Review: Thomas Nagel’s “Mortal Questions”

by Miles Raymer


The title of Thomas Nagel’s Mortal Questions may appear to promise a set of inquiries with reachable termination points, but in fact the opposite is true. 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. Nagel is nobly driven to confront issues that are “multiple, complex, often cloudy, and mixed up with many others,” and to plumb the intellectual depths of situations where “we may have evidence for the truth of something we cannot really understand” (141, 177).

While I applaud this approach and enjoy Nagel’s able writing, I find his arguments to be of inconsistent quality. The essays that explore scientific topics are quite dated and will prove generally unimpressive to anyone familiar with the last few decades of research in experimental psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience. The essay “Panpsychism,” while containing a few nuggets of good sense, is rife with musings that could pass muster in the ’70s but seem laughable now. There are similar problems with the essays that address sexuality, the relationship between biology and ethics, and the mind-body problem.

The obvious exception is “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?”, which remains a landmark statement of why consciousness is such a difficult subject to wrap our heads around. Nagel focuses on the specificity of what it is like to be various kinds of conscious or semi-conscious entities, as well as the intellectual commitments that follow from accepting consciousness as a gradated and pluralistic phenomenon. Even for those who accept a physicalist/materialist account of consciousness and view internal experience as essentially an illusion (which I do), this essay survives as an apt articulation of thorny questions that still tease us today.

The pieces that really shine in this collection are Nagel’s existential and sociopolitical critiques. I am especially impressed with the “The Absurd,” “Moral Luck,” and “The Policy of Preference.” I shall analyze the first two together since I see them as attacking the same set of intellectual queries, and then discuss the third on its own.

“The Absurd” is a terrific expansion of the idea that Albert Camus popularized in his classic essay “An Absurd Reasoning.” While Camus posits the absurd as the taunting contrast between the world as we find it and the world as we imagine it might be, Nagel argues that the absurd “derives not from a collision between our expectations and the world, but from a collision within ourselves” (17). This collision arises from our understanding of two opposing viewpoints: (1) from an outside perspective, human life is patently meaningless, and (2) from an internal perspective, we cannot help but take ourselves seriously. This is a clever reinterpretation of Camus’s original conundrum, one that I believe has important consequences for how we should understand free will (or rather, the absence of free will).

Before attempting to cash out that last point, it will be useful to take up Nagel’s 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 him…as an object of moral judgment” (26). In other words, we become morally lucky if influences outside our control cause events for which we can take (or are granted by others) moral credit, and we become morally unlucky when the opposite is true. Nagel doesn’t shy away from the weighty implications of this, stating clearly that “nothing or almost nothing about what a person does seems to be under his control” (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 nature’s 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 forces…Our behaviors are constantly shaped by an array of subterranean forces…that, not that long ago, we didn’t know existed. (Behave603, 605)

The same is true for external forces that enter into our bodies and become themselves internal, subterranean forces (weather, social relationships, nutrients, etc.). As Nagel puts it:

As the external determinants of what someone has done are gradually exposed, in their effect on consequences, character, and choice itself, it becomes gradually clear that actions are events and people things. 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)

Nagel’s 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. Taking moral luck seriously also prioritizes compassion when dealing with those who are morally unlucky, etiolating arguments that a morally unlucky person deserves a nasty fate as punishment for having executed a series of bad choices that could have been avoided.

Returning now to the absurd, we can see how moral luck interacts with our adolescent but inescapable need to take ourselves seriously. We long for things to matter gravely and crave recognition for bringing about circumstances that are favorable to us and others. But in reality our lives are meaningless and we are rushing downstream, self-reflective but not -controlled passengers riding an endless current of causality that decides moment to moment what we are and where we go. Nagel’s description is better:

That is the main condition of absurdity––the 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). These “actions” are just events, observable transpirings of our dragooned nature, like sunsets or winter storms.

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 defiance…I 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 insight––the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought…[If] 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. Accepting our inability to resolve the absurdity of our lives, we can fall back on the assurance that there is nothing boring or simplistic about humans and the world that contains us. Despite our many negative capacities, we are also endowed with capacities for discovery, for euphoria, for growth, for love. The significance of these small miracles and our gratitude for their unnecessary existence need not be tarnished by the reality that we did not and cannot choose them, and their ultimate meaninglessness need not contravene their meaningfulness to our little lives in the here and now.

The last essay I’d like to discuss is one that I wish would rise to public prominence is this time of social and political strife. “The Policy of Preference” is a nuanced and smart examination of how we should attempt to ameliorate some of the deepest divisions that threaten civil society. For us Americans, the most obvious of these are our despicable histories of slaveryracial discrimination, and gender discrimination, the consequences of which have been dire and pervasive in our national narrative, even as the worst results of embedded inequity have attenuated over time.

Nagel delves into the difficult question of whether the act of creating a policy of preference such as affirmative action is compatible with justice. 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. And since any quality that can conceivably bring about a reward obtains solely from moral luck, it becomes clear that any system of differential reward is indefensible. No one deserves anything. The logical next step is to conclude that, in a just society, everyone ought to get a fair piece of what’s available. The struggle to define and distribute a “fair piece” to everyone is of course not easy or uncomplicated, but the crucial point is that the project of just distribution need not by necessity focus on any particular group or groups that have been discriminated against (although there is certainly no prohibition against that). All people are potentially vulnerable to injustice and suffering, depending on circumstance; no one has a monopoly on lousy moral luck.

In our hyper-polarized political climate, I cannot over-stress the importance of this unifying view, which overrides superficial differences in identity without denying their contextual importance. Solving injustice is not about obsessing over what people look like or how they act or speak, but rather about identifying societal systems that allow for and perpetuate occurrences of unfair distribution and doing the hard work of remaking those systems with the help of allies who also want a better world. Critically, the details of how this “better world” will be and the language used to describe it need not align perfectly in order for people from different backgrounds and experiences to cooperate in common cause; dogmatism in this regard is a surefire way to kill coalitions that would prove otherwise capable of affecting widespread change.

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. We will get there by privileging our capacities for responsible reasoning, compassionate understanding and fair compromise. In the service of this goal, Nagel cautions against two dangers:

One is the danger of romantic defeatism, which abandons rational theory because it inevitably leaves many problems unsolved. The other is the danger of exclusionary overrationalization, which bars as irrelevant or empty all considerations that cannot be brought within the scope of a general system admitting explicitly defensible conclusions. This yields skewed results by counting only measurable or otherwise precisely describable factors, even when others are in fact relevant. The alternative is to recognize that the legitimate grounds of decision are extremely various and understood to different degrees…The lack of a general theory leads too easily into a false dichotomy: either fall back entirely on the unsystematic intuitive judgment of whoever has to make a decision, or else cook up a unified but artificial system…which will grind out decisions on any problem presented to it. (137, 139)

Our political and social lives are currently riddled with these seductive mentalities. On every issue, we see one side clamoring for the abandonment of reason in service of blind ideology, even as the other zealously applies an oversimplified systemic solution that ignores the true complexity of the problem. Those in the middle must devote ourselves to the calm creation and assiduous defense of common ground.

Rating: 7/10