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How Does Nagel Use the Notions of Pleasure and Pain to Defend the Objectivity of Value?

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Thomas Nagel, in The View From Nowhere, uses the notions of pleasure and pain to defend the objectivity of value. This essay will discuss how Nagel does this by defining the terms involved and examining how he employs the concepts of pleasure and pain in his argument that value is objective.

In order to evaluate how Nagel uses the notions of pleasure and pain in his argument it is important to understand first what he is trying to argue, and why he uses pleasure and pain to assist his process. Firstly we need to look at what Nagel means by the objectivity of value: he states that "if values are objective, they must be so in their own right and not through reducibility to some other kind of objective fact." (Nagel, 1989, p.139) According to Nagel, we can achieve objectivity of value when we take our individual view and our values and evaluate them to form a new perspective inclusive of our self and our values. Nagel believes that by making this step from our subjective views to the possibility of an objective concept of value it is possible for there to be values that are free of one's own perception that can relate to anyone who can look at the world impersonally. McNaughton and Rawling agree with Nagel that "value is determined impersonally" (McNaughton, 1995, p. 31) however they go on to say that "the real value of any state of affairs does not depend on the point of view of the agent" (McNaughton, 1995, p. 31) whereas Nagel believed that the subjectivity involved in understanding values plays a fundamental part in how we determine the objectivity of such values.

Since there are many difficulties in reconciling the objective, physical world with our own subjective, mental beliefs, Nagel considers that it may seem there is no place in the external world for values. People have their own reasons for doing things, but when we transcend our personal view and look at it from a distance things just happen without the reasons being clear. Nagel quotes John Mackie that values are "not part of the fabric of the world" (Nagel, 1989, p.144) when raising this possible problem with his ideas , Mackie believes that values are different to anything else that we see when we view the world objectively. Nagel's response to this however is that there are many different types of objectivity and in order to see values and reasons objectively we need to find the right type of objectivity. Rather than just seeing actions we should look to see the reasons for these actions, evaluating why people do things not only when we look at things subjectively but also when we view them objectively. At the very least although we may not be able to see values from an objective viewpoint we should be able to acknowledge their existence objectively, Nagel however believes that we can do both and that the objective and subjective views of values can coexist.

Nagel has already specified that he thinks it possible for there to be values free of one's perception, general enough for them to be accepted universally as objective values. In his discussions of the types of generality however it is how values are relative to the agent which he really brings into his argument for the objectivity of values. He distinguishes between values that are agent-relative and those that are agent-neutral, the difference being whether the value affects an agent or does not. It is Nagel's belief that pleasure and pain are agent-neutral values that he uses to support the objectivity of value.

Nagel argues that, especially in the case of pain or suffering, as this would be universally agreed to affect us all, if the bad value was agent-relative then I would not have any reason or care for the prevention of another's pain unless it has any impact on me. However this is not how people generally tend to feel about pain, people do care about the pain of others and in Nagel's opinion this means there is something about the badness of pain which is contained in the experience itself, something that encourages us to prevent it.

Nagel states that pleasure is good and pain is bad regardless of who or what they relate to, we cannot help but seek pleasure and avoid pain. In the example of pleasure and pain Nagel's approach to the question of whether their value is objective and agent-neutral is to deny that they are purely subjective. In his chapter on Value, Nagel sums up his argument by stating "that pleasure seems impersonally good and pain seems impersonally bad are propositions that one needs reasons to doubt rather than to believe." (Nagel, 1989, p. 162) He beings by asserting that pleasure and pain cannot have no value not only for the reasons that he previously gave that values exist even in an objective world



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