Monday, 25 January 2010

The Priority of the Right Over the Good

Following the discussion in the last posting of the sense(s) that can be given to the characterisation of a view as deontological I will, in this posting, look at the ways the assertion of the priority of the right over the good has been understood. The first thing that is obvious about the assertion of the priority of the right over the good is that it asserts a lexical ordering. According to Samuel Freeman, the point of asserting the priority of the right over the good is to make a claim concerning "the desires and interests moral agents can take into account".

On this conception of the claim for the priority of the right it is a principle that limits what we should include in our practical reasoning. This point is also made explicit by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice which states that the principles of right "put limits on which satisfactions have value; they impose restrictions on what are reasonable conceptions of one's good" (TJ 27 rev/31 original). So to assert the priority of the right is to have some standards by which we can determine what things would be "good" for us though here the point seems to be a more limited one than Freeman has suggested as in this citation it is clear that the limit is placed on satisfactions. However, although the formulation from Rawls is in this respect more limited than that from Freeman, it is, in another sense, more inclusive. After all, on the Rawls conception given, the assertion of the priority of the right does involve a thesis concerning value (whilst, on at least some construals, deontology, by contrast, seems not to be concerned with value).

Similarly, in Political Liberalism, Rawls suggests that the priority of the right "characterizes the structure and content" of his view such that it indicates what can count as a good reason. If it so determines what counts as good reasons then in a sense the assertion of the priority of the right indicates what kind of place things that might be deemed to be "good" can have in the view in question. The connection of this claim to Kant involves an appeal to the view Kant presents in the Critique of Practical Reason as a "paradox" of method where he claims that the concepts of good and evil "must be defined after and by means of the law" (Ak. 5: 63). This is more fully set out when Kant effectively articulates something like a "Copernican turn" in ethics by discerning the error of philosophers when previously discussing the supreme principle of morals:

"they sought an object of the will in order to make it into the material and the foundation of a law (which would then not be the directly determining ground of the will, but would be the determining ground of the will indirectly, only by means of that object referred to the feeling of pleasure or displeasure); instead, they should have first looked for a law that a priori and directly determined the will, and only then determined the object conformable to it." (Ak. 5: 64)

This second passage makes clearer the type of change involved. Kant is indicating that we should not begin by finding something we take to have "value" and then base our notion of moral law upon it but rather articulate the moral law that is a priori and then comprehend what can be said to have value in terms of what fits with it. If this is the kind of consideration that is at work in the notion of the assertion of the priority of the right over the good then it will be necessary next to turning to what it is that is involved in viewing an ethical position as teleological.

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