Mortal Questions

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© Cambridge University Press 1979 This book is in copyright. Subject to statutory exception and to the provisions of relevant collective licensing agreements, no reproduction of any part may take place without the written permission of Cambridge University Press. First published 1979 Reprinted 1979, 1980,1981,1982,1983 (twice), 1985, 1987, 1988 (twice), 1990 Canto edition 1991 Reprinted 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2000, 2002 Printed in the United Kingdom at the University Press, Cambridge

British Library Cataloguing in Publication data Nagel, Thomas Mortal questions. 1. Ethics I. Tide 170 Library

of Congress

Cataloguing in Publication data Nagel, Thomas Mortal questions. Includes bibliographical references and index. 1. Life-addresses, essays, lectures. 2. Ethics-Addresses, essays, lectures. I. Tide. BD431.N32 170 78-58797 ISBN 0 521 40676 5 paperback

Cover illustration: The Penitent Magdalen (detail). Georges de la Tour. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art, gift of Mr and Mrs Charles Wrightsman, 1978.

to my father

WALTER NAGEL pessimist and skeptic


Preface ix


2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11

Sources xv

Death The Absurd


Moral Luck

24 39 53 75 91 106 128 142

Sexual Perversion War and Massacre Ruthlessness in Public Life The Policy of Preference Equality The Fragmentation of Value Ethics without Biology Brain Bisection and the Unity of Consciousness

12 What is it like to be a bat? 13 Panpsychism 14 Subjective and Objective lt1dex

147 165 181 196 215


Philosophy covers an immense range of topics, but part of its concern has always been with mortal life: how to understand it and how to live it. These essays are about life: about its end, its meaning, its value, and about the metaphysics of consciousness. Some of the topics have not received much attention from analytic philosophers, because it is hard to be dear and precise about them, and hard to separate from a mixture of facts and feelings those questions abstract enough for philosophical treatment. Such problems must be attacked by a philosophical method that aims at personal as well\as theoretical understanding, and seeks to combine the two by incorporating theoretical results into the framework of self-knowledge. This involves risk. Large, relevant questions too easily evoke large, wet answers. Every theoretical field faces a contest between extravagance and repression, imagination and rigor, expansiveness and precision. Fleeing from the excesses of the one, it is easy to fall into the excesses of the Nher. Attachment to the grand style can produce an impatience with demands for rigor and may lead to a tolerance for the unintelligible. Since the defects of a tradition tend to reflect its virtues, the problem in ar;alytic philosophy has been the reverse. It is not exactly correct to say that AngloAmerican philosophy avoids the big questions. For one thing, there are no problems deeper or more important than those in metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of language that lie at the center of the field. For another, the analytic establishment has been quite hospitable to recent attempts to explore



unfamiliar territory. Nevertheless, the fear of nonsense has had a powerful inhibiting effect. Long after the demise of L�i