Sunday, 29 April 2012

Parfit and Kant on Universal Laws (III)

I looked at Parfit's discussion of the requirements of Kant's Formula of Universal Law (FUL) in Climbing the Mountain recently and in this posting I am going to look at some of the salient features of his treatment of it in the 2008 version of On What Matters. Whilst the treatment here is in some respects continuous with that in Climbing the Mountain I want to use the review of it to assess some of the ways the requirements of the test of maxims based on FUL are understood by Parfit and how this understanding relates to other views in the secondary literature on Kant. I will refrain, in this posting, from replying to these conceptions except to mention the reasons why Parfit rejects a number of such interpretations.

As in the previous treatments of the topic so here Parfit opens by viewing one way of assessing the requirement of FUL as stating what he terms an "impossibility formula" so that what cannot be willed is something we could not take to state a universal law. However, whilst this generally does capture part of what seems to be involved in the contradiction tests that are related by writers to Kant's FUL, Parfit takes it that we need a further refinement of the "impossibility formula" before we can describe it as indicating what kinds of action are "permissible". It is not, says Parfit, that Kant refers to maxims that we could not all be permitted to act upon simpliciter. Nor does Parfit think that permissibility should be understood in terms of maxims that all could "accept" since "acceptance" alone seems to him too neutral a term. Similarly Parfit does not think permissibility can be understood in terms of what "everyone" could act upon since many maxims have particularistic content but of a sort that is demonstrably referring to moral concepts. More generally referred to is a way of viewing permissibility that refers us to actions that could be "successfully" acted on, a notion that many writers have tried to view FUL in terms of but which Parfit rightly rejects as generating false negatives.

Having gone through all these ways of looking at FUL Parfit replaces the initial formulation of it to one that incorporates, oddly enough, the reference to "success" that he has previously rejected as a way of interpreting "permissibility" and assesses some maxims in reference to this revised requirement but, unsurprisingly, finds the results discouraging. The revised formula does not, says Parfit, "condemn self-interested killing, injuring, coercing, lying, and stealing". Assuming this is so it is reasonable to wonder why Parfit spent time considering a revised formula that he had already found reason to reject? One reason appears to be that Kant's paradigm example of lying promises could be rejected by reference to the "success" understanding of "permissibility". Having located this result Parfit next revises again the understanding of the "permissibility" interpretation of practical impossibility to read: "It is wrong to act on any maxim of which it is true that, if everyone believed such acts to be permissible, that would make it impossible for any such act to succeed". 

However the problem Parfit next raises concerns the types of practices to which the formula as given should be attached stating that the undermining of promises would involve the destruction of a valuable set of practices but adding now that it is not only to valuable practices that the formula would have to be applied. Counter-examples are marshalled now both to the idea that it is universally true that promising is a valuable social practice and to the idea that the formula only picks out social practices that possess value. The result is, once again, that the formula has mixed results, condemning some acts that we would usually take to be right and, furthermore, when it correctly condemns acts, doing so for a reason that does not appear to Parfit, at least, to be good.

Still staying with a variant of the interpretation of the practical impossibility requirement that sees this in terms of some reference to "success" Parfit next looks at a version of the formula that would describe wrong action as based on a maxim that would, if universally acted on, "make it impossible for anyone successfully to act upon it". This formula is often described as preventing action on maxims that we normally think people should act upon such as giving generously to the poor. Whilst Parfit concedes that Christine Korsgaard has a partial reply to this objection he still presses a restricted version of it and, furthermore, points to other maxims that are not affected by Korsgaard's defence. Onora O'Neill has similarly pressed a version of the "success" conception that Parfit rejects on familiar grounds concerning false positives and false negatives. The more restricted sense of the "success" criterion views it in terms of some acting on maxims whose success depends on their being exceptional (a variant proposed by Korsgaard) but which runs into trouble with common examples such as aiming to use tennis courts at unpopular times. This leads Parfit to reach a summary conclusion of the different attempts to rescue the practical impossibility view of FUL and to say that "none contains a good idea". 

Having rejected thus summarily all the versions of the practical impossibility view of FUL Parfit looks next at the way Kant himself phrases it in terms of willing. The reference to willing is, however, understood by Parfit to bring in its wake Kantian thought-experiments concerning possible worlds. It is with regard to such that Parfit understands the claims about consistent willing and avoidance of contradiction. However, added to these notions is Parfit's own conception of "rational" willing. As Parfit puts this: "for our choices to be rational, we must also respond well to reasons or apparent reasons". In so doing what we have to take account of, on Parfit's view, are "facts that give us clearly decisive reasons". 

The turn to viewing things through the prism of thought-experiments is clearly grist to the general mill of Parfit's own conceptions and it is at this point, unsurprisingly, that Parfit turns away from FUL strictly speaking to the schematised form of it that Kant presents in both the Groundwork and the Critique of Practical Reason, namely, the "law of nature formula", a formula interpreted by Parfit to include his conception of rational willing. It is after reaching this point that Parfit's interpretation becomes truly inventive. Parfit suggests that Kant often applies FUL not necessarily simply by reference to the law of nature but also by introducing other supplementary ideas. One of these is "permissibility" interpreted now not in terms of "impossibility" as previously but rather simply expressed as a requirement in its own right: "It is wrong for us to act on some maxim unless we could rationally will it to be true that everyone is morally permitted to act on this maxim". The application of this formula is seen by Parfit as affecting what people would be likely to do but having seen the formula in this way he also indicates it in fact introduces an epistemic constraint on people. This leads to the formulation of what Parfit terms "the Moral Belief Formula" and MBF is stated as follows: "It is wrong for us to act on some maxim unless we could rationally will it to be true that everyone believes that such acts are morally permitted". Not only is this epistemic constraint introduced but Parfit assumes it presents a better understanding of permissibility than can be gained by the permissibility formula alone.

The introduction of MBF is taken by Parfit to underlie questions often attributed to Kant such as the famous "what if everyone did that" notion. If questions are to be assessed however that really concern beliefs the question is how such beliefs are to be framed. Parfit assumes that if we appeal directly to deontic beliefs or deontic reasons the appeal to Kant's notion of universal laws would be pointless since we would simply be building moral requirements into our criteria when the criteria is supposed to be determining them. This point is expressed by Parfit as a "deontic beliefs restriction". 

Having arrived at this point Parfit steps back from where his argument has proceeded up to this point and introduces another element into his discussion. This element concerns the way the maxims we are testing are to be understood and Parfit indicates that he takes maxims to express policies of agents. The problems that then arise in relation to the universal test of maxims are stated in terms of agential conceptions. This occurs through stating the requirement of universality in terms of permissibility which is then presented with the problem of highly specific maxims. This problem is stated in terms of what Parfit calls the "rarity objection". Parfit accepts that this objection is at least partially one Kant can respond to as people do not themselves tend to state the basis of their conduct in terms of such highly specific maxims. But this is only taken to be a partial reply since there is nothing inconceivable in principle in the existence of such people. 

The next problem that Parfit introduces is different in scope. It occurs through the introduction of the figure of the egoist acting on the general (not highly specific) maxim of doing what best serves their interest. In this case, Parfit argues, the figure in question can perform acts that in themselves seem fine but which are apparently rejected tout court simply because of his adherence to a generic maxim that is always rejected. This implies wrong acts are occurring when independent of the application of the criteria of universalisation we would not normally think so. This leads Parfit to introduce the notion of "mixed maxims", mixed in the moral sense that sometimes action in accordance with them would be wrong and sometimes right (where wrong and right are clearly conceived in terms of outcomes). This objection by reference to mixed maxims is then added to the "rarity objection" to produce what appears to be a general argument on Parfit's part against recourse to universalisation tests.

There have been a few philosophers who work in the general area of Kantian ethics who have followed similar reasoning to reach a similar result and thus rejected the idea that Kant has provided a universalisation test really. Barbara Herman, for example, moved away from this way of looking at Kant's references to universalisation towards the general notion of "deliberative" or rebuttable "presumptions" built into the practice of moral judgment. Onora O'Neill, by contrast, seems to take the discussion of universalisation to produce results not concerned with wrong-making characteristics of actions but instead as descriptive of actions that have moral worth.

However Parfit does not follow the suggestions of Herman and O'Neill. Instead Parfit refers to Kant's discussions of actions in conformity with duty in order to indicate that Kant had a broader notion at work in his recourse to universalisation than the modest conception some Kantian writers have suggested. In setting out this broader notion Parfit refers back first to the "mixed maxims" objection and argues that, in considering it, we need to know "all of the morally relevant facts". This point is part of the reason, according to Parfit, why Kant often discusses maxims in terms of underlying policies though this alone is not taken by Parfit to be sufficient for knowing all the "moral facts" that are relevant. Not only is this so but Parfit rejects reference to "policies" altogether as including information that is often irrelevant to assessment of a situation.

Having reached the conclusion that we should not understand the reference to the law of nature in terms of policies of action Parfit reformulates the universal law formula now in the following way: "We act wrongly unless what we are doing is something that we could have done while acting on some maxim on which we could rationally will everyone to act". This revised formula is said to avoid the "mixed maxims" objection as the action now allows us to call many acts of the egoist right as we don't appeal to his underlying maxim now to judge of his acts. But whilst this revised version gives response to the "mixed maxims" objection, it does not, for Parfit, allow response to the "rarity objection". Rare actions, or ones based on highly specific maxims, could still be allowed on this revised formula.

Due to this a further revision of the law of nature formula is carried out that refers instead to "similar circumstances" and this produces a correlative alteration in the way the epistemic constraint formulated in the moral belief formula is framed. These revised formulas avoid the "mixed maxims" objections but also allow us to avoid the "rarity objection". However, Parfit, having moved away from recourse to underlying policies as a way of assessing maxims now introduces instead of these an account of the "intentions" of agents. This point is one that is not as naive as it initially sounds since Parfit does not assess "intentions" simply as what someone says they wish to achieve. Parfit recognises this point by means of the same example Sidgwick uses at one point when stating that someone blowing up a train on which the Czar was travelling may not "intend" to kill the other passengers but such other killing is nonetheless an intentional part of the action in question. So reference to agent's intentions is not simply stating what they take themselves to be doing but what is built into the action.

Essentially the result of these considerations is that Parfit now revises the understanding of Kant's formulas in such a way as to remove reference to "maxims" altogether although it is far from obvious that this is the way he has to understand his revisions. The sense of "intentional action" may well be the right way to capture the notion of "maxim" and it has, in any case, proved difficult to stabilise what a "maxim" is without reference to considerations that clearly go beyond what is normally taken to be the "intentions" expressed by someone acting. Further, as Parfit discusses, the notion of a maxim does include some sense of subjective principles of action and without it one may wonder what discussion of universalisation is going to be about. Parfit incorporates a response to this question into his next revision of the epistemic constraint specifying this latter in terms of "moral principles" that permit acts.

Rawls on Moral Psychology (II)

The previous Rawls posting looked at part of the account given of moral psychology in Chapter VIII of A Theory of Justice. In this posting I am going to continue to track the account by seeing how Rawls develops on from the discussion looked at in the sections analysed in the previous posting.

In the second part of Rawls' discussion he indicates he will look at the three stages of morality (authority, association and principle) in more detail and he connects this description now with what he terms "moral sentiments". The term "moral sentiments" is an old one in the history of ethics dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries and Rawls uses the term "sentiment" to mean a permanent ordered family of governing dispositions. Included in this idea of a "sentiment" for Rawls are such things as a sense of justice, the "love of mankind" and lasting attachments. Importantly "sentiments" are not all viewed by Rawls as "moral" since natural attachments such as are expressed between children and parents are also viewed as types of sentiment. This does, however, mean that there are two types of sentiment and that a relationship between them needs to be described.

The main features of specifically moral sentiments are assessed in terms of responses to questions concerning the types of feelings that are occurrently experienced when they are manifested. This includes questions about the way we speak about these sentiments when we are referring to particular experiences, how we understand behavioural reactions in relation to them and what the sensations that are connected to them are. In raising these points Rawls wishes to distinguish the characteristic sensations felt for example from the moral experiences which they often characterise. So, whilst a feeling of guilt may lead one to feel hot the sensation in question is something different from the moral experience with which it is associated. No particular sensations are either necessary or sufficient to mark the moral experiences as occurring although it may be necessary that something like them happen if one is "overwhelmed" by particular moral feelings. But the recognition that the moral experience in question is occurring can be purely based upon a report from someone that this is what they are feeling.

This brings in a question that is sharper than the ones considered so far, to wit, what the definitive explanation is for having a moral feeling. So, assuming someone feels guilt, it is not only appropriate to ask them why they feel this but also to have some general idea of what kind of reply is appropriate as a response to the question. And included in this sense is an at least intuitive idea of a difference between guilt and, say, anxiety. Anxiety strictly speaking is viewed by Rawls as only a natural feeling and not seen by him thus as equivalent to guilt at all. Moral feelings as such refer, in the explanation we find acceptable of what has brought them on, to other moral phenomena. Ultimately, to certain types of expression of what is right or wrong. This does not mean that guilt, for example, is always experienced in ways that properly reflect moral concepts. Given the typology of moral development that Rawls outlined previously it is quite possible that sentiments that belong to an early stage of moralisation still have effects later so that guilt is attached to violations of precepts of authorities even though we, as mature reasoners, don't feel that the authorities in question are such for us.

The general contract view to which Rawls is committed leads to him seeing moral sentiments as generally based on principles of right that would be chosen in the original position. So they relate, for example, to the recognised conception of fairness. This does not mean that the moral feelings experienced at any one time have to be singular since there is no reason to think that particular events might not be productive of multiple moral feelings. Further, people might experience moral feelings that are not appropriate to the situation, perhaps due to being overly conscientious (or insufficiently so). 

This account leads on to the next question which concerns the characteristic intentions of people experiencing given moral feelings. These can be sketched in general terms as when a guilty person seeks to repair the fault for which they feel the guilt in question. There are families of dispositions that could be laid out here in terms of the appropriate behavioural modifications and connecting the moral feelings to different settings (such as associative ones by contrast to those of principle) might well lead to variations in terms of appropriate behaviour.

There are also questions about the kinds of responses expected from others when someone is undergoing a particular moral experience. Someone who is guilty expects those to whom he expresses his guilt to respond with resentment whilst one who is ashamed, by contrast, may expect contempt. The latter situation after all relates more intimately to the conduct that someone expects of themselves. Feelings of guilt relate generally speaking to conduct framed by principles of right whilst feelings of shame, by contrast, are connected to conduct framed by principles that reflect conceptions of the good.

The final question Rawls poses with regard to the sentiments concerns characteristic temptations and resolutions of the feelings in question. With regard to resolutions, feelings of guilt suggest a request for forgiveness, whilst feelings of shame are resolved by conduct that re-connects one to the excellencies one recognises. Just as Rawls earlier connected shame to conceptions of the good so also he now indicates that it is appropriately experienced as a breach of virtue.  What is interesting in the contrast is that on Rawls' view a morality framed in terms of shame is really one that describes supererogatory acts and related thus to the idea of the "love of mankind" (as expressed in an ideal of conduct). This differs from the feelings of guilt which in fact connect more to the right conduct towards others that all have a right to expect of one. The theory of right governs reciprocal action and requires a reconciliation between self and others. But the two moralities are viewed by Rawls as two parts of a general conception.

Having laid out this general account of moral sentiments Rawls turns next to what he terms the connection of moral attitudes to "natural" ones. The relationship between these two ideas is first formulated in terms of what types of "natural" attitudes are missing when a person appears not to have certain moral feelings. The second question, the converse of the first, is what types of natural attitudes are shown to be present when moral emotions are experienced. The three stages of morality provided something of a response to the first question (through use of a notion like that of "missing motives") and it is evident in terms of lack of recognitional capacities undermining the possibility of moral feelings. However evidence for the presence of "natural" attitudes does not admit of the same kind of direct examination since the expression of moral feelings may be based on a number of factors. One of the complications here is the development of general ideas of sympathy such as underlie the notion of the "love of mankind" and whether it is these or specific sentiments that underlie appropriate moral responses but on this Rawls remains agnostic.

Once certain types of natural attachments have developed it is usual to expect a liability to moral emotions to follow. As Rawls puts this:

To confirm the connection between the natural attitudes and the moral sentiments one simply notes that the disposition on A's part to feel remorse when he injures B, or guilt when he violates B's legitimate claims, or A's disposition to feel indignation when C seeks to deny B's right, are as closely related psychologically with the natural attitudes of love as the disposition to be joyful in the other's presence, or to feel sorrow when he suffers.

Moral sentiments thus have a directional intentionality that connects them to occasions that are taken to be ones that require appropriate types of response. Given this analysis it follows that moral sentiments grow out of "natural" sentiments to which they are intimately related.

It follows from this analysis that moral feelings are normally expected to be part of the structure of life. Someone who really acted only from self-interest and in whom we could identify none of the usual range of moral emotions would be someone with whom we could form no bonds of relation. Further such a person could form no sense of indignation at their own treatment since there would be no standard for that treatment that would permit such a notion. Indignation is a kind of moral feeling and requires, to be sustained, a reference to standards of right and such standards are not purely self-centred. 

The general account of moral psychology concludes in the chapter by Rawls restating the three laws that underpin the three stages of morality and stating that these laws require that there be recognised institutions of justice and that such institutions are recognised publicly. Principles of moral psychology have thus been shown to be such that the sense of justice is part of moral development. Further the relationship between moral psychology so understood and the theory of institutions is one whereby the latter are implicitly connected to notions of healthy moral development. 

Rawls now discusses why it is that the theory of justice is such that it has to be connected to moral notions, a discussion that is of particular interest given the way his theories developed subsequently to the writing of Theory. Here Rawls articulates the view that politics requires some sense of moral conduct and that it presupposes a theory of justice which explains moral sentiments. Not only is this so but the description of psychological laws that underpin the notion of moral development relates this development to an account of rationality. Included within the account of rationality is a sense of the normative sense of instrumental action. 

By the latter Rawls means that we have final ends that include attachments to persons, their interests and our sense of justice and that such attachments are part of what gives sense to our purposive actions. Affective ties are part of the way we learn to become moralised and the pursuit of life includes within it further moral relations. The psychological laws are not merely Pavlovian for Rawls either as they are founded on experiencing others in ways that reflect their embodiment of the ideals that are expected. Reciprocity underpins general social behaviour but it can only do so if others really are taken to have attitudes towards us that show a manifest concern for our good and the good of others. It is this that is the general basis of the sense of justice in sociality. Ethical norms are not understood merely as constraints but are rather part of a coherent self-conception formed through an extensive path of development.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Rawls on Moral Psychology (I)

The previous posting on Rawls looked at the opening of Chapter VIII of A Theory of Justice and, in the process, made some assessments about the structure of the last part of the work. As I discussed there the central subject of Chapter VIII is Rawls' discussion of how moral psychology provides a basis for the claimed stability of justice as fairness and in this posting I'll begin to look at Rawls' argument to this effect by focusing on sections 70-72 of Chapter VIII.

In these sections Rawls sketches "the course of moral development as it might occur in a well-ordered society realising the principles of justice as fairness". In doing so Rawls draws on an idealised conception that owes something to Piaget's conception of child development but also aims to combine in a certain way the empiricist and rationalist views of moral development that were contrasted in section 69. So the first stage, termed by Rawls the "morality of authority", draws on the empiricist notion that the primitive basis for moral conceptions in childhood arises in a manner that is principally external to the child. In presenting this in terms of the structure of a well-ordered society Rawls assumes that such a society will include the family "in some form" though he also appears not to think that if other arrangements for child care existed that this would affect the account given. One of the points that shows how much the description of this "morality of authority" relates to the empiricist tradition is Rawls' claim that the child "lacks the concept of justification altogether" a claim that will ensure that the early way morality is transmitted matches the view that there are "missing motives" in children as outlined by Rawls in section 69.

The question that animates the account of the morality of authority that Rawls gives concerns the affective bond between the child and its parents and is formulated according to a psychological principle that is also described by Rawls as a "law" and is stated as follows: "the child comes to love the parents only if they manifestly first love him". This conception belongs not to the "empiricist" tradition but to the "rationalist" one and is cited as paralleling a similar claim in Rousseau. The child's actions are hereby viewed as founded on initial motivations provided by instincts and desires with the possible regulation of these by a general notion of self-interest. To relate to others with love is thus not taken to be an immediate option for the child but rather to arise for it through a process of recognition of the way the child is cared for and how it benefits from the care in question being founded on an expression of love. This is a complicated form of recognition, especially for someone who "lacks" the concept of justification so it is instructive to see how Rawls understands the arrival of it.

Love is said by Rawls to be "displayed" by the parents by means of their showing pleasure in the presence of the child and supporting its sense of competence, and, even more importantly, its self-esteem. The centrality of this latter point is further emphasised when Rawls adds his basic description of what it is to love another, which is not only to be concerned with the wants and needs of this other but also "to affirm the sense of the worth of his own person". It is by means of this nurturing of a sense of worth within the person of the child that the parent makes it possible for the child to respond to the parent with a matching affective disposition that we can term its sense of a love for its parent. It is crucial to this explanation that the child's love for its parents is not couched in a merely instrumental sense as it would have been if the child was still operating at the first level of its relation to motives and inclinations. This is why Rawls terms the recognition of love in the child the arrival of "a new affection".

Having stated this initial "psychological law" Rawls goes on to analyse it into its elements. They include the sense that the child has of appreciation for its own sake, that the affective response of parents towards it is an unconditional one and the learning of the child to trust its parents. On the basis of the trust displayed the child is encouraged to expand its own sense of its potential and it is partly through this expanded sense of potential that the child comes to have deeper relations to those who permit this expanded potential to develop. 

However up to this point Rawls has not yet described the "morality" of the situation in terms of how the child comes to have moral conceptions based on its affective relations and the sense of this requires that the trust the child has shown in the parents be extended to the view that precepts that they require the child to act in accord with are internalised by the child. The internalisation of these precepts is based, at least partly, on an imitative relation to powerful figures who are assumed to have the ability to control the environment. Since the child's desires extend beyond the realm judged appropriate for the exercise of them it follows that the child has to learn limits of what is acceptable conduct. The constraints embedded in these precepts are only taken as ones to be guided by on the basis, however, of the affective bond the child has formed with its carers. This affective bond even leads to the child freely confessing to violations of precepts stated by the carers and the development of feelings of guilt when the child behaves in ways that the precepts declare unacceptable. In stating things this way Rawls binds in to the relationship between the child and its carer a conception of trust that has within it a reciprocity and this reciprocity requires the child to acknowledge the precepts as binding on its behaviour in result of the affective bond. Hence the affective bond of love and trust includes within it the potential for the development of guilt as a consequence of violation of trust where such violation is interpreted through the breaking of precepts stated by the carers.

There are initial problems at the stage of the morality of authority in ensuring that what is really being learnt are the basis of the moral precepts being stated since it is possible that the child responds as it does purely on the grounds of fear or anxiety concerning the withdrawal of affection that results from breaking of the precepts by which it has implicitly accepted it should be governed. It is a part of moral development for such fear or anxiety to be distinguished, at least gradually, by the child from the understanding of justified guilt as built in the affective bond. There are conditions that Rawls specifies which make it more favourable that the child will learn the distinctions required and thus become moralised. These include the sense the child is really loved by its parents, that they state clear and intelligible rules to the child and give reasons for them. The parents should also be seen to be governed themselves by the precepts they state. The morality of authority has truly come to be accepted when the child can be seen to behave in accordance with its precepts even when there is no evident prospect of rewards or punishments arising from violations of it.

The "morality of authority" assumes that the general basis of the precepts stated remain beyond the reach of the child's understanding and the prime virtues that it states are ones of obedience and fidelity to authority. When at this stage of development questioning is not a virtue for the newly moralised person.

The "morality of authority" is subsequently distinguished by Rawls from the second stage of moral development which is termed by him the "morality of association". This notion can cover a wide range of cases up to a relation to the national community. The morality here is one that is governed by what is taken to be appropriate to the role within the group in question that the person involved has. These include common sense rules adjusted to the position in question which are expressed by figures of authority within the association but also by the peers the person finds within the association. It is thus a mutually reinforcing system of organisation. An older child relates to the family in this way and the family can be seen as a basic model for how associations work. Just as being a good son or brother is a specific role so also is being a good student or a good sport. Similarly in adult life there are appropriate conceptions of what is fitting for a husband, friend or citizen. As development takes place there follows, as Rawls puts it, "finer moral discriminations". 

So the morality of associations is a morality of ideals in which exemplary notions of roles are taken to be regulative of behaviour. It requires an understanding of cooperation and the acceptance that others have to be engaged with, not least through a process of accepting that they have different motivations and that it is legitimate that they should have. Accepting this in its turn indicates a sense of what beliefs and views govern the conduct of others and thus such a form of morality requires us to view others as governed by what we term a general "mindedness". It is obviously insufficient simply to see this as our own behaviour has to be modified by the recognition of it.

Rawls' point is that this "morality of association" has to be learnt by children and that it is, at least initially, difficult for them. Not least difficult here is the second level of recognition that is required for being inducted into this type of morality, one that comes subsequent to the recognition of the love of the child's parents. This second recognition is of "the person of others". How well the person of others is perceived affects the moral sensibility of the child and part of the development of this sensibility concerns how the child can engage with others to ensure that mutual aid is the product. This requires arts of persuasion to be learnt. Just as the key question of the first stage concerned the reciprocity of love in the child's first relationships so the key question of this stage concerns the trust required for associations to be effectively operative. Simply participating in an association produces a certain level of mutual interaction and this calls on a sense of fellow feeling that is akin to that expressed in the first "law" of moral psychology that Rawls stated. The means by which this second type of attachment takes place reflects a second "law" that works by means of those already present within the group effectively teaching the child the right way to relate within it.

The ties that arise from the fellow feeling thus produced have the same type of affective effect as the reciprocal love involved in engagement with the child's parents. These ties produce, that is, engagements of trust and associated guilt with regard to lapses that affect such trust. So expectations are tied in to associations and failure to live up to them may even merit expulsion from the association. The general structure here is much as it was with parents: certain "natural" attitudes are adopted and on the basis of these moral feelings develop. Mutual benefits are assumed within associations and moral exemplars govern the place each has within them. The Aristotelian Principle further explains the phenomena of enjoyment of the abilities of others within such associations and the desire to emulate their accomplishments. In this sense the account of "excellencies" in Chapter VII can be seen to be part of the general relations that take place in associations.

The virtues of the morality of association are focused not, as was the case with the morality of authority, on obedience but rather on cooperation and the seat of the general desire for justice can be seen here as can the virtues of integrity and impartiality. By contrast the vices here outlawed concern not questioning but rather dishonesty and prejudice.

The third stage of moral development that Rawls considers is that of "the morality of principles". Within the morality of association, as we have seen, there is the growth of a sense of justice and with this a sense of a clear basic relationship to principles. This requires within associations that persons hope to have their conduct viewed as acceptable by wider groups than those with whom they have an immediate affective relation. Now, in a well-ordered society, principles govern the general public conduct of the way that associations fit into the society as a whole. This points to a third psychological law. This states: "once the attitudes of love and trust, and of friendly feelings and mutual confidence, have been generated in accordance with the two preceding psychological laws, then the recognition that we and those for whom we care are the beneficiaries of an established and enduring just institution tends to engender in us the corresponding sense of justice".

So the development of the general sense of justice that has emerged from the previous levels of moral engagement produces a relationship to principles. This sense of justice is manifested in two ways. On the one hand, the institutions from which we have benefited are ones that we want to do our part in maintaining. On the other hand, a willingness to work for justice in relation to institutions in terms of the perfectibility of these arises which extends beyond those which we have benefited from. The sense of justice carries with it, as a consequence of the third psychological law, an inherent tendency towards guilt if the propensities it encourages are not followed and especially if they are openly violated. At this stage we arrive at moral sentiments that are no longer governed by the particular circumstances of our own background and thus become, in a sense, independent of us.

This does not entail that natural relationships are thereby abandoned as moral sentiment has already been invested in these and betrayal of such investment would still be real for us. However, whilst this is so, there is here a new arena for moral sentiments that is not confined within the patterns of given particular relationships. The animating question of this form of morality concerns how it is possible for principles to be related to in an affective manner. Rawls replies to this question in terms of reference to how principles are capable of defining agreed forms of human interests. But to this prudential conception of a basis for principles Rawls also adds the anthropological claim that there exists such a thing as a benevolent disposition towards others. This disposition is described by him as "the love of mankind" and, whilst such a description defines something that could only be the basis of supererogatory relations to others it is taken to underpin the way the sense of justice becomes extended beyond particular concerns.

Finally the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness shows the latter to be the central social way in which free and equal rational beings relate to each other. It defines, as Kant would put it in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone, the summum bonum. Rawls' view of this continues to pay homage to the device of the original position as it was the use of this that pointed to the basis of selection of the principles of justice. As he puts this now: "Being governed by these principles means that we want to live with others on terms that everyone would recognise as fair from a perspective that all would accept as reasonable". 

The morality of principles is described in two forms, one that relates to the sense of justice and the other to the love of mankind. The latter is supererogatory whilst the former is not and the split between them stated here reflects an attitude similar to that behind Kant's separation of right from virtue in The Metaphysics of Morals. The morality of principles is the last stage of moral development and is meant to be encompassing of the virtues recognised in the earlier stages and also to provide the settings within which the previous forms of morality find their ultimate justification. The morality of the love of mankind is not an ultimate morality for most people in daily conduct but defines instead something like a code for saints whilst the morality of right is the basic requirement for living in a well-ordered society.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Rawls on the Well Ordered Society

The previous Rawls posting closed the discussion of Chapter VII of A Theory of Justice and in this one I am going to open the account of Chapter VIII. The title of Chapter VIII is "The Sense of Justice" and this notion does indeed get explicated, in at least a preliminary fashion, in this chapter. However, in the paragraph introducing the chapter Rawls introduces a change in focus here when compared with the last chapter and states, in the process, that Chapter VIII is to be understood as the first stage of discussion of "the problem of stability", by contrast to the account of the "good" given in Chapter VII. Before looking in detail at the first section of Chapter VIII it is first worth spending a bit of time with the notion of its relationship to the previous and subsequent chapters.

The shift announced from a concern with the "good" to that of "stability" is one that hides the continuity between Chapters VII and VIII. Just as Chapter VII concluded with an account of the good for persons that included a rudimentary theory of virtue and vice, so also the first few sections of Chapter VIII concerns different levels of moral development, including thereby a description of moral sentiments. Indeed, the basic subject of Chapter VIII is nothing else than a general account of moral psychology. Given that this is so, there is rather less of a shift in focus from Chapter VII to Chapter VIII than Rawls' introductory remarks to the latter suggest. In fact, within Chapter VII  it was stated that it concerned the good for persons and that later Rawls would look at social goods. This does mark the difference between the discussion in Chapter VII and that in Chapter IX. Chapter VIII presents, by contrast, an intermediate level of consideration which is meant to show how the good for persons is best viewed as embedded within a social sense of the good.

If Rawls' contrast between the foci of Chapters VII and VIII is, to an extent, misleading, however, there is still some sense in viewing Chapter VIII as providing considerations of a sort that Chapter VII did not include. What is fundamentally at issue in Chapter VIII is a preparation for the concluding chapter in which the congruence of the sense of justice with the sense of our own good is laid out and this was only hinted at in Chapter VII whereas Chapter VIII consistently indicates a concern with this question. 

The first section of Chapter VIII concerns the concept of a well-ordered society (WOS). This conception was first described at the very beginning of Theory where it was determined as a society "designed to advance the good of its members and effectively regulated by a public conception of justice", a determination repeated here. Having restated this notion Rawls next spends some time expounding not, initially at least, on the idea of the "good" of the members of the society but, instead, on the sense of a "public conception of justice" (my italics). The key point about this is that "everyone accepts and knows that the others accept the same principles of justice". This public point is subsequently stressed as essential to justice as fairness. This occurs through first a discussion of the original position and then an account of the WOS. The original position is framed in such a way that the principles chosen are assumed to be ones that can be publicly justified and this is part of the way that the probable effects of adopting principles of justice is assessed there. Any conceptions of justice that depend on esoteric elites holding back knowledge are rejected on principle and the conception of justice adopted is one that is assumed can be based on generally available knowledge concerning people and their place in society, a consideration that has importance in subsequent sections of Chapter VIII.

If the original position is thus constrained by reference to publicity conditions it follows that the conception of the WOS will have to fulfil the conditions that were specified during the course of deliberation in the original position. Hence the members of the WOS will have the desire to act in accordance with the principles of justice given that these principles will be known to regulate the conduct of all within it. It is after specifying the sense of public adherence to the principles of justice as a central feature of the WOS that Rawls turns, for the first time in this chapter, to considering the idea of stability. A conception of justice is more stable if "the sense of justice that it tends to generate is stronger and more likely to override disruptive inclinations and if the institutions it allows foster weaker impulses and inclinations to act unjustly". In presenting the test for the stability of conceptions of justice in this way Rawls presents what are, effectively, two different tests. On the one hand a conception of justice is more stable if it has a resilient psychological appeal whilst on the other hand it is stable if, by following it, we are led to construct institutions that, in their elementary functioning, discourage unjust inclinations. The first of these tests of stability is one that can be assessed by means of moral psychology, the second, by contrast, requires a conception of social institutions. This marks the real difference between Chapters VIII and IX as Chapter VIII addresses the stability test in relation to moral psychology, whilst the discussion of congruence in Chapter IX, by contrast, is meant to outline the way in which the good of persons can be connected to a view of social institutions.

The stability tests thus require to be built into the original position just as it was regulated by requirements of publicity. The need for such a test in relation to moral psychology is evident in the sense that, without such a test having been ventured, there are no grounds for considering the anthropological realism of the conception offered. So the concluding chapters of Theory are meant to provide a basis for the claim that justice as fairness is a more stable conception of justice than others on offer. This is so despite Rawls admitting here that the criterion of stability is not alone decisive. What is meant in stating this is that it is possible for a view of justice to be advanced which takes little notice of the criterion of stability and Rawls interprets Bentham's utilitarianism in this way. However, even should this interpretation of Bentham be correct what it would show would only be that such a doctrine was a limit case with regard to conceptions of justice since the majority of such conceptions adjust themselves in more or less explicit ways to some features of what is taken to be humanly sustainable. The stability criterion is effectively meant to show how a conception of justice would in practice generate its own support and in Chapter VIII this test is applied by virtue of a general theory of moral sentiments being provided.

Within the first section of Chapter VIII Rawls describes the notion of stability as part of a theory of systems, systems that have reached equilibrium. In so doing Rawls draws upon some views developed within economics that are specified in the following way:

Three things are essential: first, to identify the system and to distinguish between internal and external forces; second, to define the states of the system, a state being a certain configuration of its determining characteristics; and third, to specify the laws connecting the states.

On this conception a system is in stable equilibrium when departures from it call into play forces that will tend to bring it back to its initial state. This function will be general assuming the shocks are within reasonable boundaries. Equilibriums are unstable whenever shocks force great changes within the internal operation of the system. The ability to adjust well to such shocks should be manifested within a time frame that is one that those within the system are able to bear though this notion is naturally left vague.

As far as Rawls is concerned the system in question is the basic structure of the society, a "complex", as he terms it, of political, economic and social institutions. In assessing the relative stability of conceptions of these the operative assumption throughout Theory is that of a generally self-contained national community, which is clearly a simplifying assumption. It does not imply that there is no change in the institutions but that any change within them is governed by continuous reference back to the conceptions of justice that is meant to govern their operation. One of the things taken to assure this is the development of moral sentiments that support the conceptions of justice.

Having arrived at this picture Rawls pauses to consider theories of moral sentiments and refers to two general traditions with regard to them. On the one hand there is the empiricist theory that has guided utilitarianism and which Rawls takes to also be reflected in the form of social psychology known as "social learning theory". A major contention of this theory is that the point of moral training is to supply what are termed "missing motives". What is taken to be missing is any original disposition towards principled right action. Given that this is missing it is the task of society to encourage such dispositions artificially. This is done by use of authority to mark approval and disapproval of conduct and to do this by means of rewards and punishments in order to produce a general sense of right and wrong. This view can be seen to be a kind of Pavlovian social conditioning view of moral sentiments. It is backed up by the sense that it is necessary to acquire moral sentiments at a stage prior to being able to understand them. Rawls thus views psychoanalytic conceptions of social learning to be a variant on the general empiricist tradition.

By contrast to this tradition the other view, which Rawls terms "rationalist" is associated by him with Rousseau, Kant, Mill and Piaget in which the development of innate capacities is encouraged. Taken in the generic sense in which Rawls pictures it this latter tradition is viewed as assuming natural sympathy exists between persons which provides an affective basis for the moral sentiments. Mill hence speaks of acceptable principles of reciprocity and tendencies to sociality. Such a model does not primarily stress external authority for social norms or the acquisition of new motives but rather the development of capacities already present towards their appropriate maturation.

Whilst it might have been expected that Rawls would view the latter position as more congenial with justice as fairness than the former he rather states that he assumes that there is much sound in both traditions and that he will try to combine them in what he terms a "natural" way. The subsequent next three sections of Theory aim to do this through an ideal picture of moral development within a WOS.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Rawls and the Good for Persons

In my last posting on Rawls I addressed the first half of Chapter VII of A Theory of Justice which focused on the kind of view of practical reason that emerged from it. In this posting, by contrast, I want to look at the second half of Chapter VII where, essentially, Rawls addresses topics concerned with the good for persons, a topic that emerges out of the previous discussion of practical reason.

In section 66, Rawls directly discusses the definition of the good for persons, prior to going on to focus on some excellencies and deficiencies of valuation later and concludes the chapter with some summary differences about the role of the notion of the "good" compared to that of the right. So the unity of the second half of the chapter is clearly focused on filling in the "thin" theory of the good and arriving at a "full" theory of it. At the beginning of section 66 Rawls summarises what has been achieved by the previous half of the chapter as indicating that a person's good involves the successful execution of a rational plan of life. Having arrived at this notion it is now possible to introduce, as Rawls puts it, "further definitions".

The primary goods that have been referred to throughout Theory are now described as goods that it would be rational to want whatever else is wanted and to be presupposed within the original position. They are explained essentially by the "thin" theory of the good and include liberty, opportunity, income, wealth, and self-respect, the latter of which has a special place here. The general theory of goodness as rationality is taken to account for these primary goods as arising from the account of practical reason previously given. However, Rawls now points out that the conception of reason that has guided his account is one that is regarded with some suspicion by some philosophers, particularly on the grounds that it provides only an instrumental conception of value and thus does not suffice to account for the notion of "moral worth", the very notion that Kant is particularly concerned with in Groundwork I.

Rawls' view is that if we apply the thin theory directly to the account of moral worth then we will indeed arrive at only an instrumental conception of goodness but that the thin theory is only meant to provide "part" of the description of the original position. We have, that is, to develop our account of the good in order to arrive at an account of moral worth, moving from the "thin" theory to the "full" theory. The first way of making this move that Rawls identifies is concentration on basic roles and positions, taking the example of the notion of the "citizen". If we identity key elements of what is involved in the notion of the citizen this would be one route to a view of the good person since the good person would be someone who particularly exemplified the role in question. This could be seen by thinking of the reasons other citizens would have to see the good person in this way. Having begun on this track the second logical move is to see the "good person" as representing a general or average assessment so that the idea of a good person can be extended beyond the specific starting point. Finally, there can be seen to be properties that a person occupying particular social roles would be desired to possess generally and then to assess these broad properties as ones that it would be rational to endorseas dispositively to be encouraged.

These three different accounts of how we could arrive at a conception of the good person are considered by Rawls and the third, which Rawls indicates he derived to an extent from Thomas Scanlon, is specifically taken to be valuable. But Rawls confesses that there would be difficulties in filling in this idea of a "good person", so considered. Firstly the point of view from which the properties in question are selected has to be identified. It surely includes, Rawls thinks, a sense of the virtues as classically considered. Representative people in a society will want a fair demonstration of virtuous action as underpinning the right institutions in the right way. However there are also, as Kant would say, "talents" that it is a good idea to encourage the development of although such talents still need to be regulated by a sense of justice in those who possess them. 'Talents' broadly considered are natural assets and have to be distinguished from virtues properly so called.

The "good person" then has moral worth due to possessing, in a higher degree than is normal, features of moral character that it would be rational for all to want to be manifested in action. This provides us with a generic sense of moral worth to be placed alongside the theory of justice and the thin theory of the good. However getting this sense of moral worth is not equivalent to a full theory of the good. Rather such a full theory requires as well a clearer sense of what the good generically consists in and its sub-parts. So Rawls defines "good action" in the general sense as an act "performed for the sake of the other person's good". This account of goodness thus presupposes the general sense of the good as being benevolence perhaps because such guided action is thought of as the most natural way that we leave behind the specific sphere of pursuing our own rational ends and relating to others. Such a conception also has the attraction of making clearer than many others in what supererogation consists, namely, an act "which a person does for the sake of another's good even though the proviso that nullifies the natural duty is satisfied". In other words, a kind of good act that is undertaken at potential cost to our own interests.

A complete sense of "rightness as fairness", the notion that is implicitly supposed here, would require, as Rawls confesses, some view of "reasonable self-interest" as defined from the original position and work outwards from there but this is not here provided. What does arise from the brief generic view of the good that has been given is a set of distinctions that provide a rudimentary theory of vice. So Rawls distinguishes between unjust, bad and evil persons taking the first two to relate themselves to aims that are in themselves legitimate but to use them in an excessive way. Hence the "unjust" person, on this conception, seeks dominion for the sake of wealth and security when wealth and security are, in themselves,  legitimate ends. Similarly, the "bad" person is one who wishes for arbitrary power as they have an excessive desire for ends that again are fine in themselves such as the esteem of others and a sense of self-command. So the "unjust" and "bad" persons on this picture are seen in an essentially Aristotelian way as over-stepping the mean in relation to ends. By contrast, the "evil" person delights in the humiliation of others for its own sake, an end that could never be legitimate thus leaving behind real intercourse with others.

Having given this generic account of virtue and vice in section 66 Rawls turns, in section 67, to an analysis of some specific elements of the full theory of the good. The first concentration here is on the primary good of self-respect, a good already referred to as having a specific status that is higher than other primary goods. The conception of goodness as rationality is intended to show why self-respect has such a high status. Two reasons are essentially picked out for this status existing. On the one hand, self-respect underpins any sense of a rational plan of life as worth pursuing. On the other hand, it implies confidence in the ability to carry out such a plan. Hence if rational plans of life are to be nourished at all the primary good of self-respect has to be encouraged and taken, within the original position, as a central value that the basic structure should underpin.

The first of the two parts of self-respect, the sense of plans worth pursuing, is developed by means of ensuring that such plans relate to the Aristotelian Principle and that our person and deeds are confirmed by others and that association with others is grounded in shared esteem. One of the ways the relation of such shared esteem is emphasised in practice is through the development of talents that require intricate appreciation. Anyone who can display talents that do this is more likely thereby to appreciate the achievements of others. As Rawls puts this point: 

the conditions for persons respecting themselves and one another would seem to require that their common plans be both rational and complementary: they call upon their educated endowments and arouse in each a sense of mastery, and they fit together into one scheme of activity that all can appreciate and enjoy.

The general problem that could be raised with this would be that such development cannot be one realised across the society. However Rawls understands the condition given here to be met if there are associations within which such appreciations can be developed and which therefore will be supportive of separate types of talents.

There is no general principle of perfection that is taken to be endorsed within the basic structure. Rather such a principle has earlier been rejected as unfitting for such a role and hence the diversity of talents is, by contrast, essential to the way that the plurality of goods is assumed within the society. Having laid out the general sense of self-respect and how it is to be understood Rawls next turns to the relationship between it and both "excellencies" and shame.

Shame is introduced at this point as it is understood by Rawls as the feeling of injury to self-respect. It implies, on this view, a particularly intimate connection to our person and to those who are especially close to us. However this definition of shame is not where Rawls leaves its discussion as he turns to giving an account of the reasons why shame is so understood. In order to do so Rawls develops his account of "excellencies" as shame will subsequently be related to this. Rawls thus distinguishes between goods that are primarily good for the one possessing them on the one hand and goods that are good for others as well as the one possessing them on the other. Exclusive goods that are owned only by certain persons are mainly understood to be belong in the former class whilst "natural assets and abilities" including such things as beauty and intelligence are in the latter class. People join together in appreciation of the latter class of goods and they are what Rawls terms the "excellencies". For the one possessing them they enable a sense of mastery in relation to activities to develop but they are also appreciated and valued by others and are thus, as Rawls puts it, "a condition of human flourishing".

Having outlined this account of the "excellencies" Rawls now returns to his account of shame and describes "natural" shame as arising from failure to exercise or display the excellencies. On these grounds one type of shame is manifested with regard to appearing to others to be lacking in grace or slow in understanding. Even should these qualities not be voluntary they affect self-respect and this is the basis for them producing shame. Rawls thus describes what he calls "natural" shame as based on perceived "blemishes" in the person experiencing it. Such shame relates either to generally valued qualities which we seem deficient in or, more especially, to failures with regard to our adopted rational plans.

However, interesting as Rawls' view of "natural" shame is, it is but a prolegomenon to his description of "moral" shame. This arises from combining the previous account of the "good person" with the account of "natural" shame. Someone is liable to "moral" shame inasmuch as the excellencies they particularly value are moral ones. So actions that betray the absence of the moral attributes so valued produce moral shame and a sense of a diminished self. There are a couple of grounds for this. The first is that the Kantian interpretation of the original position leads us to the view that the desire to do what is right and just is the main way for persons to express their nature and, similarly, from the Aristotelian Principle, it follows that this expression of their nature is a fundamental part of their sense of the good. 

Rawls subsequently spends some time distinguishing between shame and guilt but the essential difference for him is that guilt is appropriately felt when someone acts contrary to their sense of right whilst shame indicates a failure of self-command. It is the inability to carry out aims that seem to us worthwhile that is productive of moral shame. 

In the final section of Chapter VII Rawls turns to a series of contrasts between the right and the good, contrasts that illuminate the distinct places of these notions within his conception. The first difference is that the principles of the right are what would be chosen in the original position whilst the principles of deliberative rationality that are central to pursuit of the good would not be chosen. There is no necessity for an agreement on the principles of rational choice as each person is free to plan their life as they please assuming that their plans are consistent with the principles of justice. The general desire for the primary goods is assumed and that of self-respect taken to be essential to all but there is no need to assume agreement  on all the standards of choice with regard to the good. Secondly, pluralism with regard to the good is taken to be a good thing whilst this is not a good thing with regard to the right. There is no need for a publicly accepted judgment of the good of individuals in the way that there is such a need with regard to the right. Thirdly, applications of the principles of justice are restricted by the veil of ignorance whilst evaluations of the good require full reference to facts. The latter is so as the good relates to talents and talents are developed by individuals in distinct ways that cannot be specified in advance.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Samuel Freeman's Review of Parfit

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books there is a review of On What Matters by Samuel Freeman. Since I have previously covered reviews of the work by Simon Blackburn and Philip Kitcher it seems only right to provide a general summary and response also to this one by Freeman.

Freeman's review opens with comments aimed at the general reader concerning the philosophical attempt to explain the purposes of common sense moral rules and to resolve moral dilemmas. Freeman refers to Kant almost immediately afterwards mentioning both the unconditional character of moral demands on Kant's conception and the Formula of Humanity. The argument of the first part of the Groundwork is implicitly referred to when Freeman mentions the view that the categorical imperative "justifies" our common sense duties to one another and also provides a "more fine-grained method of reasoning" concerning what we ought to do. Following Parfit's own startling conjunction of names in the "Preface" to On What Matters Freeman moves from Kant to Sidgwick and the latter's argument in The Methods of Ethics that it is the principle of utility that truly "justifies" common sense morality. The move from Kant to Sidgwick also allows Freeman, however, to refer to the Rawlsian challenge to the dominance that the utilitarian tradition had, until recently, in the area of social theory.

The introduction of the account of utilitarianism into Freeman's narrative also allows him to mention that the method of ethical appraisal promoted by this school is really a specific form of the general notion of consequentialism and that many consequentialists today have abandoned a simple commitment to hedonism and do not necessarily view utility as the best way of assessing consequences. After mentioning the shift within moral theory from utilitarianism to consequentialism Freeman fills out his picture of the general state of contemporary moral reflection by mentioning Thomas Scanlon's notion of "contractualism", a much more recent theory than Kantian and consequentialist ones. Scanlon is presented by Freeman as someone who modified the Rawslian view so that it was applied not to the theory of justice but instead to personal duties or duties towards others. Not only is this the basis of contractualism according to Freeman but this view is related by him to the Kantian one in terms of recognising the equal status of persons as integral to moral reasoning and, in making this emphasis so significant, as ensuring that these accounts stand together against consequentialism.

As Freeman mentions in a footnote, the three theories of Kantianism, consequentialism and contractualism are the centre of Parfit's book and are related together by him as the key traditions that have to be brought together, a point that ensures that virtue theory is simply left without consideration by Parfit. Parfit intends overall to articulate what he terms a "Triple Theory" that will combine optimific considerations with Kantian and contractualist ones thus producing what Parfit calls a "Kantian rule consequentialism". This argument for a "Triple Theory" of normative ethics is combined by Parfit with a general account of moral reasons that is aimed at showing their objectivity with the arguments in favour of this claim being the centre of the first and the sixth parts of the book. The latter claim is specifically presented by Parfit in response to subjectivist views of reasons and in riposte to a claimed nihilism with regard to values said to characterise much contemporary theorising about morals.

Parfit's attack on subjectivism is rightly presented by Freeman as mainly consisting in responses to the "Humean" theory of reasons that understands reasons primarily through the prism of desires. In response to such a claim Parfit insists on an account of objective reasons based on a view of intentional objectivity but the nature of the specific theory Parfit here elaborates and the problems with it are not considered by Freeman who simply presents it as laudable that Parfit attacks relativistic subjectivism without discussing whether such an attack is, as stated, either too blunt or unconvincing. This is a peculiar weakness in Freeman's review and is likely connected to a dialectical strategy of refuting the "Triple Theory" but upholding the significance of Parfit's book in terms of the defence of "objectivity" in morals. One of the reasons why Freeman may have taken this tack is due to the prevalence of forms of the "Humean" theory in contemporary economics and the need to challenge such a model as applied there.

Freeman looks at Parfit's treatment of the Formula of Humanity and chides Parfit for considering it in separation from Kant's general moral theory. However there are further significant problems both in terms of how Freeman views Parfit's discussion of the Formula of Humanity and with how Freeman understands the place of the Formula of Humanity in Kant's own theory. With regard to Parfit's treatment Freeman stresses the way that the discussion of the "mere means" requirement appears to be favoured by Parfit above other considerations though this point is here not well made given that Parfit considers another point to flow from the Formula of Humanity than this. Parfit also stresses a notion of "rational consent" that he articulates as the basis of the first part of the Formula and, whilst Freeman may not find this a persuasive reading of the Formula it is remiss of him to simply present Parfit as viewing the Formula only through the "mere means" requirement. It is true that Parfit does not view the Formula in terms of a "respect requirement" but Parfit does provide arguments for not viewing the "respect requirement" as really providing further normative guidance and this requires to be discussed and answered.

Freeman indicates some awareness of the "respect requirement" but moves rather quickly from referring to it to an account of some themes from Kant's philosophy of right including the "innate right to freedom" and the notion of independence from being constrained by another's choice. Since these themes belong not in Kant's general moral theory but to the account of right it is not at all clear why they are referred to by Freeman and it is not remiss of Parfit to have failed to engage with them when formulating his notion of a Kantian consequentialism. It is correct to argue that the Formula of Humanity appears to include a constraint on action in terms of describing something one should not act against but Freeman fails to bring this point out and generic reference to the notion of "individual rights" is insufficient to make clear the specific problem with Parfit's view of the Formula of Humanity.

Parfit is, in any case, as Freeman recognises, more concerned with Kant's discussion of universal law than with the Formula of Humanity. The discussion of universal law is interpreted by Parfit in accord with a principle taken from Thomas Scanlon so that it becomes understood as prescribing the requirement that everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will. This notion of a "Kantian Contractualism" is one that requires viewing the notion of universal law in terms that are not derived from Kant himself but Freeman emphasises more the application of the principles that follow for Parfit. Freeman terms Parfit's application "peculiar" and part of what is thus peculiar is the way the combination of Kant with Scanlon is meant to underpin rule consequentialism. Parfit requires us to see the reference to what makes things go best as grounded on some kind of formal rule process built into an understanding of rational willing. This has the result, as Freeman puts it, that "morality is then a kind of efficiency in promoting universal good". 

Once we have a concentration of this optimific sort ethics clearly becomes axiological and this is part of what Freeman rightly regards as controversial in Parfit's view. Kant and Scanlon are generally taken to have provided moral views that are not consequentialist (although there are other varieties of "Kantian consequentialism" such as the one articulated by David Cummiskey). In making the move of bringing Kant and Scanlon into alliance with consequentialism Parfit follows the method inaugurated by Sidgwick who made a similar move the centre of The Methods of Ethics. Freeman suggests that this move on Parfit's part will have particular effect for Kantians since he claims that: "Parfit's consequentialist interpretation of the categorical imperative will stimulate philosophers for years to come".

Despite making the suggestion that Parfit's reading of Kant is one that is likely to be philosophically significant Freeman rejects quite central aspects of Parfit's methodology. One of the elements of Parfit's work that provoked Simon Blackburn's ire was the insistent use of Trolley problems in the work and Freeman joins with Blackburn in finding recourse to them problematic. One of the reasons Freeman gives for rejecting the use of Trolley problems is that such problems can be varied with resultant differences of appraisal. Freeman also cites Susan Wolf's reply printed in the second volume of On What Matters in which she claims that there is "no single principle" underlying our moral intuitions in Trolley type cases. In citing Wolf (and also Allen Wood) in opposition to the use of these cases, however, Freeman seems simply content to state their objections to Parfit's procedure without considering the extensive replies Parfit includes to interlocutors, something which certainly seems rather odd. Freeman also seems to rest content with claiming that if Trolley problems really are of little use in moral philosophy that this in itself undermines Parfit's 'Triple Theory' thereby implying that there are no substantive arguments given by Parfit with regard to the formulation of the 'Triple Theory' that are separable from the use of Trolley Problems and this contention, as put, seems a rather strong reading of the recourse to Trolley Problems.

Freeman's overall evaluation is strongly negative since he argues that Parfit does not address the questions as to why we should view morality axiologically or provide us with a view of what the ultimate good is that we are to optimise. However, the first point is stronger than Freeman himself ultimately puts it since he recognises a strain in Parfit's work that derives from Sidgwick and is based on the notion of a general impersonality. It may be, as Freeman says, a kind of "refined philosophical sensibility" that prefers this concentration to one on personal affairs of the sort provided by Scanlon but it is the basis of a ground for axiological conceptions of morality. In so being it is, as Freeman rightly stresses, somewhat out of key with Kantian and Scanlonian views of morality and this cuts against the sense that the basis of the three views Parfit treats can easily be reconciled. However in considering why Parfit takes it that there is an ultimate ground of unity between the views Freeman retreats again to the assertion that Parfit's argument substantively depends on an inductive generalisation from the consideration of Trolley problems and this argument is one I think over-states the importance of the Trolley problems Parfit considers.  

It is a separate problem and a better point to argue that Parfit is never specific about the general good that is to be optimised though it seems to me that part of the basis of this general good is to be found in the view of objective reasons that Parfit defends and which Freeman fails to challenge. Freeman concludes his review with a statement to the effect that Sidgwick's syncretic project has been brought to a point by Parfit that ensures it has a greater range than even Sidgwick would have thought possible. Whilst this might be true the grounds of the difficulty with the 'Triple Theory' cannot simply reside within normative ethics alone but must also be grounded on the account of the "objectivity" of ethics that Parfit articulates, an account that Parfit himself presents as importantly in tension with the kind of Rawlsian view that Freeman himself defends and to which therefore Freeman should have taken time to respond in his review.

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Parfit and Kant on Impartiality

In my last posting on Parfit I looked at Chapter 9 of Climbing the Mountain, the first manuscript-length version of what has recently been published as On What Matters. In this posting I'm going to look at Chapter 10 of Climbing the Mountain where Parfit addresses the notion of impartiality, including, thereby, the relationship between the Formula of Universal Law and the "Golden Rule". 

This chapter opens with a description of Kant's view of beneficence indicating that the duty to beneficence is conceived of by Kant as a duty we owe to others on the grounds that we expect such conduct from others towards ourselves. This way of capturing the duty of beneficence leads Parfit to invoke the "Golden Rule" of the Gospels, famously formulated as do unto others as you would they did unto you. Kant is generally taken to have rejected this rule, a rejection based on citation of a footnote in the Groundwork:

"Let it not be thought that the trivial quod tibia non vis fiery etc. can serve as the benchmark or principle here. For it is, though with various limitations, just derived from the latter; it can be no universal law, for it does not contain the ground of duties to oneself, not of duties of love to others (for many a man would gladly agree that others should not benefit him if only he might be exempt from showing them beneficence), finally not of owed duties to one another; for the criminal would argue on this ground against the judges who punish him, and so on." (Ak. 4: 430n)
A few points are worth making about this citation, the first of which is that Kant does not here cite, as Parfit supposes, the Golden Rule but, rather, the so-called "Silver" Rule, which is a negative formulation to the effect, do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. This point is significant since the problems listed with the Silver Rule by Kant may well not transfer simply to the Golden Rule and, arguing on this basis, it has been suggested by some, that Kant therefore did not mean any direct criticism of the Golden Rule at all.

Kant introduces the cited footnote just after discussing the false promising maxim in relation to the Formula of Humanity, hence, not in connection with the Formula of Universal Law at all. So, when Kant claims that the Silver Rule is "just derived" from the latter, he presumably means by "the latter" the reference to consideration of the ends that are contained in the person of others. The subsequent point is that the Silver Rule is not a "universal" law which, given its negative formulation, is not that surprising a point. It will only operate to forbid conduct, not to promote it and when Kant goes on to the consideration of the third example in relation to the Formula of Humanity (to do with cultivation of talents) he introduces precisely considerations for thinking that there is a positive as well as a negative sense to this formula, thereby demarcating it from the Silver Rule. Kant next amplifies the point about the lack of universality of the Silver Rule pointing out that it is not possible to arrive at the "ground" of a number of duties from it. This argument repeats the point about the essentially negative character of the Silver Rule as it is expansive duties that cannot be arrived at on its basis including duties to oneself and duties of love. Both these kinds of duties are explored not in the Groundwork but in the Doctrine of Virtue where duties of love cover duties with regard to beneficence, gratitude and sympathy so the point clearly again is that such duties cannot be derived from a purely negative formula such as the Silver Rule. Similarly, with duties towards others generally, the Silver Rule is open to the kinds of problems Kant lists with regard to both maxims of indifference and the conduct of the criminal towards the judge.

Unfortunately Parfit conflates the actual rule Kant cites and distances himself from (the Silver Rule) with the rule from the Gospels (the Golden Rule) that Kant does not give and does not discuss. This is a shame, not least since, as the Golden Rule is stated in a positive form, it is not as evidently open to the same riposte Kant sets out against the Silver Rule. Parfit in fact goes further than pursuing the case Kant sets out against the Silver Rule as if it were an argument against the Golden Rule, he also turns Kant's case against another formula that was not at issue for Kant in the citation given, namely, the Formula of Universal Law. Textually problematic as this is Parfit opens with an account of the maxim of indifference and states that if people wish to be helped then they should also wish to help others. Having put the point this way as a case that the Golden Rule can enable to be stated against the maxim of indifference, Parfit argues that the maxim of indifference could be formulated in accord with the Formula of Universal Law although it cannot accord with the Golden Rule. This claim is problematic on a number of levels, not least that Kant at no point relates the Formula of Universal Law to duties but only refers the Formula of the Law of Nature to them. Not only is this so but the maxim of indifference is specifically rejected when related to the Formula of the Law of Nature on the grounds that it could not be "willed" to hold everywhere as a law of nature (the contradiction in the will test). This point is part of showing that the Law of Nature formula has two dimensions and that one of these involves a sense of consistency of willing, not merely of conception.

Parfit does note that Kant discusses this riposte of contradiction in willing but rejects it as inadequate on the grounds that it involves people wanting to be helped whereas it is possible that there could be people who never want to be helped and that with regard to them the reference to universal law will be insufficient. There are further problems with these remarks including the point that wishing to be helped is not an optional extra in human life even though there are situations in which some may be convinced they will never require help. As such the discussion involved in Kant's account of beneficence with regard to universal law includes a sense of what it is that has to apply to finite rational beings due to the nature of their finitude.

Parfit again recognises this point and formulates a response with regard to what he terms "rational" willing. Having recognised it he proceeds to reformulate the Golden Rule in such a way that it includes a similar recognition as appears in Kant's discussion of universal laws. This reformulation on Parfit's part renders it as follows: "We ought to treat others in ways in which, if we had the choice and were rational, we would choose that others treat us". This formulation is condensed further into a reference to what we would rationally choose. Having reformulated the Golden Rule in this way Parfit has significantly altered its scope and understanding. This is furthered when he extends application of the new rule not just to the "actual world" but also to imaginary cases.

Having reformulated and extended the Golden Rule in the ways indicated Parfit next considers cases that might be thought to present difficulties for it including one in which a racist claims to be applying the Golden Rule when refusing admission to his hotel to anyone not of his race. This can be done if the racist assumes only that the rule applies simply to those of different races and not to any of his own race and thus endorses such treatment as applicable universally given that his own race is always in the favourable position. In response Parfit claims that the racist in question has misunderstood the Golden Rule since the rule requires that one relate to others as if one might be in their position. So application of the Golden Rule requires imagining changes not just in other things but also, potentially, in ourselves so that we were as the others we treat now are. This gives the third formulation of the "Golden Rule" that Parfit has: "We ought to treat others only in ways in which we would rationally choose that we ourselves be treated, if we were going to be in these other people's positions, and if we would also be relevantly like them".

This conception of the Golden Rule involves a form of imaginative identification and in so doing is well on the way to being something like an impartial spectator model of moral reasoning. It is clear, however, that the reasoning and the model has reached a point very far removed from the formulation of the Silver Rule Kant criticised in the Groundwork.

Returning to the Groundwork text Parfit refers to the example of the criminal arguing with the judge concerning punishment that Kant gives towards the conclusion of the footnote discussing the Silver Rule. Parfit suggests that the rule Kant is here rejecting is more like a rule that states we ought to treat each other person "only in ways in which we would choose that we ourselves be treated if we were going to be in this person's position". This formulation, the one Parfit imagines Kant to be actually reading into the Silver Rule is like the third formula of the Golden Rule that Parfit has given in the sense that it involves a form of imaginative identification. It however does not include the sense of rational willing that Parfit has built into his third formula of the Golden Rule. Parfit indicates that the kind of identification he takes Kant to be involved in the rule he objects to is one that it is, indeed, right to reject. The reason Parfit rejects it, however, is that it implies a kind of egoistic position. In response Parfit gives another kind of formulation of the Golden Rule that cites it as stating that we "ought to treat other people as we would rationally choose that we be treated if we were going to be in the positions of all of these people, and would be relevantly like them". This extension of the process of imaginative identification clearly makes it impersonal since, if we are to be asked to think of what it would be like to be in the positions of "all" of them then no particular characteristics can be at issue (unlike in the earlier formula where Parfit was precisely building in particular characteristics to forestall the racist move).

The readings of the Golden Rule that involve the kinds of imaginative identification Parfit has in mind are formulated to prevent the kind of appeal the criminal is imagined to be capable of making working on Kant's conception of the Silver Rule. Parfit does, however, simply now adopt the impersonal reading of the Golden Rule and appears just to drop his earlier interpretation of imaginative identification. This is meant to show that punishment is quite capable of being morally justified. 

Parfit next considers the objection Kant makes to the effect that the Silver Rule provides no basis for duties towards oneself and recognises that failure to do this will ensure that others appear always to have priority over oneself, something that is implausible. Given this point Parfit further refines the Golden Rule to meet this point and arrives at another formulation of it. This formulation states: "We ought to treat everyone as we would rationally choose that we be treated if we were going to be in all of these people's positions, and would be relevantly like them". This point is meant to indicate that we are part of the "everyone" in question though, notably, it abstracts from the separateness of persons in precisely the manner Rawls famously objected to utilitarianism for doing.

Parfit next returns to comparing the "Golden Rule" in the formula in which he has now arrived at with the Formula of Universal Law and points out that both involve appeals to claims about what it would be rational for people to choose and include the basic egalitarian point that everyone matters equally (though the way the latter point is recognised in Parfit's "Golden Rule" is quite different from how it is recognised in the Formula of Humanity). The difference between them that Parfit registers concerns the manner in which thought experiments are conducted. The "Golden Rule" is meant to address the question, on Parfit's view, "what if that was done to me" rather than, as he takes to be required on Kant's Formula of Universal Law, "what if everyone did that"? 

Parfit takes the use of Kant's Law of Nature Formula to require reference to different possible worlds and to apply the laws in question as if they were ones everyone followed in these worlds. This differs from another kind of test Parfit attributes to Kant in which we ask what would happen if everyone had certain kinds of moral beliefs. Parfit next invokes the notion of an ideal impartial observer who is not involved in any events and judges as it were from the standpoint of the "universe" (as Sidgwick puts it in The Methods of Ethics) and he contrasts this with the "Consent Principle" that he previously formulated as the first part of the Formula of Humanity.

Parfit confesses, however, that the "Golden Rule" in his account of it faces the objection that it might lead us to ignore the fact that, in the "actual" world, ideal redistributions of benefits and burdens could produce irretrievable losses for some that, at least for them, are not compensated and that this matters when we are considering distributive justice. Due to recognition of this point Parfit thinks that the "Golden Rule" is, as he puts it, "theoretically" inferior to the Impartial Observer Formula and to the "Consent Principle" he earlier stated as the first part of the Formula of Humanity. The point Parfit should here have noted however is that the "Golden Rule" is not the only one of these principles open to this objection and, if it were, it would be not "theoretically" but "practically" inferior to the other formulas.

Parfit next considers some questions that he thinks create difficulties for Kant's discussion of universal laws. The first point considered here is that wrong-doing often involves acts that can only be rarely performed, a point Parfit formulates as the "Rarity Objection" and which is given an example in the case of someone who is willing to let another be punished for a crime that they committed. The question that is asked with regard to this person is whether their maxim falls foul of the Law of Nature Formula. Parfit suggests that the universalisation of the maxim of the person in question is plausible though, in making this point, he does nothing to test the maxim with regard to the criterion Kant uses in the Groundwork in terms of types of contradiction. In failing to refer to the tests in question Parfit simply pre-judges his case against the Formula of the Law of Nature. Similarly Parfit considers an egoistic maxim here and imagines a case where we have an egoist who could live in a world of other egoists, thereby ignoring the points made about this case when Kant discusses consistency of willing.

A much better case is made by Parfit when he moves from the discussion of rarity to one of "high stakes" and imagines cases where the perceived benefit of maxims for those considering them is very great compared to the alternatives. Such cases do show a ground for action in which it is hard to imagine people being persuaded to act in terms of what would be best overall given their own good is so great to them at the time but they do not count against a formal process in which abstraction from questions of the good is required. So again Parfit builds into his case assumptions that do not allow considerations of Kant's point.

The next objection Parfit considers is that the Law of Nature Formula is insufficiently impartial or not impartial in the "right way" unlike the "Golden Rule". The reason for this claimed difference is that Kant's rule does not build in a specific reference to the actor in question. Kant does, however, fail to do this for a specifically good reason that Parfit recognises which is to abstract away from the consideration that the egoist wishes to hold to. However Parfit suggests that this abstraction fails to recognise a key problem, that he terms "non-reversibility" where it is possible that we do to others something that no one is able to do to us in the same way (for whatever reason). This is, in fact, a problem much like the earlier racist suggestion Parfit considered and shows still that the case is being considered continuously in relation to material benefits that are not relevant to Kant's formula with conditions that do not allow for universality of application so, once again, beg the question against Kant's formula.

Parfit seems to think this "non-reversibility" claim is an important one simply due to the realities that something like it may well be involved in many cases of social injustice. So, for example, if men believe rape of women justified this may be because they are not women and not capable of being treated in the same way. However, even should such beliefs be actually held in such situations they are simply not relevant to the consideration of Kant's formula since, in holding to such beliefs the actors in question are not subjecting themselves to the standards of universality Kant is stating.

Parfit considers a response of this sort to his cases of "non-reversibility" but does so through Thomas Nagel's suggestion of a form of imaginative identification much like the one Parfit himself earlier built into the "Golden Rule". In responding to this point Parfit cites the response Kant made to the maxim of indifference in which Kant pointed to the contradiction in the will as being to do with what it would state about the one who formulated this maxim in a world governed by it. This point is taken by Parfit to indicate an illicit partiality in the formula rather than a consideration of the cases of all as in his own "Golden Rule". However the point surely is that cases of "non-reversibility" do not require the introduction of imaginative identification of the sort Parfit has invoked any more than Kant thought of such as involved in the response to the maxim of indifference. It was rather a question of reaching the maxim in question and formulating it as a universal rule that did the trick. Similarly, assuming something like a principle of "non-reversibility" is at work in much wrong-doing let's articulate its general assumption as something like the following: "I will take advantage of the ways in which others are differently vulnerable to myself in order to have mastery over them" and then think of its universal application. Are there are any cases in which this could not be applied to the disadvantage of the one formulating the maxim? It is enough to ask the question to point to the answer.

Parfit does not consider a response like the one I have given but he does mention Rawls' "veil of ignorance" notion only to suggest that Kant does not include reference to anything like it but, in so doing, he fails to discuss the ways in which Rawls interpreted Kant's typic of universal law in order to show considerations of the "veil of ignorance" type were at work there, thus, once again, he merely assumes his point. Similarly, Parfit considers Thomas Scanlon's interpretation which produces an account of universality that asks us to consider what everyone could rationally will only in order to rebut it by mentioning that Kant does not explicitly state things this way which is no answer to Scanlon. 

Parfit subsequently proposes to revise Kant's formulations in order to meet his notion of "non-reversibility" which is done by importing considerations of the sort Scanlon was concerned with when he referred to what everyone could rationally will. Having done so Parfit concludes the chapter with what he terms is the "Kantian Contractualist Formula" and which is stated as: "Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will". Such a formula assimilates Kant to Scanlon.