Saturday, 31 December 2011

Parfit and Kant on Respect and Value

In a recent posting on Parfit I looked at his treatment of respect in his 2002 lectures. In Chapter 6 of Climbing the Mountain Parfit returns to this topic and, in the process, extends his discussion. As in the 2002 lecture the chapter opens by pointing out that the Formula of Humanity has been read by some primarily in terms of treating persons with respect but Parfit indicates that such a requirement is not action-guiding. Further, Parfit dissents from Allen Wood's focus on "expression" of respect since no given "expression" of respect is required in terms of treating persons with respect. Parfit does concede that Kant specifically describes some vices as indicative of disrespect but, as he points out, the Formula of Humanity is not meant to cover only some wrong acts and not all wrong acts involve disrespect in the manner that the vices Kant discusses do.

When moving on to the specific notion of respect "for humanity", Wood is on stronger ground against Parfit since the requirement for such respect is somehow related by Kant to the notion of what "humanity" itself consists in. Parfit's objections to this turn principally on indicating that Kant often makes remarks (about lying for example) that we may well find it difficult to accept but this is hardly conclusive evidence against the need to count the respect requirement as part of the meaning of the Formula of Humanity.

In assessing the claim Kant makes concerning the "dignity" of humanity in the Formula of Humanity Parfit arrives at the question of the relationship between the right and the good and mentions Rawls' famous claim that the former has priority over the latter. In responding to this point Parfit mentions the idea of things being good in what he terms a reason-involving sense. Something is "good" in this way if it has a property or feature that would, in some situations, give reasons to respond to these things in certain ways. In tying the notion of the "goodness" of this sort to properties or features of situations Parfit ensures that the goodness in question is not what Christine Korsgaard would term a "final" good since its relationship to situations makes it dependent upon them. Further Parfit adds the claim that many such forms of good have a "value" and adds, somewhat confusingly, that the things, and not the "value" they possess, can be promoted.

This claim about "value" turns into a discussion about events since it is the events that can, apparently, be promoted. Parfit also indicates that he is committed to an "actualist" view of such events which means that possible acts/events are good as ends when they possess intrinsic features that give us reasons to want them to be actual. Such a view does not claim to account for goodness of types that do not belong to events. Since Parfit appears to follow Scanlon in taking a teleological theory of ethics to be one according to which only acts and events have intrinsic value he does not assume that an actualist view is equivalent to a teleological one. 

After making these claims Parfit now arrives at a different account of respect to that involved in the requirements of the Formula of Humanity. This is in terms of respect that applies to things we value in a way that merits the appellation of "respect" but in which it is, again, the things themselves and not the respect attached to them that is the basis of the value the things possess. As examples here Parfit indicates the attitudes that are displayed towards the nation's flag or the oldest tree in a region since these things cannot be used in ways that would tarnish the value attached to them. Respect, in this sense, is a manifestation of a right kind of attitude to a thing but is not intended by Parfit as a form of goodness though the acts that are mandated here can be seen as having an instrumental kind of value.

Parfit next turns to the "value" of human life, a value that Scanlon sees in terms of a kind of respect but which Parfit refuses to view as involving a respect that is distinct from a kind of "promotion". The reason why this move is made is not entirely clear though it has something to do with Parfit's rejection of an absolutist attitude towards suicide since Scanlon views the question about suicide as having to do with a respect for the autonomous decision of the person contemplating such an act. The reason why Parfit tends towards a similar conclusion here as Scanlon is due to the claim on Parfit's part that the kind of value that human life has is to do with a relationship to the requirement of rational consent, which Parfit earlier derived from the first part of the Formula of Humanity.

After mentioning these matters Parfit returns to considering Kantian claims about dignity and mentions how Kant has consideration for three different kinds of ends. Ends that are to be effected are instrumental ends and relate to the hypothetical imperative and these types of end are distinct from "existent" ends which latter are represented by persons. However the notion of such an "existent" end is something distinct from an end-in-itself for Parfit.

The analysis of Kant that Parfit offers involves the claim that a good will is an end we ought to achieve so he tends to assimilate it to the general claim about ends to be effected without, in so doing, making clear how the good will is distinct from a merely instrumental end. Similarly Parfit talks of the realm of ends as a good to be effected, again without making clear how it is nonetheless distinct from an instrumental end. Finally, Parfit describes Kant's notion of the summum bonum as a good we should promote (without distinguishing such a claim from one concerning maximisation).

Turning from these claims back to the status of persons as possessed of dignity Parfit claims that such a status applies to all persons but, since it does, it does not demarcate a kind of goodness. So the treatment of them in certain ways is something that has to be recognised but not on account of any evident value they possess.

The next stage in Parfit's discussion is to look at the relationship between rationality and value for Kant and Parfit views rationality as partly an end-to-be-effected since we can develop our rationality. However Parfit shows little understanding of what Kant might mean by rationality since Parfit equates rationality quite simply with problem-solving capacities. Since, on such a construal, Parfit can find little merit in claims about rationality per se, he instead focuses on a conception of moral rationality.

Having made all these distinctions Parfit then returns to the question about the relationship between the right and the good and denies that Kant affirms the Rawlsian view since it turns out that Kant thinks that some "goods" should be promoted. Since, however, Rawls also takes it to be the case that there are "primary goods" and yet affirms the idea of the priority of the right over the good, I think it can be clearly seen that Parfit's discussion is not a reply to Rawls. Further, since Parfit systematically conflates different kinds of ways ends might be thought of as to be effected and says remarkably little about the notion of the hypothetical imperative, his discussion in this chapter is seriously incomplete.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Allison and Kant on Rational Agency

In my last posting on Allison's commentary on the Groundwork I looked at Chapter 5 which was a loose collection of material roughly relating to the concluding sections of Groundwork I. In this posting I am going to look at Chapter 6 which, conversely, is more tightly focused but is somewhat preparatory to a serious focus on the argument of Groundwork II.

In this chapter Allison is looking at Kant's account of rational agency and how it relates to his description of imperatives. One of the problems that Allison has posed insistently since the opening of his commentary concerns why Kant's argument did not move simply from the discussion of common moral cognition in Groundwork I to the "deduction" of the categorical imperative in Groundwork III? The basic reason that this chapter opens with is that Kant needs to establish the absolute necessity of the supreme principle of morality and that this is the central task of Groundwork II. However there is also a second question about Groundwork II that concerns its internal structure and the apparent multiplicity of formulas of law that it gives. Like Paul Guyer, with whom he otherwise differs, Allison takes the view that the formulas are parts of a progressive description that Kant is giving in Groundwork II, the description, according to Allison, of the concept of finite rational agency.

The account of rational agency opens, according to Allison, at Ak. 4: 412 where Kant speaks of how only rational beings have the capacity to act according to the representation of laws as opposed to simply acting on these laws themselves. What kind of law is this? Allison considers the argument that it is a moral law and adduces two factors in support of such a view: firstly, Kant describes only the categorical imperative (among practical principles) as a law and, secondly, since maxims are freely adopted by agents this has the virtue of placing freedom at the heart of Kant's account. However Allison decides against this reading and prefers the view that what is meant by "law" here is, rather, objective practical principles (both moral and instrumental). 

The key point about the reference to laws in rational agency is, however, that it introduces the notion of the "will". Objective principles as necessitating for wills are commands of reason and the formula of their commands is an imperative (Ak. 4: 413). Once we have this notion of an imperative we can divide the genus of this idea into its sub-species of hypothetical and categorical. To command categorically is to command independently of any given end. 

Allison reviews the contrast Kant draws between two forms of hypothetical imperative in the Groundwork, distinguishing, as he does there, between imperatives of skill and pragmatic imperatives. Further Allison states that hypothetical imperatives are all grounded in an analytic principle with regard to willing, a principle stated by Kant at Ak. 4: 417: "Whoever wills the end, also wills (insofar as reason has decisive influence on his action) the means that are indispensably necessary to it that are in his power". This statement is described by Allison as the "grounding principle" (GP) of hypothetical imperatives but it is notable that it does not contain any sense of inclusion of an "ought". 

Two conditions are introduced on the apparently analytic statement GP by Kant which are that the agent must have knowledge that the end in question could not be attained apart from a given course of action and that the agent must fully or completely will the end in question. As Allison points out, the second of these conditions is important given that it is all too common for agents not to fully will to attain a given end. On the basis of these further conditions Allison fills out the "grounding principle" of hypothetical imperatives further than Kant explicitly did and arrives at what he terms GP1. This has the form: "If A fully wills E and knows that M is indispensably necessary for E and M is in its power, then A will M". 

However there is still a problem with how we move from GP1 to the statement of the hypothetical imperative given that the latter contains an ought-operator and the former does not. Normativity will require some form of prescription which has yet to be stated. As Allison indicates, however, this element of prescription is often not explicitly stated in a law as when a simple traffic law states what one must do, it does not also say that you ought to do what you must do. Ought-propositions are addressed to finite rational agents and such agents also require an understanding of how ends relate to means. If an agent simply thinks an end in relation to means they have a hypothetical connection between the two that stands under the assumption of desiring the end in question. It is the importation of this that brings in the ought-operator.

What Kant takes to be analytic is thus not hypothetical imperatives themselves according to Allison but rather the practical propositions that correspond to them. Since the volition of an agent is presupposed in the statement of a hypothetical imperative and GP1 describes the means of attaining them then this is sufficient to account for the possibility of such imperatives. However, in addition to the generic description of such imperatives Thomas Hill has further argued that there is a general form for all hypothetical imperatives that can be expressed as the Hypothetical Imperative, of which specific imperatives are given examples. It could be taken to abstract from given specific ends in favour of the general way in which instrumental end-setting can be given. Allison rejects this idea though he does so very swiftly without examining the details of Hill's argument and the swiftness of this makes his rejection unconvincing.

Key to the notion of an imperative is constraint so that accounting for an imperative is to describe the grounds of constraint it imposes. With hypothetical imperatives the constraint is comprehended in relation to the end set but categorical imperatives are ones that command, in their unconditionality, move beyond this type of constraint. The necessitation of such categorical imperatives is not grounded in any given volition. However the generic possibility of categorical imperatives is not the province of the argument of Groundwork II but, instead, of Groundwork III.

Given this point Allison moves instead to looking at the derivation of the categorical imperative that is carried out in Groundwork II which culminates in the statement of its formula at Ak. 4: 420-21 and which is glossed in terms of an ought-operator that refers to consistency of maxims in relation to universal law. In the Groundwork I argument the universal law formula was grounded on the relation of imperatives to the good will and the conformity of imperatives to the good will was a sufficient reason for rejecting anything that failed to conform to universal law. The content of the law was filled by reference to the pre-given maxim's of the agent.

In Groundwork II, by contrast, the derivation of the categorical imperative is argued by Allison to follow from analysis of the concept of an imperative with the law being the source of the constraint on volition that must be operative in an imperative. The necessity that is built into the imperative is also assumed to be grounded on the reference to law in general and determinate content to be removed from the law. This leaves us with the simple conception of conformity to law as such. However, the general worry with this argument can be said to have the form that, whilst apparently stating something purely formal, it arrives at a principle with content and that the means by which this is done is unclear. Allison's response refers to the unconditionality of the statement of the law as that which provides us with a general possibility of content. Or, it does so "just in case" the agent takes their maxims to be willed also as universal laws. Key to the whole chapter has been the simple statement that rational agents act according to their representation of laws and the demand that an unconditional imperative provide prescriptive force independently of reference to ends. 

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Allison, Kant and the Conclusion of *Groundwork* III

In my last posting on Allison I described the argument of his fourth chapter and in this one I am moving on to his fifth chapter. Whereas the fourth chapter had a relatively tight focus on two topics, the nature of maxims, and the characterisation of moral worth, the fifth chapter, by contrast, takes on a range of topics that are really only united in being all addressed in the final sections of the first part of the Groundwork.

The first part of Allison's discussion concerns three propositions that are stated in Groundwork I and the difficulty that the first of these propositions, whilst required, is not directly indicated by Kant with the result that a hermeneutic problem has arisen with regard to it. The "standard" view of it is that this first proposition amounts to the assertion that an action has moral worth if and only if it is performed from duty alone. However, some have called this reading into question since Kant indicates that the third proposition follows from the first two and it is not obvious, if the standard reading is accepted, how this takes place. Allison mentions three different interpretations of what this first proposition consists in prior to giving his own view concerning it.

On the first view, identified with Freudiger, Kant's first proposition states that duty presupposes subjective motivation but this requires that supplementary material also be added in order to make the third proposition follow from the first two so Allison rejects this contention. The second view, identified with Dieter Schonecker, is instead that the first proposition should be read as stating that an action from duty is an action from respect for the moral law. However, Allison rejects this claim on the grounds that it requires reading material into the text at this point that is not introduced until later. Finally Jens Timmermann's proposal is mentioned to the effect that the third proposition should be read as saying that an action that coincides with duty has moral worth if and only if its maxim produces this by necessity. However Allison thinks that this reading requires reference to a principle of non-contingence and that this is far from obviously equivalent to Kant's sense of "necessary".

In contrast to these views Allison argues that Kant's first proposition should be read as stating that a good will under human conditions is one whose maxims have moral content. One of the reasons for adopting this view is that the claim about possession of moral content would give some sense to the questions about non-contingency with which Timmermann was concerned. 

Kant's other two propositions are explicitly stated in Groundwork I and the second is to the effect that actions from duty have their moral worth not in the purpose they aim to achieve but in the maxim according to which they are decided upon. So the moral worth of actions is based on the principle of volition that was at work in willing them, not on the object of their action. This proposition relates back to Kant's earlier argument that the goodness of a good will does not reside in what it accomplishes. 

Kant's third proposition states that duty is the necessity of an action from respect for the law and here Allison takes some trouble unravelling the nature of Kant's appeal to the notion of "respect" arguing that effectively two different notions of "respect" are stated by Kant and occasionally conflated in his treatment. On the one hand, there is the notion of "spectator-respect", a third-person pro-attitude towards persons, whilst, on the other hand, there is "agent-respect", a notion that involves consciousness of standing under the moral law. The long note Kant adds concerning respect at Ak. 4: 401 is also set out by Allison as containing eleven distinct claims. Kant here opens with acknowledgement that the reference to respect might appear obscure but undertakes to indicate reasons for its introduction including the contention that respect is a specific feeling that is not based on sensuous nature but instead on rationality in some sense. What is immediately recognised as a law for oneself is recognised with respect but the normative force of the law is not grounded on sensuous feelings. The feeling of respect is taken, by contrast, to trump all feelings of mere self-love though the argument of the Critique of Practical Reason that it involves direct humiliation is not here stated. The sense of the law as something self-imposed is here intimated in Kant's argument for the first time. Spectator-respect involves marvelling at how someone else is capable of incarnating the law in their conduct.

After outlining the account of respect Allison moves next to Kant's derivation of the moral law in Groundwork I. The representation of the law determines the will in the sense of providing it with a sufficient reason to act apart from any regard for a result. One of the reasons for this is that the will has had removed from its analysis any impulses that could arise from obedience to any particular law. All laws that are based on impulse have specific content that presuppose an end as the basis of their normativity so in excluding them Kant is left with a law that has its normative ground solely in itself.

Allison takes the derivation of the universal law in Groundwork I to be closely connected to the earlier discussion of the concept of a good will. Conformity to the law is a necessary characteristic of such a will. However the law that is stated now specifically builds in a requirement that maxims be willed as universal laws. Bruce Aune has famously objected to the derivation of the universal law on the grounds that Kant simply moves from a general argument for universal law to the specific one involving maxims which Allison presents as a move from a descriptive to a prescriptive principle. Maxims provide content to an otherwise empty notion of conformity to universal law and this is how prescriptivity is introduced into the law according to Allison. This principle enables one to test the permissibility of maxims rather than being, as is often thought, a self-standing generator of duties.

In conclusion Allison looks at Kant's final paragraphs of Groundwork I which concern the apparent "natural dialectic" which common human reason is said to be drawn into when it considers moral questions. This leads Kant to refer to the need for philosophy, a point that contrasts rather vividly with his treatment of dialectical questions in the Critique of Pure Reason which were thought to arise from philosophy. However Allison is unconvinced that a genuine dialectic is introduced here by Kant and, if there is one, it would have to be between empirical and pure practical reason though Kant seems not to take the conflict between these as dialectical.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Parfit and Kant on Treating Persons as Ends (II)

In a recent posting I looked at how Parfit discusses the Formula of Humanity's declarations against treating persons merely as a means in his 2002 lectures. Now I want to turn to looking, by contrast, at how Parfit's account of this topic is set out in Climbing the Mountain, the first book-length form of the work that eventually became On What Matters. The material from the 2002 lectures that I have been looking at in recent postings on Parfit is developed in Climbing the Mountain into three chapters, two of which expand on the discussions given first in the first of the 2002 lectures, and the last of which introduces topics that were not part of the first of the 2002 lectures at all. So it will require 3 postings to look in full at the way the treatment of the Formula of Humanity is presented in Climbing the Mountain.

Chapter 5 of Climbing the Mountain replicates and expands the discussion of the element of the Formula of Humanity that concerns treating people merely as a means and opens with material that is essentially the same as in the first 2002 lecture. This includes distinguishing between treating people as a means (meaning just using someone's abilities, activities or body) and treating them "merely" as a means (viewing them purely as an instrument or tool). However, an objection is mentioned from Frances Kamm who took this understanding of treating someone merely as a means to be too weak since, on this account, it would appear sufficient for a slave-holder not to be said to be treating someone merely as a means if he allowed the slaves to rest during the hottest part of the day. Parfit takes this objection seriously though it is far from clear to me why he does since, after all, treating someone as a slave is prima facie to treat them merely as a tool (as Aristotle recognised clearly). After all, if a tool is essential for a task one wants to perform then you don't act in such a way as to break it so the slave-holder in the example is merely a prudent tool-owner, not someone who is failing to treat his slaves merely as a means.

Parfit, however, affects to take Kamm's objection seriously and re-formulates the mere means principle so that it states not just that it is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means but, in his second formulation of the principle, that is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means "or to come close to that" (apparently as a way of responding to Kamm). So the slave-holder only "comes close" to treating someone merely as a means if they are sufficiently considerate to allow them to take time off work during the hottest part of the day. As already indicated I find this concession utterly unnecessary.

After beginning in this confusing way Parfit moves on to a negative claim involving what kinds of concerns would rule out the idea that our treatment of someone was not to be correctly viewed as treating them merely as a means. This restrictive negative construal indicates that we are not treating someone merely as a means if our treatment of them is either a) governed or guided in "sufficiently important ways" by a relevant moral belief or concern or b) we do or would relevantly choose to bear some great burden for this person's sake. 

The first of these ways of preventing some treatment of someone as not being subject to the charge that we are viewing them merely as a means is treated with some care by Parfit. So, for example, if a slave-holder doesn't whip his slaves merely because he is aware that this would give him a sadistic pleasure then this does not show that he is not treating the slaves merely as a means, an odd point given Parfit's apparent earlier allowance of Kamm's flawed objection. Part of the point of raising this odd case is, however, to suggest that it is not always obvious if we have a case of the first type at hand (since, apparently, if the slave-holder wasn't whipping the slaves due to some "belief" in their worth that would exculpate him!).

The second way of preventing something being viewed as treating a persons merely as a means does not only involve taking on great burdens for someone else as these burdens also have to have sufficient moral relevance to the acts being considered. The introduction of these qualifiers is meant to sharpen the way Parfit has distinguished between treating a person simply as a means and treating them merely as a means. Treating someone as a means is viewed by him as only referring to our intentions whereas, by contrast, treating someone merely as a means depends not only on this but also on underlying attitudes and policies (akin to how some have viewed the Kantian idea of a "maxim").

After reinforcing this distinction Parfit next points to an ambiguity in the notion of treating someone merely as a means since it could refer either to attitudes or to actions and he views the application of the notion to actions as something that is more difficult. In making this point Parfit introduces the example of the egoist who saves a child from drowning but only with the aim of being rewarded. The point of introducing this example is to state that whilst the attitude here is a wrong one, the action is not. However, understanding the principled basis of this distinction proves complex as becomes clear when Parfit discusses ways of incorporating reference to it in one's general account of the mere means principle. So, incorporating the distinction, in reference to the case of the egoist just considered, might lead us to introducing a third restrictive condition on evaluation of what kinds of things would not merit the charge of treating someone merely as a means.

The way that would go would be to give the formulation that we don't treat someone merely as a means if we know our acts won't harm the person in question. However, as Parfit uses an imaginary case to show, this way of framing an exemption from treating someone as a mere means is pretty problematic since it would seem to allow conduct short of actual harm even though it was motivated entirely by egoistic considerations and included no reference to benefiting someone and that appears odd. So it might well be safer, rather than trying to add this third restrictive condition on the evaluation of the action of the egoist saving the child, to instead regard this action only as one that lacks moral worth.

This leads Parfit next to a third formulation of the mere means principle so it now states that it is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means or to come close to that, if our act will also be likely to cause harm to the person. This is another puzzling feature of Parfit's argumentation, however, since stating that the act of the egoist is one that lacks moral worth is to state something quite different from saying that their action is wrong and yet this amendment is introduced as a way to indicate that treating someone merely as a means is not a distinctively wrong-making manner of treating them and this simply does not follow from his argument.

Parfit next moves to the stage of trying to give a unified treatment of the Formula of Humanity by tying together the mere means principle with the Consent Principle that he earlier located as expressed in the first part of Kant's formula. The restrictions on the application of the mere means principle included reference to conduct governed by a relevant moral belief or principle and the Consent Principle is now taken to be such a principle and hence to play the role of the first way of restricting the application of the Mere Means principle to evaluation.

Parfit next introduces the same "trolley" examples that were given in the 2002 lecture and which I discussed here. As in the 2002 lecture the point of introducing these trolley examples is to argue that the sense of "consent" in the Consent Principle is not actual consent. However, after making this argument, Parfit now adds some additional considerations that were not present in the 2002 lecture. These involve a potential objection to his argument that trades on a different understanding of the mere means principle to that which Parfit himself has given. This different understanding is expressed in what Parfit terms "the standard view" which states: "if we harm people, without their consent, as a means of achieving some aim, we thereby treat these people merely as a means, in a way that makes our act wrong".

Parfit objects to this "standard view" not least because it misidentifies what may be happening in harming people as a means since we may not be treating these particular people as a means and, even if we are, we may not be treating them merely as a means. But, most importantly for Parfit's own discussion, even if we are so treating them, this may not be sufficient for it to be said that we have acted wrongly. So you might harm someone (as in self-defence) without treating them as a means. Secondly, we might treat someone merely as a means on the standard view without evidently having done something wrong as when you cause harm to someone to save someone else (who is not yourself). 

Parfit next considers some typical claims that have been made about treating people merely as means as when Onora O'Neill and Christine Korsgaard highlight coercion and deception as treating others merely as a means. However, in response, Parfit points out that if I prevent someone from killing me by giving them a false impression of what I have done or am going to do this seems insufficient for the act in question to be viewed as wrong. Korsgaard also makes a point about free-riding pointing out that wrong actions are often such in that they only work due to the assumption that they won't form a general pattern of behaviour. However, as Parfit points out in a Bad Samaritan case I am not treating someone merely as a means if I walk on by ignoring the injured party so the wrong-making characteristic of this action has not been pulled out by application of the mere means principle (which, thus, cannot be identified simply with the generalised injunction against free-riding).

The point about the Bad Samaritan example, on Parfit's construal, is that the person responded to in the way indicated is treated not as a mere means but rather as a thing (hence not as a person at all). This may well indicate a different kind of wrongness to that of treating someone merely as a means and a much more serious moral failing thus may be involved here (although Parfit does not, having made this point, return to Korsgaard's point about free-riding). 

In the conclusion of this chapter of Climbing the Mountain Parfit returns to the distinction between regarding people merely as a means and treating them in this way. Treating someone merely as a means is viewed by Parfit in a very restrictive sense, however, since he regards a gangster who buys a cup of coffee merely because it would be too much trouble to steal it as treating the vendor merely as a means. This is a case, however, of acting in a way that lacks moral worth but it is far from obvious that it means treating someone merely as a means (it may just involve treating them simply as a means). The introduction of this flawed example is meant to pave the way to a further consideration of the third way Parfit formulated the mere means principle and includes a further treatment of harmful means in which harm is regarded as something that ought not to be caused except if it is the least harmful way to achieve an aim and, given the goodness of the aim, the harm caused is not disproportionate.

In considering this amendment to the third mere means principle Parfit points out that we have no obvious guidance for how to consider disproportionate harm. However, whilst this is a fair point, Parfit over-plays it since he takes it that the amendment proposed would rule out even mild forms of harm, something hard to square with the point about proportionality. 

Parfit's general aim in the chapter is surprisingly negative. It consists in a general claim to the effect that the mere means principle is insufficient to characterise an action as wrong (though it can define an attitude as wrong). This is in accord with the treatment of the principle that was given in his 2002 lecture but the chapter of Climbing the Mountain works harder to establish this conclusion without, however, being obviously persuasive.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Parfit and Kant on respect

In my last posting on Parfit I looked closely at how he uses thought experiments in the first of his 2002 lectures, the lectures that present the core origin of his book On What Matters. In this piece I'm going to address the remainder of that first 2002 lecture where Parfit looks at the topic of respect.

Up until this point Parfit has concentrated on dividing the Formula of Humanity into two sub-parts, one of which relates to consent and the other of which concerns the reference to not treating others as "mere means". However, as Parfit points out, others have looked at the Formula of Humanity instead in terms of respect for the worth of humanity and this reference to dignity or worth appears particularly important in the Doctrine of Virtue. This leads Parfit to formulate a "respect principle" that simply formulates this demand for action in relation to respect for the dignity or worth or rational beings. However, after so formulating this principle, Parfit differs from Allen Wood's treatment of it as Wood appears to believe that respect is not a state of mind and hence does not relate to attitudes. Parfit, by contrast, takes the respect principle to cover both attitudes and acts. 

The major question concerning the respect principle, however, is what application of it would involve. Here Parfit differs from Kant's own sense of what appears to be involved in respecting humanity given that Kant indicates that such an attitude would indicate that suicide is generally wrong. Part of Parfit's disagreement with Kant is only an indication of the refinement which Kant showed in practice in discussing cases of consideration of suicide since Kant did indicate that the Stoic attitude towards suicide might not be blameworthy. However Parfit also broadly suggests that Kant's understanding of what an attitude of respect might involve is not necessarily reliable. This latter, stronger, point, is, however, not articulated very clearly in terms of how Kant's "going wrong" is itself theoretically grounded and what other grounds might be adopted in preference.

Similarly, when Parfit disagrees with other views of respect he is somewhat cavalier in his treatment. Citing Thomas Hill's view that respect is most indicative of the value of rationality Parfit just assumes that the type of rationality Hill here means is something purely theoretical and thus easy to reject, a rather questionable and unlikely assumption. 

The final section of the first lecture turns, by contrast, to Parfit's generic contrast between types of theories of practical reason reiterating the by now familiar contrast between desire-based and value-based theories and affirming the latter against the former. Unlike monistic theorists, however, Parfit affirms a plurality of goods including the sense that some things are good for their own sakes which is what enables him to say that his value-based theory is a "wide" and not a "narrow" one. Having drawn this contrast Parfit returns to some of the examples discussed in my previous posting in order to argue that desire-based theories have more problems with them than his favoured value-based theory would have. 

However a second aspect of Parfit's review of the cases in question is a suggestion that Kant's "consent principle" may conflict too strongly with common sense morality and that other principles than consent surely matter to us. Finally, Parfit indicates that the Formula of Humanity is not the best principle to appeal to in order to determine what is wrong but that the Formula of Universal Law is to be preferred to it, a conclusion that, whilst at odds with much contemporary Kantian writing, does conform to Kant's own strong statements with regard to universality. This is where the first 2002 lecture ends and, in subsequent postings on Parfit, I'll look at how the concluding considerations of this first lecture are refined in the subsequent texts leading up to the publication of On What Matters and, indeed, in On What Matters itself.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Allison and Kant on Maxims and Moral Worth

In my last posting on Allison I discussed his initial account of the "good will" in Chapter 3 of his commentary on the Groundwork. In this posting I am moving on to an account of Chapter 4 of the commentary where Allison talks about 2 topics, the Kantian account of maxims on the one hand, and the dispute over the meaning Kant gives to "moral worth", on the other. The latter discussion expands upon some of the remarks about duty with which Chapter 3 closed.

The first part of the discussion in Chapter 4 on maxims opens with an examination of the two definitions Kant gives of the term "maxim" in the Groundwork. Key to these definitions is the view that "maxims" are "subjective" principles. Allison subsequently points that, in the Critique of Practical Reason (Ak. 5: 79), Kant also states that maxims presuppose interests and that interests rest on incentives. Further, in the Critique of Practical Reason, "incentives" are presented as subjective determining grounds of the will whilst an interest is defined there as "an incentive of the will insofar as it is represented by reason" (Ak. 5: 79). 

Maxims are ways of thinking and there can be a general orientation of the will that indicates its disposition to adopt maxims of certain sorts. They are the proper objects of moral deliberation and assessment and are related by Allison to a view of how deliberation takes place on a Kantian view. The generic account of deliberation includes a distinction between different forms of consciousness and self-consciousness but the key thing about these is that, in terms of practical deliberation, maxims are part of the spontaneity of an agent. When there is reflexive awareness of maxims then they become taken as guides for action.

Allison distinguishes three functions of maxims. Their first function is in moral deliberation where we examine maxims which requires their explicit formulation. By contrast, in moral assessment, we have to respond to the problem of Kant's account of the opacity of motivation. Allison argues, however, that Kant highlights such opacity only at the level of determination of the purity of motivation. Even spur of the moment decisions are choices made by agents and involve rational commitments. This point leads to the third level of discussion of maxims, which concerns their relationship to rational agency. What is crucial, on Allison's account, is that Kant's theory of rational agency requires that intentional action refer to some maxim even without requiring that there always be complete certainty about the nature of the maxim in question.

After going through the account of maxims, Allison turns to the objections that have been made to Kant's view of moral worth. One of the objections has concerned the relationship between duty and sentiment, in the name of more sentiment-based views. More radically, some argue that emphasis on duty is alienating (as Bernard Williams appears to have thought), a view that refers back to the traditional Schiller objection to the argument of Groundwork I. Allison mentions a number of possible responses to these objections, and, in particular, the more radical of them. The first response referred to is the one that was made by Paton and emphasised the view that Kant is practicing a "method of isolation" in the argument of Groundwork I. This argument has been taken further by Barbara Herman who takes Kant to be making not a general point about inclination but only a specific point concerning the alteration of the attitude of one person (as in the case about the sympathetic person who acts eventually only from duty). However, as Allison states, it is far from obvious that this is a sufficient reply to the Schillerian objection.

The second reply to objections given is the one formulated by Richard Henson and discussed in some detail here. Henson argues for a view he terms the "fitness report" model of moral worth in which the enjoyment of duty does not lessen its moral worth as long as the sense of duty is also present but this view is taken by Henson not to be the representative one given in the Groundwork where, instead, he found there to be a 'battle citation' model given which is essentially close to the argument that Schiller objected to. Not only is this so but, Allison argues, Henson's positive model reflects an empiricist view of agency.

By contrast to these two responses, Allison gives a third one in considerably more detail. This is the view argued for by Allen Wood which distinguishes acting from duty from possession of a "good will". Allison objects to the suggestion that someone with aversion or apathy to moral demands could be said to have a good will though this is in accord with Wood's own statements. However, unlike Wood, Allison stresses the need for self-constraint in following one's duty as there is always some temptation to act contrary to duty. Wood is also accused by Allison of failing to note the difference between taking duty to be a direct motivating factor and seeing it instead as an underlying commitment to do what morality requires. For Allison a maxim's moral content is evidently part of the maxim which leads him to the view that adoption of a good maxim is a reflection of possession of a good character. 

Allison's positive view of moral worth appeals to his conception of the "incorporation thesis", a thesis he famously located in a passage from Kant's Religion (Ak. 6: 24). On this view it is not the case that an incentive or desire can of itself provide us with a reason for action as such a reason is only given if the incentive or desire is incorporated into our maxim. Unlike with Henson's conception of overdetermination, Allison's view of the incorporation thesis does not take the will to be determined but it does involve seeing it as having determining grounds. When one adopts a maxim one also incorporates an incentive into one's reasons on this view. So you can act with inclination but from duty. However, as the previous chapter ended without a full enough view of moral worth emerging so this chapter ends without a full enough view of the incorporation thesis emerging and Allison promises to return to giving a fuller account of the latter later in the work.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Allison, Kant, and the Good Will

It's been a little while since my last posting on Henry Allison's book on the Groundwork. In that posting I addressed some of Allison's remarks on Kant's relationship to the previous traditions of moral philosophy. The discussion of that relationship closed the first part of Allison's book and the second part is concentrated entirely on the interpretation of the first part of the Groundwork. The second part consists of three chapters, looking at different aspects of the argument of Groundwork I and in this posting I'm going to look at the first of these, Chapter 3, in which Allison concentrates in particular on Kant's discussion of the good will.

Chapter 3 of Allison's book is devoted entirely to the first thirteen paragraphs of Groundwork I which deal with the topics of the good will, Kant's "teleological" argument and a discussion of acting from duty. Allison's chapter is divided between these topics, beginning with the account of the good will. Kant's account of the good will involves the specific claim that it is the only thing that is good "without limitation" (Ak. 4: 393). Partly this argument is negative, in terms of showing the limitations of other things that might be deemed "good". However, Kant also makes the positive point that the good will possesses the characteristic of having "absolute worth" and Allison follows Allen Wood in taking the "higher worth thesis" to be logically independent of the "good without limitation thesis". To claim that the good will has absolute worth tells one something about the degree of its goodness whilst claiming that it is good without limitation, by contrast, tells one about the kind of goodness it has.

The claim about the good will's absolute character, however, does commit Kant to the view that it is the condition of value of all other goods, according to Allison. This is part of the way Allison makes sense of the distinction Kant makes between what has a "price" and what possesses "dignity" (where the latter is "beyond" all price). In many cases, particularly with regard to pleasure, the claim here is not difficult to see since pleasure is evidently possible with regard to almost anything so in itself it is too indeterminate to hold as a measure of value. This is why Kant talks about being "worthy" of happiness. 

However, Allison is careful to point out that despite claiming that the good will is what is good without limitation that this does not entail that the good will is equivalent to the "complete" good. Allison rather identifies the latter with the "highest good" (though, in so doing, he is failing to note some of the distinctions involved in the discussion of the latter in the Critique of Practical Reason). This argument is not, in any case, made explicit in the discussion of the good will in the Groundwork. It is, though, clear enough that a world in which the good will was capable of having effect would be a morally preferable one to one in which it was not so capable.

The possibility of the good will having an effect is also at work in how Allison understands the goodness of the good will since he determines this to consist not in an occurrent condition but rather in possession of a dispositional trait. In making this claim he follows the hints Kant drops that the good will is to be understood in terms of the possession of a certain kind of character. The character involved would be one of a general orientation towards the moral, based on principles rather than sentiment.

Allison's opening account of the good will is followed by an investigation of the four paragraphs of Groundwork I where Kant refers to teleology and which many commentaries have failed to address. Kant's discussion of this is prefaced by the mention that there could be sceptical doubt about the very possibility of the "good will". In addressing these doubts, on Allison's construal, Kant develops a kind of polemical reply to the views of Christian Garve, to the effect that there is some sense in which nature has provided reason to human beings as part of a superior means of self-preservation. On this view there is something prudentially (and, ultimately, eudaemonistically) good in human possession of reason.

Kant replies to this suggestion with some indications of why reason is far from being able to meet this requirement of also providing those possessed with it the advantages suggested. Not only does reason not make it easier to attain ends of self-preservation, it also complicates matters by multiplying the types of ends we strive after. Allison also mentions a relationship of the discussion in Groundwork I to the account of historical teleology Kant gives in his Idea of Universal History. Both the earlier essay and the Groundwork agree that reason is not something that makes mechanical possession of happiness easier but rather something that replaces the ends of instinct with other types of end. 

The final part of Allison's account concerns Kant's analysis of acting in accordance with duty. Having a good will is not, on Allison's argument, sufficient for one to act from duty. The discussion of the relationship between acting from duty and moral worth is a controversial matter, however, as some of the recent postings on this blog attest to. Allison analyses five paragraphs of Groundwork I in terms of how they relate to these questions.

Here are included some of Kant's famous examples, including that of the shopkeeper who does the right thing, not because it is right, but purely from prudential interests. Kant also here considers cases of doing the right thing from inclination rather than from duty and Allison points out that there is an important similarity between acting in such a way and acting purely prudentially since, in both cases, the action that accords with duty is not undertaken for its own sake. The difference between them, however, is that those who have a sympathetic disposition that leads them, in some almost immediate sense, to do the right thing, do deserve a kind of moral praise that the merely prudential behaviour does not merit. This does not, however, mean that such behaviour is equivalent to that which has true moral worth, not least because the inclination is quite capable of simply leading to beneficent actions that in fact could even conflict with morality. Kant does, though, still mark an important difference between such attitudes given that he is capable of arguing, as he does in the Doctrine of Virtue, that there is an indirect duty to cultivate sympathetic feelings.

The case of the person who loses their sympathetic inclination and yet nonetheless does the right thing is, by contrast, meant to draw out the true source of moral worth is not resident in the immediacy of sympathetic inclination but rather in a relation to duty. Whilst Allison's view of these examples has a character that is more sympathetic towards them than some others it is also clear that his account is foreshortened and fails to address some of the problems others have raised. Further, the discussion in Chapter 3 is essentially introductory of Allison's response to the argument of Groundwork I and there are two more chapters devoted to its argument. Subsequent postings on Allison's book will look at these later chapters, which will enable a more considered view of Allison's account of moral worth to be evaluated.