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The Possibility of Altruism Paperback – March 21, 1979

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Editorial Reviews


"An extremely tough, polished, and altogether stimulating piece of work."--New York Review of Books

"Nagel's book is not a criticism of anybody else's book, nor a footnote to anybody else's theory. It is independent and clear, and very original."--Times Literary Supplement

"This is a powerful and challenging work, skilfully organised and presented with economy, clarity, and style."--Bernard Mayo, Philosophical Books

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 150 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reissue edition (March 1, 1979)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691020027
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691020020
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #374,274 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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56 of 60 people found the following review helpful By John S. Ryan on May 4, 2000
Format: Paperback
Published in 1978, this sturdy little volume by Thomas Nagel is a defense of the claim that there is an objective moral requirement on all rational agents to behave altruistically.
Nagel makes clear that "[b]y altruism I mean not abject self-sacrifice but merely a willingness to act in consideration of the interests of other persons, without the need of ulterior motives." The primary problem to which he devotes his attention is not what sorts of behavior we are thus committed to, but the more fundamental one of how it is possible for such considerations to motivate us _at all_.
I shall not try to summarize his arguments here; this work was published long enough ago that critical evaluations of them are available elsewhere (e.g. in Christine Korsgaard's _The Kingdom of Ends_). Suffice it to say that they involve Nagel's usual tension between the personal and impersonal points of view -- that is, between subjectivity and objectivity -- and the attempt to find some resolution or balance between them (a theme which runs through much of his work and indeed which he seems to have staked out as his own philosophical territory).
At any rate his conclusion is that it is entirely rational for us to be thus motivated and that "rational altruism" is a genuine possibility.
And perhaps most importantly of all, Nagel has stated the _problem_ correctly. I realize this may not be a big deal to some of Nagel's readers. But personally I find it a blessed relief, as I spend a good deal of time reading and criticizing the works of Ayn Rand and her followers; it is a pleasure to read an argument about altruism that gets the issue straight and recognizes that other-regard is simply not reducible to prudence.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Jared Wood on August 28, 2004
Format: Paperback
This is a first-class piece of analytic philosophy, with all the good and bad things that go along with that. It's not a page-turner, and it is pretty technical. But it's extremely precise, and it's tightly written. If you're a philosopher with Kantian inclinations, or someone who specializes in ethics and/or metaethics, you have to read it. If you're an intelligent person looking for some stimulating philosophical discussion, I'd probably recommend first reading something else Nagel has written. Mortal Questions is probably his most captivating and wide-ranging work; it's one of those rare collections that stimulates both philosophers and non-philosophers alike. Other Minds is a great introduction to Nagel's thinking about other philosophers--it does for other philosophers what Mortal Questions does for Nagel himself. The View From Nowhere is probably his most important piece of hard-core philosophy, and it's a must read for anyone interested in doing epistemology, metaphysics, or philosophy of mind (The Possibility of Altruism is also hard-core, but it's scope is considerably more limited and its thinking slightly less mature). The Last Word is a nice palliative for upset stomach due to postmodern rants and ramblings. I think it goes wrong in some important ways, but it's fighting the right battle.

Finally, if you're looking for a less technical work that clears up confusion about what the altruism debate is really about, I would recommend Vaulting Ambition by Philip Kitcher, or possibly Unto Others by Sober and Wilson (for those a little more inclined towards biology). As advertised, Nagel's work argues for the possibility of altruism. The other two books argue for both it's possibility and its actuality. Kitcher in particular goes through the arguments for and against altruism with an even hand, impressively diagnosing the misunderstandings that inform this debate.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By S. Morgan on August 13, 2008
Format: Paperback
"The Possibility of Altruism" is a classic revival of Kantian ethics in the later twentieth century. Written early on in Nagel's career, it establishes his now-famous distinction between agent-relative and agent-neutral reasons, and argues that each agent-relative reason necessarily has an agent-neutral correlate. Furthermore, Nagel believed that these correlates bring along the initial motivational content of the original agent-relative reason, and transmit that content to other actors by virtue of their generalized format.

While interesting, the attempt is widely regarded mostly as a failure, including by Nagel himself - because of a convincing rebuttal from Nicholas Sturgeon, and concerned commentary by Samuel Scheffler and Phillip Petit. The most significant flaw in the argument seems to be Nagel's imprecision in how motivational content is generalized, and what motivation is provided to other actors. Nonetheless, this work marks the beginning of Nagel's attempts to argue that morality is derived from the tension between the subjective first-person perspective, and our ability to somehow see things more objectively, from a third-personal scientific perspective.

For a more philosophically mature, though less precise statement of Nagel's view, see "The View from Nowhere". Interesting discussions are provided by Christine Korsgaard in "The Sources of Normativity" and "Creating the Kingdom of Ends".
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Honest Abe on June 17, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This book is a must for anyone whose serious about metaethics. In this short volume Nagel attempts to resolve the following problem:

It seems right to say that if we have reason to do something, we necessarily have a motivation to do it, insofar as we are rational. Of course, that motivation might not be very strong, and I might override that motivation in persuing something else, but as long as there is a reason to perform a certain action, and as long as I am being rational, that reason should provide me with (or constitute?) a motivation for performing that action. Moreover, it seems as though morality should apply to everyone, and morality implies a certain amount of altruism. To give one plausible altruistic principle as an example, it seems plausible that everyone ought not harm others when they can easily avoid it. And that seems to mean that everyone has reason not to harm others when they can easily avoid it.

However, if the claims of the above paragraph are correct, then everyone who is rational has the motivations to be altruistic. But why should we think that everyone has the motivations to be altruistic? Isn't that an empirical claim, one that would need to be verified by extensive psychological research, rather than by the a priori argument given in the above paragraph? And even if everyone rational did have the motivation to be altruistic, wouldn't that just be a contingent fact? Isn't it possible for there to be rational people who lack this motivation?

Nagel's book offers a resounding "no" to all of these questions. He argues that motivations are not just brute elements of our psychology and that some motivations can arise from the structure of rationality itself. As a result, anyone who is rational must also have the motivation to be altruistic.
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