Generalization would lead to the recognition of value in possible future experiences, in the means to them, and in the lives of creatures other than ourselves. These values are not extra properties of goodness and badness, but just truths such as the following: If something I do will cause another creature to suffer, that counts against doing it. I can come to see that this is true by generalizing from the evident disvalue of my own suffering[.]
Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford, 2012, p. 77
The existence of consciousness is both one of the most familiar and one of the most astounding things about the world. No conception of the natural order that does not reveal it as something to be expected can aspire even to the outline of completeness. And if physical science, whatever it may have to say about the origin of life, leaves us necessarily in the dark about consciousness, that shows that it cannot provide the basic form of intelligibility for this world. There must be a very different way in which things as they are make sense, and that includes the way the physical world is, since the problem cannot be quarantined in the mind.
Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False, Oxford, 2012, p. 51
There is a great deal of misery in the world, and many of us could easily spend our lives trying to eradicate it. […] [O]ne advantage of living in a world as bad as this one is that it offers the opportunity for many activities whose importance can’t be questioned. But how could the main point of human life be the elimination of evil? Misery, deprivation, and injustice prevent people from pursuing the positive goods which life is assumed to make possible. If all such goods were pointless and the only thing that really mattered was the elimination of misery, that really would be absurd.
Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford, 1986, p. 217
A crucial determinant of the character of analytic philosophy—and a piece of luck as far as I am concerned—is the unimportance, in the English-speaking world, of the intellectual as a public figure. Fame doesn’t matter, and offering an opinion about practically everything is not part of the job. It is unnecessary for writers of philosophy to be more “of their time” than they want to be; they don’t have to write for the world but can pursue questions inside the subject, at whatever level of difficulty the questions demand. If the work is of high quality, they will receive the support of a large and dedicated academy that is generally independent of popular opinion. This is an enviably luxurious position to be in, by comparison to writers who depend for their status and income on the reaction of a broader public. Of course, there are plenty of silly fashions and blind spots inside the academic community, but in philosophy, at least, their effect has not been as bad as the need to compete for wider literary fame would be. I think arid technicalities are preferable to the blend of oversimplification and fake profundity that is too often the form taken by popular philosophy. A strong academy provides priceless shelter for the difficult and often very specialized work that must be done to advance the subject.
Thomas Nagel, Other Minds: Critical Essays, 1969-1994, New York, 1995, pp. 8-9
Some people believe in an afterlife. I do not; what I say will be based on the assumption that death is nothing, and final. I believe there is little to be said for it: it is a great curse, and if we truly face it nothing can make it palatable except the knowledge that by dying we can prevent an even grater evil. Otherwise, given the simple choice between living for another week and dying in five minutes I would always choose to live for another week; and by a version of mathematical induction I conclude that I would be glad to live forever.
Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford, 1986, p. 224
Consider how strange is the question posed by someone who wants a justification for altruism about such a basic matter as this. Suppose he and some other people have been admitted to a hospital with severe burns after being rescued from a fire. “I understand how my pain provides me with a reason to take an analgesic,” he says, “and I understand how my groaning neighbor’s pain gives him a reason to take an analgesic; but how does his pain give me any reason to want him to be given an analgesic? How can his pain give me or anyone else looking at it from outside a reason?
This question is crazy. As an expression of puzzlement, it has that characteristic philosophical craziness which indicates that something very fundamental has gone wrong. This shows up in the fact that the answer to the question is obvious, so obvious that to ask the question is obviously a philosophical act. The answer is that pain is awful. The pain of the man groaning in the next bed is just as awful as yours. That’s your reason to want him to have an analgesic.
Thomas Nagel, ‘The Limits of Objectivity’, in Sterling McMurrin (ed.), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, vol. 1, Cambridge, 1980, pp. 109-110
When the objective self contemplates pain, it has to do so thought the perspective of the sufferer, and the sufferer’s reaction is very clear. Of course he wants to be rid of this pain unreflectively—not because he thinks it would be good to reduce the amount of pain in the world. But at the same time his awareness of how bad it is doesn’t essentially involve the thought of it as his. The desire to be rid of pain has only the pain as its object. This is shown by the fact that it doesn’t even require the idea of oneself in order to make sense: if I lacked or lost the conception of myself as distinct from other possible or actual persons, I could still apprehend the badness of pain, immediately. So when I consider it from an objective standpoint, the ego doesn’t get between the pain and the objective self. My objective attitude toward pain is rightly taken over from the immediate attitude of the subject, and naturally takes the form of an evaluation of the pain itself, rather than merely a judgment of what would be reasonable for its victim to want: “This experience ought not to go on, whoever is having it.” To regard pain as impersonally bad from the objective standpoint does not involve the illegitimate suppression of an essential reference to the identity of its victim. In its most primitive form, the fact that it is mine—the concept of myself—doesn’t come into my perception of the badness of my pain.
Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, Oxford, 1986, p. 161
Pragmatism is offered as a revolutionary new way of thinking about ourselves and our thoughts, but it is apparently disabled by its own character from offering arguments that might show its superiority to the common sense it seeks to displace.
Thomas Nagel, Concealment and Exposure: and Other Essays, Oxford, 2002, p. 162
If sub spece aeternitatis there is no reason to believe that anything matters, then that does not matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.
Thomas Nagel, ‘The Absurd’, in Mortal Questions, Cambridge, 1979, p. 23
Private property is a legal convention, defined in part by the tax system; therefore, the tax system cannot be evaluated by looking at its impact on private property, conceived as something that has independent existence and validity. Taxes must be evaluated as part of the overall system of property rights that they help to create. Justice or injustice in taxation can only mean justice or injustice in the system of property rights and entitlements that result from a particular tax regime.
Liam Murphy & Thomas Nagel, The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice, New York, 2002, p. 8
[T]he appeal to reason is implicitly authorized by the [subjectivist] challenge itself, so this is really a way of showing that the challenge is unintelligible. The charge of begging the question implies that there is an alternative—namely, to examine the reasons for and against the claim being challenged while suspending judgment about it. For the case of reasoning itself, however, no such alternative is available, since any considerations against the objective validity of a type of reasoning are inevitably attempts to offer reasons against it, and these must be rationally assessed. The use of reason in the response is not a gratuitous importation by the defender: It is demanded by the character of the objections offered by the challenger.
Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, New York, 1997, p. 24
One summer more than ten years ago, when I taught at Princeton, a large spider appeared in the urinal of the men’s room in 1879 Hall, a building that houses the Philosophy Department. When the urinal wasn’t in use, he would perch on the metal drain at its base, and when it was, he would try to scramble out of the way, sometimes managing to climb an inch or two up the porcelain wall at a point that wasn’t too wet. But sometimes he was caught, tumbled and drenched by the flushing torrent. He didn’t seem to like it, and always got out of the way if he could. But it was a floor-length urinal with a sunken base and a smooth overhanging lip: he was below flöor level and couldn’t get out.
Somehow he survived, presumably feeding on tiny insects attracted to the site, and was still there when the fall term began. The urinal must have been used more than a hundred times a day, and always it was the same desperate scramble to get out of the way. His life seemed miserable and exhausting.
Gradually our encounters began to oppress me. Of course it might be his natural habitat, but because he was trapped by the smooth porcelain overhang, there was no way for him to get out even if he wanted to, and no way to tell whether he wanted to. None of the other regulars did anything to alter the situation, but as the months wore on and fall turned to winter I arrived with much uncertainty and hesitation at the decision to liberate him.
Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere, New York, 1986, pp. 208-209
I change my mind about the problem of free will every time I think about it, and therefore cannot offer any view with even moderate confidence; but my present opinion is that nothing that might be a solution has yet been described. This is not a case where there are several possible candidate solutions and we don’t know which is correct. It is a case where nothing believable has (to my knowledge) been proposed by anyone in the extensive public discussion of the subject.
Thomas Nagel, A View from Nowhere, New York, 1986, p. 112
To make sense of interpersonal compensation it is not necessary to invoke the silly idea of a social entity, thus establishing an analogy with intrapersonal compensation. All one needs is the belief, shared by most people, that it is better for each of 10 people to receive a benefit than for one person to receive it, worse for 10 people to be harmed than for one person to be similarly harmed, better for one person to benefit greatly than for another to benefit slightly, and so forth.
Thomas Nagel, ‘Libertarianism Without Foundations’, in Jeffrey Paul (ed.), Reading Nozick, New Jersey, 1981, p. 197
It is clear that the power of complex modern states depends on the deeply ingrained tendency of most of their members to follow the rules, obey the laws, and do what is expected of them by the established authorities without deciding case by case whether they agree with what is being done. We turn ourselves easily into instruments of higher-order processes; the complex organizational hierarchies typical of modern life could not function otherwise—not only armies, but all bureaucratic institutions rely on such psychological dispositions.
This gives rise to what can be called the German problem. The generally valuable tendency to conform, not to break ranks conspicuously, not to attract attention to oneself, and to do one’s job and obey official instructions without substituting one’s own personal judgment can be put to the service of monstrous ends, and can maintain in power the most appalling regimes. The same procedural correctness that inhibits people from taking bribes may also turn them into obedient participants in well-organized official policies of segregation, deportation, and genocidal extermination. The problem is whether it is possible to have the benefits of conformity and bureaucratic obedience without the dangers.
Thomas Nagel, Equality and Partiality, Oxford, 1991, pp. 149-150