I picked up a book – Equality and Partiality – which I bought some time ago and which had been sitting unopened by my bedside.  I found myself hooked by the ideas, and their application to several things I have been thinking about recently.  More particularly, I understood that the perspective of equality is dead in the water if it fails to take account of the arguments from partiality.  This, then, is a sort of mea culpa since I have been guilty of ignoring those arguments from partiality.

Thomas Nagel is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University.  He has also written a short essay entitled intriguingly What’s it like to be a bat?’ which argues that it is impossible to know what it is like to be a bat, without actually being a bat, because the subjective experience of being a bat is so much part of being a bat, and that, therefore, there is a limit to what can usefully be said about someone else’s subjective experience.  This would seem to leave a gulf between individuals with different subjective experiences that cannot be overcome – or at least Nagel leaves the gulf there.  Perhaps it would be impossible to cross the gulf between the life experience of a bat, and human experience, but our intuition tells us (and investigations into mirror neurons seem to confirm) that we can identify with some else’s subjective experience especially when it is similar, though obviously not identical, to our own. 

Equality and Partiality is derived from a series of lectures Nagel gave in 1990 and develops the idea of the subjective viewpoint  (partiality) and the objective viewpoint (equality) and applies it to political theory. 

Nagel believes that there is a division in each of us between two standpoints, often competing standpoints.  There is the personal standpoint, and the impersonal standpoint, or the subjective and the objective standpoint. The impersonal standpoint involves removing ourselves in thought from our particular position in the world, free of our own concerns, desires, and interests, so that we can single out  – or block out – the “I” that we happen to be, and stop seeing things “from here”. 

If any political system is to have legitimacy then it must reconcile these two standpoints: 

“The hardest problem of political theory are conflicts within the individual, and no external solution will be adequate which does not deal with them at their source.  The impersonal standpoint in each of us produces, I shall claim, a powerful demand for universal impartiality and equality, while the personal standpoint gives rise to individualistic motives and requirements which present obstacles to the pursuit and realization of such ideals.  The recognition that this is true of everyone then presents the impersonal standpoint with further questions about what is required to treat such persons with equal regard, and this in turn presents the individual with further conflict.” (p4) 

Political institutions generally tend to externalise the demands of the impartial standpoint, but are staffed by individuals for whom the personal standpoint remains very important.  If political institutions fail it is because the problem of reconciling the impartial standpoint with the personal standpoint has not been solved. 

At one extreme, utopianism is a danger that pervades the impersonal standpoint.  If the impersonal standpoint advocates a form of collective life that – however ideal – would be impossible for most people with their personal standpoints to follow, then it will fail.  It will not be possible to motivate people to support such a system.  Equally, we shouldn’t be too tied down with inappropriate pessimism that gives undue weight to baseness or an undue lack of optimism about the possibility of human improvement. 

Unanimity of support for a political institution should be our goal.  The use of state power to coerce people to do things should be capable of being authorised by each citizen through the acceptance of principles upon which the institutions are founded.  If an ethical or political solution is to work, it must work with the juxtaposition of the impersonal and personal standpoints, and it must try to give an answer which is generally valid and which everyone can acknowledge to be so. 

Nagel proposes that we adopt a four-stage approach to the construction of a political theory that attempts to reconcile the personal and the impersonal standpoint. 

First stage 

The first stage is from the impersonal standpoint.  It is the basic insight that everyone’s life matters and no one is more important than anyone else. 

Second stage 

The second stage is to generate an ethical code from this basic insight.  If it is true that everyone’s life matters, how should we live? Nagel says that this code should give preferential weight to improvements in the lives of those who are worse off as against adding advantage to those who are better off.  He adopts the Rawlsian concept of justice. 

Third stage 

The third stage takes into account the personal standpoint, and develops an ethics which is Kantian in form, (Kantian because it resembles the categorical imperative which most simply stated means the imperative to do something because it is right even though you really do not want to do it).  At this stage the question is “What, if anything, can we all agree that we should do, given that our motives are not merely impersonal?” The “Kantian development of the impersonal standpoint” involves trying to see how we can put our impersonal and our personal selves back together again.  “It is what I can affirm that anyone ought to do in my place, and what therefore everyone ought to agree that it is right for me to do as things are”. 

Fourth stage 

The fourth stage involves the creation of political institutions in response to the ethical demand generated at stage three. 

“However powerful the impartial, egalitarian values of the impersonal standpoint may be, they have to be realised by institutions and systems of conduct that face up to the irreducibility of the individual point of view which is always present alongside the impersonal standpoint, however highly developed the latter may be.” 

“The ideal, then, is a set of institutions within which persons can live a collective life that meets the impartial requirements of the impersonal standpoint while at the same time having to conduct themselves only in ways that it is reasonable to require of individuals with strong personal motives.  But to state this ideal is to see how hard it will be to realise.  Its two conditions pull in contrary directions.”

Nagel says that the conflict will be particularly conspicuous for those who are relatively fortunate (because the equality standpoint will require them to give up something), but particularly painful for those who are less well off, since not only will these less well off have to deal with the certain knowledge that they do not really count in the eyes of the world (from a partial viewpoint) but that they must come to terms with the recognition that legitimate claims of a personal viewpoint and life exist even for those who are not in need. 

This may lead us to question whether the impersonal viewpoint really matters.  In Nagel’s view it is exactly because we are all aware that from an impersonal viewpoint the equality of every single person is a pressing concern that we all – to some extent – engage in some degree of suppression of this impersonal viewpoint in order to avoid facing our pathetic failure to meet its claims.  Any political theory which allows us to remain in this psychological denial of our more generous aspects will be a loss, according to Nagel, and any theory which merits respect must reconcile the impersonal with the partial. 

But the reconciliation of equality and partiality is more challenging when it involves political institutions than when it simply involves personal morality.  This is because of the element of coercion that comes into being when the institutions are established.  Subjecting oneself to the external force of political coercion is different from committing oneself to the principle of personal conduct when one can opt out of personal conduct if the costs get too high.  We may happily practise equality when it comes to choosing the best cake on the plate, but our personal motive will be overwhelming when we are fighting for the last life jacket for our child on a sinking ship.  Yet if equality is enshrined in the political system, we may not have the choice of opting out of our impersonal standpoint whatever the personal cost to us, since there will be penalties on those who do so. 

A utopian ideal which views everything from an impersonal standpoint may, therefore, be unworkable since it will not be supported by the majority and will be illegitimate.  However, the tendency to capitulate to simple human badness is also something that must be avoided, and we will be justified in taking steps which a substantial number of people are unable to accept if it abolishes a fundamental injustice.  He gives the example of slavery, serf-dom, the caste system, or the subjugation of women, the abolition of which all involved large losses of those who regard themselves as entitled to its benefits.  But, he hopes, after a generation or two, the result of the imposition of equality will be a viable and superior form of life. 

Nevertheless, if the personal motivation is missing, it will be difficult to achieve equality.  Nagel takes the attempts to create a classless society: 

“This is a particularly conspicuous illustration of the way in which a polital theory is hostage to human nature.  It is no use to assert that we all ought to be working for the common good and this requires the abolition of private property in the means of production.  If the personal element of most people’s motivation cannot be shrunk enough or the impersonal element expanded enough, a system of comprehensive public ownership seems doomed to degenerate …” 

The change in people’s character that would be necessary to enable them to support a more equal society seems hard to imagine.  Whilst individuals may realise, adopting an impersonal standpoint, that the goal of eliminating inherited economic inequality is attractive, they lack a sufficient motivation to play a part in the creation of a more equal society.