Thomas Nagel (; born July 4, 1937) is an American philosopher and University Professor of Philosophy and Law Emeritus at New York University, where he taught from 1980 to 2016. His main areas of philosophical interest are philosophy of mind, political philosophy and ethics.
Nagel is well known for his critique of materialreductionist accounts of the mind, particularly in his essay "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974), and for his contributions to deontological and liberal moral and political theory in The Possibility of Altruism (1970) and subsequent writings. He continued the critique of reductionism in Mind and Cosmos (2012), in which he argues against the neo-Darwinian view of the emergence of consciousness.
Life and career
Nagel was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), to a Jewish family. He is the son of Carolyn (Baer) and Walter Nagel. He received a BA in philosophy from Cornell University in 1958, where he was a member of the Telluride House and where he was introduced to the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein. He then attended the University of Oxford on a Fulbright Scholarship and received a BPhil in 1960; while there, he studied with J. L. Austin, and H. Paul Grice. He received his PhD in philosophy from Harvard University in 1963. At Harvard, Nagel studied under John Rawls, whom Nagel later called "the most important political philosopher of the twentieth century."
Nagel taught at the University of California, Berkeley (from 1963 to 1966) and at Princeton University (from 1966 to 1980), where he trained many well-known philosophers including Susan Wolf, Shelly Kagan, and Samuel Scheffler, the latter of whom is now his colleague at NYU.
Nagel is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and a Corresponding Fellow of the British Academy, and, in 2006, was elected as a member of the American Philosophical Society. He has held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. In 2008, he was awarded a Rolf Schock Prize for his work in philosophy, the Balzan prize, and the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from the University of Oxford.
In his work Mind and Cosmos, he notes that he is an atheist, writing, "I lack the sensus divinitatis that enables—indeed compels—so many people to see in the world the expression of divine purpose as naturally as they see in a smiling face the expression of human feeling.":12
Nagel began to publish philosophy at the age of twenty-two; his career now spans over fifty years of publication. Nagel thinks that each person, owing to his or her capacity to reason, instinctively seeks a unified world view. However, if this aspiration leads one to believe that there is only one way to understand our intellectual commitments, whether about the external world, knowledge, or what our practical and moral reasons ought to be, this leads one into error. For contingent, limited and finite creatures, no such unified world view is possible. That is because ways of understanding are not always better when they are more objective.
Like the British philosopher Bernard Williams, Nagel believes that the rise of modern science has permanently changed how people think of the world and our place in it. A modern scientific understanding is one way of thinking about the world and our place in it that is more objective than the common sense view it replaces. It is more objective because it is less dependent on our peculiarities as the kinds of thinkers that people are. Our modern scientific understanding involves the mathematicized understanding of the world represented by modern physics. Understanding this bleached out view of the world draws on our capacities as purely rational thinkers and fails to account for the specific nature of our perceptual sensibility. The way in which modern science and philosophy has drawn a distinction between the mathematically and structurally describable "primary qualities" of objects such as shape and solidity and those properties dependent on our sensory apparatus, "secondary qualities" such as taste and color, is a prime example that Nagel returns to repeatedly in his work.
Despite what may seem like skepticism about the objective claims of science, Nagel does not dispute that science describes the world that exists independently of us. His contention, rather, is that a given way of understanding a subject matter should not be regarded as better simply for being more objective. He argues that the objective viewpoint of scientific understanding, when applied to the mind, leaves out something essential and is fundamentally unable to help people fully understand themselves. In "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?" and elsewhere, he writes that science cannot describe what it like is to be a thinker who conceives of the world from a particular subjective perspective.
Nagel argues that some phenomena are not best grasped from a more objective perspective. The standpoint of the thinker does not present itself to him: he is that standpoint. One learns and uses mental concepts by being directly acquainted with one's own mind, whereas any attempt to think more objectively about mentality would abstract away from this fact. It would, of its nature, leave out what it is to be a thinker, and that, Nagel believes, would be a falsely objectifying view. Being a thinker is to have a subjective perspective on the world; if one abstracts away from this perspective one leaves out what he sought to explain.
Nagel thinks that philosophers over-impressed by the paradigm of the kind of objective understanding represented by modern science tend to produce theories of the mind that are falsely objectifying in precisely this kind of way. They are right to be impressed – modern science really is objective – but are wrong to take modern science to be the only paradigm of objectivity. The kind of understanding that science represents does not transfer to everything that people would like to understand.
As a philosophical rationalist, Nagel believes that a proper understanding of the place of mental properties in nature will involve a revolution in our understanding of both the physical and the mental, and that this is a reasonable prospect that people can anticipate in the near future. A plausible science of the mind will give an account of the stuff that underpins mental and physical properties in such a way that people will simply be able to see that it necessitates both of these aspects. At present, it seems to people that the mental and the physical are irreducibly distinct but that is not a metaphysical insight, or an acknowledgment of an irreducible explanatory gap, but simply where people are at their present stage of understanding.
Nagel's rationalism and tendency to present our human nature as a composite, structured around our capacity to reason, explains why he thinks that therapeutic or deflationary accounts of philosophy are simply complacent and that radical skepticism is, strictly speaking, irrefutable.[clarification needed] The therapeutic or deflationary philosopher, influenced by the later philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, reconciles people to the dependence of our worldview on our "form of life". Nagel accuses Wittgenstein and American philosopher of mind and language Donald Davidson of philosophical idealism. In both cases they ask people to take up an interpretative perspective to making sense of other speakers in the context of a shared, objective world. This, for Nagel, elevates contingent conditions of our make-up into criteria for that which is real. The result 'cuts the world down to size' and makes what there is dependent on what there can be interpreted to be. Nagel claims this is no better than more orthodox forms of idealism in which reality is claimed to be made up of mental items or claimed to be constitutively dependent on a form supplied by the mind.
Philosophy of mind
What is it like to be a something
Further information: What Is it Like to Be a Bat?
Nagel is probably most widely known within the field of philosophy of mind as an advocate of the idea that consciousness and subjective experience cannot, at least with the contemporary understanding of physicalism, be satisfactorily explained using the current concepts of physics. This position was primarily discussed by Nagel in one of his most famous articles: "What is it Like to Be a Bat?" (1974). The article's title question, though often attributed to Nagel, was originally posed by Timothy L.S. Sprigge. The article was originally published in 1974 in The Philosophical Review, and has been reprinted several times, including in The Mind's I (edited by Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter), Readings in the Philosophy of Psychology (edited by Ned Block), Nagel's Mortal Questions (1979), The Nature of Mind (edited by David M. Rosenthal), and Philosophy of Mind: Classical and Contemporary Readings (edited by David J. Chalmers).
In "What is it Like to Be a Bat?", Nagel argues that consciousness has essential to it a subjective character, a what it is like aspect. He states that "an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism—something it is like for the organism." His critics[who?] have objected strongly to what they see as a misguided attempt to argue from a fact about how one represents the world (trivially, one can only do so from his own point of view) to a false claim about the world, that it somehow has first personal perspectives built into it. On that understanding, Nagel is a conventional dualist about the physical and the mental. This is, however, a misunderstanding[according to whom?]: Nagel's point is that there is a constraint on what it is to possess the concept of a mental state, namely, that one be directly acquainted with it. Concepts of mental states are only made available to a thinker who can be acquainted with his/her own states; clearly, the possession and use of physical concepts has no corresponding constraint.
Part of the puzzlement here is because of the limitations of imagination: influenced by his Princeton colleague, Saul Kripke, Nagel believes that any type identity statement that identified a physical state type with a mental state type would be, if true, necessarily true. But Kripke argues that one can easily imagine a situation where, for example, one's C-fibres are stimulated but one is not in pain and so refute any such psychophysical identity from the armchair. (A parallel argument does not hold for genuine theoretical identities.) This argument that there will always be an explanatory gap between an identification of a state in mental and physical terms is compounded, Nagel argues, by the fact that imagination operates in two distinct ways. When asked to imagine sensorily, one imagines C-fibres being stimulated; if asked to imagine sympathetically, one puts oneself in a conscious state resembling pain. These two ways of imagining the two terms of the identity statement are so different that there will always seem to be an explanatory gap, whether or not this is the case. (Some philosophers of mind have taken these arguments as helpful for physicalism on the grounds that it exposes a limitation that makes the existence of an explanatory gap seem compelling, while others have argued that this makes the case for physicalism even more impossible as it cannot be defended even in principle.)
Nagel is not a physicalist because he does not believe that an internal understanding of mental concepts shows them to have the kind of hidden essence that underpins a scientific identity in, say, chemistry. But his skepticism is about current physics: he envisages in his most recent work that people may be close to a scientific breakthrough in identifying an underlying essence that is neither physical (as people currently think of the physical), nor functional, nor mental, but such that it necessitates all three of these ways in which the mind "appears" to us. The difference between the kind of explanation he rejects and those that he accepts depends on his understanding of transparency: from his earliest paper to his most recent Nagel has always insisted that a prior context is required to make identity statements plausible, intelligible and transparent.
Natural selection and consciousness
Further information: Mind and Cosmos
In his 2012 book Mind and Cosmos, Nagel argues against a materialist view of the emergence of life and consciousness, writing that the standard neo-Darwinian view flies in the face of common sense.:5-6 He writes that mind is a basic aspect of nature, and that any philosophy of nature that cannot account for it is fundamentally misguided.:16ff He argues that the principles that account for the emergence of life may be teleological, rather than materialist or mechanistic.:10 Despite Nagel's being an atheist and not a proponent of intelligent design (ID), his book was "praised by creationists", according to the New York Times. Nagel writes in Mind and Cosmos that he disagrees with both ID defenders and their opponents, who argue that the only naturalistic alternative to ID is the current reductionist neo-Darwinian model.:12
Nagel has argued that ID should not be rejected as non-scientific, for instance writing in 2008 that "ID is very different from creation science," and that the debate about ID "is clearly a scientific disagreement, not a disagreement between science and something else." In 2009, he recommended Signature in the Cell by the philosopher and ID proponent Stephen C. Meyer in The Times Literary Supplement as one of his "Best Books of the Year." Nagel does not accept Meyer's conclusions but he endorsed Meyer's approach, and argued in Mind and Cosmos that Meyer and other ID proponents, David Berlinski and Michael Behe, "do not deserve the scorn with which they are commonly met.":10 Nagel's views on ID have been criticized by some from the scientific community. Stephen Fletcher, a chemist at Loughborough University, wrote in The Times Literary Supplement in 2009 that Nagel "should not promote the [Meyer] book to the rest of us using statements that are factually incorrect."
Nagel's Rawlsian approach
Nagel has been highly influential in the related fields of moral and political philosophy. Supervised by John Rawls, Nagel has been a long-standing proponent of a Kantian and rationalist approach to moral philosophy. His distinctive ideas were first presented in the short monographThe Possibility of Altruism, published in 1970. That book seeks by reflection on the nature of practical reasoning to uncover the formal principles that underlie reason in practice and the related general beliefs about the self that are necessary for those principles to be truly applicable to us. Nagel defends motivated desire theory about the motivation of moral action. According to motivated desire theory, when a person is motivated to moral action it is indeed true that such actions are motivated – like all intentional actions – by a belief and a desire. But it is important to get the justificatory relations right: when a person accepts a moral judgment he or she is necessarily motivated to act. But it is the reason that does the justificatory work of justifying both the action and the desire. Nagel contrasts this view with a rival view which believes that a moral agent can only accept that he or she has a reason to act if the desire to carry out the action has an independent justification. An account based on presupposing sympathy would be of this kind.
The most striking claim of the book is that there is a very close parallel between prudential reasoning in one's own interests and moral reasons to act to further the interests of another person. When one reasons prudentially, for example about the future reasons that one will have, one allows the reason in the future to justify one's current action without reference to the strength of one's current desires. If a hurricane were to destroy someone's car next year at that point he will want his insurance company to pay him to replace it: that future reason gives him a reason, now, to take out insurance. The strength of the reason ought not to be hostage to the strength of one's current desires. The denial of this view of prudence, Nagel argues, means that one does not really believe that one is one and the same person through time. One is dissolving oneself into distinct person-stages.
This is the basis of his analogy between prudential actions and moral actions: in cases of altruistic action for another person's good that person's reasons quite literally become reasons for one if they are timeless and intrinsic reasons. Genuine reasons are reasons for anyone. Comparable to the views of the nineteenth century moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick, Nagel believes that one needs to conceive of one's good as an impersonal good and one's reasons as objective reasons. That means, practically, that a timeless and intrinsic value generates reasons for anyone. A person who denies the truth of this claim is committed, as in the case of a similar mistake about prudence, to a false view of him or herself. In this case the false view is that one's reasons are irreducibly his, in a way that does not allow them to be reasons for anyone: Nagel argues this commits such a person to the view that he or she cannot make the same judgments about her own reasons third-personally that she can make first-personally. Nagel calls this "dissociation" and considers it a practical analogue of solipsism (the philosophical idea that only one's own mind is sure to exist). Once again, a false view of what is involved in reasoning properly is refuted by showing that it leads to a false view of the nature of people.
Subjective and objective reasons
Nagel's later work on ethics ceases to place as much weight on the distinction between a person's personal or "subjective" reasons and his or her "objective" reasons. Earlier, in The Possibility of Altruism, he took the stance that if one's reasons really are about intrinsic and timeless values then, qua subjective reason, one can only take them to be the guise of the reasons that there really are – the objective ones. In later discussions, Nagel treats his former view as an incomplete attempt to convey the fact that there are distinct classes of reasons and values, and speaks instead of "agent-relative" and "agent-neutral" reasons. In the case of agent-relative reasons (the successor to subjective reasons) specifying the content of the reason makes essential reference back to the agent for whom it is a reason. An example of this might be: "Anyone has a reason to honor his or her parents." By contrast, in the case of agent-neutral reasons (the successor to objective reasons) specifying the content of the reason does not make any essential reference back to the person for whom it is a reason. An example of this might be: "Anyone has a reason to promote the good of parenthood."
The different classes of reasons and values (i.e., agent-relative and agent-neutral) emphasized in Nagel's later work are situated within a Sidgwickian model in which one's moral commitments are thought of objectively, such that one's personal reasons and values are simply incomplete parts of an impersonal whole. The structure of Nagel's later ethical view is that all reasons must be brought into relation to this objective view of oneself. Those reasons and values that withstand detached critical scrutiny are objective, but more subjective reasons and values can nevertheless be objectively tolerated. However, the most striking part of the earlier argument and of Sidgwick's view is preserved: agent-neutral reasons are literally reasons for anyone, so all objectifiable reasons become individually possessed no matter whose they are. Thinking reflectively about ethics from this standpoint, one must take every other agent's standpoint on value as seriously as one's own, since one's own perspective is just a subjective take on an inter-subjective whole; one's personal set of reasons is thus swamped by the objective reasons of all others.
World agent views
This is similar to "world agent" consequentialist views in which one takes up the standpoint of a collective subject whose reasons are those of everyone. But Nagel remains an individualist who believes in the separateness of persons so his task is to explain why this objective viewpoint does not swallow up the individual standpoint of each of us. He provides an extended rationale for the importance to people of their personal point of view. The result is a hybrid ethical theory of the kind defended by Nagel's Princeton PhD student Samuel Scheffler in The Rejection of Consequentialism. The objective standpoint and its demands have to be balanced with the subjective personal point of view of each person and its demands. One can always be maximally objective but one does not have to be. One can legitimately "cap" the demands placed on him by the objective reasons of others. In addition, in his later work, Nagel finds a rationale for so-called deontic constraints in a way Scheffler could not. Following Warren Quinn and Frances Kamm, Nagel grounds them on the inviolability of persons.
The extent to which one can lead a good life as an individual while respecting the demands of others leads inevitably to political philosophy. In the Locke lectures published as the book Equality and Partiality, Nagel exposes John Rawls'stheory of justice to detailed scrutiny. Once again, Nagel places such weight on the objective point of view and its requirements that he finds Rawls's view of liberal equality not demanding enough. Rawls's aim to redress, not remove, the inequalities that arise from class and talent seems to Nagel to lead to a view that does not sufficiently respect the needs of others. He recommends a gradual move to much more demanding conceptions of equality, motivated by the special nature of political responsibility. Normally people draw a distinction between that which people do and that which people fail to bring about. But this thesis, true of individuals, does not apply to the state, which is a collective agent. A Rawlsian state permits intolerable inequalities and people need to develop a more ambitious view of equality to do justice to the demands of the objective recognition of the reasons of others. For Nagel, honoring the objective point of view demands nothing less.
Nagel received the 1996 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay for Other Minds (1995). He has also been awarded the Balzan Prize in Moral Philosophy (2008), the Rolf Schock Prize in Logic and Philosophy of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (2008) and the Distinguished Achievement Award of the Mellon Foundation (2006).
- Nagel, Thomas (1970). The possibility of altruism. Princeton, N.J: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780691020020. (Reprinted in 1978, Princeton University Press.)
- Nagel, Thomas; Held, Virginia; Morgenbesser, Sidney (1974). Philosophy, morality, and international affairs: essays edited for the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195017595.
- Nagel, Thomas (1979). Mortal questions. London: Canto. ISBN 9780521406765.
- Nagel, Thomas (1986). The view from nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195056440.
- Nagel, Thomas (1987). What does it all mean?: a very short introduction to philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195174373.
- Nagel, Thomas (1991). Equality and partiality. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195098396.
- Nagel, Thomas (1997). The last word. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195149838. 
- Nagel, Thomas (1999). Other minds: critical essays, 1969–1994. New York Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195132465.
- Nagel, Thomas; Murphy, Liam (2002). The myth of ownership : taxes and justice. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195176568.
- Nagel, Thomas (2002). Concealment and exposure: and other essays. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195152937.
- Nagel, Thomas (2010). Secular philosophy and the religious temperament: essays 2002–2008. Oxford New York, N.Y: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195394115.
- Nagel, Thomas (2012). Mind and Cosmos: why the materialist neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false. Oxford New York: Oxford University Press, ISBN 9780199919758
- 1959, "Hobbes's Concept of Obligation", Philosophical Review, pp. 68–83.
- 1959, "Dreaming", Analysis, pp. 112–6.
- 1965, "Physicalism", Philosophical Review, pp. 339–56.
- 1969, "Sexual Perversion", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 5–17 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
- 1969, "The Boundaries of Inner Space", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 452–8.
- 1970, "Death", Nous, pp. 73–80 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
- 1970, "Armstrong on the Mind", Philosophical Review, pp. 394–403 (a discussion review of A Materialist Theory of the Mind by D. M. Armstrong).
- 1971, "Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness", Synthese, pp. 396–413 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
- 1971, "The Absurd", Journal of Philosophy, pp. 716–27 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
- 1972, "War and Massacre", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 1, pp. 123–44 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
- 1973, "Rawls on Justice", Philosophical Review, pp. 220–34 (a discussion review of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls).
- 1973, "Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 2, pp. 348–62.
- 1974, "What Is it Like to Be a Bat?", Philosophical Review, pp. 435–50 (repr. in Mortal Questions). Online text
- 1976, "Moral Luck", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society Supplementary vol. 50, pp. 137–55 (repr. in Mortal Questions).
- 1979, "The Meaning of Equality", Washington University Law Quarterly, pp. 25–31.
- 1981, "Tactical Nuclear Weapons and the Ethics of Conflict", Parameters: Journal of the U.S. Army War College, pp. 327–8.
- 1983, "The Objective Self", in Carl Ginet and Sydney Shoemaker (eds.), Knowledge and Mind, Oxford University Press, pp. 211–232.
- 1987, "Moral Conflict and Political Legitimacy", Philosophy & Public Affairs, pp. 215–240.
- 1994, "Consciousness and Objective Reality", in R. Warner and T. Szubka (eds.), The Mind-Body Problem, Blackwell.
- 1995, "Personal Rights and Public Space", Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 24, no. 2, pp. 83–107.
- 1997, "Assisted Suicide: The Philosophers' Brief" (with R. Dworkin, R. Nozick, J. Rawls, T. Scanlon, and J. J. Thomson), New York Review of Books, March 27, 1997.
- 1998, "Reductionism and Antireductionism", in The Limits of Reductionism in Biology, Novartis Symposium 213, John Wiley & Sons, pp. 3–10.
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- 2003, "Rawls and Liberalism", in Samuel Freeman (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Rawls, Cambridge University Press, pp. 62–85.
- 2003, "John Rawls and Affirmative Action", The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, no. 39, pp. 82–4.
- 2009, "The I in Me", a review article of Selves: An Essay in Revisionary Metaphysics by Galen Strawson, Oxford, 448 pp, ISBN 0-19-825006-1, lrb.co.uk
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“Jus in Bello and the Sophisticated Utilitarian”
David M. Barnes
Lieutenant Colonel, US Army
Doctoral Candidate, Philosophy
University of Colorado, Boulder
Unfortunately, militaries have intentionally targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure. Often, these attacks have been supported by the rationale of better long-term consequences—a utilitarian approach.Several critics of these operations blame an appeal to utilitarian calculation unbridled by moral constraints.Many theorists have pointed to the need for regulating what appears to them to be an abandonment of moral principles in wartime to the cold-calculation of the consequences—a wartime “cost-benefit analysis.”They point to the principles of discrimination and proportionality—part ofjus in bello—to govern the conduct of belligerents.Furthermore, it is these principles—T. Nagel calls them absolutist principles—that keep the utilitarian calculation in war in check.
Call these views UTIL and ABS respectively:
UTIL:An act is morally right iff the act maximizes utility.And,
ABS: an act is morally right iff the act does not violate a moral principle.
Nagel recognizes the tension between these seemingly incompatible views, particularly when applied to war.In his “War and Massacre,” Nagel correctly identifies the shortcomings with each, and he holds an absolutist-formed view in that he believes combatants should be bound by moral principles.Additionally, he acknowledges the moral intuition that in some instances dogmatic following of these principles might result in a great amount of harm.Thus, he proposes a compatibilist-like solution, what he notes as qualified absolutism, to address this apparent dilemma.
I agree with Nagel’s criticism of ABS and UTIL, and while I find that his qualified absolutism solution partially successful, I offer a better solution—one that has not been adequately explored.One should not begin from absolutist principles as Nagel does, nor should one abandon them.Relying only on an utilitarian decision making procedure also fails.Rather, I propose that a different utilitarian perspective on war—in particular, a Railton-esque sophisticated utilitarian perspective—could not only account for these same just war principles, but also address the apparent moral dilemmas that occur when absolutist principles provide conflicting guidance: e.g., when violating an absolutist principle would result in a very large amount of good.
After outlining the traditional jus in bello principles of discrimination and proportionality—principles both Nagel and I agree are essential moral restrictions on war fighting—I will restate Nagel’s absolutist argument against a utilitarian position and outline his qualified absolutist position.Next, I will examine and modify Railton’s conception of sophisticated consequentialism to propose a sophisticated utilitarian approach to the conduct of war, and I will argue that a sophisticated utilitarian military leader would be committed to the principles of jus in bello, as commitments to these principles will generally lead to the overall maximization of impersonal good.I will also illustrate how an intensive moral development program is required and can both instill the principles of war and foster commitment to these principles.Finally, I will discuss some objections against sophisticated utilitarianism itself and possible objections to a sophisticated utilitarian approach to the conduct of war.
* * * * *
Traditionally in Bellum justum, conduct in war has been addressed separately from the decision to wage war.The question of fighting justly has focused on moral intuitions concerning who can be targeted and the amount of force allowed.These principles are known as discrimination and proportionality respectively.Together these necessary tenets restrict military operations.As Walzer writes, “The governing principle here is simply that every effort be made to protect civilian life from both direct attack and collateral damage.”
What traditionally separates the concept of murder and justified killing in war is the status of the belligerent participants.It is permitted to target combatants and not permitted to target non-combatants, but in practice the distinction is usually not so clear.Although the line between combatant and non-combatant is contentious, most would agree that targeting innocent civilians is forbidden.Proportionality, alternatively, concerns the amount of force allowed in an operation.It draws from an intention to limit the damage and harm incurred in combat to both combatants and non-combatants.By its nature, proportionality balances the consequences of the military advantages of an action with the associated cost.Of course, like discrimination, the tenet of proportionality is difficult to meet.
Discrimination and proportionality are generally considered absolutist conditions of jus in bello and as such have been incorporated in the laws of war (Laws of Armed Conflict or LOAC).Nagel, however, has noticed two interesting results of adopting the principles (as absolute) behind the tenets of proportionality and discrimination.First, they are often violated on utilitarian grounds, and second, there do seem to be cases for exceptions to these principles in extreme circumstances.
* * * * *
Nagel argues for what he terms as a qualified absolutist position on fighting war.While he understands the often compelling rationale that points to an evaluation of the consequences of a particular military action, he believes that only through adoption of absolutist principles of war can we restrict the possibility of immoral action for even a slight gain of utility.
It is not that utilitarianism has no place in war, Nagel argues.Certainly one could hold that the decision to go to war and the means used in war should result in the best consequences.Furthermore, he notes that a utilitarian could argue for applying restrictions in how one prosecutes war.He writes, “Utilitarianism certainly justifies some restrictions on the conduct of warfare.There are strong utilitarian reasons for adhering to any limitations which seem natural to most people—particularly if the limitation is widely accepted already.An exceptional measure which seems to be justified by its results in a particular conflict may create a precedent with disastrous long-term effects.”The importance of considering consequences in war is echoed by Hurka.He notes, “[J]ust war theory does not ignore the consequences of war and would not be credible if it did: a morally crucial fact about war is that it causes death and destruction.The theory therefore contains several conditions that forbid choices concerning war if their consequences are in some way unacceptable.”
Nevertheless, Nagel’s concerns with utilitarianism extend to the conduct of operations that do result in the increase of the general good, but are not on such a scale to qualify as extreme circumstances.He believes that following unrestricted utilitarianism combined with strong argument for military necessity “gives evidence of a moral conviction that the deliberate killing of non-combatants—women, children, old people—is permissible if enough can be gained by it.This follows from a more general position that any means can in principle be justified if it leads to a sufficiently worthy end.”
One way to “rein in” this kind of utilitarian calculation is to somehow draw a limit where beneath it actions in war are solely guided by the absolutist principles.Nagel, thus, introduces the concept of a threshold, where it may be permissible to violate the absolutist position if the threshold is met.He notes that although the concept of a threshold is no longer absolutist in the strict sense, it maintains the prohibition without relying purely on the consequences.
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In his influential work, The Methods of Ethics, Sidgwick correctly drew a distinction between the criteria of rightness and the decision procedure involved in a utilitarian theory.He thought that an agent’s motives of action need not be the very utilitarian calculation Nagel and other objectors to utilitarianism believe (i.e., UTIL), nor need it be other’s happiness.
Railton’s conception of a sophisticated utilitarian captures Sidgwick’s claim and further argues that one can live a devoted consequentialist life without being slave to a consequentialist decision making process. UTIL, as Railton would point out, is subjectively consequentialist.He notes that alternatively “a sophisticated consequentialist is someone who has a standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life, but who need not set special stock in any particular form of decision making and therefore does not necessarily seek to lead a subjectively consequentialist life.”
Thus, Railton’s sophisticated utilitarian, Norcross notes, “allows that a ‘standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life’ can co-exist happily with deep personal commitments to other people, that sometimes result in performing a less than optimal action.”And, it is not only commitments to others; the sophisticated utilitarian has commitments to certain principles that support her objectively consequentialist life.Railton further explains that “individuals may be more likely to act rightly if they possess certain enduring motivational patterns, character traits, or prima-facie commitments to rules in addition to whatever commitment they have to act for the best.”
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Nagel does acknowledge that there appear to be times where violating an absolutist prohibition would result in far greater good—so called extreme circumstances.Nagel proposes to follow the absolutist principles in the conduct of war until one is faced with an extreme circumstance, then utilitarianism may demand violating the principle.What I propose is not so different, but it approaches the problem from the opposite direction.I think that a military sophisticated utilitarian is guided by her commitments to the principles of discrimination and proportionality, commitments that are consistent with, perhaps required by, her overall commitment to leading a life in which she maximizes the good.Furthermore, she has the similar understanding that Nagel proposes: there will be certain limited times when the utility gained will cause her to set aside her commitment to that principle.
For our sophisticated military leader, she too would be more likely to choose the same alternative as the absolutist because she possesses certain enduring character traits and the commitments to the tenets of proportionality and discrimination.And this seems correct; we certainly want our military leaders to show restraint in war, and we want them to avoid innocent casualties, even when the action might be less than optimal.A sophisticated utilitarian approach to war does both.Railton notes that, “part of the attraction of [sophisticated utilitarianism] is the idea that one should have certain traits of character, or commitments to persons and principles, that are sturdy enough that one would at least sometimes refuse to forsake them even when this refusal is known to conflict with making some gain—perhaps small—in total utility.”
Thus, the military sophisticated utilitarian operates and makes military decisions framed by the tenets of proportionality and discrimination.
Sophisticated Utilitarian Military Leader (SUML): S is a sophisticated utilitarian military leader iff she has a standing overall commitment to leading an objectively utilitarian life, which is manifested by her commitments to the principles of jus in bello.
She is committed to the principles behind these tenets, and so, as Railton suggests, refuses to ‘forsake them’ even when this refusal is known to conflict with making some utilitarian gain.This is not some automaton who looks to utilitarian calculation to maximize the good in every decision; the SUML has both a standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life and deep personal commitments to jus in bello.
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As a form of objective utilitarianism, however, SUML is very similar to Nagel’s qualified absolutism.Both presume following the tenets of jus in bello most of the time, and both views acknowledge that (1) there are extreme circumstances, and (2) under extreme circumstances the agent can set aside the principle in question to maximize the good.Nevertheless, the underlying justification for the views are different; SUML approaches the problem from a lifelong commitment to maximizing utility.
Because the sophisticated utilitarian is a consequentialist, the justification is quite simply that of promoting the good.The choice of principles, and of the methodology for identifying exceptions to the principles, is guided by utility.The qualified absolutist unfortunately does not have such a clear justification available.In fact, it is not at all clear what the justification for qualified absolutism could be, if not consequentialist.
A supporter of qualified absolutism would not be satisfied with my observation, but she does lack an explanation of how these principles are grounded.In other words, why discrimination and proportionality, and why should they be absolutely binding (except in extreme circumstances, of course)?It seems clearer that one can argue that these principles limit the destructive consequences in war.Although he argues that jus in bello is deontological, recall Hurka thought that “a morally crucial fact about war is that it causes death and destruction”Nagel also acknowledges that consequentialism does justify “some restrictions on the conduct of warfare.”We ought to then have these principles, as commitments to them would, it seems, limit the brutality of war, increasing overall utility.
As Nagel further points out, in war, “what is unjustifiable in one case may be justified in a more extreme one,” and I agree.But commitments to proportionality and discrimination by military personnel generally do lead to greater amounts of impersonal value.It is consequentially a good thing that nations and military leaders endorse these commitments to these principles, as codified in the LOAC; they limit the brutal nature of unrestricted warfare.As Nagel also writes, it is not “that the occurrence of a certain kind of act is a bad thing, and therefore to be prevented, but rather tells everyone to refrain from such acts, except under certain conditions.”
An objector might counter, “How do we ensure that these SUMLs have these commitments?”What is necessary is a two-part process.First, there must be a comprehensive moral education program.Second, the SUML’s life, as Norcross notes, “may well include performing many acts which are not objectively right.The sophisticated consequentialist is [then] committed to remove those of her values and other motivational traits that do not tend to the overall promotion of impersonal utility.”It is the foundational moral education—one that continues throughout one’s military career—that will teach how to do both.
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In Utilitarianism, Mill argues for the importance of a foundational moral education for the utilitarian.He wrote,
education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; . . . that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, . . . (II)
Similarly, a foundational moral education is necessary for the SUML.She must, as any good sophisticated utilitarian, develop a standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life.Furthermore, she must as a military leader understand
(1) the principles of jus in bello,
(2) why they are important,
(3) how to apply them in military decision making,
(4) making a commitment to follow them, and
(5) that a commitment to these principles is part of her standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life.
In addition, she must understand that ‘what is unjustifiable in one case may be justified in a more extreme one’ and how to tell when there are extreme circumstances.
One method of training military leaders relies upon the promulgation of the current laws and treaties that are associated with jus in bello, e.g.,the Geneva Conventions, the LOAC, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.However, mere promulgation is not sufficient.A more in-depth moral development program is needed, one focusing on internalization in addition to memorization.
Currently, moral education plays a large part of officer development in the United States Military.Initiatives at the Naval Academy include the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law core course and the First Classmen Capstone Character Excellence Seminar.At the United States Military Academy (USMA), the moral development program includes the Philosophy core course (PY201), Professional Military Education (PME) program, and the Cadet Leader Development System (CLDS).The US Air Force Academy and Coast Guard Academy have similar programs, all designed to further moral development of their graduates.
A recent initiative by the Army has been to re-evaluate the moral dimension of teaching and training leadership since 9/11 and has resulted in not only the publishing of a completely re-written doctrine manual on military leadership, Field Manual 6-22 Leadership, but a substantial investment in time and personnel on capturing lessons learned to incorporate in ongoing and future military-focused moral education.
Cynics might argue that these education programs are ineffective, and certainly there are cases that distinctly highlight an apparent failure on the part of the military leaders.In the Vietnam War, the My Lai incident seemed to typify the apparent failure of the moral development of military leaders.More recently, the mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and the Haditha incident, where 24 Iraqis were killed, seem to point to a continued lack of progress. However, drawing conclusions based on these incidents are in a sense unfair to the improvements made within the military towards leader development.There are also many cases where it would appear that the moral education programs are working.Even Walzer offers some of the self-imposed restrictions imposed on pilots during the air campaign of the Gulf War as an example. Although some may argue that the incidents like those in Iraq reflect a general failure rather than exceptions, I think two points must be made, and they could be acknowledged by both supporters and distracters of the concept of SUML.First, I think that most would agree that having no moral education for military leaders would be far worse, and second, incidents like these highlight the necessary dynamic nature of moral education, and that military institutions must assess and improve their moral education process.
Assuming the SUML has received the above education and she has internalized a commitment to an objectively consequentialist life and deep personal commitments to jus in bello, another question remains: how will she learn to recognize the extreme circumstances?I think that here there is no easy answer.Certainly, her moral education must address the indicators that may point to an extreme circumstance, and she should undergo training exercises to challenge her ability to detect and make moral decisions in extreme circumstances.Would this guarantee that the SUML makes the right (or best) decision?No, but it should make her better prepared to make the decision.
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I want to address some anticipated objections to what I have so far proposed.I think there are at least three avenues that an objector could argue against my SUML approach to war.First, she might argue against sophisticated utilitarianism as a theory itself.Second, she might continue to be a staunch supporter of absolutism and argue that some acts are always forbidden.Third, she could accept adopting commitments to principles of jus in bello as a SUML but question the efficacy of the moral education program.I think Norcross adequately addresses the first objection in his “Consequentialism and Commitment,” and I have argued that while not perfect, the moral development education systems can be effective and must continue to be improved.Therefore, I will focus on the absolutist objection: some acts are always forbidden, regardless of the good.
Many proponents of an absolutist approach to the conduct of war argue that some acts are always wrong (ABS).Nagel writes, “An absolutist can be expected to try to maximize good and minimize evil, so long as this does not require him to transgress an absolute prohibition like that against murder.But when such a conflict occurs, the prohibition takes complete precedence over any consideration of consequences.”
Let us look at two examples to see whether this absolutist objection is truly damaging to SUML.
Torture 1:A squad has captured a suspected insurgent, who they believe has accurate information about a planted improvised explosive devise (IED) along the squad’s future route.In this case, the captive does in fact know the location of the IED.If the IED detonates, the squad will suffer four casualties; no civilians are in the area.
Torture 1(a): . . .; it is buried in a schoolyard along the road the squad will use.If the IED detonates, the squad will suffer four casualties, and ten children will be killed.
Let us assume that torturing the insurgent in both cases will cause him to reveal the IED’s location.The absolutist would argue that since torture is never permitted, that the squad in both cases should not torture the insurgent.Nevertheless, intuitively, we feel some remorse that in Torture 1(a), innocent children would lose their lives.Is there an important moral difference between the two cases, one that might sway the absolutist?I think the answer is no.Nagel writes, “[adopting absolute principles] means that we cannot deliberate on whether such measures are justified by the fact that they will avert still greater evils, for as intentional measures they cannot be justified in terms of any consequences whatever.”
The SUML would also not choose to torture the insurgent.She, as a military sophisticated utilitarian, operates and makes military decisions framed by her commitments to the principles regarding conduct in war; one of these principles is the prohibition against torture.Even in the second case, where torturing would save the lives of ten children, the SUML recognizes that Torture 1(a) is not an extreme case, and torturing in this case would violate her commitment to jus in bello.
But let us look at two different cases:
Torture 2: Special agent Bauer has captured the super terrorist who has planted a suitcase nuclear device somewhere in Denver.If Bauer does not find out the location of the bomb, 1 million Denverites will be incinerated, and many more will suffer from nuclear exposure. The captive does know the location (he did in fact plant it), and torturing him would allow Bauer to find and disarm the bomb.Unfortunately for him, the captive would succumb to the treatment and die.
Torture 2(a):. . . .Bauer plans to use the non-invasive feather tickle torture method, which unfortunately cause the captive a slight irritation.
Again, the absolutist would argue that Bauer cannot torture the terrorist in either case.However, I think that, especially in Torture 2(a), the SUML, although troubled by having to violate her own commitment to the principle of not torturing, would chose to torture the terrorist and save the 1 million Denverites.Setting aside the possibility that the Denverites are not innocent (they can be a surely lot), it seems that in either Torture 2 or 2(a), that this is an extreme circumstance.Furthermore, in 2(a), the amount of negative consequences would be very small, especially when compared to the resulting good.Certainly both cases involve a form of torture, but even the strict absolutist would admit that much more good than bad would result in case 2(a).How can she account for the massive loss of innocent life?
While a strict absolutist might object that even in case 2(a) the principle to not torture should take precedent, I think that she actually is in a dilemma between two conflicting principles: one concerning the prohibition of torture and the other to prevent harm to innocents.These principles are often in conflict, but in cases like Torture 2 and 2(a), the conflict becomes more apparent.
On the SUML account, however, the conflict of principles does not occur.Recall that a SUML follows the principles of jus in bello until faced with an extreme circumstance; then utilitarianism may demand violating the principle.Torture 2 and 2(a) are examples of extreme circumstances.The SUML is guided by her commitments to the principles of just conduct in war, e.g., discrimination and proportionality, commitments that are consistent with her overall commitment to leading a life in which she maximizes the good.Furthermore, she understands that there will be certain limited times when the utility gained will cause her to set aside her commitment to that principle.This is one of those times.SUML blocks the moral dilemmas that a strict absolutist encounters.
Finally, something needs to be said about the utility that is maximized during extreme circumstances.In other words, what is the overall utility that is my criterion in extreme circumstances?I think that there are actually two interrelated questions at work here.The first concerns identifying when there is an extreme circumstance, and the second concerns how the SUML makes her decision.
Both identifying the point at which extreme consequences override a principle, and the method for identifying such a point in practice, will be informed by experience and potentially subject to change.Furthermore, we can learn from our past mistakes (and successes).If we can identify actual occasions on which we violated principles because of the perceived disastrous consequences of not doing so, we can evaluate whether those departures from principle were in fact justified.
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I have argued that a sophisticated utilitarian account of the jus in bello tenets is not only plausible; SUML is actually preferable to a qualified absolutist approach.The sophisticated utilitarian view accounts for the principles of discrimination and proportionality, and it avoids the dilemmas where absolutist principles conflict in extreme circumstances.
A SUML is guided by her commitments to the principles of discrimination and proportionality, commitments that are consistent with her overall commitment to leading an objectively utilitarian life.Additionally, her commitment to an objectively utilitarian life lead her to understand that in war there will be extreme circumstances—circumstances where the outcome, while violating her deeply held principles, will result in a much greater utility than the alternative.
I also argued that a foundational moral education is necessary for the SUML.She must, as any good sophisticated utilitarian, develop a standing commitment to leading an objectively consequentialist life.Furthermore, she must as a military leader develop commitments to jus in bello, and she must understand that what is unjustifiable in one case may be justified in a more extreme one, developing the ability to identify extreme circumstances.I do admit that identifying the extreme circumstances is no easy task, even for the morally developed SUML.But, I think that this account is preferable to Nagel’s qualified alternative.He writes,
that there may be circumstances so extreme that they render an absolutist position untenable.One may find then that one has no choice but to do something terrible.Nevertheless, even in such cases absolutism retains its force in that one cannot claim justification for the violation.It does not become all right.
Nagel here misses the point.In extreme circumstances, weighing the consequences is all right.During extreme circumstances, the SUML must set the absolutist principle aside—that is what makes the circumstances extreme.While an absolutist approach is forced to decide between competing moral principles, a sophisticated utilitarian approach to jus in bello accounts for these situations.
 © David M. Barnes, 2009. The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U .S. Government.
 Nagel on WWII terror bombing and atomic bomb, Thomas Nagel, “War and Massacre,” in Samuel Scheffler ed., Consequentialism and its Critics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 55.Cf. Elizabeth Anscombe, “War and Murder,” in War and Morality, edited by Richard A. Wasserstrom, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1970), Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, (New York: Basic Books, 1977), and Richard A. Wasserstrom, ed., War and Morality, (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Pub. Co., 1970).
 Of course, UTIL and ABS are overly simplistic; however, both illustrate extreme views, especially when applied to war.Nevertheless, UTIL and ABS are useful to highlight the tension between attempts to limit the destructive nature of war and the need to meet military objectives.
 Cf. Paul Christopher, The Ethics of War and Peace: an Introduction to Legal and Moral Issues, (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994), Robert L. Holmes, On War and Morality, (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1989), Richard J. Regan, Just War: Principles and Cases, (Washington D. C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1996), and Thomas Hurka, “Proportionality and Necessity,” in Larry May, ed., War and Political Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 127-44.
 See Regan, 87-95, Holmes, 104, Hurka, 135-6, and Lene Bomann-Larsen, Reconstructing the Moral Equality of Soldiers (University of Oslo: Acta Humaniora, 2007), 39-40 and 78-89.Note another difficulty with discrimination: the wearing of uniforms.Geneva conventions states that combatants must wear uniforms; it then would conceivably make it easier to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. So, what about guerrillas who do not wear uniforms or private contractors who wear uniforms? This problem will have to wait for another time.
 E.g., 1977 Geneva Protocol I Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, Art. 51 (5) (b)—a sample of LOAC relating to the tenets of discrimination and proportionality.
 Nagel, 53. Another interesting debate is the concept of double effect in war.I do not have room in this paper to explore it fully.Cf. Nagel, 58 and Walzer’s Just and Unjust Wars, 151-9.
 Nagel, 55-6.Cf. Hurka, 127.He writes, “But deontological moralities are much more restrictive.If they do not contain absolute prohibitions against acts of direct harming such as killing the innocent, they allow these acts only in extreme cases, where their benefits are not just somewhat but vastly greater.Thus they allow killing an innocent person not to save just two other innocents, as consequentialism would, but only to save a hundred or a thousand, and in so doing they weigh harms much more heavily than benefits.”
 Nagel, 60-1.Where this threshold lies is an important and difficult problem.I will discuss it more later. Walzer, however, discusses in length about a kind of extreme circumstance—supreme emergencies—in Just and Unjust Wars.(Interestingly, he argues that the terror bombing of Germany in early World War Two was an example of a supreme emergency, while the atomic bombing of Hiroshima was not.)See Walzer 251-68.
 Peter Railton, “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality,” in Samuel Scheffler ed., Consequentialism and its Critics, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
SUML should not be confused with a reformulation of rule utilitarianism.Commitments to following the tenets of jus in bello are, one might argue, nothing more than adoption of a particular set of war rules.Adopting these rules would result in greater overall utility—a view offered by Brandt and others.(Cf. Richard B. Brandt, “Utilitarianism and the Rules of War,” in Philosophy and Public Affairs(Winter 1972): 145-65.)Thus, this form of rule utilitarianism might be formulated as
R-UTIL:an act is morally right iff the act conforms to the set of rules whose adoption results in overall greater utility.