridging such irreconcilable differences?

The philosopher Michael Sandel identified this same problem decades ago. He criticized liberalism for its pretension of neutrality by privileging the right over the good, because, he believed, it caused a dissonance with our actual moral temperament. In other words, we do not, as politicians often say, “disagree but respect the right to have a different opinion.” We want to change the other person or destroy them. His solution was communitarianism — the idea that politics needs to be organized based on small, self-governing communities. Such communities will share the same space, community, and, ultimately, values.

I find this idea appealing but ultimately insufficient. First, it is unlikely to see large behemoths like the US or China dissolving into tiny self-governing communities. Second, we are pluralistic. This might sound confusing, since Sandel is suggesting communitarianism as a remedy to the conflicts of plural values in a given society. Sandel is right. Our society is pluralistic. My point is that so are we. We are not simply tribal creatures who conform only to what is preached to us by our communities. We are also cosmopolitan. We recognize universal duties and values. Furthermore, we operate under multiple modes of ethics. We are sometimes utilitarian, sometimes Kantian, and sometimes virtue ethicists. The conflicts between such modes and, manifestly, between the cosmopolitan and the communitarian are often irreconcilable. This means that even small, self-governing communities need to deal with irreconcilable differences.

Sandel was aware of the first criticism that transitioning to small, self-governing communities is not happening anytime soon. So he proposed a temporary solution: we should recognize the art of a democratic debate as a good. A democratic debate, conducted in a virtuous manner, bids one to attentively listen and respond to the other person. This is different from respecting rights, since respecting rights often entails disengagement. One does not need to engage another person’s belief in a virtuous manner if all one is concerned with is respecting that person’s right to have such beliefs. On the contrary, engaging in a democratic debate entails engagement. The benefits of engagement would not only mean a healthier dialogue but also a development of camaraderie. There is a Korean television show called 썰전where pundits discuss politics. There are two pundits from opposite sides of the political spectrum who discuss various topics. This sounds like an awful time, but the reality is quite the opposite. Despite irreconcilable differences, they have come to respect each other’s company. Through their debates, they have come to respect each other’s values, candor, and honesty.

However, I think there is a problem even with this approach. It takes a person of a particular disposition to engage in such a manner. There are multiple modes of ethics under which we operate and the preference of one over the other is determined by our personal dispositions. If someone is an absolutist Kantian about religious doctrines, then it is more difficult for that person to fruitfully engage another person who believes in everything they see as vile and sinister. The same is true of someone who absolutely hates everything about Trump because of his misogyny, racism, and xenophobia. Furthermore, people tend to favor debates with flowery rhetoric rather than the one espoused by Sandel. Encouraging people to favor one type of debate over the other might spell trouble, since it is obvious that not everyone has the appropriate personal disposition to engage in a democratic debate. I don’t subscribe to the optimistic view that humans are capable of being rational if they had a good education and so on. Take a look at debates between the most educated persons and there is always more rhetoric and spite than curiosity and temperance.

There seems to be no way out of this conflict. A few days ago, the philosopher Slavoj Zizek endorsed Donald Trump, arguing that his presidency will cause instability in the political establishment —which would carve up space for leftist reforms. I think it will be the exact opposite. Trump’s supporters are currently the most enthusiastic and angry group in American politics. The Supreme Court, the House, the Senate, and the White House are all Republican. They will use this instability to push their agenda forward. Progressives like Jill Stein won just 1% of the vote; however, Gary Johnson won 3%. This country, despite its politics having shifted more and more to the right throughout the 20th century, wants to go further to the right. This might have something to do with the fact that the average American feels like the country is liberal. Take a look at the sheer number of celebrities who endorsed Hillary Clinton. Mainstream media outlets like the New York Times endorsed Hillary Clinton. College professors are predominantly in the left. For many, entertainment, the news, and universities impact how they see their identity more than policies. They feel isolated. Their leaders tell them that minorities are taking away their jobs, and that Muslims are trying to install Sharia Law. They feel like the country is being taken over by others. Right-wing politics took away their savings and gave them to the wealthy. One can only imagine their anger.

Nonetheless, I cannot bring myself to compromise on immigration, abortion, wealth inequality, or healthcare. Such a move would be equivalent to supporting racism, misogyny, classism, neoliberalism, and bigotry. This, I believe, is how many liberals feel; this is also, I suspect, how many conservatives feel. Our differences are irreconcilable. We are angrier than ever. I can only envision a bloody clash between those with irreconcilable differences. There is no better figure to incite a civil war of culture than Donald Trump. If such a war is inevitable, then we must be prepared to fight and organize; to protect and safeguard immigrants and refugees; and, hopefully, discover a peaceful alternative.

Donald Trump and Climate Change

I think people often forget an issue of great importance: climate change. Trump is a climate change denier. On the other hand, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton both have comprehensive plans on how to deal with climate change. What’s important isn’t merely the present or the near future. The future is, arguably, even more important. There are about 7 billion people right now. Climate change would make all future persons and animals suffer. The sum total of such sentient beings would easily eclipse 7 billion. Therefore, we, as one of the biggest polluters in the world, need to elect a leader who will work to save this planet. Trump is not that person.

Are Trump supporters morally inferior? Are Asians savages?

What does it mean to be morally superior? I think people usually mean that they hold good moral beliefs – for leftists, it could be supporting gay marriage, universal healthcare, the wrongness of islamophobia, and so on. Now if these were truly moral, then that would mean the leftist possess certain moral beliefs that Trump supporter do not.

Okay. Let’s suppose this is true. How does it make the leftist more moral? Holding certain moral beliefs doesn’t necessarily make one a more moral person, because it doesn’t guarantee the practice of moral actions based on those beliefs. A Trump supporter could hold certain truly good moral beliefs that the leftist doesn’t – for example, the leftist could be a terrible friend and the Trump supporter could possess the belief that one ought to be kind to her friends and acts according to that belief.

Now, let’s not only suppose that the leftist holds certain moral beliefs that Trump supporters do not, but also that the leftist holds more good beliefs and practices ethical actions more often than Trump supporters. That would surely make one a more ethical person, but how does that make one morally superior? It would make one a good person, because the leftist would practice moral actions more often. But, how does being a good person or performing good actions more frequently put someone in a different status or rank?

There is a moral theory that fits this kind of reasoning and it’s called the theory of Desert –one deserves more well-being if he or she is a virtuous person. This mode of thought isn’t very counter-intuitive, since we already judge others based on their virtue. For instance, if one could save Hitler or Gandhi, the answer is pretty clear. Gandhi is more virtuous; thus, he deserves more well-being. So, it isn’t controversial or strange for people to use this reasoning to condemn Trump supporters.

What bothers me is that many leftists are moral relativists – or at least they claim to be so. If one were truly a moral relativist, how can one rank a person’s virtue? How can you say that the culture of Trump supporters is inferior to that of left-wing millennial’s? If one truly believes that Trump supporters are morally inferior, then one has to subscribe to a kind of ethical framework that allows such a system of ranking. Moral relativism cannot say which culture is morally superior to another. If one truly wishes to hold onto the belief that Trump supporters are morally inferior, then one must be prepared to abandon moral relativism. This would mean opening up for discussion whether Islamic culture or Asian culture is morally inferior to Western culture. This would mean opening up for discussion the objectivity of ethics, and many things millennials hate.

I’m not a moral relativist, yet I detest discussions like, “Is Western culture superior to Islamic culture or Asian culture?” I think this kind of discussion very often carves up space for racism and bigotry. Nevertheless, I cannot see how being a moral relativist makes it any better. It just makes one avoid the discussion and hold onto an incoherent ethical framework. Gandhi is clearly more virtuous than Hitler, and I have to be able to ask the same of cultures.

I tried to appease my conscience by gazing at these cultures from an impersonal standpoint. Then, I saw that all cultures have had their periods of fortune – they all had their Golden Ages when the arts, the sciences, and philosophy proliferated. Some cultures are not able to live up to their potential due to misfortune, imperialism, and other complications. The impersonal gaze allows me to see that affluent cultures – the West – commit such horrible crimes that gay marriage and women’s suffrage appear as meager improvements. The impersonal gaze shows me how difficult it is to say which is better than the other as a whole. How can you quantify goods and atrocities?

I am glad that I cannot deem Islamic or Asian culture as inferior, but I did not get to this conclusion merrilly. By giving up moral relativism, I had to reason with the assumption that it is possible for a culture to be morally inferior. Ethics is hard, and critical thinking is unsettling. However, if one wishes to include truths or logical coherence in their ethical or epistemological frameworks, then one must bite the bullet. As Immanuel Kant once said, one must be afflicted by the restlessness of reason.

The Possibility of Altruism

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.