Nagel’s Natural Law

In his chapter on “values” Nagel looks to work out the implications of a very strong version of moral realism, or what he calls Values Realism. Briefly, Nagel insists that the sense in which moral values gives us reason to act is an objective sense. Using his example–a problematic example, as we’ll see–that doing A to someone will cause them pain is a reason not to do A, not because I (or anyone) believes causing pain is (ceteris paribus) bad, but because it truly is bad. This means I have a reason not to do A even if I fail to realize it, strongly believe otherwise, might achieve my goals by doing A, and so on. As he puts it, “That there is a reason to do what will avoid grievous harm to a sentient creature is…one of the kinds of things that can be true itself.”

I want to look at two things here. The first is Nagel’s choice of sample intrinsic goods and evils, pleasure and pain. Little of his overall argument turns on this, but I think the claim that these have intrinsic moral values is both problematic and revealing. Secondly, I think that to come close to making good on this picture Nagel once gain needs a much more robust sense of natural teleology than he gives himself in this work. Just why pleasure and pain are dubious candidates for intrinsic goods and evils points to this conclusion.

Nagel’s Value Realism has several striking affinities with Natural Law Theory. One of these is in his assimilation of moral value into a picture of practical reason. According to both, in the way way rational consideration of relevant factors can lead us to believe certain things, so too can it compel us to act. When it comes to acting, basic goods, or values as Nagel also says, play the role that truth values and the principle of non-contradiction play in thinking. In the case of thought, that a proposition contradicts one I believe with great confidence to be true is reason to reject it; in the second that an act will work against a known good is reason to refrain from doing it. So far, a ‘New Natural Lawyer’ like John Finnis would I think find little to reject in the picture Nagel is sketching. An apparent divergence comes however with Nagel’s use of pleasure and pain as basic values, as pleasure and the avoidance of pain are not recognized by Natural Lawyers (new or otherwise) as basic goods. I think there are plausible reasons to keep pain and pleasure off the list: pain can be good insofar as it serves a more basic good than itself (such as health), and similar things can obviously said about pleasure. And I think it is doubtful that more basic values can be analyzed in terms of pleasure and pain.

In itself this isn’t too relevant to Nagel’s stated goals. Nothing of his larger point turns on the examples of pain and pleasure, and he acknowledges other kinds of basic goods that are closer what a John Finnis has in mind. But I do think the examples points to some further worries about Nagel’s picture. In particular, it seems unlikely that Nagel is right that the mere fact that aspirin will relieve headaches gives me a reason to provide aspirin to someone with a headache (his example). This is true only against a background understanding of the good of human health, the place of both headaches and pain relief in the furthering of that good, and the details of situation. It’s the relation between the immediate facts and the basic goods–what Natural Lawyers call “pre-moral goods”–that reveals the proper course of action, or, as we might also put it, the morally right thing to do.

To make his picture sound more plausible, I think Nagel would have to add something to the effect I can know that I should, ceteris paribus, give aspirin to someone with a headache only if I have grasped some deep facts about a structured complex of human goods. Pace Nagel, the truth this kind of statement does, on his own account, point to truth of a more basic kinds. Though he resists it, I think Nagel cannot avoid ultimately invoking a robust metaphysical picture here that will account for the precise range of human goods, our ability to know them, and how they are ordered. He comes close to confronting this when he moves to ground his basic values in the biological “functioning” of individual living things. As he quickly acknowledges, however, this move leads both to values pluralism (indeed it would seem to be a wildly profligate version of values pluralism) and the need for a way to adjudicate between the doubtlessly immense number of clashes between all these values once they are recognized by conscious beings.

Nagel of course points to his vaguely sketched natural teleology as the place where we find this underlying metaphysical picture, but suffice to say here too it seems fair to wonder whether he has given himself enough to work with. He writes, “according to the hypothesis of natural teleology, the natural world would have a propensity to give rise to beings of the kind that have a good–beings for which things can be good or bad.”  Nagel then acknowledge that this means that “the emergence of value is the emergence of both good and evil”, not merely in the sense that any thing with a good can be frustrated in its pursuit of it, but also because what is good for one organism is often enough bad for another, a result that seems to undermine any suggestion that harmed suffered by an organism is necessarily bad in any objective sense. Nagel suggests we will sort this out by reference to human goods, making them our standard for what should be sacrificed for what. But it’s surely a short step from here to egoism. That it will keep me from hitting a dog will give me a reason to hit the brakes only if I give positive moral weight to the goods of a dogs. But what compels me to do that? Surely it has to be more than the mere fact that it harms a dog to be hit by cars.

What Nagel wants is not just a world that tends towards the emergence of natural or biological goods of the sort we point to when we say “Sunlight is good for roses.” He wants a world that is morally ordered according to reason, so that it’s irrational to prefer the destruction of the world over a scratch on my finger. And it takes more than a world that tends towards beings that can do better or worse by their own lights to give us that.

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