I have trouble understanding why critics of Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos are coming down so hard on his belief that value statements---particularly ethical ones, can (some of them, at any rate) be objectively true or false. I'll consider two examples here. Brad DeLong's objection seems to me based primarily on his continued mistaken view that Nagel views his reason as infallible. It's therefore not specific to the case of moral or other value judgments. Simon Blackburn's objections are more interesting because they are more specific to value judgments, and better address Nagel's actual position.
Brad DeLong seems to think that Nagel's juxtaposition of reasoning in the form modification of a belief about the direction one is driving in, because of its inconsistency with newly acquired evidence, with reasoning like Nagel's "I oppose the abolition of the inheritance tax... because I recognize that the design of property rights should be sensitive not only to autonomy but also to fairness..." is self-evidently ridiculous. Says Brad:
"I do wonder: Does Gene Callahan have any idea what he has committed himself to when he endorses Thomas Nagel's claim that Nagel has transcendent direct access to truths of objective reality? I think not:
Thomas Nagel: [...my (HB's) ellipsis here, in place of a typo by Brad that repeated part of his own introduction, quoted above, to this quote...] I decide, when the sun rises on my right, that I must be driving north instead of south... because I recognize that my belief that I am driving south is inconsistent with that observation, together with what I know about the direction of rotation of the earth. I abandon the belief because I recognize that it could not be true.... I oppose the abolition of the inheritance tax... because I recognize that the design of property rights should be sensitive not only to autonomy but also to fairness...
Game, set, match, and tournament!"
That last sentence, which is Brad's, seems revealing of a mindset that sometimes creeps into his writing in his blog, less aimed at truth than at victory in some argumentative competition. I like a lot of what he does on his blog, but that attitude, and the related one that reads like an attempt to exhibit his hip and with-it-ness by using internet jargon that the unhip like me have to google ("self-pwnage", which Callahan is said to have committed), are not so appealing. The "transcendent direct access" I have already argued is mostly a straw-man of Brad's own creation, Nagel's point being primarily that (as says immediately following what Brad has quoted) "As the saying goes, I operate in the space of reasons." One aspect of operating in the space of reasons is trying to preserve some consistency between ones various beliefs; that seems to be the nub of the driving example (but we should not forget the important point that there is more than just deductive logic going on here... we have to decide which of the contradictory beliefs to give up). And we are also to some extent doing so (preserving consistency) in the case of the inheritance tax, though the full argument in this case is likely to be much more involved and less clear than in the case of the driving example. Nagel is arguing that we try to square our beliefs about the particular case of the inheritance tax with general beliefs that we (may) hold about how social institutions like property rights should be designed. Focusing on this consistency issue, though, can --- in both factual and ethical situations --- obscure the essential role of factors other than mere consistency in the process of reasoning about what beliefs to hold. As I mentioned in earlier posts, Nagel gives this somewhat short shrift, notably by not discussing inductive reasoning much, though he's clear about the fact that it's needed. But it's remarkable that DeLong---who I would guess shares Nagel's views on the inheritance tax, and possibly even his reasons (although he may also find some strength in arguments involving "social welfare functions) should think that this passage grounds an immediate declaration of victory. I guess it's because he wrongly thinks the issue is about "direct transcendent access".
Even more remarkable is philosopher Simon Blackburn's very similar reaction---if, as I am guessing, his example of "why income distribution in the US is unjust" is prompted in part by Nagel's reference to the inheritance tax. There are points I agree with in Blackburn's article, but then there is this:
According to Nagel, Darwinians can explain, say, why we dislike pain and seek to minimize bringing it about for ourselves and for others we love. But, Nagel thinks, for the Darwinian, its “real badness” can be no part of the explanation of why we are averse to it. So it is another mystery how real badness and other real normative properties enter our minds. Nagel here manifests his founding membership of a peculiar and fortunately local philosophical subculture that thrives by resolutely dismissing the resources of the alternative, Humean picture, which sees our judgement that pain is a bad thing as a useful expression of our natural aversion to it. All he says about this is that it “denies that value judgements can be true in their own right”, which he finds implausible. He is silent about why he thinks this, perhaps wisely, if only because nobody thinks that value judgements are true in their own right. The judgement that income distribution in the US is unjust, for instance, is not true in its own right. It is true in virtue of that fact that after decades of lobbying, chief executives of major companies earn several hundred times the income of their rank-and-file workers. It is true because of natural facts.
Parenthetically, but importantly: I agree with Blackburn's characterization of Nagel as believing that the "real badness"
of pain cannot be a main part of a Darwinian explanation of our aversion to pain. And I disagree with this belief of Nagel's.
However, I don't know what's so peculiar and local about resolutely dismissing (sometimes with plenty of discussion, though one virtue of Nagel's book is that it is short, so a point like this may not get extensive discussion) the Humean view here that this badness is just "natural aversion". But in any case, Blackburn's discussion of his example is truly weird. It seems reasonable to view a statement like "income distribution in the US is unjust" as true both because of the "natural facts" Blackburn cites, which explain how it has come to be what it is, and because of the component where the actual "values" come in, which give reasons for our belief that this high degree of inequality, is in fact unjust. True, according to some theories of justice, e.g. a libertarian one, the genesis of a pattern of income and wealth distribution may be germane to whether or not it is just. Blackburn might be adducing such an explanation, since he mentions "lobbying" as a cause (and not, say "hard work"). But if so, he still hasn't explained: what's wrong with lobbying? Why does it cast doubt on the justice of the resulting outcome? What Nagel means by value judgements being true "in their own right" is not likely that every statement with a value component, like Blackburn's about US income and wealth distribution, is true in and of itself and no reasons can be given for it. What I think he means is that at some point, probably at many different points, there enters into our beliefs about matters of value an element of irreducible judgement that something is right or wrong, good or bad, and that this is objective, not just a matter of personal taste or "natural aversion". What Blackburn's statement reads most like, due to his emphasis on "natural facts", is an attempt to substitute the causal factors leading to US income distribution being what it is, for the moral and political considerations---quite involved, perhaps subtle, and certainly contentious---that have led many to judge that it should not be what it is. It's quite clear from Nagel's discussion of the inheritance tax what he thinks some of those considerations are: "autonomy and fairness". I just don't understand how someone could think that Blackburn's discussion of why US income distribution is unjust is better than an account in terms of concepts like autonomy and fairness---the sort of account that Nagel would obviously give. I've gotten some value from parts of Blackburn's work, even parts of this article, but this part---if this reading is correct---seems monumentally misguided. Or does he think that the rest of the explanation is that human beings just have a "natural aversion" to income distribution that is as unequal, or perhaps as influenced by lobbying, as the US's currently is. But you might think that a cursory look at a large part of the Republican party in the US would have disabused him of that notion.
Perhaps I'm being excessively snarky here...advocates, like Blackburn, of the natural aversion view would probably argue that it needs to be supplemented and modified by reasoning.... perhaps it is just that the "irreducibly moral", as opposed to the deductive/analogical reasoning component, of this process, is still just a matter of natural aversion. I would think more Hobbesian considerations would come into play as well, but that is a matter for (you may be sorry to hear) another post.