Source: The Human Predicament: A Candid Guide to Life's Biggest Questions (1 edn, 2017). p. 113 Bottom.

  “Atemporalism”: Still others have suggested that it may be possible for good or bad to befall a person without it always being possible to temporally (or even spatially) locate all those goods and ills.27 Thomas Nagel provides the example of an intelligent person who incurs “a brain injury that reduces him to the mental condition of a contented infant.”28 Even if that person were well cared for, he notes, we would regard this fate as a misfortune. Yet it is hard to say exactly when the misfortune befalls him. [emboldening mine] The intelligent person, he says, no longer exists after the brain injury, and the person with the mental condition of a contented infant does not exist before it. This, says Thomas Nagel, “should convince us that it is arbitrary to restrict the goods and evils that can befall a man to nonrelational properties ascribable to him at particular times.”29

p. 239 states footnote 29 to refer to: Thomas Nagel, “Death,” in Moral Questions, 6.

Why's the bold sentence true? I assume that the injured whiz prefers her intelligence. The injury bars her from pinpointing the moment of misfortune, but an objective observer (e.g. physician) can?

1 Answer 1


Nagel is a subtle writer. I am not sure I have seized his sense but I think he may be saying something like this. X suffers a brain injury that reduces him to the mental condition of a contented infant. At that moment X has ceased to exist as the person he was - intelligent, creative, &c. This is not a moment within his life but defines a limit at which his existence as that person has ended. There is a parallel with death. Death is not a moment within my life but defines a limit at which my existence as a person, or living organism, has ended.

X does not experience the misfortune because the misfortune has ended X's existence as the person he was. It is not an occurrence within his life but the point at which it has terminated. If this is so, then indeed it is not only hard but impossible to say when the misfortune befell X : for it never did so. Its very occurrence meant that X no longer existed.

Perhaps this parallel - not Nagel's - will help. I can take a train journey. It lasts two hours, say, and any number of events can and do occur in the course of it. But when the train arrives, this is not an event within the journey. It is not a part of the journey but is 'outside' the journey, logically distinct from it, as marking the fact that the journey is over. It no longer exists, if I can put it like that. We can date and time the arrival - it occurred at 06.30 hours - but it is no part of the journey.

Likewise the misfortune is no part of X's life; its occurrence means that his life has ended, just as the arrival means that the journey has ended - the arrival is no part of it.


James Van Evra, 'On Death as a Limit', Analysis, Vol. 31, No. 5 (Apr., 1971), pp. 170-176. [The line of argument here is similar to the one I've used above.]

  • Good take on the point IMHO. The moment of the incident, if anything, is a "mere in between" the seizure of the existence of the intelligent person and the becoming of the 'contented child', hence "atemporal". Hence, ascribing this as a misfortune (nonrelational property) that happened to the (intelligent) person at a particular time is arbitrary (like ascribing death). A problem of the argument could be a continuous self-identification of the 'contented child' with the person and self-ascribing the incident as a misfortune, but this would, in fact, not be "non-relational". Subtle, indeed.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Apr 16, 2018 at 10:17
  • Philip Klöcking. Thank you. There is no-one whose praise I value more. Very much appreciated : GT
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Apr 16, 2018 at 13:48

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