The Balance of Harms: Impersonal Morality and Personal Pursuits

Nagel on Morality, The View from Nowhere, (New York and Oxford: OUP, 1986)

The Balance of Harms: Impersonal Morality and Personal Pursuits

Morality has an objective basis but is not entirely impersonal. Practical reasoning enables us to get at the basis of morality. What do when the impersonal aspect of morality impinges on us as individuals with our own lives to lead? This is a problem of real life, as much as it is an issue for philosophical theory. For example, the life that is desirable to me – the freedom to eat in expensive restaurants, to go to the opera, to buy another pair of shows, costs enough to feed a dozen starving families in a third world country. Impersonal morality thus impinges on the individual’s desire to lead the life that he wants:

‘The magnitude of the world’s problems and the inequality in access to its resources produce a weight of potential guilt that may, depending on one’s own temperament, require considerable ingenuity to keep roped down’ [190].

Can true morality be so demanding as to place consideration of impersonal moral demands upon individuals, and should we just refuse such demands in order to ourselves lead good lives? Integrity in our own personal projects and commitment to particular people in our lives are surely morally pure motives for good conduct. Impersonal morality seems to effect a ‘cost in alienation from one’s projects and one’s own life [that is] too high’ [191]. This position points to a tension between the relative positions of the good life and the moral life. The tension produces three questions: 1) are the good life and the moral life logically independent? 2) if they are not, which determines the content of the other and has logical priority? 3) if they are, which has priority in determining how we should live?

It is necessary for utilitarian’s and Kantians to effect a reconciliation which balances out the negative impact of impersonal morality on our own lives with a sense that the moral life is nevertheless better than the immoral life. Nagel claims that such a reconciliation is not possible, and moreover that it is unnecessary for ‘the defence of morality’ [195]. Both aspects of moral life – knowing what we are supposed to do and how to lead a good life – are part of the task of moral theory, thus ‘the conflict between them probably cannot be eliminated from any plausible view’ [195].

There are five alternatives outlined by Nagel, which encompass key themes in ethical and moral theory:

(1) The moral life is defined in terms of the good life (Aristotle)

(2) The good life is defined in terms of the moral life (Plato)

These two alternatives admit of no possible conflict because of their internal relation.

(3) The good life overrides the moral life (Nietzsche): for instance leading to the notion that morality is bad

(4) The moral life overrides the good life (Utilitarianism): for instance, I might have to sacrifice a good life to protect the good of the totality of individuals

(5) Neither the good life nor the moral life consistently overrides the other: for instance, each are supported by reasons which vary in their relative strength

Nagel’s view, which inclines to (4), is that ‘while doing the right thing is part of living well it is not the whole of it, nor even the dominant part’ [197]. The impersonal claims of morality are just one aspect o the individual, and there are times in which doing the right thing ‘may cost more in terms of other aspects of the good life than it contributes to the good life in its own right’ [197]. This is part of Nagel’s broader claim that living well and doing right are distinguishable for whilst they are both things we have reason to want, ‘those reasons are generally of different kinds and come from different sources. Even if the reasons for each take all the facts into account, they don’t each include all the reasons there are’ [197].

Alienation can only be avoided if we can harmonise our personal projects with universal moral obligations: Nagel wants to argue that impersonal demands are as valid as individual desires. These aren’t imposed on us from outside; rather, they reflect our need to be accepted by ourselves from the outside. Impersonal morality is one aspect of the whole of human life, so everything depends upon how much weight is given to it within that full conception. Deciding on the weight depends on rationality, thus a third element is introduced alongside morality and ethics.

One would hope, though could not guarantee, that the preponderance of rationality – the weight of reasons – will always fall on the side of the correct morality. Rationality can be brought to bear on deicisions in three ways: reasons against are strong enough to make the act irrational; reasons for are strong enough that it makes the act rationally required; reasons for and against mean that the act is not rationally required by it would be irrational to act otherwise (rationally acceptable). Nagel now turns to the issue of rationality in morality, still maintaining that the one is distinguishable from the other: ‘moral reasoning must be applied to the question of how to draw rational conclusions between impersonal reasons and personal ones’ [201].

Impersonal morality demands that we objectively see our own happiness as having no greater worth than anyone else’s Further, impersonal reasons must be substantially weightier than personal considerations in order for the greater good to trump individual interest. Nonetheless, impersonal reasons must content with personal motives; these are the limits of our natural impersonal morality. On this view, there must come a point where we recognise that it is too much to expect individual sacrifice, in spite of the objective standpoint revealing the value of the impersonal demands being made. The moral standpoint should therefore ‘try to recognises and explain its own limits’ [203]. This is, in practical terms, the attempt to make the best of a bad situation, thus ‘some of the starker conflicts [between morality and the good life] will be softened by these reductions of moral demands due to tolerance’ [204].

So how do we go about managing this conflict in real life? Nagel mentions two approaches:

1) Personal conversion, which necessitates a ‘demand of human transformation’ [206]. By a ‘leap of transcendence’ [206], one is able to land somewhere with a totally different conception of the good life, one which automatically affords priority to the greater good. Where, however, does the impetus to make the leap come from? Though the conflict between moral and good life may seem acute, it is surely asking too much of every individual to engage in these acts of private heroism.

2) Political, which would hopefully negate the need for everyone to have personal conversion thus ensuring that the good life is built on something more solid and tangible. The way to do this is to arrange the world in such a way ‘so that everyone can live a good life without doing wrong’ [206]. Such a world would harmonise morality and the good life without abandoning either:

‘Instead we take the clash between personal values and impersonal morality to be a clash between ideals neither of which we should want to abandon, so that it presents us with the constructive task of creating a world in which the effective clash will be contingently reduced, if not eliminated, and the institutions under which we live wil make it possible for us to lead rich personal lives without denying the impersonal claims that derive from the needs of our billions of fellow inmates’ [206-7].

Political reconstruction of this kind does not have to mean a complete reconfiguration of ourselves as ‘new men’ who are ‘dominated by impersonal values so that [our] individual happiness consists in serving humanity’ [207], for that world would be a poorer one than the one in which institutions and individuals are able to pursue their own lives but with acknowledgement of the impersonal claims made upon them.


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