Thomas Nagel

2008 Balzan Prize for Moral Philosophy

For his fundamental and innovative contributions to contemporary ethical theory, relating to both individual, personal choices and collective, social decisions. For the depth and coherence of his original philosophical perspective, which is centered on the essential tension between objective and subjective points of view. For the originality and fecundity of his philosophical approach to some of the most important questions in contemporary life.

Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, Thomas Nagel is one of the most authoritative contemporary philosophers. Since the mid-1960s, his research, presented in numerous fundamental contributions, has brought into focus a very wide range of problems in an important variety of areas. At the centre of his philosophical undertaking, there is an original, fecund thesis consisting of the recognition of an essential tension between the different points of view that we adopt in living our lives: the tension between an objective, impersonal point of view and a subjective, personal one. This tension generates genuinely philosophical problems, and collides with our reasons for believing as well as our reasons for taking action. 

Against this background, Thomas Nagel has, ever since his first book The possibility of Altruism (1970), taken on the problems of ethical theory, offering a perspective in which objective, impersonal reasons play a decisive role in orienting our moral decisions.
The ethical dimension of both our personal and social decisions is at the centre of his book Mortal Questions (1979)Questions of individual life, like the experience of the absurd, moral luck, death and sexual perversion, are interwoven with the dilemmas of social choice, examined in the chapters dedicated to war and massacre, to the interpretation of equality and to the politics of preference. In his last chapter, “Subjective and Objective”, Thomas Nagel suggests the directionin which the tension between the objective and subjective point of view can enable us to identify the connections – at first sight seemingly unexpected –between different milieus and different problems.
The View from Nowhere (1986) is his most systematic attempt to put the fecundity of his central thesis to the test. Thomas Nagel examines questions of the mind, of the relationship between mind and body and of knowledge, and takes his ethical viewpoint into greater depth in the area of the interpretation of freedom, of value, of the principles of right and good, up to the point of questions on the meaning of our finite lives.
Numerous books, like Equality and Partiality (1991), Other Minds: Critical Essays (1995), Concealment and Exposure (2002) and The Myth of Ownership: Taxes and Justice (with Liam Murphy, 2002) develop and enrich his philosophical point of view on important themes of political and moral theory. A fundamental essay, “The Problem of Global Justice”, published in the 2005 issue of the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs, started an important and fruitful controversy on what can be defined as the most difficult and at the same time ineluctable challenge to contemporary political and moral philosophy.

In his book The Last Word (1997), Thomas Nagel has defended the scope and role of reason against any form of relativism or deconstructionism. He has also expressed his profound passion for philosophy in a little masterpiece of clarity and conciseness, What Does It All MeanA Very Short Introduction to Philosophy. Philosophy, Thomas Nagel reminds us, is the childhood of the intellect, and that a mature culture that is not aware of it is a poorer culture for everyone.

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