Nagel: Equality And Partiality III

Q1: Is `justice’ a concept for angels or for men?

The question asks whether Nagel is attempting to put forward a Utopian concept of justice, impartiality or equality which could not be realized by any other than perfect beings. Nagel acknowledges that this is a problem because if it is Utopian, then it is pointless discussing it, unless we can expect advantages to accrue from merely pursuing an unachievable objective, or that even moving in the direction of achieving the objective is worth something on its own.

One problem Nagel seems to have is that he suffers from the Rawlsian problem of being much too nice for the real world. Rawls was apparently described as `saintly’ by those who knew him personally, and this caused his philosophy also to suffer from an excessive faith in humanity. There remains some hope that Nagel will be able to avoid this extreme — he does manage a favorable reference to Nietzsche on p. 135 — but that remains to be seen.

Of course, angels do not actually need justice. Or at least, they would not need external sources thereof, for they would naturally treat each other in just ways. So the concept may not even be coherent.

This discussion feeds into the second question, because justice is supposed to arise from one of the two standpoints.

Q2: Are the `two standpoints’ plausible?

These are the personal and impersonal standpoints. The first one is the one with which we are familiar — it merely means the perspective from where we stand, taking account of our own interests. The impersonal one is the more general de-personalized view. It might be seen as being somewhat akin to a legal viewpoint: laws do not mention specific individuals but classes of them.

Nagel says he will argue that the impersonal standpoint produces `a powerful demand for universal impartiality and equality’; moreover, this is the case `in each of us’. This claim in the strong version is simply false, as I merely need to mention that I for one feel no such claim arising in order to falsify it. I doubt I am alone in that, but it does not matter: I am unaccompanied sufficient to disprove the claim.

Let us assume that this is somewhat poetic; perhaps Nagel can make out that many people would support him. Maybe so — but what of it? Are we to assume that what people think is right? If so, to what end do we pursue philosophy? We scarcely need some advanced theoretical underpinning to support what people are already doing.

Does this impersonal standpoint even exist? Certainly I can imagine considering a question from the perspective of unnamed individuals. Thus I can give you an answer probably on questions such as `is it right to provide tax deductions for married couples?’, or at least rehearse the arguments on both sides despite the facts that I am not myself married and could not give you the names of everyone who is. But that is just an abstract way of thinking about political questions; it cannot suffice for the strong claims that Nagel makes about a perspective having potent normative effects on our thinking. It is this latter I do not recognize.

In any case, there is a dramatic discontinuity in plausibility between the two claimed outcomes of this putative pair of standpoints. The fact that there is value in impartiality does not entail that there is in equality, and moreover, we are not told which equality we are dealing with. If it is equality of outcome, it is undesirable; if it is equality of opportunity, then it is unfeasible.

To see the former point, observe that it requires leveling down. To see the latter, consider what level of resources would be necessary to provide an equal opportunity of UCL entry to persons with an IQ of 70 and one with an IQ of 150. And what would the justification look like for taxing the latter in order to permit the equal opportunity of the former?

To some extent we must suspend judgment, for Nagel has as yet in the Introduction only claimed that he will so argue and has not yet done so. And yet we are entitled to remain skeptical pending such argument.

We are later told that `everyone has reasons deriving from the impersonal standpoint to want the world to be arranged in a way that accords better with the demands of impartiality’. It is notable that while again no argument is produced for this assertion, equality has been dropped from the text. So it is to that extent more plausible.

Yet it may be capable of being challenged. Although there is no positive reading of `partial’, despite common misconceptions to the contrary, maybe we would want it anyway. A criticism of Rawls’s views on what we would choose in the original position may equally be made of Nagel and that is that both philosophers present conceptions on which we are all immensely, in fact infinitely risk-averse.

And we aren’t. Nor should we be. If there is going to be some rolling of the dice, we may as well have some stakes to make it more interesting.

Finally, there is a further problem for Nagel in that even if he is right, we may not want him to be. These two standpoints can only conflict. His view would need to be suppressed even if it were correct, so fortunately, it isn’t.

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