In "Living Right and Living Well", Thomas Nagel addresses the apparent conflicts in ethics between the moral life and the good life. He recognizes that, ethics should not only tell us how we should live, but also how to live well. The fundamental conflict that Nagel says has not been resolved, however, is the problem that results when the two elements contradict each other. He addresses the seriousness of the issue in the beginning of the essay when he states, “The admission of a variety of motivational elements among the sources of morality results in a system that reflects the divisions of the self. It does not resolve or eliminate those divisions (189).” The reality of this division is rejected by some, and the idea of a moral life being founded in an account of human good is considered but ultimately rejected by Nagel. In this post I will discuss his reasons for doing so and then address some problems that result from it.
The heart of Nagel’s interpretation of the moral life rests on the idea of an “impersonal morality.” The idea that individuals must order our actions towards the objective reality that our wellbeing is no more important than anyone else’s. The moral life is one that rejects personal prejudices towards oneself or loved ones and acts in a way that is wholly selfless. “… the welfare and the projects of others should be accorded as much weight as my own and those of people I care about: that I should be as impartial between myself and others as I would be between people I don’t know (201).” This makes claims beyond merely rejecting prejudice or the standard definitions of selfishness. The problem that he attempts to resolve is that it seems to go against the commonly held perception that living a moral life is conducive to one’s personal happiness. One’s life would be wholly absorbed in fulfilling the requirements towards every other individual that was less fortunate that oneself. The attainment of personal goods would be out of the question until the needs of everyone else were addressed. Indeed, Nagel recognizes “It is clear that a strongly impersonal morality, with any significant requirements of impartiality, can pose a serious threat to the kind of personal life that many of us take to be desirable (190).” But that does not change the fact that these claims may still be justifiable. After all, the question is not whether these duties are difficult but whether they are true. And since Nagel is assuming impersonal morality as a foundation of his account of ethics, his task is to explain why this idea is reasonable and how it relates to the general welfare of individuals.
From the start, Nagel is attempting to harmonize the elements of the moral, the good, and the rational. His hope is to use reason to balance out the claims made by both the moral life and the good life. He says “We must so to speak strike a bargain between our higher and lower selves in arriving at an acceptable morality (203).” To live a life that denied all of the goods of personal wellbeing would simply be too much to ask-it would in fact be irrational. Since the claims of the good life and the moral life are apposed to each other in this sense, compromise is the only solution. According to this idea, a proper account of ethics would require that an individual must live morally but not too morally, or at least not so moral that their good life is sacrificed to the degree that it would be unreasonable to require. “The result is likely to be that at some threshold, hard to define, we will conclude that it is unreasonable to expect people in general to sacrifice themselves and those to whom they have close personal ties to the general good (203).” The important part of this argument is not the conclusion that Nagel reaches as much as his justifications for it. Ultimately, the moral life and the good life are inevitably opposed; it is rationality that balances the two.
Generally speaking, however, this approach seems overly simplified to account for everyday human experience. Nagel’s views about the nature of moral claims centers around the idea that the good life for an individual which is subjective, should sacrifice itself for the objective claims that contradict it. In other words, it leaves no room for the possibility of a general good. To thrive, in his view, is to thrive as an individual; to be moral is to check your personal goods in order to help along the personal goods of other people. We are, in a sense, isolated entities who nonetheless have an obligation to assist one another’s personal endeavors to the degree that we are interested in our own. The two problems become apparent with this view. First, the lack of any real account of a good that goes beyond the flourishing of an individual combined with the demands of an impersonal morality makes the cultivation of friendship difficult to justify on the basis of the human good. Secondly, the justification for acting selflessly has its basis in an asserted principle rather than any claims towards the good for human beings. In other words, acting according to an impersonal morality may be the right thing to do, but its not necessarily a good thing to do, and it definitely shouldn’t be counted on for happiness or general wellbeing.
This is ultimately why the justification for morality cannot be derived from an account of the good for human beings according to Nagel. “Moral requirements have their source in the claims of other persons, and the moral force of those claims cannot be strictly limited by their capacity to be accommodated within the good individual life (197). The disagreement is twofold: Since impersonal morality only makes sense in terms of claims made from one individual on another, they cannot be seen as an aide in the general wellbeing of an individual or communal flourishing, only a necessary sacrifice. And since any account of the good life is individualistic by definition, it cannot be compatible with morality inasmuch as it is wholly objective and selfless. So the moral cannot be derived from the good because the good is too personal and the moral is too impersonal. Both of these assumptions are problematic because they separate the moral standards of an ethic from its motivational element. Nagel’s interpretation of the good life, although somewhat inadequate, still stands for what he considers a life of happiness. The justification for sacrificing a purely selfish pursuit of happiness is solely because such a life would not conform to his concept of impersonal morality.
This has a good deal in common with Nietzsche’s account of slave morality. His critique of the moral life was that it had no justification other than the personal assertions of the individuals that institute it. Nagel’s moral system has nothing to stand on because it is based on an account of selflessness that is objective in name only. In response to the question, “Why shouldn’t I pursue my good life without any regard for the wellbeing of others?” Nagel can only respond, “Because that would be immoral.” And if asked why one shouldn’t be immoral, his only response is that it would be wrong, or that it would be irrational. The justification is circular and rooted in assertion because it means little more than “We should balance our own pursuits with a genuine concern for the wellbeing of others because I just think that’s the right thing to do.” Sacrificing personal wellbeing to such a standard would be irrational. In addressing the Nietzschian arguments against morality, Nagel is reduced to making unsure statements of personal preference “I am inclined strongly to hope, and less strongly to believe, that the correct morality will always have the preponderance of reason on its side, even though it needn’t coincide with the good life (199).” According to his terms he has no other answer. Beyond personal preference for the ideas, following such maxims only renders one a slave to morality-reducing one’s chances for happiness by subscribing to the personal assertions of someone else.
Nagel has no answer for Nietzsche because his claims take happiness out of the equation when talking about morality. To act is to act towards some good, either real or perceived. It is a statement that cannot be argued without assuming it as a given. To try to base an ethics from an alternative method is simply adding an element to the statement. Nagel statement that, “There is pressure from the moral standpoint itself to adjust those demands so that they converge with the condition of full human rationality, though not the condition of a good life (205)” only makes sense if it asserts that living in accordance with full human rationality is a good. The statement “One should not live a good life but a rationally moral life” defeats itself because it is only justified by “It is good to live a rational moral life.” The answer to Nietzsche’s purely selfish individual is not simply that he would be living an immoral life, but that the immoral life would render him miserable. It would be acting against his own good as well as the good of the community. Ultimately in rejecting that the moral life is derived from the good life, Nagel is rejecting the only answer to the Nietzschian critique of morality