MORALITY AND THE HUMAN CONDITION, #20–Nagel and The Absurd.

By Robert Hanna

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Table of Contents

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About The Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and The Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality

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But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.

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VII.2 Nagel and The Absurd

What’s especially illuminating about that take, is that Nagel places the concept of the absurd fully within the framework of what, in the 1960s, Wilfrid Sellars very aptly called the scientific image of the human being in the natural world.[iii]

Nagel writes:

[A]bsurdity is one of the most human things about us: a manifestation of our most advanced and interesting characteristics. Like skepticism in epistemology, it is possible only because we possess a certain kinds of insight — the capacity to transcend ourselves in thought.[iv]

More precisely, according to Nagel, the rational human animal finds itself as an irreducibly conscious subject, irreducibly capable of free action, and irreducibly capable of capable of knowing facts and values, in a fundamentally physical natural world that’s, at least in principle, completely knowable by means of the basic natural sciences: physics, chemistry, and biology.

This, in turn, directly leads to three dualistic problems:

(i) the mind-body problem: how can there be conscious minds in a fundamentally physical and inherently non-mental natural world?,

(ii) the free will vs. natural mechanism problem: how can there be free will in a fundamentally physical and naturally mechanized (whether deterministic or indeterministic) natural world?, and

(iii) the appearance vs. reality problem: how can there be subjective appearances that also count as knowledge in a fundamentally physical and objectively real (see section III.1) natural world?

According to Nagel, the human experience of absurdity derives essentially from our failed attempt to occupy both sides of each dualism at once.

That is, the human experience of absurdity arises from our failed attempt to occupy both

(ia), (iia), and (iiia) the first-person or subjective point of view on our mindedness, our choices and action, and our knowledge (aka the manifest image of the human being in the natural world, aka the view from here), and also

(iia), (iib), and (iic) the impersonal, third-person, or objective point of view (aka, the scientific image of the human being in the natural world, aka the view from nowhere)

Then, in the face of a thoroughly meaningless and pointless fundamentally physical natural world — a world that’s inherently non-mental, naturally mechanized, and objectively real — what are we, who find ourselves in the very midst of that natural world as irreducibly conscious, irreducibly free, and irreducibly directly aware of subjective appearances, supposed to do with ourselves?

That’s where Camus’s 1942 existentialist re-thinking of the myth of Sisyphus[5] comes in.

So let’s get in the TARDIS again, jump back thirty years to the middle of World War II, and look at what Camus has to say.

NOTES

[ii] See also R. Hanna, Kant and the Foundations of Analytic Philosophy (Oxford: Clarendon/OUP, 2001), also available online in preview, HERE.

[iii] W. Sellars, “Philosophy and the Scientific Image of Man,” in W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 1–40, also available online HERE.

[iv] Nagel, “The Absurd,” p. 23.

[v] A. Camus, “The Myth of Sisyphus,” trans. J. O’Brien, in A. Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays (New York: Vintage, 1955), pp. 1–91.

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