What is morality to you? The Objective Basis of Morality by Thomas Nagel

How do you determine and gauge morality and what factors do you think can influence your perspective? In this post, I summarize an article by Thomas Nagel titled The Objective Basis of Morality. His argument in this article is that, If you resent it when other people hurt you, then you will think you have a good reason not to hurt others. With that said, he goes on to prove the belief that morality exists. Additionally, he gives reasons and explains why people should follow a golden rule that will be a benchmark for morality and why he doesn’t believe ethical obligations can be reduced by religious or legal ones. He uses numerous examples to solidify his argument. He begins with a scenario where someone works at a library (person 1), and has a friend (person 2) come in and says he or she wants to smuggle out references. Any logical person would feel uncomfortable about the situation because even if they can deliver what their friend wants through unethical ways, they would want to prevent their friend from getting in trouble and jeopardizing their job. Plus it would result in other people not having the opportunity to use the missing resource. So it’s a lose-lose situation and no one wins. In addition, he posed questions, “what makes the action wrong? And “where does the idea to not help your friend come from”? For one, what makes the action wrong is the dire ramifications for the friend (person 2) once it’s committed. Secondly, the idea not to help comes from knowing the negative effects the action has on others that will be hurt once they find they’ve been wronged and their perception of the employee (person 1) will change for allowing it to happen. Furthermore, the idea that the employee (person 1) agrees to smuggle references for their friend (person 2) and doesn’t prevent his or her unethical actions shows their selfish intentions since they want to gain pleasure from assisting with the theft. In other words, whatever they help with stealing they’ll see it as worthwhile for their amusement. 

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Nagel further explains his argument by explaining the reason religious beliefs cannot correlate to one deciding to do good or bad. Additionally, even if a person is an atheist he or she still would have a sense of discernment of what’s right and wrong. Moreover, the third objection he talks about is the cliche line that is reminiscent of the golden rule in the Bible “if you treat someone with the consideration they’ll do the same for you”. This statement has merit because your action towards others will decide how they’ll react towards you. Nagel concludes with a final scene that deals with signs of remorse being absent from hurting people. The scenario he described was of a person stealing someone’s belongings and not taking into account how much it might hurt a person, and the self-centered mindset would cause no moral decisions to be made due to the selfish determination that negates any consideration for the victim and the psychological damage it would cause. In summary, moral relativism can be subjective for the fact that what is deemed as moral is determined by an individual’s beliefs and conventional moral standards are understood and agreed on within a specific society and vary from culture to culture. In the example where the employee (person 1) helped the friend (person 2) steal references from a book, if a focus group of individuals was asked what they felt about it, they would come up with different answers and might even justify the stealing if what they stole was for greater means (i.e. discovering a solution to global warming. There are always exceptions relative to the situation on what is considered moral because the intentions of the person and the consequences from their actions will vary depending on the situation they’re in. 

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