Daily Effort: Thomas Nagel and the principle of life’s default positivity, first take

The thesis or principle I’d like to introduce today is a (possibly) central thesis behind Open Lifespan philosophy and I’ll keep coming back to it throughout this blog and book in the making. I’m going to extract it first from Thomas Nagel’s masterful and dense essay, Death, originally published in Noûs, in 1970 but am actually going to use the edited version published in Mortal Questions, in 1979.
Then I simply try to provide different formulations. So no arguments today, just a start to understand this principle by stating it and have a glimpses at the heavy philosophical concepts behind it.
Nagel’s main problem in the essay is to investigate why and how and when death can be a misfortune (evil, bad) to the persons who died. And it has to do something with bringing ‘to an end all the goods that life contains’.
And in this context the principle is first stated as an ‘allegiation’ that

It is good simply to be alive, even if one is undergoing terrible experiences.

So first formula

1. It is good simply to be alive.

Let’s continue here cause this leads to another formulation of the principle:

There are elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life better; there are other elements which, if added to one’s experience, make life worse. But what remains when these are set aside is not merely neutral: it is emphatically positive. Therefore life is worth living even when the bad elements of experience are plentiful, and the good ones too meager to outweigh the bad ones on their own. The additional positive weight is supplied by experience itself, rather than by any of its content.
So the formulation of the principle in the above passage can be something like

2. Life is a default positivity.

This is the formulation I used in the title mainly because ‘positivity’ seems like a non-reducible and more neutral concept compared to the concept of ‘good’ used in the first phrasing.
There’s an an additional formulation or explanation used in the very same section that ties life’s positivity to experience so it can be stated something like

3. Experiencing life is a default positivity.

Although the context of Nagel’s essay is definitely human death and human life, it is worth noting that other possible life forms are not by default excluded from being able to phrase this thesis.
There’s another concept that is used by Nagel in the paragraph of the essay and it restricts the focus of the essay ‘to the value life has for the person who is its subject’. So another formulation can be instead of using the term ‘good’ or ‘positivity’ is one using the concept of ‘value’ something like this

4. Life is a default value.


5. Living (experienced life) is valuable by default or in itself.

Now ‘value’ is another heavy philosophical concept, tied to ‘good’ in many cases, so again I prefer the ‘positivity’ thesis by now which feels more neutral, or less loaded philosophically.
And then we can use other formulations here to express this principle, not used by Nagel himself or not directly traceable back to this essay.
We can, say, use a bookkeeping analogy, realising that some sort of value computing is at stake here and say something like

6. The balance is always positive when it comes to life.

And let me finish with a last formula extracted from the an online analysis of Nagel’s essay, author unknown.

7. Life is an essential quality we all have.

At a first reading ‘quality’ here seems like interchangeable with ‘good’ or ‘value’ and ‘essential’ seems to confer the ‘positivity’ used beforehand but in that case this looks like a pleonasm, a doubling of the same concept. So ‘essential quality’ might be then equated with ‘default positivity’ perhaps. Both ‘essential’ and ‘quality’ are heavy philosophically loaded concepts so I’d still stick with using ‘positivity’ here.