Nagel’s absolutism

Class notes for 8 March

Main points

Like Gewirth, Nagel attempts to defend absolutism, the view that there are some things that should never be done, no matter what the consequences.

Nagel’s defense of absolutism consists in presenting a rationale for absolutism. We raised a variety of questions about this rationale. Is it internally consistent? Does it show that the distinction between what one does and what one allows to happen is as significant as the absolutist takes it to be?

Unlike Gewirth, Nagel left open the possibility that a person could be stuck in a situation where any action would be wrong. He called these situations “moral blind alleys.”

Blind alleys

In extreme circumstances, when following the absolutist prohibition would result in very great harm, we will be in a moral blind alley: either doing or failing to do the prohibited act would be wrong.

What seems right about that to me is that the moral rules may not have a complete ranking of options, showing that for every pair of actions one is better than the other: some comparisons may not be possible.

Here’s a question about moral blind alleys. Why say either option would be wrong? Why not say that either option would be the right thing to do or, at least, that neither one would be wrong? After all, something has to be done, one way or the other.

Caitlin found this attractive. She added that in these cases it’s the situation that is to blame, not the person. Who would blame the person for doing the “wrong” thing in these circumstances? And if there’s no blame, what does it mean to call the action wrong?

A possible answer is that it’s important to note when wrong has been done. There are obvious symbolic reasons for that. But there are also more concrete ones as well.

For example, one might well think that those who are harmed deserve compensation. But if the party that harmed them did nothing wrong did the harm, it wouldn’t owe anything to anyone: if what I did was the right thing, there’s nothing for me to make up for. So it could well be important to identify the behavior in moral blind alleys as wrong.

So, for instance, one might well think that the government has to detain or hurt the innocent in order to prevent terrorist attacks but, at the same time, that it owes compensation to those who were hurt because they were wronged and the government is the party that wronged them.