Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Parfit and Kant on Respect and Value (II)

Chapter 10 of On What Matters is officially entitled "respect and value", a topic that was previously treated by Parfit in Chapter 6 of Climbing the Mountain which I responded to here. However, in the published form of On What Matters, Parfit has combined this discussion with that of the "greatest good", a topic that was given a separate chapter in Climbing the Mountain and which, when combined with the account of respect and value, makes this chapter a complicated one to evaluate. The previous account of the "greatest good" was given extended treatment in an earlier posting

The chapter opens with a description of Kant's contention that there is a respect requirement related to the Formula of Humanity that indicates that this requirement is not action-guiding. In the process of making this statement Parfit rejects Allen Wood's conception that respect is here to be viewed as an "expressive" notion. Whilst Wood's notion is problematic I am not convinced by Parfit's argument against it which appears to consist in the claim that the respect requirement is not sufficient to demarcate wrong-making characteristics. The respect requirement is, I would think, part of a "clue" to the meaning Kant is giving to "humanity" in the Formula of Humanity.

One of the problems here is that Parfit does not attempt to locate a specifically Kantian notion of rational nature as, when he responds to Wood, he takes it that the notion of rational nature has no specific content. The other problem is that he simply follows Wood in rejecting certain of Kant's specific claims in practical ethics as misapplications of Kantian normative principles without saying enough about the ways in which such misapplications can arise. 

Parfit's object here, is, however, different from the one that would be attained by focusing on the questions I have just mentioned. The object is, as the chapter title suggests, to look at the relationship between Kant's notion of "respect" and an account of "value" and when the subject of "value" enters the chapter Parfit becomes more interesting. Kant makes the claim that there is a "dignity" that attaches to humanity that is distinct from "price" and Parfit connects this point to the Rawlsian conception that the right is prior to the good. However, the argument that Parfit then proceeds to develop does not go in the direction it does for Rawls.

Parfit begins his response to the Kantian claim about "dignity" and the associated notion of the priority of the right by introducing distinctions of his own. Many things are, Parfit tells us, "good or bad" in a reason-implying sense. What this means is spelled out as follows: "Such things have certain kinds of properties or features that would, in some situations, give us or others reason to respond to these things in certain ways". Now, some of these things have a "value" that is one that we think should be promoted and this is typically how happiness and the negation of suffering have been approached. In such a situation, however, it is "these things, not their value, that we have reasons to promote".

The promotion in question refers, on Parfit's conception, to "events", meaning acts and states of affairs. Events are good to Parfit both as means and as ends in themselves and this is part of the overall view that he terms "actualism". According to "actualism" as Parfit conceives of it, events are good as ends when the appropriate features are "intrinsic" to them but only as means when the features in question are only brought about by them but not inherent in the acts or states of affairs themselves. On Parfit's view actualism "covers everything whose goodness is directly relevant to any decision about what we should do". Since this is so, all action-guiding requirements are described by it. This does not entail that actualism is a general theory of the good, however, since it applies only to events and other things than events are capable of being good. Since Parfit follows Thomas Scanlon in viewing "teleological" theories as those that identify intrinsic goodness with events it follows that Parfit does not view actualism as a "teleological" theory though, in stating this, Parfit adopts an eccentric usage of the term "teleological".

Having spun so much out of the kind of value that is to be promoted Parfit turns next to the kind of value that is to be respected. When there is something of this sort, on Parfit's view, it is the things in question and not their "value" that we respect (which parallels his claim concerning "promotion"). When something has the kind of value that requires respect then certain kinds of "actions and attitudes" according to Scanlon are called for. But these can vary since not everything that is worthy of respect should, simply by meeting that criterion, get treated as, for example, worthy of being preserved. However acting in ways that indicate the required respect is acting in a way that manifests a "value" that should be promoted on Parfit's view.

After having made these distinctions Parfit returns to Kant's claims about value and begins by discussing three different kinds of end that Kant appears to recognise. These three are: a) ends-to-be-produced; b) existent ends; c) ends-in-themselves. There is one feature of Parfit's listing here that is odd since the second category is assumed by him to be met by rational beings whilst the third is also so it is not clear how he distinguishes between them. The second group is also initially mentioned as something that is to be "respected" rather than "promoted" on the view of many.

Parfit's first aim in discussing Kantian claims about "value" is to suggest that Kant does recognise the conception of ends-to-be-produced. In one sense Kant clearly does since hypothetical imperatives generally concern them. However the "good will" is also related to by Parfit as an end we should, on Kantian grounds, aim for and hence try to produce. Here I think there is a confusion. In a sense it is evidently right to say that it is better to have a good will than not. However, this does not entail that the production of the good will is something that contains distinct recommendations that are separate from following the priority of the right and since that is so then describing them in a structurally teleological way does not appear appropriate. A similar point can also be made concerning Parfit's assimilation of the realm of ends to the category of ends-to-be-produced. The most striking such example of a problem with Parfit's assimilation occurs, however, with regard to the summum bonum which is referred to by Kant in the Groundwork precisely by reference to the categorical imperative and not by assumptions of any further sort (e.g. Ak. 4: 438).

Parfit reiterates his failure to recognise any specifically Kantian conception of rationality subsequently since he assimilates it first to "cleverness" and secondly simply to morality in general and he has clearly never tried to grapple with Kant's extensive discussion of reason in the Critique of Pure Reason

When Parfit returns to the question of the relationship between the right and the good it is after he has assimilated the claim Kant makes about the summum bonum with ends-to-be-produced. This enables Parfit to expound a specific "formula" of the "greatest good" so that everyone is enjoined to "strive to promote" a world that meets the ideal of the summum bonum. This assimilation is one that is subsequently amplified when Parfit over-rides Kant's caution with regard to the virtue of others. 

It is now that Parfit's discussion becomes particularly dense as distinctions accumulate at this point as he introduces criteria for how to describe act consequentialism, hedonistic act utilitarianism and value-based act consequentialism. If act consequentialism requires that everyone ought always to aim at whatever would best achieve "one or more common aims", then clearly hedonistic act utilitarianism specifies these aims either positively or negatively. Parfit understands, however, that the problem with these theories is that they are entirely person-neutral and the basic objection to them is that we do have and value many person-relative ends. 

The appeal to value-based act consequentialism appears in the context of Parfit's description of moral theories that are either wholly or partly value-based and value-based act consequentialism specifies that what we ought to do is whatever would make things go best (and is thus optimific). By contrast, some other moral theories assume that the notion of the "good" should be related not to the notion of "value" but instead to that of "ought". Some theories are reductionist in the sense of attempting to assimilate "value" to the "ought" or vice versa but Parfit rejects such a move citing G.E. Moore as someone for whom the "ought" could be reduced to the "good" and then citing Kant as an example of the opposite view. 

Parfit's account of Kant's view here is drawn out carefully and is worth some attention. Parfit argues that Kant uses the term "good" in an "ought-based" rather than a "value-based" sense. After making this claim Parfit returns to assessing the kind of requirement at work in his alleged formula of the greatest good. Surprisingly to most of us Parfit assimilates this view to a form of consequentialism but denies that it is a value-based form of it since it can be stated without reference to optimific language. This weakening of the consequentialist label is furthered when Parfit points out that it is no part of his conception that Kant is an "act" consequentialist, not least because reference to the "formula of the highest good" is not sufficient for Kant given the other formulas of the categorical imperative are the basis of the highest good having any chance of being attained.

Having recognised this point Parfit also indicates that this view of the summum bonum relates not merely to universal virtue but also to the happiness Kant speaks of as "deserved" since it follows from Parfit's reconstruction that it is following often rigorous rules that would best promote happiness. Parfit somewhat surprisingly assimilates this point to Sidgwick's suggestion that happiness is a second-order good. This is surprising since Kant's point about "deserved" happiness seems to be a different kind of claim than Sidgwick's given that Kant is aiming at indicating the reasons why one could assume that one had a "right" to happiness, not the basis of realistic motivations as Sidgwick is after.

Parfit now restrictively defines consequentialism to mean a "value-based" view and, given that he has defined the Kantian conception as instead "ought-based" should at this point openly state that he does not take Kant's view to be consequentialist. Instead he enters into an account of how plausible optimific views are and appears to arrive at a defence of a form of rule consequentialism based on this discussion. After going through this point Parfit returns to Kant's apparently strict view on lying and conceives Kant's claims about lying in reference to "harm". This account of "harm", like Kant's discussion of "happiness" in the summum bonum are related to his general argument about "desert" and rather than concluding the discussion in this chapter with some argument concerning consequentialism, Kant and goodness and value, Parfit instead drops a hint only that he is going to challenge the Kantian view of desert.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Parfit and Kant on Treating Persons as Ends (IV)

The discussion of the "mere means" principle that Parfit locates as the second part of Kant's Formula of Humanity is one that I have traced from the various accounts of it given from 2002 to 2008, culminating in the posting here. In this posting I'm going to cover the description of it that is given in the final published version which is in Chapter 9 of On What Matters.

The published version of the discussion of the mere means principle is very little changed on the previous formulations that Parfit gave of it. As with the earlier formulations he opens by describing the mere means principle as stating that it is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means and distinguishes between treating as a means and treating merely as a means. The latter involves some kind of objectification being added to the treating as a means and, due to this element of objectification, neglecting any sense of the "well-being and moral claims" of the other. As with earlier cases Parfit considers a peculiar objection concerning slave-holding and as with previous formulations uses this objection to arrive at the second mere means principle which does not merely say that it is wrong to treat someone merely as a means but also to "come close" to doing so. The "coming close" involves not entirely neglecting the well-being and moral claims of the other but instead giving too little weight to them.

This addition to the initial simpler formula is next mitigated by inclusion of a discussion of ways in which we avoid treating someone either merely as a means or come close to doing so. The ways in which this can be done are by either relating to them in a way which manifests that our behaviour is "governed or guided" by some relevant moral belief or concern or, apparently more challengingly, we would choose to bear a great burden for this person's sake. However, Parfit's apparent way of indicating ways of avoiding such conduct is rather slim in its scope since, as he admits, it is often unclear whether the first of these conditions is met. Similarly, the second way seems not to rule out that we might be treating someone merely as a means since the sacrifice we might be prepared to make for them in the given case need not prevent us from treating the person in question merely as a means right now.

Parfit does, however, offer a better point when he suggests that whereas treating someone as a means may only refer to intentional actions, that treating them merely as a means requires, instead, understanding of underlying maxims of conduct. This point is the first useful element of his analysis but is immediately followed by a complication that leads his analysis towards a conclusion that is not initially obvious (at least not for anyone who hasn't read Parfit's previous treatments of the question). The complication is a distinction that is introduced between acting in a way that treats someone merely as a means and regarding someone as being merely a means. The reason given for introducing this distinction is, however, an odd one since the case that is meant to justify it patently fails to do so. This is the case of gangsters who, whilst regarding others merely as means, may, for example, pay for their coffee rather than steal it simply because it is less trouble. Here, however, the question concerns not Parfit's alleged distinction at all, but rather one about whether certain kinds of action have moral worth.

Another case meant to illustrate the distinction also in fact tells us something else. This is the case of someone who marries a rich, aged person in order to inherit their money but does nothing, during the period of the rest of their life to harm them. Here the suggestion is that the actions in question, judged merely as actions, do not constitute a wrong but, this being said, they are actions that are not morally worthy. However the introduction of reference to questions of harm is given weight since harm being inflicted would automatically brand the actions in question as wrong. The example is under-specified however since, unless we assume that acts of deception are not themselves wrong, which would be a big assumption, we can hardly say that the actions undertaken here are ones that really meet the test of the mere means principle.

Parfit next formulates a third version of the mere means principle which directly brings in reference to criteria of harm as part of what demonstrates that we have treated someone merely as a means or come close to doing so. However, introducing this notion of harm as something extra is problematic. After all, it involves the assumption that there is something further required other and above the reference merely to treating someone merely as a means and this has not been established by Parfit's account.

Parfit next combines the mere means principle with the principle of consent that he took to be the first part of the Formula of Humanity to give an overall description of this formula. That would give the result that we treat people merely as means when we treat them in such a way that they could not rationally consent to our so treating them. This leads Parfit back to his trolley type cases which lead him to the conclusion that there is a basis, given his view of rational consent, to prefer some people to others in cases of moral dilemmas given that those not favoured would be capable of giving this rational (not actual) consent themselves. The reasoning in question is of a clear consequentialist type and is certainly a counter-intuitive view of the way the "mere means" principle might be thought to work!

In recognition of this point Parfit looks again at the mere means principle and assesses what he terms the "standard view" of it. On this view, which is related by Parfit to his third conception of the mere means principle, and hence builds in reference to harm straight from the start, it would be a violation of the mere means principle to treat people without their consent as a means of achieving some aim and thereby harming them. Notably, Parfit's description of the "standard" view refers to actual consent. However, Parfit states three immediate objections to this formula as given. The first is that harming people as a means may not involve harming the people whose consent is in question. This is true though not evidently to the point of the use of the "standard" view as a reply. Whilst there are ways of treating people as means which are not directly harmful to people whose consent we might need and which might harm others there would, on this criteria, still be a question about the consent of these others. It is also true, as Parfit points out, that we might be treating consenting parties as a means without treating them merely as a means but this is again beside the point since, in that case, we would be doing nothing to violate the "standard" view as stated. Finally, Parfit claims that in treating them merely as a means we need not be acting wrongly. This is the only point of Parfit's that needs to be considered, though, given it involves a different standard of wrongness to the "standard" view, it requires this other standard to be given a defence.

In order to give this defence Parfit reaches again for a kind of trolley case. In doing so his point is to suggest that cases of lesser harm could be "rationally" consented to even if not actually consented to as a way of ensuring an overall better outcome. However such an argument involves a number of important assumptions. Firstly, it requires us to accept that outcomes are the ways of measuring the question of what is involved in treating someone merely as a means. It thereby illicitly rules out other ways of assessing the question of what is involved in treating someone this way. Secondly, in invoking lesser harm it steps back from some of Parfit's earlier cases which stated that even death could be rationally consented to, so questions of commensurability of harms seem to undercut even the possibility of reference to agency on his full view which raises substantial questions. Thirdly, and finally, the argument for a different view of the wrong is not settled by examples which build in disputable assumptions since the examples effectively beg the question asked.

Subsequent to rejecting the "standard" view on the basis of his appeal to examples Parfit looks at another view of the mere means principle to which he voices objections. Onora O'Neill and Christine Korsgaard refer to deception or coercion as involving treating someone merely as a means and Parfit replies to this by using an example to show that deception could be adopted for an altruistic end that ultimately benefited someone other than oneself. This is certainly plausible though what Parfit does not here discuss, given the narrowness of his counter-example, is the way such benevolent treatment can quickly be the basis of tyrannical treatment of others. The guideline against deception might not be, as O'Neill and Korsgaard's statements suggest, completely absolute, but still, there are some very good reasons to take it as a general rule. The final part of the chapter returns to investigating further cases loaded in terms of being considered primarily in relation to harm.

There is little in this chapter likely to persuade one to modify the view of the mere means principle since nothing in Parfit's argument really leaves behind the appeals to question-begging principles and cases. In this respect, despite the modifications and extensions of this discussion that occur in the course of the evolution of Parfit's view, there is remarkably little real progress in the nature of this view.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Rawls and the Definition of Civil Disobedience

Rawls' account of the "definition" of civil disobedience follows after the discussion of the sense in which there is a "duty" to follow unjust laws, which latter was described in the previous posting. The topic of civil disobedience takes up the rest of Chapter VI and was also addressed in an article of 1969 that I posted on here.

The account that takes up the rest of Chapter VI of Theory is included in order, as Rawls puts it, to "illustrate the content of the principles of natural duty and obligation". Hence the question of civil disobedience is viewed by Rawls as an exemplary question with regard to such principles. The theory is, as it was in the earlier 1969 article, narrowly defined as it describes actions that are related to a nearly just society which has an established democratic authority. It is not intended to be applicable to cases where resistance to patently unjust social and legal orders is at issue. However, whilst this element of the theory of civil disobedience is of a piece with the earlier 1969 article, Rawls is careful in the account in Theory to distinguish three parts of the theory of civil disobedience. The three parts encompass the definition of civil disobedience, its justification and the role it plays within a constitutional system. The earlier piece, by contrast, was intended primarily to give a justification of civil disobedience although the basic definition that Rawls gives in Theory is not different from the one he gave in the 1969 article. What is distinct, however, is the way that he now defines civil disobedience in such a way that it is made distinct both from conscientious refusal and militancy.

The general definition, that is unchanged from the 1969 article, is that civil disobedience is "a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government". This definition encompasses a number of elements but it is useful, in light of Rawls' purpose of distinguishing the phenomena of civil disobedience from conscientious refusal to see that his definition of civil disobedience describes the latter as a conscientious act. What, as we will see, distinguishes it as a conscientious act, from conscientious refusal, is its political character. The second point worth immediate attention is the reference to the kind of political act that civil disobedience is. It is the kind that seeks to bring about a change in "law or policies", not one that is aimed at destabilising the government as such and certainly not one that challenges the system of justice as a whole. This is how the description of civil disobedience is distinguished from action of a revolutionary (or as Rawls also terms it) "militant" kind.

Having made this initial pass at how civil disobedience will be given a specific status that is intermediate between conscientious refusal and "militancy" Rawls provides two glosses on the definition he has just given of civil disobedience. The first gloss concerns the way that such disobedience involves breaking the law. It is not a requirement that, for the act to be understood as civilly disobedient, that the law that is broken in performing the act, be the same as the law protested against. There are clear reasons for this since the law protested against could be one the breakage of which involved severe penalties or not to be capable of being engaged with by an ordinary citizen. So the civilly disobedient act can be one that is not directly aimed at the law protested but which instead indirectly aims at it by means of expressive law-breaking.

The second gloss, however, is that the civilly disobedient act, to be seen as one, should decidedly be one that does break the law and does not merely present a test case for a constitutional or legal decision. The latter case would be one where, should the law broken be subsequently upheld, the law-breaker would then come to accept the legitimacy of the law which they had broken. In a case of civil disobedience subsequent legal opinion is not to the point concerning the status of the law-breaking. The civilly disobedient actor does not renounce their act simply because subsequent legal opinion tells them the original law is sound in terms of the legal system's rules. So whilst the act need not be directly aimed at the law protested it has to be an act whose status as justified is not disclaimed by the one performing it regardless of normally decisive legal statements.

These two glosses refer to two ways in which civil disobedience is related to the law. The next topic Rawls discusses concerns the relationship of civil disobedience to politics. There are two different ways that Rawls takes civil disobedience to be related to politics. On the one hand, civilly disobedient acts are addressed to the majority that is assumed to at least tacitly support the status quo and this address indicates it is part of the public sphere. On the other hand, civilly disobedient acts are guided and regulated by political principles, not principles of personal morality or religious doctrines. So acts of civil disobedience invoke "the commonly shared conception of justice that underlies the political order" or, to put this point another way, appeal to the principles of justice in order to point up ways in which the laws protested against are taken to be in sharp divergence from them.

At this point Rawls moves on to the point that the civilly disobedient act is a public act. This is another way in which the act is political. It is not a secretive act, intended to evade surveillance, it rather takes place in the light of day and is intended to be known to all. This is, indeed, essential to its character of appealing to the sense of justice of the majority. Attached to this public quality of civil disobedience for Rawls is the fact that the act in question is one that is non-violent. This non-violent quality is part of the civic nature of the civilly disobedient act as violence will impair its ability to act as a mode of address to the majority. It is also non-violent, on Rawls' conception, due to the claim that it is an act that expresses disobedience "within the limits of fidelity to law" although it is right at the edge of such fidelity. Part of what is involved in such fidelity is another reason for the publicity of the act. Given its publicity, the act will incur sanction from legal authority as an evident corollary and this is accepted by the one undertaking the act. This willingness to undergo the penalty, despite the assurance the one undertaking the act has that their action was a just one in reaction to unjust circumstances, is indicative of a claim on the moral consideration of the community.

The references to the non-violent and public quality of civilly disobedient acts allows Rawls to contrast such acts with those of the "militant" or revolutionary as the latter acts under no obligation to either publicity or acceptance of legal consequences. The reason why such action, in contrast to that of civil disobedience, has no necessary relationship to publicity, is that it is part of a settled conviction that the general system of justice, and not merely some element of its application, is deeply wrong. Whilst such action would have to be addressed within a Rawlsian conception of non-ideal theory in relation to basic structures that were not taken to be just, it has no place within the theory of justice but rather defines an action, in relation to a nearly just society, that is itself unjust.

However, Rawls is rather more concerned with describing the definitional difference between civil disobedience and conscientious refusal than with demarcating civil disobedience from militancy. This second part of his task requires him to provide an extended description of conscientious refusal that mirrors his account of civil disobedience (and such an extended account of militancy is not provided for reasons indicated). Conscientious refusal is defined by Rawls as "noncompliance with a more or less direct legal injunction or order". Notably, the inclusion here of reference to a specific legal injunction or order shows that conscientious refusal is distinct from civil disobedience in the sense that it cannot be indirect. It is the specific law protested against that is here broken. An example would be that of a pacifist who refused to heed the call-up. Given that the call-up specifically requires the pacifist to be engaged in the conflict to which they object they can only pursue their conviction in direct violation of it. There is a slight complication since it may be possible to evade the order without being detected and so to act covertly which would be, states Rawls, an act of conscientious evasion but notably this brings out that conscientious acts, considered merely as such, lack the necessary reference to publicity that we disclosed as essential to civil disobedience. Given this difference, there is an immediate sense in which conscientious refusal is not political in the way that civil disobedience is.

Thus far we have seen that conscientious refusal has to be direct and is not necessarily public. However, a further contrast between it and civil disobedience is that conscientious refusal is not an address aimed at the sense of justice of the majority. In not being so it is removed from the public sphere in another way and further indicated as a non-political form of action. The one who undertakes acts of conscientious refusal is like the militant in the sense that they lack confidence in the settled principles of justice of the society they belong to. The principles appealed to in conscientious refusal also need not be political. Religious or moral principles that exceed the limits of the political are frequently appealed to directly in acts of conscientious refusal. 

The cases of conscientious refusal pose certain problems for the theory of justice and some of these problems have arisen explicitly in recent cases. So, for example, religious persons who refuse to undertake actions they declare in violation of their conscience and yet are public employees may lose their employment as they are ceasing to act in ways that have civil validity. In such cases, however, the religious convictions are prompting action that violate the requirement of respect for equal liberties (the first principle of justice) and so cannot be taken to have political rationale. It is precisely due to such a claim that there is action involved here which has no basis for appeal to the general sense of justice.

This does not mean that there is nothing politically instructive involved in actions of conscientious refusal as the case of the pacifist illustrates well. Pacifists are generally treated with a margin of respect and given alternative occupations once their adherence to their position is validated. The reason for this treatment, not one accorded in general to those who appeal to principles of conscientious refusal, is due to the degree of affinity that exists between pacifist principles and political ones. There is an inherent reference within pacifist statements to general criteria that are related to, if also distinct from, political ones and the arguments of pacifists contribute to vigilance with regard to justifications for conflict and in this way serve a civil end. 

The discussion in this posting has concerned only the general definition of civil disobedience and the contrast between it and the cases of conscientious refusal and revolutionary principles. However nothing in this discussion has as yet given a clear argument justifying civil disobedience or indicating the nature of the kinds of conscientious refusal that might be politically justified other than to specify some kind of connection to the principles of justice. This question of justification will be the subject of the next posting on Rawls.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Rawls on Unjust Laws and Majority Rule

It's been a little while now since I posted last on Rawls. The last posting I did concerned the opening sections of Chapter VI of A Theory of Justice, which concerned some principles for individuals. In this posting I am going to continue to look at this chapter, focusing now on the important remarks Rawls makes that bridge the gap between this earlier discussion and the subsequent one that takes up the rest of the chapter and concerns civil disobedience.

Section 53 of Theory concerns the "duty" to comply with an unjust law and here Rawls is concerned to show the basis of this duty against those who would deny that there is any such. Assuming that there is a just basic structure unjust laws are to be taken as binding, Rawls states, "provided that they do not exceed certain limits of injustice". The first question would concern how we are to understand the constitution of these limits though Rawls also points to questions about the priority of distinct principles as another way of framing the key problem here. If there was strict compliance with the principles of justice the problem that is being addressed here would not arise so the problem of how to understand the alleged "duty" of obeying unjust laws is a problem of partial compliance. There are numerous questions of such compliance that Rawls leaves aside (including the important case of the theory of punishment) but he specifically sets out a view on civil disobedience and conscientious refusal but does so still assuming that the case is one in which the basic structure of society is "nearly" just.

In looking at the specific question of unjust laws Rawls points out that unjust laws are not all of a piece as there are two distinct ways injustice can arise. On the one hand, current arrangements can depart from publicly accepted standards that are themselves just (or tend to be so). On the other hand, the publicly accepted standards may be unreasonable and the unjust laws stem from this. In the first case, which is the one that Rawls is considering, there is possible a reference to the sense of justice that underlies the principles publicly accepted. In the second case, depending on the degree and nature of the unreasonable conception in question, there are various possible types of recourse to be made. 

Given that the situation being defined by Rawls is of the first type then how does the "duty" he is describing arise? Assuming deviations from justice occur, there cannot be given an immediate right to defy the laws of a mostly just society. How though does it occur that there are "unjust" laws in this situation at all? Rawls' initial response to this question is that imperfect procedures are sure to result in matters of justice. Politically perfect procedures are simply not forthcoming. One of the reasons for this concerns the operation of majority rule. Rawls appears to assume that in a situation tending towards the ideal that majority rule would be a given and then points out that such rule contains fallibility within it, not least due to the presence of partial and self-interested views. 

These points appear to refer to general types of facts (what Rawls elsewhere termed the "circumstances" of justice). However there is a prior point at issue which concerns the basis for agreeing to procedures that could produce such outcomes. However, if the problem is one of not accepting that we could be out-voted then surely no acceptable system would prevent this from occurring. Having adopted the principles of justice, there is still no way to prevent conceptions being understood as important by different parties being related to these principles in different ways which is the basis of clashes. 

Rawls does indicate an immediate disquiet with what may initially appear a rather sanguine approach to the problem of unjust laws when he refers to "permanent minorities" and the problem of incorporating reference to how to ensure they are not treated unjustly. But this is balanced by Rawls against a general "duty of civility" that is involved in agreeing to comply with unjust laws provided they remain within "certain bounds". 

Section 54 concerns the status of majority rule given that this notion was introduced in Section 53 as part of the most acceptable situation of justice. Rawls points out, however, that it has a "subordinate place" as a procedural device as it is important only in relation to serving the ends defined by the two principles of justice. So "majority rule" is not assumed by Rawls, any more than by Kant, as a cardinal principle of justice (which is why Kant is a republican rather than a democrat and this point of connection Rawls has with him suggests that Rawls' theory is also not, in a certain sense, a "democratic" one either if "democracy" is taken to necessarily and as a primary principle require "majority rule"). The majority principle is constrained by reference to the previously defined background principles of justice. The principles of liberty in particular are cardinally decisive against a reference to majority rule. 

So if the principle of majority rule is one that is subordinate to the principles of justice and if the principles of justice are required for the basic structure to be taken to be generally just then the reference to majority rule lacks the sacrosant status that the principles of justice themselves have. Also, given that the principle of majority rule is not itself taken to be a primary principle of justice, then action in accord with this principle of majority rule is by no means guaranteed to be itself just. 

Rawls next discusses the question of decision making under the conditions that are closest to ideal. Assuming such ideal conditions debate is had with reference to the standards of the principles of justice. So the basis of an agreeable outcome should not be reference to a notion of balancing interests as no such notion involves a clear reference to the principles of justice. Even assuming that this reference to the principles of justice is given, however, it does not follow that the deliberations of the majority would necessarily produce just laws in every case. When we are behind the veil of ignorance the parties debating have impartiality assured by removal of all contingent interests. 

Rawls next contrasts the ideal process of deliberation involved in the formulation of laws and principles with the working of an ideal market. The ideal market is assumed to produce efficient outcomes for all even though each agent only pursues their own advantage. However, whilst an ideal market would have a perfect process, even an ideal legislature would be procedurally imperfect. This is why there is no obligation for citizens to assume that even if the ideal legislature existed and worked procedurally correctly that therefore a just outcome had been achieved. The oddity of the contrast is that a perfect outcome would emerge from an ideal market even though the individual actors were acting without reference to the ends of the market taken overall whilst an imperfect outcome emerges from an ideal constitution even assuming that the actors all take impartial ends as theirs. This indicates that Rawls rejects any close analogy between economic and political structures.

There is no specific weight that can be given in the ideal legislative process to individual preferences and no assurance can be forthcoming that any given person, whatever the strength of their view, is really impartial in deliberation. Further there are a variety of ways that the principles of justice can be viewed. In thinking about the difference principle, for example, it might be right to weigh here questions about how to safeguard and foster self-respect amongst the least privileged and this might well produce different outcomes than if any reference to this notion as a primary good is not considered relevant. So there are, even assuming ideal good will is applicable to those engaged in constructing and voting on legislation, grounds for reasonable disagreement concerning how the principles of justice relate to the laws given. This is why the sense that there may be unjust laws emergent from the ideal procedure is given. And assuming this case it follows that the mere presence of unjust laws is not itself a basis for a claim to act in such a way that these laws are broken, even by reference to the standards derived from the principles of justice. This is what Rawls means by referring to the "bounds" of injustice. However, it is noteworthy that nothing in these two sections of Theory has, as yet, defined the nature and extent of these bounds.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Allison and Kant on Autonomy (IV)

The previous posting on Chapter 9 of Allison's commentary on the Groundwork looked at his treatment of the various formulas of the categorical imperative and the type of defence he offers for the view that they are all "equivalent", at least in terms of extensionality. In this posting, by contrast, I'm going to look at how Allison treats Kant's contrast between autonomous and heteronomous principles of morality.

Allison opens his treatment of the contrast between autonomous and heteronomous principles of morality by looking at the three different ways Kant views autonomy. On Allison's reading Kant relates to the principle of autonomy as the principle of morality, as a formula of the categorical imperative and and as a property of the will, taking these to be three distinct characterisations. However, the key point for Allison is that it is because autonomy is a property of the will that it is the principle of morality and not because it is presented as one of the formulas of the categorical imperative. The reason for making this claim is that the property of autonomy is what enables it to be said that the will can bind itself without referring thereby to anything "objectively" required beyond its own willing. It is because, however, that autonomy is the supreme principle of morality that this principle gives unconditioned authority to the categorical imperative. Once these two characterisations are brought together, however, it is less obvious than Allison suggests that we can claim that the reference to the categorical imperative is not part of what makes the principle of autonomy the supreme principle of morality. After all, in the very name of the "categorical imperative" we have reference to the notion that it is unconditionally binding, something that supports my contrary suggestion that there is an intimate connection between the notion of the categorical imperative and the idea of autonomy.

Now, in turning directly to the contrast with heteronomy, it follows easily from Allison's description that the notion of heteronomy can be captured as requiring that the will is not the source of the moral law but is rather dependent for its relation to the moral law on something beyond itself. However, many readings of Kant's description of heteronomy view this as requiring that heteronomous principles of morality essentially depend on a hedonistic kind of motivation (something that prevents, however, the recognition of intellectualist forms of principle being seen as heteronomous). There are quite a few problems with this, even when the question is restricted to considering what is going on for Kant when reference to sensations is paramount in the choice of moral principle. For example, as Allison points out, the benevolent philanthropist of Groundwork I feels pleasure in being benevolent but this does not necessarily mean that it is only for the sake of the pleasure that accompanies the benevolent acts that they are being benevolent. After all, if they did not think the acts they performed were genuinely addressing cases of need, they would not perform them.

The basic problem with heteronomous principles is not found in reference to a presumed hedonistic motivation but rather in a false conception of the relationship between the law and the agent. In adopting a heteronomous principle the assumption is made that the decision to will the law is insufficient for actions governed by it to have moral worth, perhaps on the grounds of an assumed "anarchic" conception of such autonomous willing. Whatever the rationale in any case, in adopting a heteronomous principle of morality, the agent assumes that worth is given to action by something intrinsically external to the act of willing itself and thus cannot find the property that is distinctive to morality within willing. There are, as Allison goes on to point out, two distinct types of ground for heteronomy: empirical and rational. Empirical theories are not all reducible to hedonism since sentimentalist accounts of morality can take there to be delight in the adoption of maxims that are virtuous. However they are classified by Kant in relation to hedonism in a different way, namely, in viewing the increase of "happiness" in a general sense (even separately from reference to the one willing) as the central matter. 

Allison's discussion of the contrast between autonomy and heteronomy is brief and concentrates primarily on making the view of heteronomy more complicated than many other interpreters have suggested. However the conclusion of the chapter on autonomy does suggest a basic problem with Allison's overall approach which rests on a failure to relate the unconditionally binding character of autonomy to the unconditional requirement that is stated in the categorical imperative clearly enough. This is not contingent to Allison's presentation, however, but essential to it given that his interpretation cannot recognise the claim that the principle of autonomy is bound up with the very notion of the categorical imperative.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Allison and Kant on Autonomy (III)

My last posting on Allison concentrated on how, in Chapter 9 of his commentary on the Groundwork, Allison discusses the question of the relationship between the formulas of the categorical imperative, and, particularly, some questions that arise from his view that there is a second formula of universal law that emerges subsequent to the formula of autonomy. In this posting I am going to continue to look at the discussion of formulas of the categorical imperative in Chapter 9, focusing now on how Allison treats the question of their alleged equivalence.

The question of their equivalence is one that is approached by Allison initially in terms of extensional equivalence, which would involve the claim that the distinct formulas would yield the same results for the same cases. This is distinct from an intensional equivalence claim which would, by contrast, entail that the reason for the sameness of results would be because each of the formulas has the same fundamental rationale. The question of extensional equivalence is complicated by the problems of alleged counter-examples to the formulas, which, in the case of the formula of the law of nature, are generally false positives which are, on Allison's reading, not applicable to the Formula of Humanity. Since Allison's solution was to treat these two formulas as yielding different kinds of universality it appears difficult to see how, on his interpretation, a thesis of extensional equivalence of the formulas can be sustained.

In response Allison ventures what he terms a "complete construction interpretation" of the categorical imperative which  suggests that the different formulas are parts of the construction involved in arriving at the full sense of the categorical imperative. So, for example, the formula of universal law is not treated on this view as settled by its initial statement since Kant's later treatment is taken to enrich it. Each of the formulas is taken by Allison as presenting a vantage upon the categorical imperative. The claim that the formula of universal law is "equivalent" to the formula of humanity is understood as a claim about the reconstructed formula of universality that Allison takes to have followed from the statement of the formula of autonomy. The second, enlarged, sense of universalisability is related to as one that requires endorsement by any rational being and thus to be equivalent to taking rational beings as ends-in-themselves. However, it is also the case that this interpretation takes the fuller sense of Kant's reference to a universal law of nature to be one that requires understanding these laws as teleological.

Allison contrasts his account with that of Onora O'Neill who, in contrast to Allison, has argued not merely for extensional equivalence of the formulas but also for their intensional equivalence. O'Neill's interpretation takes the force of the formula of universal law to concern the conditions of agency at work in willing and thus argues that maxims that are ruled out by it are maxims that undercut such conditions of agency. However, O'Neill does take the "perspective" of the formulas of universal law and of humanity to be distinct. On O'Neill's view the formula of universal law is a formula from the perspective of agents who acknowledge that others are also agents and requires maxims to be adopted that relate to this recognition. By contrast, on her view, the formula of humanity involves the recognition that actions affect others and thus requires us to adopt maxims that will regulate actions with this in mind. Allison points out that O'Neill's account fails to address the formula of the law of nature, which is peculiar given that this formula is the one applied to consideration of maxims.

Allison's account, based as it is on his "complete construction" hypothesis, views the earlier formulas as more "primitive" than the later and in taking this tack rules out the possibility of intensional equivalence that O'Neill's interpretation is aimed at salvaging. Whilst this attempt on O'Neill's part is certainly an interesting element of her interpretation, the view of different "perspectives" she builds in can only involve the claim that the "same" reasons are involved in a very thin sense of "same". Allison's rejection of the view that autonomy can be involved prior to being directly stated does not seem plausible to me, not least because of the appearance of claims about respect as early as the Groundwork I discussion of universal law. Whilst there is something to be said about formulas being either explicit or implicit in their appeal to autonomy I don't agree with the reading that takes autonomy not to be involved in the earlier formulas. 

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Allison and Kant on Autonomy (II)

In my last posting on Allison I looked at the discussion he provides in his commentary on the Groundwork of the "derivation" of Kant's Formula of Autonomy. In this posting I am going to look at the second part of Allison's discussion which focuses on the relations between Kant's formulas of the categorical imperative as these follow the initial statement Kant makes of the Formula of Autonomy.

At Ak. 4: 436 Kant describes three ways of representing the principle of morality as being "fundamentally only so many formulas of the very same law" and also states that one of the formulas in question unites the other two in itself. The claim that the three formulas are all variants on the same law is termed by Allison the "singularity thesis". A claim to this effect goes way back in Kant's lectures since he criticised Baumgarten for proposing the view that there are "many" principles in ethics, indicating that on Kant's own view there is only one true principle. However, Allison is nonetheless attentive to a claim that is added by Kant to the singularity thesis to the effect that there is a difference all the same between the formulas. The difference is one that Kant terms "subjective" rather than "objective". Kant also relates this "subjective" difference to the means by which an idea of reason can, by means of analogy, be brought nearer to intuition.

Allison indicates that he finds the reference Kant makes here to analogy to be obscure even though he recognises that it is connected to Kant's general procedure of schematizing laws (as in the typic of the Critique of Practical Reason). In explicating the reference to analogy Allison looks to the Prolegomena where cognition according to analogy is described by Kant as based on "a perfect similarity between two relations in wholly dissimilar things"  (Ak. 4 357-8). Allison suggests that the different formulas of the categorical imperative represent it according to different analogies. But this is difficult for Allison who does not find the Formula of Humanity to involve either an analogy with the categorical imperative or a typic. In responding to this problem Allison suggests that if the first analogy (at work in the formula of the law of nature) represents a connection between the categorical imperative and causal laws, the second, by contrast, relates to nature as embodying a teleological order, something Allison rather loosely relates to the conception of the end-in-itself in the Formula of Humanity. Even if this were to be accepted it remains unclear how the relations between the three formulas of the categorical imperative are to be grasped in relation to the requirement of coming closer to intuition.

Allison's next move is to look at the general claim that one formula unites the other two in itself. When making this claim Kant refers to the view that every maxim contains a form, a matter and a complete determination. The form is also subsequently connected to the general claim that maxims express universality. By contrast, Allison takes the reference to complete determination to refer to the harmonization of maxims with each other through the realm of ends (which relates to his earlier claim that here nature is being treated in a teleological way). So the formula of the realm of ends is taken by Allison to be the formula that unites the other two into itself.

However the next point that arises in Allison's treatment is the claim that Kant now mentions a new formula. This is the formula, expressed at Ak. 4: 436 which is referred to by Kant as "universal" and expressed as: "act according to that maxim which can at the same time make itself into a universal law". The reason why this should be taken as a "new" formula rather than as a way of showing that the formula of universal law, correctly understood, presupposes autonomy, is not immediately obvious. This is not quite the same as the view that Allison terms the "consensus" one which takes this formula to be equivalent to the formula of universal law as it requires an understanding of the "new" formula as a product of reflection upon the formula of universal law. Allison mentions a different view of the "universal formula" which has been presented by Allen Wood who takes this formula to be equivalent to the Formula of Autonomy (which does not, of course, cut against the interpretation I have suggested). However, Wood's reason for adopting this view is an odd one since he locates the basis for the claim that the Formula of Autonomy is to be primary only in a view of "human psychology" alone.

In contrast to Wood, Allison views the formula of autonomy as requiring a second, stronger, form of universalisability (being inter- rather than intra- subjective). However, since Allison thinks the second form of universalisability is made explicit in the Formula of Humanity and yet that the Formula of Humanity does not make an explicit appeal to universalisability he provides a ground for taking the "new" universal formula to unite the formula of universal law with the formula of humanity (which, however, we saw that a moment ago Allison took the formula of the realm of ends to do). 

Allison takes there to be a significant difference between the original formula of universal law and the "new" universal formula on the grounds that the first refers to "willing" universal laws whilst the second, by contrast, refers to "making" them. In making this claim he agrees with Allen Wood but Allison and Wood have quite different reasons for making the claim. Wood's view was that being able to will a maxim as a universal law provides only a test for the permissibility of the maxim and that this test really only relates to maxims taken one at a time. By contrast, on Wood's view, making maxims into universal law is concerned with our maxims viewed collectively (not individually) and requires the consistency of maxims to be taken into account. Allison, by contrast to Wood, does not take the difference to be one where one of the formulas is better than the other at tracking coherence on the grounds that a coherent combination of maxims has no obvious moral merit. 

Allison distinguishes between a number of the formulas in a different way. This is in terms of viewing the formula of universal law as a "meta-formula" or second-order formula which underlies and is expressed by the distinct formulas of the law of nature, the formula of humanity and the formula of autonomy (which latter Allison now equates with that of the formula of the realm of ends). However, after making this claim Allison goes on to add that the formula of universal law is only a "skeletal" form of the concept of the categorical imperative. The fully developed form of it is rather given in the "new" universal formula and this claim leads Allison to the view that there are effectively two separate forms of the formula of universal law, the one given when the categorical imperative is first introduced and the alternative one that is arrived at now, in the aftermath of the Formula of Autonomy.

The discussion in this section is thus elaborate, as is often the case when the relationship between the formulas of the categorical imperative is in question. What has thus far been lacking is any serious inquiry into the alleged difference between the two supposedly different formulas of universal law. Assuming this difference does exist there are three questions that could be asked concerning it, which are, is the difference tantamount to ruling out their extensional equivalence, does it effect any claim there might be to intensional equivalence, and does it have any practical import in reference to the consideration of maxims? 

Christine Korsgaard Lecture at UCL

Thanks to the folks over at the Political Theory blog for bringing this lecture to our attention. The lecture will be addressing the topic of "Having A Good". See this posting for more details and a link to a recent paper Professor Korsgaard has written on a similar theme, that of the "relational nature" of the good.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Allison and Kant on Autonomy (I)

In my last posting on Allison's commentary on the Groundwork I looked at Chapter 8 which discussed the Formula of Humanity. I'm going to move on now to Chapter 9 where Allison makes a series of inter-related but distinct claims about the uses Kant makes of the Formula of Autonomy but Chapter 9 is, at least thus far, the richest and most intricate chapter of the book so my discussion of this will be over a series of postings, not all in one bite.

Chapter 9 opens with a reiteration of Allison's general view of Groundwork II as providing a complete "construction" of the categorical imperative where the term "construction" is defined by Allison to mean "an account of the necessary and sufficient conditions of its possibility". There are 3 conditions that Allison views Kant as having set for the categorical imperative: firstly, it must have a universal form, secondly, it must presuppose something of absolute value and, thirdly, it must command unconditionally (or be binding). The last of these is related by Allison to the Formula of Autonomy whilst the second element is related by him to the Formula of Humanity. This distinction between the two formulas is one that I expressed some scepticism about last time but in this posting I want to look more narrowly at how Allison discusses the process by which Kant arrives at the statement of the Formula of Autonomy.

This is the subject of the first part of Chapter 9 where Allison broadly discusses what we could term the "derivation" of the Formula of Autonomy. Allison states that this derivation is not a "model of clarity". It is stated at Ak. 4: 431 where Kant derives it from restating the formulas of universal law and humanity and suggesting that autonomy arises from some kind of combination of the first two. Allison addresses here the question of how this derivation is supposed to work, concentrating initially on how Kant refers at Ak. 4: 431 to "humanity" which is in terms of being "the subject of all ends". Allison indicates that this expression is ambiguous as it could refer either to "those for whom ends exist", that is, to end-setters, or to "the objects of those ends", that is, the same end-setters considered as self-standing ends.  The latter seems to me more obvious and is aligned by Allison with the point that the rational agents so considered would set a limiting condition on both the ends set and the means by which I select them.

Turning over to the understanding of universal law, Allison likewise introduces a distinction between two ways of understanding it, namely either in terms of intra- or inter- subjective universalizability. Intra-universalizability is now understood by Allison as a first sense of universalizability with inter-universalizability a second sense. The formula of the law of nature is related by Allison to the first sense but the introduction of rational beings in the Formula of Humanity is viewed by him as leading us to the second sense. It is this second sense that is combined with the notion of humanity discussed in the previous paragraph and taken thereby to lead us to the notion of autonomy.

The principle of autonomy involves the idea that the law is something that one gives to oneself and since it is so viewed some critics of Kant assume that this gives a kind of green light to amoralism. On Allison's construal of the derivation of autonomy this is ruled out since autonomy requires universal legislation limited by reference to respect for ends in themselves. This sense of maxims being adopted out of respect for the law introduces a clear reference to a respect requirement into Allison's account.

Kant also provides a reason for thinking that the Formula of Autonomy rules out dependence of maxims referring to "interest" as, in being autonomous, the will that wills the law becomes a "supreme lawgiver" (Ak. 4: 432). This point is indicated by Allison to depend on the sense that the universality of the maxims in question is of the second type.

There are three distinct features introduced according to Allison when Kant arrives at the explicit statement of the Formula of Autonomy. Firstly, there is another formula of the categorical imperative, and this formula gives us the newly expanded notion of universality. Secondly, we thereby learn something new about willing morally. Finally, it leads us to the concluding stage of Kant's account of rational agency in Groundwork II. Included in the last point is the connection Kant appears to draw between autonomy and the realm of ends. It seems that to consider oneself autonomously is of a piece with viewing oneself as part of a realm of ends where this realm is understood by Allison to mean "a systematic unification in which the members are ends in themselves".

The "ends" in question are not "private" ends in their content or, as Allison puts it, "it does not assume that they have any such ends in particular". This way of understanding the realm of ends draws Kant very close to the Rawlsian understanding of the original position and Allison clearly acknowledges this without drawing any serious consequences for what this might say about the process of "constructing" the categorical imperative, something about which Rawls had quite a bit to say. Allison does, however, distinguish two ways of belonging to the realm of ends, as ordinary members of it on the one hand and the supreme head of it on the other. The difference between these is whilst both make the laws of the realm of ends in the sense of legislating them, only the ordinary members are also subject to them by which he means that the supreme head is not subject to any constraint as it is "a fully independent being".

The opening part of Chapter 9 thus includes a rather weak account of the derivation of the Formula of Autonomy patently largely meant to justify the general claim that it is a formula distinct from that of humanity without addressing the questions raised in my previous posting. After this point has been made Allison effectively draws on a Rawlsian notion of construction without clarifying the consequences of this or exploring it seriously. So the opening moves of the chapter have some philosophical problems but, in making the case that he does, Allison does draw out well that the binding character of the law is connected to autonomy and this is a key point.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Parfit and Kant on Free Will

Chapter 11 of the 2008 version of On What Matters introduces a topic not touched on in comparable sections of Climbing the Mountain or the 2002 Tanner Lectures, the topic, namely, of free will and desert. In this chapter Parfit discusses the question of the sorts of compatibilism Kant considers and what is needed for morality.

Parfit opens the chapter by mentioning the transcendental distinction Kant makes between noumena and phenomena and essentially states a version of the Groundwork III argument that noumenal freedom is what underpins morality (though there is also a version of this argument in the Third Antinomy). The point of the argument, though Parfit's discussion is not textually grounded, is to provide a ground for taking morality not to be an illusion. Parfit does accept the general "ought implies can" move Kant makes, though, notably, in making this premise central, he is following a version of the argument Kant makes that is quite different to the Groundwork III discussion that he appears to begin with.

Parfit does not, however, take the general argument he reconstructs from Kant to be persuasive, primarily because of the way Parfit views the notion of what it means to say that one "could" have done something different to that which one did which Parfit views only in a hypothetical sense, although, in saying this, he seems not to notice he is repeating an argument from Leibniz that Kant would precisely not be happy with. After all, the guarantee of merely "hypothetical" conditionals proves nothing about the reality of freedom.

The reason why Parfit takes this shift to be sufficient is because he thinks Kant confused determinism with fatalism and that the fatalist view is the only one that implies that it makes no difference what we do. However, this is not the point at all. The determinist view, as Kant construes it, allows for universal causal reasons to apply for all actions and these reasons are both necessary and sufficient to account for what takes place. Given this, the addition of "hypothetical" conditionals makes no difference to the reality of what has taken place which is why Kant describes it as a "wretched subterfuge".

Parfit essentially approaches determinism in a practical rather than a speculative way insisting on the point that there is nothing to prevent us from acting merely because there are reasons why what is taking place is happening as it is. The essential point Kant is making, however, concerns the origin of the basis of my action, that is, whether it arises only externally to me or whether there is some internal, spontaneous, ground for action. Questions of hypothetical conditionality do not help resolve this question.

Having failed to "correct" Kant in this way Parfit moves on to the analytically distinct question of what is involved in claiming that someone "deserves" to suffer and he focuses on the Kantian claim that if acts were merely events in time (hence all fell under a universal causal claim) then we couldn't be said to act in ways that would produce suffering as desert. Parfit seems, by contrast, not to think this claim about desert is required at all for moral statements to have sense. One of his reasons seems to be the rather weak one that either events are causally determined or they are partly random. The reason Parfit takes this disjunctive to be sufficient is that reasons given will all end somewhere and thus be partly random. However this is simply not the case. Reasons end in a final appeal to a basic principle taken to be sufficient which does not make actions partly random but rather shows a basic divide between reasons for action that has to be overcome (though this may be, as Kant argues in the Religion, by means of moral "conversion").

Parfit goes on to look at Kant's claims about moral character and arrives at a better view when he returns to his earlier claim that it rests ultimately upon the noumenal freedom thesis. However Parfit proceeds to reject this thesis as he does not find it intelligible. What Parfit seems to be mean by this is that a theoretical defence cannot be elaborately made of it though this is not even required by Kant since all that he sets out is that the case against freedom cannot be definitively proven and Parfit does not rise to this challenge.

Because Parfit rejects the noumenal freedom thesis and therefore is driven to the randomness claim about free actions he reaches the conclusion that there is nothing to the claim that we could deserve to suffer. Instead Parfit claims all we can justifiably want is to make people come to understand the wrongness of their acts, not to aim at making them suffer. So Parfit rejects retributivism and adopts a kind of deterrence theory of punishment though, in doing so, he fails to address the relationship of this to an account of autonomy. Interestingly, however, Parfit seems to object to retributivism on the grounds of its affinity to consequentialism, something that would require a long argument with him if he had justified this claim in any detail which he does not.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Parfit and Kant on Treating Persons As Ends (III)

A little while ago I looked at Parfit's treatment of the "mere means" principle that he identifies with the second half of Kant's Formula of Humanity as Parfit treats it in Climbing the Mountain. In this posting I'm going to look at the ways Parfit revises this discussion in the pre-publication version of On What Matters that was reached towards the close of 2008. The discussion parallel to that of Climbing the Mountain takes place in Chapter 9 of the pre-publication version of On What Matters.

The opening of Chapter 9 closely parallels the beginning discussion in Climbing the Mountain distinguishing again between treating someone as a means and treating them merely as a means (which latter involves relating to them as a mere instrument or tool). In response to the latter notion Parfit mentions the objection that a rich person could respond to the duty to give to the poor by giving extremely little and thereby still fail to follow their duty. Similarly, we might only partially fail to treat people merely as means (though it is rather less clear how this would go). This leads, as in Climbing the Mountain, to a revision of the mere means principle which now says it would be wrong to treat someone as a means or doing something that comes close to that. Now, after mentioning this revision of the mere means principle Parfit next refers to two ways in which our conduct can be said to be such that it definitely does not involve treating someone merely as a means.

These two ways are if we either treat this person in a way that is governed by a relevant moral belief or concern or we are or would relevantly choose to bear some great burden for this person's sake. However, given that relevance and importance are themselves matters of degree it is often unclear whether we have met these conditions. Further, we might well be prepared to meet the condition of bearing a great burden for someone whilst normally treating them merely as a means. 

Parfit distinguishes further between the kinds of consideration appropriate to saying that we have treated someone as a means as opposed to treating them merely as a means. In the first case Parfit takes it that reference to "intentions" is appropriate whereas in the second it is more apt to refer instead to "underlying attitudes or policies" (hence to view these on the lines that would fit many characterisations of the Kantian notion of a "maxim"). However, despite having introduced this complexity, Parfit is keener on a different distinction, namely that between regarding someone as a mere tool and acting towards them in a way that reflects such a view of them. Whilst he takes the former to be wrong he is less convinced that the latter is always so. Part of his case for this view is strikingly weak as when he claims that a gangster treats a coffee seller merely as a means because they purchase the coffee rather than stealing simply because this is simpler. However surely this is a case of instead only treating someone as a means and doing so in a way that lacks moral worth without thereby having become "wrong"?

Rather than drawing this conclusion, which would seem the obvious one, Parfit allows a further emendation of the mere means principle so that it now claims that we don't treat someone merely as a means if our acts will not harm this person (adding that we know that this is so). The introduction of this criteria of "harm" was, however, unnecessary in relation to the case and the example that Parfit introduces to cause trouble for this emendation is not one difficult to meet. Parfit asks us to imagine the case of someone marrying an elderly person merely for their money without acting so as to harm them, a form of conduct which surely involves treating them merely as a means. It is clear that this example undercuts the new formulation since it shows actual harm is not necessary for conduct to be such that it involves wrongfully treating someone as a mere means. However, it is also the case that this example illustrates wrong conduct on the earlier formulations of the mere means principle and thus demonstrates further the otiose character of the emendation provided.

Parfit does at this point call in the notion of acts that lack "moral worth" though the case just introduced deserves a stronger response than this. However, rather than drop the otiose reference to harm, he retains it in a further formula of the mere means principle that describes wrong-doing as consisting in treating someone as a means or coming close to that if our act "will also be likely" to harm them. The principle seems to be insufficiently differentiated from the previous version and no more necessary than it.

Parfit next turns to the task of combining the mere means principle with the consent principle that he argued was the root of the first part of the Formula of Humanity. At this point his discussion repeats the invocation of trolly examples that was given earlier in Climbing the Mountain. Subsequent to this Parfit reverts to what he calls the "standard view" of the mere means principle that claims that if we harm people, without their consent, as a means of achieving some aim, then we are treating them merely as a means. The invocation of "harm" is, again, quickly shown to add nothing relevant to the picture since it is possible to harm someone without treating them as a mere means or doing anything wrong as Parfit himself confesses. Similarly, treating someone as a means has already been distinguished from treating them merely as a means so it remains unclear what Parfit has here added to his previous account.

The account of harm distorts Parfit's subsequent treatment of examples since he keeps coming back to cases involving it as supposedly definitive of treating someone merely as a means and then showing that this is insufficient for the action to be viewed as wrong. But if treating someone merely as a means has no essential link to "harm" then these cases only prove the point that the introduction of the reference to "harm" has not proved helpful. 

A different element of Parfit's discussion is his response to the claims of Christine Korsgaard and Onora O'Neill that coercion and deception are essentially connected to treating others merely as means. The negative reaction Parfit has to these suggestions turns again on cases where reduction of harm would ensue from deceiving others so that the question of harm is taken to be an obvious sign of wrong actions, a point that Parfit simply assumes and does not argue for. 

Parfit also returns to the Bad Samaritan case used in Climbing the Mountain to show that not regarding someone as worthy of being taken as an end of action can be as bad as treating them merely as a means. However it is not evident what relevance this is supposed to have for assessing the right way of viewing the mere means principle. Whilst the mere means principle may be insufficient on its own as a ground for moral appraisal this does not show that it doesn't pick out an important wrong-making characteristic of some actions.

As in Climbing the Mountain Parfit's overall aim is to make the claim that regarding people as mere means is different to and worse than acting in ways that treat them as mere means. But it is unclear that his discussions do any more than conflate questions of treating others merely as means with discussions about "harm" and effectively treat questions about harm as definitive for the view we should have of the "mere means" principle. For these reasons it is unclear to me that the argument of Chapter 9 of the pre-publication version of On What Matters marks any real progress on the account in Climbing the Mountain.