Mortal Questions

Mortal Questions

by Thomas Nagel

Questions about our attitudes towards death, sexual behavior, social inequality, war and political power progress to more obviously philosophical problems regarding personal identity, consciousness, freedom and value.

  • Language: English
  • Category: Philosophy
  • Rating: 4.07
  • Pages: 213
  • Publish Date: June 28th 1991 by Cambridge University Press
  • Isbn10: 0521406765
  • Isbn13: 9780521406765

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Fourteen essays in this book tie together the question of how philosophy applies in everyday life. **** Absurdity Excellent topic with good insights ***** Sexual Perversion -- A logically poor survey of sexual attitudes, but a fascinating look at how philosophy doubly abstracts the subject from its instinctive and psychological nature.

Thomas Nagel began with the most abstract issues and areas in philosophy to reach concrete issues: metaphysics-> epistemoligy,-> philosophy of mind-> Ethics-> political philosophy-> economics.

Still, surprising that Nagel would fail to look into the huge variety of other reasons that philosophers have embraced the idea of death. I was excited to read it, as it draws on Camus' Sisyphus essay, which was one of the first works of "real" (i.e. not Christopher Pike's) philosophy I ever read. And I was really getting pleased, when I read Nagel's argument that we learn our standards of meaning within life, therefore we cannot use the same standards when we step outside of life, in order to look at the big picture. This lesson about when you can use what words (such as in the second essay, "justification" and "meaning") is throughout the book not taken seriously enough. There is a problem with using work-a-day definitions for philosophic thought, words understood according to their use in certain normal situations are plucked out of their context and made in this innocent form to take part in exotic dances.

This collection of short essays explores a slew of multifaceted and often-insouble problems surrounding the nature of human society and experiential life that Nagel pondered during the 1970s. Before attempting to cash out that last point, it will be useful to take up Nagels views on moral luck, which he defines as a situation Where a significant aspect of what someone does depends on factors beyond his control, yet we continue to treat himas an object of moral judgment (26). Though it would be a stretch to claim that the issue of free will has been settled since this essay was first written, contemporary research generally concords with this conclusion, indicating that what we usually call free will is merely a placeholder for our incomplete understanding of natures causal mechanisms. With a little help from Marvin Minsky, Robert Sapolsky explains: "The artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky once defined free will as 'internal forces I do not understand.' People intuitively believe in free will, not just because we have this terrible human need for agency but also because most people know next to nothing about those internal forcesOur behaviors are constantly shaped by an array of subterranean forcesthat, not that long ago, we didnt know existed." ( Behave , 603, 605) The same is true for external forces that enter into our bodies and become themselves internal, subterranean forces (weather, social relationships, nutrients, etc.). Eventually nothing remains that can be ascribed to the responsible self, and we are left with nothing but a portion of the larger sequence of events, which can be deplored or celebrated, but not blamed or praised." (37) Nagels concept of moral luck is a wonderful and humbling way to accept non-agency, and to generate gratitude for whatever moral luck we come across, knowing surely that we did not cause it and therefore do not deserve it. Nagels description is better: "That is the main condition of absurditythe dragooning of an unconvinced transcendent consciousness into the service of an immanent, limited enterprise like a human life." (22) So, taking or being given moral credit for actions we are not responsible for (which is every action) is just as absurd as receiving blame for actions we are not responsible for (which is every action). Lest we should conclude that the only available route from here is a descent into jaded skepticism about the possibility goodness or meaning in life, Nagel comes to our rescue: "Our absurdity warrants neither that much distress nor that much defianceI would argue that absurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistomology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kind of insightthe capacity to transcend ourselves in thoughtIf 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." (22-3) This may seem like an intellectual cop-out to some, but I see it as a genuine solution to an unsolvable problem. His fair conclusion is that such policies are compatible with justice, but Nagel is careful to acknowledge that policies of preference do not always solve the problems they purport to address, and also that their implementation does not come without significant cost: "When we try to deal with the inequality in advantages that results from a disparity in qualifications (however produced) between races or sexes, we are up against a feature of the system which at every turn exacts costs and presents obstacles in response to attempts to reduce the inequalities. We must face the possibility that the primary injustice with which we have to contend lies in this feature itself, and that some of the worst aspects of what we now perceive as racial or sexual injustice are merely conspicuous manifestations of the great social injustice of differential reward." (96) By differential reward, Nagel means that human resources are everywhere distributed unfairly due to systems that reward people based on certain qualities (skills, accomplishments, inheritance, nepotism, chance, etc.), each of which is not equally accessible to all members of society. All of this brings us to a well-trodden truth that is sadly sidelined in much of modern discourse: in order to solve the many problems that ail us, we must rediscover our common humanity and insist on its status as our most important (not the only important) policy of preference.

"Moral Luck" and "What is it like to be a bat?" are oft-cited works in other books i've read, which is why i initially bought this collection. The essay makes me want to give it yet another try even though i'll probably fail yet again. I will try to remember to seek out smarter people than i who have written about the essay and about the book in ways that i can understand so that eventually i'll be capable of translating Nagel's words into something i'll retain.

I was expecting it to be more interesting or perhaps relevant to questions that I've had on the subject that I've posed to myself.

Thomas Nagel is an American philosopher, currently University Professor and Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, where he has taught since 1980.