The conflict between the claims of the group and those of the individual is one of the most fundamental problems in moral and political theory. Nagel here attempts to clarify the nature of the conflict and to show that its reconciliation is the essential task of any legitimate political system. Within each individual, Nagel believes, there is a division between two standpoints, the personal and the impersonal. Without the impersonal standpoint, he says, there would be no morality, only the clash, compromise, and occasional convergence of individual perspectives. It is because a human being does not occupy only his own point of view that each one of us is susceptible to the claims of others through private and public morality. Political systems, to be legitimate, must achieve an integration of these two standpoints within the individual. Nagel contends that the problem of designing institutions that accomplish this has not yet been solved. Communism, which exalted the 'impersonal' value of equality has clearly failed, but the individualism of democratic capitalism has perpetuated morally unacceptable levels of economic and social inequality.
Nagel points to the problem of balancing equality and partiality as the most important issue with which political theorists are now faced. This book is based on Thomas Nagel's John Locke Lectures, delivered at Oxford early in 1990.