Thomas Nagel

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Thomas Friedman’s popular notion that nations don’t go to war if they share financial concerns (and a taste for McDonald’s french fries) failed to take something awfully important into account: Not everyone is rational and places material welfare above ideology. Some, in fact, are complete loons who want to blow those Golden Arches to kingdom come.

Thomas Nagel writes on a related topic for the London Review of Books, critiquing Richard English’s Does Terrorism Work? Immoral as it is, politically motivated violence certainly can be used effectively by powerful states (though it sometimes backfires), but the philosopher wonders if terror can secure victory for non-government groups (Al Qaeda, ISIS. etc.). He concludes such actions almost never succeed, except in rare cases where there are extenuating circumstances. Why then the continued improvisation of explosive devices? Nagel argues that delusion takes hold over groups that realize non-violent measures won’t triumph but don’t comprehend that neither will violent ones. An except:

English makes it clear that one of the things these four groups share is hatred and the desire for revenge, which comes out in personal testimony if not always in their official statements of aims. He quotes Osama bin Laden: ‘Every Muslim, from the moment they realise the distinction in their hearts, hates Americans, hates Jews and hates Christians.’ Revenge for perceived injuries and humiliations is a powerful motive for violence, and if it is counted as a secondary aim of these movements, it defines a sense in which terrorism automatically ‘works’ whenever it kills or maims members of the target group. In that sense the destruction of the World Trade Center and Mountbatten’s assassination were sterling examples of terrorism working. But even though English includes revenge in his accounting, this is not what would ordinarily be meant by the question, ‘Does terrorism work?’ What we really want to know about are the political effects.

And here the record is dismal. What struck me on reading this book is how delusional these movements are, how little understanding they have of the balance of forces, the motives of their opponents and the political context in which they are operating. In this respect, it is excessively charitable to describe them as rational agents. True, they are employing violent means which they believe will induce their opponents to give up, but that belief is plainly irrational, and in any event false, as shown by the results.•

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You would understandably disagree if you or yours met with the business end of a drone, but these modern weapons aren’t, militarily speaking, the worst thing. 

Worse is a ground-battle quagmire that stretches on seemingly endlessly, until, as in Iraq, the dead are so numerous you can’t make an exact accounting of them. Even though it’s strategically far from perfect as well as morally dubious, the U.S. drone offensive against ISIS, Al Qaida, et al., hasn’t been nearly as destructive. The catch is that while selective strikes are responsible for far less collateral damage than pre–push-button offensives, traditional wars always offered us an out. Operating less-accurate arms inside the fog of war, we could tell ourselves that things just happened. No one meant to inflict so much carnage–that’s just the nature of combat. It was true to some extent, though this escape clause was applied liberally, eliding some of the horror of the whole business, even if it was only a psychological trick.

Precision has, more or less, arrived with drones, and that means fewer excuses along with fewer deaths. We definitively pick and choose who lives and dies and execute those decisions. Drones, then, aren’t an impersonal way to conduct war despite the remoteness of the soldiers. In Thomas Nagel’s London Review of Books piece “Really Good At Killing,” which meditates on Scott Shane’s Objective Troy: A Terrorist, a President and the Rise of the Drone, the philosopher addresses this thorny technological development.

An excerpt:

The 2010 United Nations report on targeted killings by Philip Alston says of drones that ‘because operators are based thousands of miles away from the battlefield, and undertake operations entirely through computer screens and remote audio-feed, there is a risk of developing a “Playstation” mentality to killing.’ But Shane contends credibly that this is not borne out by the experience of those who have done it, and who report an acute and disturbing awareness of the individual humanity of those they observe – not only the non-combatants nearby but also their intended targets. ‘The psychological toll on drone pilots and sensor operators was, paradoxically, far greater than on those who flew traditional fighters and bombers,’ he says.

The personal character of this kind of killing goes all the way to the top. Obama ‘did not trust the agencies carrying out the strikes to grade their own work. He felt it was his responsibility to invest the time – hours each week – to keep abreast of the operations and often to exercise his own judgment about what was justified and what was too risky.’ ‘He was the ultimate arbiter of a “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, and there were virtually no captures by American agencies … When the CIA sent word that there was a rare opportunity for a drone strike on a top terrorist – but that his family was with him – it was the president who had reserved to himself the final moral calculation.’ ‘On several occasions, he told aides, with chagrin, that as president he had discovered an unexpected talent. “It turns out,” he said, “that I’m really good at killing people.”’

The president as killer is a chilling new face of the role of commander-in-chief. I suspect that it is the personal, individualised nature of drone warfare that many people find so repellent. It is easier to be resigned to the slaughter of faceless multitudes by conventional missiles, bombs and artillery, with the inevitable attendant collateral damage, in pursuit of legitimate military objectives. War is hell, as we all know. But when the president puts someone on a kill list to be taken out by a precise drone strike, it creates the illusory sense of a more direct responsibility for that death than for the other kind. It feels like an execution, though it is just retail warfare, and the responsibility, individual and collective, is equally great in both cases.

Does it make a moral difference that this kind of killing exposes the killers to no physical risk? Is it a condition on the acceptability of warfare that those who kill should put their lives on the line?•

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The opening paragraphs of Thomas Nagel’s review of a pair of just-published volumes about morality in the New York Review of Books:

“Human beings want to understand themselves, and in our time such understanding is pursued on a wide front by the biological, psychological, and social sciences. One of the questions presented by these forms of self-understanding is how to connect them with the actual lives all of us continue to lead, using the faculties and engaging in the activities and relations that are described by scientific theories.

An important example is the universal human phenomenon of morality. Even if we come to accept descriptive theories of the different forms of morality based on evolutionary biology, neuroscience, or developmental and social psychology, each of us also holds specific moral views, makes moral judgments, and governs his conduct and political choices partly on the basis of those attitudes. How do we combine the external descriptive view of ourselves provided by empirical science with the active internal engagement of real life?”


I put up a post last week about Thomas Nagel’s famous 1974 essay, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?” At Prospect, Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson’s article looks at the philosopher’s new book. The opening:

“If we’re to believe science, we’re made of organs and cells. These cells are made up of organic matter. Organic matter is made up chemicals. This goes all the way down to strange entities like quarks and Higgs bosons. We’re also conscious, thinking things. You’re reading these words and making sense of them. We have the capacity to reason abstractly and grapple with various desires and values. It is the fact that we’re conscious and rational that led us to believe in things like Higgs bosons in the first place.

But what if science is fundamentally incapable of explaining our own existence as thinking things? What if it proves impossible to fit human beings neatly into the world of subatomic particles and laws of motion that science describes? In Mind and Cosmos (Oxford University Press), the prominent philosopher Thomas Nagel’s latest book, he argues that science alone will never be able to explain a reality that includes human beings. What is needed is a new way of looking at and explaining reality; one which makes mind and value as fundamental as atoms and evolution.” (Thanks Browser.)

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Each human being lives in a unique world, but at least there are enough similarities to attempt to understand someone else’s consciousness. Not so with different creatures. From Thomas Nagel’s 1974 paper, “What Is It Like To Be A Bat?“:

“I assume we all believe that bats have experience. After all, they are mammals, and there is no more doubt that they have experience than that mice or pigeons or whales have experience. I have chosen bats instead of wasps or flounders because if one travels too far down the phylogenetic tree, people gradually shed their faith that there is experience there at all. Bats, although more closely related to us than those other species, nevertheless present a range of activity and a sensory apparatus so different from ours that the problem I want to pose is exceptionally vivid (though it certainly could be raised with other species). Even without the benefit of philosophical reflection, anyone who has spent some time in an enclosed space with an excited bat knows what it is to encounter a fundamentally alien form of life.

I have said that the essence of the belief that bats have experience is that there is something that it is like to be a bat. Now we know that most bats (the microchiroptera, to be precise) perceive the external world primarily by sonar, or echolocation, detecting the reflections, from objects within range, of their own rapid, subtly modulated, high-frequency shrieks. Their brains are designed to correlate the outgoing impulses with the subsequent echoes, and the information thus acquired enables bats to make precise discriminations of distance, size, shape, motion, and texture comparable to those we make by vision. But bat sonar, though clearly a form of perception, is not similar in its operation to any sense that we possess, and there is no reason to suppose that it is subjectively like anything we can experience or imagine. This appears to create difficulties for the notion of what it is like to be a bat. We must consider whether any method will permit us to extrapolate to the inner life of the bat from our own case,5 and if not, what alternative methods there may be for understanding the notion.

Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited. It will not help to try to imagine that one has webbing on one’s arms, which enables one to fly around at dusk and dawn catching insects in one’s mouth; that one has very poor vision, and perceives the surrounding world by a system of reflected high-frequency sound signals; and that one spends the day hanging upside down by one’s feet in an attic. In so far as I can imagine this (which is not very far), it tells me only what it would be like for me to behave as a bat behaves. But that is not the question. I want to know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. Yet if I try to imagine this, I am restricted to the resources of my own mind, and those resources are inadequate to the task. I cannot perform it either by imagining additions to my present experience, or by imagining segments gradually subtracted from it, or by imagining some combination of additions, subtractions, and modifications.

To the extent that I could look and behave like a wasp or a bat without changing my fundamental structure, my experiences would not be anything like the experiences of those animals. On the other hand, it is doubtful that any meaning can be attached to the supposition that I should possess the internal neurophysiological constitution of a bat. Even if I could by gradual degrees be transformed into a bat, nothing in my present constitution enables me to imagine what the experiences of such a future stage of myself thus metamorphosed would  be like. The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like.”