Tuesday, 29 May 2012

O'Neill and Kant on Rational Willing

In a piece originally published in 1985 and reprinted in Paul Guyer's edited collection on the Groundwork Onora O'Neill discusses the understanding of consistent willing that Kant offers with his idea of willing universal laws. It's worth going through the general argument of this piece again, not least since it stands as a corrective against views that, due to the influence of Derek Parfit, are once again current concerning the categorical imperative.

O'Neill opens the piece by pointing out that there is a tendency to discuss universality tests in terms of what everybody or somebody wants done either by or to everyone. Due to understanding what wants done in terms of what happens to be contingently wanted this way of presenting universality tests ensures that they are seen in heteronomous fashion. Kant's own view of universality testing makes no reference either to want everyone wants done or to what somebody wants done either by or to everybody. This is why the Formula of Universal Law (FUL) reads simply: "Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law" (Ak. 4: 421). So, as O'Neill puts this, we are invited here to consider that we can will only that which it is possible or consistent to will as a universal law and no reference is made to what we would will or would find acceptable or would want. So Kant's formulation does not match those that are often given. This is why Kant is taken by O'Neill to have what she terms "an uncompromisingly rationalist foundation for ethics". I'd have to parse this notion of "rationalism" a little myself but it is, I think, clear that what O'Neill means here is that the formulation is one that moves away from desire/inclination models entirely and that this is what is distinctive about it.

Now, one of the reasons why universal law tests tend to import heteronomous elements in their discussion is to avoid charges of triviality or emptiness (as the shadow of Hegel falls over most discussion of universal law tests). Substantive conclusions are generally thought not to be available from formal tests alone. O'Neill's piece sets out to show why this view is problematic and thus to offer a basis for viewing formal universality testing of a Kantian sort as capable of responding to the challenge of providing substantive conclusions. 

The first step in O'Neill's reconstruction is to bring out that there are two aspects to how the Kantian universality test is to go and in describing these she brings out how FUL proposes to us two points. Firstly, FUL indicates reference to action on a maxim. Secondly, it restricts the types of maxim we can appeal to by reference to the capability of a maxim being one that can become a universal law. So the two elements of working out how to understand what "action on a maxim" means and how the restriction of maxims to conditions of universality is to work have to distinguished in order for the test to be understood in its complexity.

So O'Neill's analysis opens with an account of what "acting on a maxim" involves and follows Kant's basic statements of "maxims" as being "subjective principles" of action (Ak. 4: 421n). Such a point is not meant by Kant to suggest that they are "subjective" in the sense of being purely arbitrary or having any content whatsoever. Maxims are not only constrained in their form in ways we'll look at in a moment but they are also available generally in the sense that any number of agents could adopt them, they could be adopted at different times and places and refer to apparently very different actions. However, it is also the case that whilst Kant discusses action through his conception of "maxims" that it is no part of the Kantian conception to think of "maxims" as being consciously referred to always. But in a given situation there are involved in the description of the "maxim" of action references to the agent, the act and the situation itself. 

Maxims are not (pace Parfit) the same thing as "intentions", not least because "intentions" include many details that are not relevant to the consideration of maxims. Maxims are, rather, the underlying principles that guide specific "intentions" as O'Neill puts this. I'll formulate this point slightly differently to how O'Neill does but, I think, in conformity with the general thrust of her view. On my account, a maxim can be understood in general terms as formulating a kind of aim we have, one that exists whether it is consciously at work for us at various times or not and which forms the context in which we develop specific policies that are expressed in given specific actions. This understanding of maxims as stating aims is important although it does mean that it is not always transparent, simply from observing someone's actions, what maxim they are following. Nor might an agent always be able to answer if we pressed them as to their maxim since it is possible the general aim of their action was not at that given point before them even though the understanding of it as a background condition is what really made sense of their action. So we infer them as a result of understanding not specific actions in isolation but by connecting specific actions together in view of the policies involved in them in order to arrive at a sense of the basic aim in view.

Now part of O'Neill's point in this article is to use this argument to distance Kant from a general understanding of universality tests that frames the way they are put by reference to heteronomous considerations. The point here is that universality tests tend to be seen through the prism, as O'Neill puts it, of "categories of right". Rightness and wrongness are then seen primarily in terms of appraisal of outward actions. On O'Neill's account, however, this is not the prime point of using the categorical imperative in a universality test with regard to maxims. Rather than this being the point the basic question the categorical imperative is being used to put is whether the aim with which we propose to act is consistently universalizable. If this is the point of the test then it follows that what we want to know when we apply it is whether acting on this maxim will produce an act that is morally worthy and this is the way we can tell whether or not the act is one that conforms to duty. So duty is comprehended through the question of moral worth and not the other way around on O'Neill's view. 

This key point distances the understanding of the point of the categorical imperative's universality test away from understanding of outward actions towards moral worth with moral worth now emerging not as something that is merely bound by duty but rather as the central case of duty. Understanding of outward appraisal of actions would, by contrast, be derivative of this. Putting matters this way shows that the understanding of what "action on a maxim" involves is not a trivial part of the process of constructing the universality test.

A result of seeing the Kantian universality test in this way is that the general objections to universality testing that are posed by many can be seen to be faulty. So, for example, the basic problem of "maxim-fiddling" that is formulated to show that any act can pass the universality test arises because it is taken to be the point of the test to appraise outward actions and to see whether if the actions in question were performed by others a contradiction would arise. By contrast, on O'Neill's construction, the outward actions are not the primary point of the test. Another way that counter-examples tend to get presented is through focus on specific policies as the target of maxim testing rather than underlying aims, a basic failure to get the point of the reference to maxims.

The first point of the process is thus to identify maxims as aims of actions and to evaluate policies by reference to aims. It is only a secondary part of the process to appraise outward actions. A major plus of this reading is that it brings the first two parts of the Groundwork closer together than they are often seen as. The account of moral worth in the first part of the Groundwork is frequently seen as if it had little to do with the account of the categorical imperative in the second part whereas O'Neill's view leads us to seeing the categorical imperative instead through the prism of moral worth. It is thus the consequence of her argument that we should basically apply the universality test to our own aims of action as it is we who are adopting maxims. 

The second part of the process opens now we have an account of what "acting on a maxim" involves. This second part requires testing the maxim in terms of its consistency with universality. O'Neill famously formulates two types of inconsistency: one within an agent's maxim (contradiction in conception) and one between either the different policies that follow from the aim or between the policies and the aim (contradiction in the will). The first type is here termed by O'Neill conceptual inconsistency and the second type volitional inconsistency. There are different ways that maxims can express either of these types of inconsistency.

The most basic way a maxim can be inconsistent is by expressing an aspiration which is, for some reason, impossible. This is so if, for instance, it involves mutually incompatible aspirations. This would prevent action on the underlying maxim from being possible and would point to the emergence of action that is seriously disjointed as a consequence. However, the point of my distinction between policies and aims comes out clearly when we consider how O'Neill formulates this point: "A non-universalisable maxim embodies a conceptual contradiction only if it aims at achieving mutually incompatible objectives and so cannot under any circumstances be acted on with success". It is clear that the underlying aim is the problem here and this is what a maxim is basically concerned with. The policies come into conflict with themselves as they are part of an aim that is intrinsically impossible to realise.

Maxims are principles of action in that they give us principles that we aim to realise and this aim is what is meant by saying that we have willed the maxim. The conceptual contradiction emerges when the willing in question incorporates something in its aim that is not possible. The more interesting case, in many respects, however, concerns volitional inconsistency. It is with regard to it that O'Neill is led to an account of rational action that is particularly rich. Kant describes hypothetical imperatives as involving a kind of analytic connection between means and end assuming that reason has decisive influence on action. O'Neill terms this the Principle of Hypothetical Imperatives (PHI) and says that it means that agents "intend any indispensable requirements" for the achievement of their aims. However, whilst Kant's text in the second part of the Groundwork appears to rest with this point, O'Neill articulates a broader view of rational aiming (called by her rational intending but I think this is misleading). The broader account leads to her setting alongside the PHI a list that is unlikely to be complete but which extends the general discussion of rational volition further.

Included amongst O'Neill's family of principles of rational aiming are the following: a) a requirement of rationality to direct policies that are not merely concerned with indispensable or necessary means (as with the PHI) but also with sufficient means for achieving the aim; b) adding to sufficient means the seeking of such means when they are not available; c) including in one's policies all necessary and sufficient components of what is aimed at; d) ensuring that specific policies are mutually consistent; e) ensuring that the foreseeable results of specific policies do not conflict with the underlying aim.

O'Neill understands the point of the family of principles as one of bringing together what she calls "surface and underlying intentions" but which I would term bringing together policies and aims. Policies must express commitment to acts that provide either the means to or components of aims and must not undercut the aims. The fact that the policy not undercut the aim is central here and points to a basic standard of action. 

Having clarified this point O'Neill returns now to the universality test and states that her view is that the basic intuition expressed in it is a non-egoistic one of not singling ourselves out for special consideration or treatment. This is clear when Kant talks about how we often "make exceptions" of ourselves when we attempt to formulate maxims and O'Neill understands this point to mean that FUL includes in its basic reference a notion of a plurality of interacting agents. The consideration of maxims is one in which we are understanding ourselves to adopt a maxim that meets the condition of being able to be adopted by others and maxims, as we will see in a moment, often are concerned with relations to others. 

Now when the universalisation of maxims is presented in the Groundwork Kant moves from FUL to the Law of Nature formula and after referring to the latter he states the two types of inconsistency (Ak. 4: 424). Contradictions in conception often would not involve a contradiction if we did not attempt to universalise them so it is the process of putting them to the test of universality that reveals the problem with them. A clear case of this occurring is with maxims of deception which involve no incoherence so long as they are not universalised but which do when they are. With regard to the examples of contradiction in conception the distinction between aims and policies is particularly important. 

Maxims that lead to volitional inconsistency state no manifest incoherence even when universalised. So what they conflict with is one of the family of principles of rational volition that O'Neill spoke of earlier. The most obvious case is where they conflict with PHI which Kant takes to apply to the case of non-beneficence. The maxim of neglect of talents, by contrast, is one that O'Neill thinks contravenes not merely PHI but also the second requirement of adoption of sufficient means for realisation of aims. And she has similar arguments that invoke her criteria of rational action with regard to other types of maxims. The point of the cases of contradiction of the will is that they show that a number of maxims require, for their realisation, stable relations with others as a necessary condition. The general argument thus shows that a Kantian argument for a universality test that is grounded on considerations of formal consistency and rationality can ground substantive requirements without needing to refer to notions of desire and preference.

Schulting on Non-Conceptual Content in *KSO*

A new article has been published in Kant Studies Online which is by Dennis Schulting and concerns the understanding of non-conceptual content in the transcendental deduction. It can be freely accessed and downloaded here.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Parfit and Kant on Impartiality (III)

The published Chapter 14 of On What Matters corresponds to the account given in the 2008 version of the work which I treated previously. In many respects the analysis and response to the discussion thus is much of a piece with that given earlier. In order to make the case for a response to Parfit's published version worthwhile, however, I have chosen to focus here on what I now view to be the key methodological device used in Parfit's discussion of impartiality. This is the recourse to a process of imaginative identification as the way in which impartiality is to be understood. The importance of stress on this will become clear when I make subsequently manifest how it ensures that Parfit does not seriously respond to the Kantian view that he takes himself to be replying to in this chapter.

The chapter opens, as previous versions of it did, with a statement of Kant's rejection of a principle that Parfit, along with others, has identified with the "Golden Rule" where the rejected rule incorporates already a notion of imaginative identification as it asks us to treat others as we would wish to be treated by them. Kant rejects this rule and indicates a number of problems with it. The nature of the specific problems that Kant poses with the rule are not identical, however, with how Parfit takes Kant's objections to go. Kant objects that the rule is not fit to be viewed as providing a universal law and he gives 2 reasons why this is so: a) it does not contain the ground of duties toward oneself or of love toward others; b) it does not contain the ground of duties owed to others. The second part of the first objection (concerning the duty of love towards others) is restated on the basis that some would agree to not be benefited by others if only it follows that they are not required to benefit these others. Hence this point is to the effect that the nature of the reciprocity recognised in the rule is insufficient to ground beneficence. The second objection is supported with a reductio proof to the effect that the rejected rule provides no ground for a judge sentencing a criminal since the criminal can ask the judge whether he would like to be punished. In both cases Kant suggests that the process of identification that the rejected rule seems to require is insufficient to ground the duty in question.

Parfit's discussion opens with a description of why the objection to the attempt to ground beneficence on the rejected rule would fail according to Kant. Parfit indicates that the rejected rule is not faulty in the way indicated since the rule does not lapse simply because one is not inclined to ask for the help of others. The reason why Parfit thinks he can make this move is that the rejected rule requires that we help others if we would wish to be helped whereas the exemption suggested in the objection Kant makes is that someone might only say, not, that they don't want help but that they would be willing to forego it if they are thereby freed from obligation towards others. The reason why Parfit thinks this is a reply to Kant appears initially mysterious. After all, isn't the denial of such help thus the basis for saying that I have renounced the need for help and therefore have a ground for asking others to do the same? I think that Parfit fails to see this point as he is held captive to a picture, a picture that runs through the whole of this chapter and the picture is one in which the imaginative appeal of the need of others is taken to provide not only a binding ground of obligation but to have a kind of obvious basis as such a ground, one that no one could really be obtuse enough to deny (except, as we shall see later, in cases where the other person is radically different to oneself).

Parfit is, however, wrong to think that he has replied to Kant's objection. The objection holds since the rejected rule requires and mandates only reciprocity of treatment on the basis of the imagined identification and the person Kant considers has simply requested that others extend to him the courtesy he would to them of refusing to ask for help. This plea is entirely in accord with the rejected rule and is at variance with the Law of Nature formula since the law of nature formula requires not imaginative identification but instead the construction of a world governed by the maxims that are stated in the aim underlying the specific policies of given actions. Here it would be an aim of generalised non-beneficence and this is why Kant views the maxim here as falling foul of the Law of Nature formula in a way it does not fall foul of the rejected rule. It falls foul precisely because such a generalised maxim of indifference could not be willed universally as to will it would undercut a basic condition of agency which requires the help of others to prosecute innumerable policies and their accompanying aims so that the maxim of non-beneficence is in tension with the general conditions of agency, not with imaginative relations to others.

Parfit's next consideration of the case of benevolence states that the rejected rule does not refer to conditions of willing as it does not view people generally as being absolute monarchs or dictators who can make others do what we will, a remark that indicates a complete failure to understand the basis of reference to willing in Kant's case. It is not that Kant wishes us to imagine that any one is an absolute monarch, it is rather that he wishes us to view our will as setting laws that apply to others in the same way as natural laws do, that is, as publicly acknowledged and consistently binding of their action. When so viewed some types of maxim conflict with conditions of agency and this shows the problem with them. Parfit subsequently shifts ground and argues that the rejected rule can also incorporate understanding of this is if it is stated in a form that says something like, "do as you would be done by". However this is simply not equivalent to a recognition of willing as it is rather again an imaginative relation to others in terms of how each of us treat others and requires us, as in the standard form, to regulate our conduct by how we would wish to be treated, thus beginning from a kind of egoistic starting point and requiring that standpoint to be checked by this imagination of others treating us as we have treated them. But this is not the same as thinking about internal requirements of willing and their coherence which is what Kant is concerned with.

The next step in Parfit's treatment of benevolence is to view the rejected rule as having the resource that he thinks is behind Kant's discussion of willing, namely of capturing a notion of rational choice. Then the "Golden" rule becomes: "We ought to treat others only in ways in which we would rationally be willing to be treated by others". This reformulation has the same methodological form as the classic version of the rule since it proceeds exactly in the way just described in the previous paragraph with the addition that now "rational" willing is presented as a form of willing that prudently involves a check on its own exercise for the benefit of the one willing. This converts the "Golden" rule into a kind of instrumental guide for conduct but such a guide is not equivalent to an appeal to the conditions of rational willing as outlined in the Law of Nature argument. 

That the two are not equivalent becomes apparent as Parfit looks at cases in which beneficence is required. To sharpen the  "Golden" rule in his new understanding of it Parfit asks that we apply it to conditions that might not be actual for us so that, for example, in thinking about cases of starvation we should imagine not if we would be willing to do without food now where we may have plentiful ways of getting some in the future and perhaps have been eating too much, but in some quite different case where we really are like those who are starving. Similarly, it is not sufficient, on Parfit's revised "Golden" rule, for a racist to deny others the use of resources on the grounds that they are not a member of the affected race as the revised rule requires that this racist place himself in the position of those who he is harming. This makes clear that identification with the plight of those harmed is to the fore and that this often requires imagination to be stretched as when it may be necessary to imagine that one is a member of a different race, lives elsewhere or even belongs to a different gender. This expanded procedure leads to Parfit viewing the "Golden" rule next as stating that we should treat others as we would rationally wish to be treated ourselves "if we were going to be in these other people's positions, and would be relevantly like them". 

Parfit next looks at the objection Kant makes using a reductio argument to the idea that the rejected rule could treat of duties owed to others with the case of punishment used to suggest a problem. Parfit gives a formulation of the rejected rule that he thinks would face this problem and this produces a further reformulation of it on his part so it now becomes: "we ought to treat other people as we would rationally be willing to be treated if we were going to be in the positions of all of these people, and would be relevantly like them". On this basis the judge can now reject the case the criminal makes for why he should not be punished as the judge takes a wider identification than was at first in view and includes the victims of the crime (for example) in his imaginative extension of his identity. On these grounds the rule can provide a basis for punishment. Notice, however, that the question of the scope of identification is carefully here limited. Imagine further that the criminal had a number of dependants and that their need is greater than that of his victims. Should this be taken into account by the judge in his imaginative identification thus giving the criminal a renewed case? Or is there perhaps something wrong with the whole idea that what matters here is imaginative identification?

The last point that Parfit considers is Kant's suggestion that the rejected rule does not cover duties to oneself. Parfit acknowledges that if the rule does not do this it could have serious consequences and that generally it is likely it has been formulated in a way that does not appear to recognise this point given that we do not tend to ignore our own well-being. In acknowledging this point Parfit simply extends the scope of imaginative identification further so that when we consider how to treat others we are one of the "everyone" who would be affected. Notably, however, this appears to make us simply equivalent to others and, indeed, to render all others commensurable with each other.

Parfit considers the "Golden" rule and Kant's Formula of Universal Law as alike in two respects. Firstly, they both appeal to rational grounds of choice. Secondly, they both take everyone to matter in a way that involves some basic moral egalitarianism. Now, the point I wish to make is that the ground of the "Golden" rule on Parfit's defence of it is quite different, in both these respects, from the ground of Kant's procedure for identification of the supreme principle of morality. In regard to rational grounds of choice the "Golden" rule defines this in terms of needs and benefits and understands these in terms of imaginative processes of identification with others. With regard to moral egalitarianism it further assumes a basic commensurability of moral agents. By contrast, Kant's procedure is to view the ground of universality in terms of conditions of rational agency, not in terms of needs and benefits but instead in terms of what the conditions are for any identification of an agent that has any needs or benefits. Secondly, moral egalitarianism is defined not in terms of commensurability of agents where such commensurability abstracts from the separateness of persons but instead identification of persons as basic moral units.

Parfit views the different questions posed methodologically by appeal to these two notions in a way that is different to how I would put them. According to him the "Golden" rule asks how I would like it if something of a certain sort was done to me. By contrast, the formulas of Kant are alleged to ask "what if everyone did that"? In fact whilst I agree that the "Golden" rule has an implicitly egoistic starting point I don't think that it contrasts with the Kantian procedure primarily just through that being its question whilst Kant asks instead of some kind of universal consequence of others doing certain things. Rather it is the case that the advocates of the "Golden" rule adopt the procedure of asking me to view actions in terms of the consequences to me of certain things becoming universal. Whilst Kant's examples also often appear to do this the basic question underlying them is asking something else in addition: namely, what would happen to agency, my own included, if x, y, or z became universal. So it is not a question of a consequence that is primarily at issue for Kant but of a status being respected, the status, that is, of agency itself.

The "Golden" rule asks questions about points of view for Parfit, the points of view of others and myself in certain situations and assesses rights and wrongs through trying to arrive at a way of harmonising my point of view with others. Kant's procedure is different as he instead wishes to ask us what the conditions of agency themselves require. When Parfit subsequently invokes the idea of the "Impartial Observer" beloved of Adam Smith he is not leaving the ground that he has occupied previously of defence of the "Golden" rule as this "impartial" observer is an external way of visualising the conditions of imaginative identification meant to remove specific peculiarities from how I may view something. By thus abstracting from my own case I am supposed to still be able to carry out imaginative identification without having this any longer involve even partial reference to my own self. This abstractive sense of imagination is still one in which an idea or image of a self is meant to fill the role that for Kant is filled by a general argument about agency itself.

Parfit assumes that a procedure of imaginative identification has more motivational power than the kind of argument Kant uses. Some of the reasons why Parfit thinks this become clear as he motivates some objections to Kant. The first objection is the one he terms the "rarity objection" which essentially consists in imagining cases in which I can ensure that someone else suffers a burden or fails to get a benefit unjustly for my own egoistic reasons due to it being the case that our situation ensures that my actions don't subsequently rebound on me. This rarity objection is a form of maxim-fiddling which is meant to get past Kant's Law of Nature formula on the grounds that if others don't and can't discover what I have done they will not subsequently affect me in the way I have affected an other here. This, however, simply fails to view the maxim in question as one that has been put to Kant's test at all since if it had been it would be a public, universally known law and given that it would there would be no way for concealment to take place. Such a publicity criterion is key to the statement of the Law of Nature formula and failure to bear it in mind ensures that Parfit states an objection that simply does not apply.

A different type of objection is made by Parfit to Kant when he states what he terms the "high stakes objection", based on the problem that in some situations acting against another may well be overwhelmingly plausible to me given that failing to do so would have seriously adverse consequences for me. Parfit is right to think that such circumstances are ones in which terrible temptation is placed before people and that frequently they weaken when this is the case. However, whilst this is true, it is still not sufficient to say that the Law of Nature formula does not apply in the case. It still governs the case and that it does is not affected by the difficulties of the person in question. They are still asked to take the universal law into account, however difficult it is for them psychologically to do so. In similar cases, other moral rules of similar scope would be similarly difficult but would not, due to this alone, have to be contravened.

The third and final objection Parfit makes concerns what he calls the "non-reversibility objection" in which we are in a situation with regard to others that is asymmetric. The example Parfit refers to is again the case of the racist who wishes to deny services to others of other races, something that, as Parfit puts it, is universal "in his social world". Parfit seems to assume that because the maxim of such conduct is currently widely "acted upon" that it poses some special challenge to Kant's account and that the better process of response is the one motivated by the extension of imaginative identification. However it is neither the case that some special problem is stated here nor that the case is better dealt with by appeal to imaginative identification. The reason it is not a special problem is that the wide currency of a practice in some given social circle is not the same as its actual universality and nor would even an actual universality be the same as a normative universality. It is the latter which is at issue and it is not defined by processes of exclusion in which others are arbitrarily treated as undeserving of recognition as rational beings. The reason the extension of imaginative identification is not preferable to the appeal to conditions of rational agency is that the required identification may simply be declared too difficult or, even worse, the racist or sexist might simply state that in such cases they would rightly accept their own inferiority. Appeal to universality of agential requirements does not allow such a response.

In conclusion Parfit considers cases of "defences" of Kant which view the Kantian procedure on the pattern of imaginative identification so that it becomes the case that Kant is treated as if he was formulating "a greatly inflated version of the Golden Rule". This is not the point of Kant's procedure as Nagel suggests when he asks us to think we are in everyone else's position or when T.C. Williams asks us to take the standpoint of the impartial observer. Such methodological moves are alien to the spirit and point of the Kantian method which does not require us to be responsive to others' needs on the basis of sympathy. The ground of benevolence is not found there for Kant. It is, rather, found in conditions of agency itself. It is the point of Kant's objection to the "Golden" rule that this ground is not identified by it as what is morally crucial.

Parfit fails to see this is and this failure is the basis of the concluding move of the chapter, a move in which he argues for an assimilation of Kant's procedure with that of Thomas Scanlon. Scanlon, like Kant, asks the question, "what general principles of action could we all will" and this appears to be viewed by Parfit, at the end of this long chapter, as a question like the one that motivated the "Golden" rule on his construal of it. As we have seen it is not the case that the methodology of the "Golden" rule is the same as that of Kant and nor is it the case that what is salient for the one is equivalent to what is salient to the other. So when Parfit concludes the chapter with his formulation of a "Kantian Contractualist Formula" it remains to ask whether contractualism is to be understood by Parfit after the image of imaginative identification that has guided his account of impartiality.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Rawls on Autonomy and Social Union

The final chapter of A Theory of Justice is concerned with the congruence of the right and the good in a well-ordered society. Another way of expressing the same point is to say that Rawls here attempts to show the relationship between the notion of goodness as rationality and justice as fairness. The overall point is thus to arrive at the view that an effective sense of justice as recognised within the governing of institutions is part of the good that would be rationally endorsed by each one of us.

The first two sections of Chapter IX are concerned with autonomy on the one hand and the idea of social union on the other. In starting with an account of autonomy Rawls wishes to begin by responding to suspicion of the psychological roots of the sense of justice. The basic suspicion he considers is motivated by a kind of psychological reductionism which views the origin of the sense of justice in the morality of authority by which young children are directed as casting suspicion upon the subsequent development of a morality of principles. In response Rawls points out that in the well-ordered society the basic rudiments of education have been governed by application of the principles of justice to the situation of the child. So none of the ideals upheld in the educational process are based on exploiting particular weaknesses or on devaluing the specific potentials of the child in question. 

The Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness requires that action on the principles of justice be understood as autonomous action which means that the principles in question express conditions that are defined by the nature of free and rational beings. So the basic guideline for educational practices has to be training for autonomy. Rawls wishes as well to show that autonomy is compatible with objectivity and does this by recourse to the device of the original position. Autonomous principles are chosen there as such principles involve recognition of the contracting parties as free and equal rational beings. The "objectivity" of the principles is stated in the generality of their application which include a sense of them that means they are stated without partiality. So the principles that are chosen in the original position are objective in not including deference to any given persons or treating any particular principle as based only on alleged special considerations.

Part of the point of such an objective mode of appraisal of principles is precisely to remove the barriers to agreement that are attached to specific positions in ordinary non-ideal intercourse. Acceptance of the principles of right and justice enables relations to others to be defined in terms that are civic rather than merely personal. So the idea of the original position is meant to give sense to both the ideas of autonomy and objectivity. This is a specific kind of view of these values and one that has to defended against other views. So autonomy is not to be understood, as it is often is, simply as respect for the particular conscience of any given individual. Rawls' earlier treatment of civil disobedience already demonstrated this feature of his view, a feature that prevents simple dependence on "subjective" views of principles. A conscience can be well or poorly guided and it is poorly guided if it fails to manifest respect for the principles of justice which is why justified civil disobedience was justified precisely by its reference to such principles and not simply by appeal to conscience alone. It is not conscience that is thus respected in the valuation of autonomy, it is rather the personality of the person, their attribute, that is, of being a person that is respected. 

So the earlier account of civil disobedience spelled out in Chapter VI of Theory is to be evaluated as specifying in terms of partial compliance theory the ideal conception of autonomy that Rawls is laying out at the beginning of Chapter IX. This is important as it indicates that autonomy is not to be viewed, in terms of justice as fairness, as a mere reference to either conscience or, with this, to reliance upon the virtue of integrity. Appeal to integrity has, as Rawls puts it here, great appeal in times of moral uncertainty where it appears to define a bed-rock value. Whilst Rawls indicates that such virtues are part of the excellence of free persons they are far from socially sufficient precisely due to the way they define virtues without reference to a contentful sense of life. It is only by reference to a kind of conception of what life one should live that the virtues of integrity define anything but it is then the case that this conception gives the value rather than the integrity of commitment taken alone.

Rawls arrives next at the point that the two principles of justice define what he terms "an Archimedean point" for appraising institutions as well as the desires and aspirations that institutions generate. Because we can refer to these principles we do not need to define an ideal of society by reference to principles of organic unity or by some sense of a pre-lapsarian past. However the objections to the general theory that Rawls presents have tended to insist on a sense of communitarian value that it is argued the allegedly "individualistic" bias of his theory does not allow recognition of. In response, in section 79, Rawls turns to elaborating a conception of social union that is meant to show that the congruence of the right and the good can define a well-ordered society in such a way that this society would recognise the achievement of the good of community.

In setting out a conception of social union that is meant to capture this sense of the good of community Rawls begins by reminding us of the conditions of the original position. A central aspect of the original position was that the parties know that they are subject to the circumstances of justice. Amongst such circumstances are the plurality of conceptions of the good amongst participants in the original position. This ensures that there is a potential conflict amongst participants as well as a unity of interest. Having reminded us of this plurality of conceptions as part of the circumstances of justice Rawls goes on to discuss how the relation between this fact and the conflicting one of the unity of interest of members of the agreement can be recognised in distinct ways by different positions. In making this point Rawls thus intends to draw an important contrast between the conception of justice as fairness and a key competing position.

The central idea that governs the way the original position is viewed by justice as fairness is that we begin from "the weakest possible" assumptions. The conditions are defined in ways that are "simple and reasonable" but the collision between interests is assumed to be great initially with the result that the way to resolve the conflict requires a comprehensive theory. Having specified the conditions of the original position in this way Rawls now contrasts the conception of it that is embodied in justice as fairness with a key rival view. The rival view is one that takes the basic structure of society as defined by the conditions that are fed only in to the original position by justice as fairness. On this conception we arrive at a notion that Rawls terms that of a "private society". Key to such a notion of society is that the entities that comprise it (whether individual persons or social groups) are assumed to have ends that are either competing or independent but not, in any event, complementary. A second element of the notion of "private society" is that institutions are taken to have no special value in themselves so that engaging with institutions is really a burden only undertaken for the realisation of private ends. The good of others is never taken as a prime datum for any actor.

On the conception of "private society" it follows that division of advantages is simply a function of power and strategic positioning. It is not impossible that a fair outcome might arise within such a set-up though it would be fortunate if it does so. Public goods will be valued largely instrumentally and relations judged in terms of the prices put upon them as in a market mechanism. The stability of such a society will rest primarily on effective use of sanctions. Once the idea of such a society is specified it becomes apparent that the alleged "individualism" of justice as fairness is not of the sort that endorses private social arrangements. And this is shown in the commitment of justice as fairness to the conception of goodness as rationality. 

On the view of goodness as rationality it follows that there are shared final ends that are possessed by persons and that common institutions express these ends. One of the reasons why this view flows from the idea of goodness as rationality is that individual potentialities are always greater than can be expressed so that each of us has, of necessity, to limit themselves in terms of what talents we choose to exercise. It is only through social union that we can participate in the total sum of the realised natural assets of others. This occurs both over time and within each generation. There are many forms of social union from families and friendships up to organisations that prosecute particular aims of scientific and artistic relations. However Rawls uses the example of a game to draw out the basic characteristics of social unions. With a game there are four sorts of ends: there is the end of the aim of the game as defined by its rules; the end of the motives of the particular participants including desire for exercise, etc. motives which can vary in weight and intensity for each participant; the social purposes of the game which may be little attended to by participants but evident to a third-party observer; and the shared end of all involved that this should be a "good" game. The last point is one that can only be reached by general compliance with the rules (the aim of the game) and by the players all playing their best. So the game is, in the broad sense, a collective achievement.

The notion of the shared end with which Rawls concludes his analysis of a game does not imply that in social unions all wish for the same thing (any more than they do in a game since most games are competitive!). It is rather meant to define an agreed scheme of conduct so that each can relate to the others  by means of it. Games are a simple illustration of a general point about social unions and a well-ordered society is not merely one social union amongst others but is rather the type of the social union of social unions. This is because it includes two characteristic features that are central to it. On the one hand it is a shared final end of all members of society and on the other its institutional forms are taken to have intrinsic value. So it defines the two central forms of goodness: it is both finally good and intrinsically good.

The well-ordered society is finally good in defining a shared end of mutual cooperation which arises from every member of the society having an effective sense of justice. This sense of justice defines a regulative condition for all and thus defines finality in a moral sense. The intrinsic good of the institutions involved is a more complicated matter. Firstly, the Kantian interpretation of justice as fairness requires us to say that upholding just institutions is a good for each member of the society. But, further, the Aristotelian Principle holds also for institutional forms and shows that a just constitutional order provides a framework for all smaller and more closely defined social unions. Each person understands the first principles that govern the whole scheme and the plan of each is given a wider vista than it would otherwise possess. The regulative public intention is that the constitutional order should realise the principles of justice. The collective activity thus engaged in defines a form of Aristotelian Principle.

The next point is that the moral virtues, excellences of persons, would be displayed in the public life of a well-ordered society. This shows, as Rawls puts it, that "the collective activity of justice is the preeminent form of human flourishing". So the public realisation of justice would define the value of community, the point that, at the beginning of section 79, Rawls wished to show. This does not mean, as Rawls concludes the section by demonstrating, that the ideal social union would abolish the division of labour. One of the reasons why it would not is that the ideal social order would express our dependence on others not try to overcome this. Similarly it is not going to be possible that any individual become an exemplar of all virtues or talents. It is rather the collective activity of society that is to become the overall good of each of its members. So the just social union of social unions would define not an abolition of separation of labour but rather a way in which the activities of each can come to manifest themselves in ways that enrich all.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

Parfit and Kant on Moral Dilemmas (III)

The published Chapter 13 of On What Matters addresses moral dilemmas as a way of responding to the universalisation tests that Kant uses when motivating consideration of the Law of Nature formula. In relating the universalisation tests to moral dilemmas Parfit is following the precedent set by him in previous drafts of this material.

The basic question that is asked in the universalisation test concerns whether a maxim can be one that can include its own willing in the universalisation of it. Parfit asks, concerning this test, not whether it works, as has been common in the secondary literature on Kant and universalisation, but rather what the alternative to such willing would be. In raising this point Parfit moves the considerations involved in a definite direction since the adoption of a maxim as a universal law is taken to be something we can endorse if the outcome of adopting a different one would be worse than the adoption of this one. So the standard set immediately is an axiological one. Parfit's discussion thus begins with putting the good prior to the right. 

Parfit assumes that the Law of Nature formula works best when it is applied to maxims of which 3 things are true: a) that it would be possible for many people to act on the maxim in question; b) when the effects of such acts will be similar regardless of the number so acting; c) when the effects would be distributed equally between different people. Having made this point Parfit next introduces classic dilemmas from games theory, dilemmas generically described by him as "each-we" coordination problems and which include the group known as prisoners dilemmas. The general structure of these dilemmas is that if each of us does what is best for themselves this will be worse for all of us collectively. There are various ways such dilemmas arise as policy questions, including with regards to public goods that benefit all, including those who do nothing to produce them and with regard to "fisherman's dilemmas" where if we all pursue activities of certain kinds we will collectively deplete the resource we are interested in though for each one of us it appears plausible to act in the specified way.

These general dilemmas tend to be structured on a peculiar model of rational agents where such agents are generically assumed to be personal utility maximisers, an implicit assumption that is not interrogated by Parfit. Parfit does, however, expand the arena of the utility maximisation by discussing how, according to common sense morality, we have special obligations to others and we tend to incorporate these special obligations into our calculations thus meaning that we need not be seen, even on this model, purely as egoistic utility maximisers. In political terms the consideration of treatment of these dilemmas tends to be undertaken through coercive measures that impose heavy costs on non-compliance with activities taken to have wider value than even that of our enlarged sense of self-interest allows. Morally consequentialists take themselves to have ways of addressing the problems of such dilemmas including associated difficulties with free riders.

There is a further class of dilemmas, called by Parfit, "unsolved" dilemmas in which no one is performing in the right way. With regard to such "dilemmas" Kant's universalisation procedure is regarded by Parfit as particularly useful since it prompts attitude adjustment in just the right way. One of the results of this is to lead to all of us seeing that acts that, taken individually, might not be "wrong" may be so in an accumulative sense and this will challenge us and lead to a different valuation being placed on these acts.

However, whilst Parfit introduces the relationship between dilemmas and the universalisation test by showing one way in which the latter can respond to a form of the former, his general attitude in this chapter is not favourable to the practice of universalisation tests as a response to the problems posed by the dilemmas. The reason why Parfit's reaction to universalisation tests takes this negative turn is due to his invocation of what he terms the "threshold objection". This objection basically states that there are thresholds that relate to the effects of actions and this is a salient criteria that should be invoked in terms of actions that we should perform. Given this salient criteria we should not simply invoke universalisation as a blunt tool to tell us what to do since the threshold determines the way our actions will impact on others and it is this that balances simple universalisation.

Having invoked this objection Parfit considers some possible responses Kant might make to it. The first response is to put universalisation tests in hypothetically conditional form. The second is to follow a suggestion of Thomas Pogge and to see the question as requiring us to invoke criteria of moral belief. However what becomes clear in the course of Parfit's discussion is that the threshold objection is really another form of the "mixed maxims" objection that was raised in the previous chapter of On What Matters. And when this becomes clear it also becomes evident that the threshold objection turns on how maxims are understood as did the "mixed maxims" objection. Essentially maxims can either be said to state aims or policies. Policies are adopted in order to realise aims whilst aims are the general thing that policies are guided by. Kant is after a formulation of aims with his universalisation test that will give us a formal way of relating to policies rather than viewing policies as ends we have selected due to some prior commitment to the good. Thus Kant's methodological approach is not akin to that which Parfit follows.

This division can be seen as Parfit moves to reformulate the Law of Nature formula so that it refers to what can be "rationally" willed in "similar circumstances" where the nature of the circumstances appears not just to require a sense of adjustment of policies as Parfit gives us the impression is the case but to affect the way we are to understand appropriate aims. 

One of the ways this becomes apparent is when Parfit motivates the second major objection of this chapter, the so-called "Ideal World Objection". This differs from the "threshold objection" as it concerns not simply the effects produced after tipping points have been reached but also the plausibility of standards derived from ideal theory in a non-ideal world. Here Parfit argues that viewing universalisable maxims as stating ideal willing can produce counterproductive effects as attention to the actions of others doesn't lead me to adjust my own actions. The "coordination" required here is one in which my own willing is governed by what is achievable given the way others are behaving. Again Parfit considers conditional forms of maxims which, however, lead to the production of too permissive results. In response to this point Parfit arrives at the result that we should be aiming not to answer the question expressed as "what if everyone did that" but instead the answer to the question, "what if everyone thought this way". The revision in thought is meant to be governed by the attempt to coordinate action with others rather than to be concerned with universalisation as such.

The general shift away from universalisation tests as a generic procedure of action towards one that concerns how to inculcate the right kinds of moral beliefs is governed by a process of considering right results as "good" ones, i.e., ones in which the best consequences are produced by the following of the right rules. The result is that a kind of rule consequentialism is favoured rather than a Kantian morality. In reply it is worth pointing out that the Kantian question is not asked or considered in its own terms but always evaluated in terms that are alien to its account of the right structure of moral theory.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Parfit and Kant on Maxims and Universal Laws

Chapter 12 of On What Matters mirrors the unpublished account of universal laws that was presented in the 2008 manuscript of the book that I posted about recently. However, whilst Chapter 12 retains the title 'universal laws' which was used in earlier versions of Parfit's treatment, the argument as finally published is more carefully gradually presented as a basis for revising Kant's account in such a way as to remove from it the notion of "maxims". Since Kant's formulas of the categorical imperative consistently refer to "maxims" it is a surprising feature of Parfit's view that the notion of "maxims" is a dispensable one. In this posting I will review Chapter 12 in order to assess the way Parfit here builds a case against taking the notion of 'maxims' to be required in a Kantian moral theory.

As in his previous versions treating this material so also in the published form Parfit opens Chapter 12 considering what he terms the 'impossibility formula' of the categorical imperative. Before doing this, however, he first makes clear his generic view of what Kant takes 'maxims' to be, namely, 'policies and underlying aims'. As we will see, the two notions are far from evidently equally weighed in Parfit's account and play different roles in how he views both different formulas and different examples. As Parfit points out after having introduced the notion of "maxim" it is used by Kant to characterise some apparently divergent things since the "maxim of self-love", for example, is clearly, an "underlying aim" whilst that of making lying promises would appear rather to be a "policy". The first question one might ask, in terms of understanding Kant's account of maxims, would surely be how to relate these uses of "maxim" to each other? 

However it is not obvious that this hermeneutic rule is applied by Parfit when he goes on to consider formulas and examples in Chapter 12. After describing the notion of "maxim' in the way he does Parfit next formulates something that he takes to underlie Kant's application of the test of maxims that is provided in the Formula of Universal Law as an "impossibility formula". This interpretation views FUL as stating that it is wrong to act on any maxim that "could not be a universal law". Now Parfit first expands on this view by dismissing some ways of understanding it that have been proposed before arriving at his own conception of it which is different, according to him, from how Kant himself determines it. The "stated" version of impossibility that he takes Kant to have is repeated as the same impossibility formula with which Parfit begins whilst the "actual" formula Kant uses is argued by Parfit to be different from this. The 'actual' formula is one that Parfit articulates as follows:

It is wrong to act on any maxim of which it is true that, if everyone accepted and acted on this maxim, or everyone believed that it was permissible to act upon it, that would make it impossible for anyone successfully to act upon it. 

Notably the "actual" formula as Parfit states it includes a success condition that is a kind of practical restraint. It is this restraint that, it would appear, is meant to express the "underlying aim" of the impossibility formula so that the notion of impossibility becomes merely a kind of "policy" in using the success condition on Parfit's construal. In fact, however, this is to get things quite backwards as becomes apparent when Parfit applies the "actual" formula to examples.

The application to examples is meant to determine whether the formula as given will be sufficient to provide us with a wrong-making criterion. Various examples are considered to check this beginning with one that states it is alright to kill or injure others if that would benefit us. Now, taking this as a "maxim" is to view it as a form of policy which is, however, itself a specification of the more general "underlying aim" of unrestricted egoism. Parfit here follows Barbara Herman in claiming that the "actual" formula he appeals to would not prevent it from being the case that such an act could succeed. Notably, by having viewed the impossibility formula as really stating something that is measured by "success" in action Parfit has given this maxim passage in a simple way. If, however, the impossibility formula is one that is not measured in terms of "success" but in terms of coherence of universal willing in a world where it stated the law of that world it is not then seen in terms of 'success' primarily at all as 'success' is rather derivative of coherence in willing rather than the other way round as in Parfit's formula.

It is the case that Parfit is far from alone in viewing the "success" notion as the prominent element in the conception of impossibility that Kant is apparently appealing to in his consideration of universal laws. Christine Korsgaard and Barbara Herman view the question of lying in terms of it failing as a practical strategy if it were to be universally adopted as an aim, apparently without considering whether lying is itself not a policy rather than an underlying aim. Parfit himself makes this point indicating that lying usually expresses a principle of unrestricted egoism and that such a principle could not be said to be defeated by the universalisation of lying alone. Whilst that is correct it points to the need to view lying in terms of such a principle and to evaluate the sense of universalisation in terms of underlying aims rather than purely through particular policies.

Similar problems apply to the way Parfit treats other maxims in terms of the 'impossibility' notion as, when he views the maxim 'let no insult pass unavenged' he argues that this maxim, which Kant views as one that is inconsistent with itself, not to be one that must fail of universalisation since it could be universally achieved (albeit at considerable cost to all). Again it is false to view the criteria here as one of "success" since the reason why Kant speaks of it as being a notion that would be "inconsistent with itself' if universalised is not because of an implicit appeal to a simple "success" model of appraisal but rather in terms of a reference to a universal law of nature being applied to the maxim so that it applied to all. Then, given the inevitability of others feeling insulted by something or other one does and that they thus would have every right to reply to this in deadly ways if they were so inclined it would undermine the condition of agency of the one who had such inordinate pride as to state this maxim. This point is simply missed by viewing the 'success' criterion as the point of the reference to impossibility.

Parfit perhaps feels on safer ground in wielding the success criteria when he considers Kant's treatment of lying promises since here Kant indicates that the universalisation of a maxim of lying promises would fail of its intent since no one would in such a case believe promises. However the nature of Parfit's misunderstanding here is of a piece with elsewhere even if the case is one that requires subtler handling. Parfit assumes that Kant's remarks about failure of intent show that he is here using a criteria of "success" as the basis of the evaluation of the maxim and that what Kant is wishing to appeal to (in the manner of a rule consequentialist) is the need to protect certain practices that are in themselves generally valuable.

However the point here is quite different to what Parfit supposes. Promises do involve binding obligatory relations to others which is why Kant treats them as stating forms of contractual relation we have accepted. However the breaking of the promise, viewed as a universal law, is not simply the breaking of a valuable social practice. And nor is Kant's argument meant to simply show the failure in effect of the application of a certain kind of maxim. It is rather to show, as Onora O'Neill puts it, that some maxims involve themselves in a direct self-contradiction when universalised. So the aim to be achieved in the lying promise cannot be achieved when universalised and this is the point of the test, not the protection of the social practice. It is not that the failure of the aim is assessed however as a product of an application of a success condition but that the nature of "success" is shown to depend on lack of universalisation of the aim which is why the policy succeeds when it does. This is different from the case of avenging insults as there the direct aim does not get involved in a direct self-contradiction when universalised but rather is shown wanting because its universalisation would produce a world in which the adoption of the policy of avenging insults would undercut the agency whose pride was being expressed in the aim in question.

Unfortunately Parfit only responds to the problems he espies arising from application of the "success" criteria by refinements upon it, none of which, unsurprisingly, produce an improvement when applied to examples. Given this he concludes with the view that there is no useful sense "in which we could claim it to be wrong to act on maxims that could not even be universal laws", a conclusion which only follows from always viewing the impossibility criterion by connection to a success conception.

In the second part of his discussion Parfit moves away from the impossibility conception to one founded in viewing FUL in terms of the ability to will universal laws. The reference to willing is viewed in terms of consistency and contradiction so aligns with the usual way of understanding the Kantian tests. Parfit also views this discussion as part of a claim concerning the rationality of willing. This more promising direction of analysis leads Parfit next away from FUL towards the actual formula Kant uses in testing maxims in the second part of the Groundwork and in the Critique of Practical Reason, namely the law of nature formula. However Parfit views the Law of Nature formula through the prism of another one of his own devising concerning moral belief. The "moral belief formula" states:

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.

As Parfit viewed the application of FUL to cases by means of the "success" criterion so the application of the Law of Nature formula is now seen through the prism of this claim about moral belief. The reason why this move is made is because Parfit wishes to introduce a test that is not equivalent to Kant's. Kant formulated the Law of Nature notion so that we could see what would take place if the specific aim underlying the policy formulated in our maxim were universally enacted and this is quite different from what Parfit goes on to look at. Parfit rules out consideration of "deontic beliefs" on the grounds that admission of them would lead to a "bootstrapping" account of moral reasons. 

In considering the application of the moral belief formula Parfit refers again to how maxims may involve "policies" or aims but having done so fails to apply this distinction in consideration of cases. So the first problem he poses to his own criteria of moral belief concerns a "rarity objection" in terms of how maxims could be so weirdly formulated that they would have no chance of being universally stated. Here it appears that the reasons why anyone would adopt a policy of action, i.e., what their aim would be in doing so, gets completely lost as it often does when people formulate strange cases of maxims. The reason why the rarity objection is thought to hold is that Parfit assumes that it is at least logically possible someone could hold highly specific or particular maxims but in making this point he completely neglects to question what possible aims could be forwarded by doing so.

Having presented but thus failed to adequately justify this "rarity objection" Parfit turns next to a different case which does reach for an understanding of an agent's aim. However having done so Parfit now reveals an inverse problem in his account of maxims to that which has underlaid his discussion up to this point. Up until now the problem has been that in cases where the fundamental question concerned the aim of acting in certain ways he fixated only on the policies that get adopted, now, by contrast, he views policies that are worthy of endorsement as problematic for Kant because they are part of an overall aim that he would not. The case to which Parfit turns here is that of the egoist whose aim is expressed in a general thesis of doing what is best for themselves and Parfit says that it should follow from the application of the moral belief formula that whenever this person acts in accordance with this maxim they are doing something wrong. This is far from following. Kant's generic point about such a person would rather be that some of their actions were morally fine and others not but that none of them possessed true "moral worth", something quite different from saying that they were all "wrong".

To take one of the cases that Parfit formulates in relation to the egoist, it may well be the case that the egoist only pays their taxes because it would be too much trouble to their self-interest to avoid them. This means that their paying of their taxes is not an act expressive of moral worth but it does not mean that the acts involved in paying the taxes are wrong because they conform to the egoistic maxim which is, as a maxim, wrong. 

A different case arises with regard to people with false moral beliefs. It may be that someone sincerely believes that it is better to deny girls education than to provide them with it but that, as one of the consequences of this belief, they expensively fund education for some boys who would otherwise never have had the opportunities in question. Whilst the general belief is a wrong one the acts they are led to perform due to it are not in themselves wrong and nor is it part of a Kantian conception of maxims to relate to them in this way.

Parfit's confusion with regard to these matters leads him to formulate the notion that there are "mixed maxims", a point introduced to argue against the fictitious problem that Kant's view implies that adoption of some types of aims renders all policies in accordance with these aims wrong. This point, as illustrated already, is quite false and thus there is no ground for thinking here of a problem of "mixed maxims" in Parfit's sense. 

Having been misled by his own account Parfit now formulates a revision of Kant's formulas to respond to this non-problem of "mixed maxims". It is right to say, as Parfit does, that a general aim adopted, which itself is one that fails Kantian tests, does not in and of itself invalidate or show to be wrong specific policies endorsed by the agent in question. This does show that the aim alone does not point to the wrongness of what will be done. In many cases an aim does itself directly state something wrong as we noted above when considering the impossibility cases but in others it leads to a policy choice that, whilst in conformity with the wrong aim, is also itself not something "wrong" as it is harmonious with the Law of Nature formula. Parfit, by contrast, thinks that inasmuch as we view "maxims" as policies we shouldn't take them to be relevant at all, something whose falsity I have demonstrated above. Parfit's direction of travel is to consider acts without discussing maxims but doing so ensures that the reasons why acts are performed are not to the forefront and without this the point of the Kantian test (to view the basis of someone acting a certain way) drops out of the picture. Parfit attempts to reply to this by introducing a notion of "moral principle" instead though it should be pointed out that this notion faces the objection that it precisely introduces a deontic notion as was earlier ruled out.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Parfit and Kant on Impartiality (II)

The version of Parfit's account of impartiality that was given in Climbing the Mountain was treated here. In one respect the version that appears in the 2008 version of On What Matters is vulnerable to an objection that was given to the earlier version in a completely unchanged way. This is that Parfit persists in On What Matters in stating the Silver Rule to which Kant states an objection in the Groundwork as if it was equivalent to the Golden Rule, something that he is, it is true, far from alone in doing. Since in the earlier posting I stated at some length the problems I take there to be with this I won't revisit that point here.

The reason why the whole question of the "Golden" Rule is discussed is because of Kant's account of benevolence in the second part of the Groundwork which arises as one of the examples to which the Formula of Universal Law is related. The rule that Kant objects to as a potential alternative to the Formula of Universal Law is rejected by him for three different reasons. Firstly, the rejected rule does not contain the "ground" of duties to oneself, secondly it does not contain the ground of duties "of love" towards others and thirdly it does not contain the ground of "duties" owed to others. The duties of "love" include benevolence and Kant indicates here that the rejected rule does not lead to a duty of benevolence since, on its basis, one can say that one won't help others as one does not require help from them.

The rejected rule is one that Parfit states provides help to others on the basis of the need the others possess and this would be sufficient on its basis to provide an obligatory basis for one helping others. However the rule as Parfit states it is simply that we treat others "as we would want others to treat us" and Kant's point is that if we reject the need for help we can thereby reciprocally deny the need to supply it. This point appears not to be grasped clearly by Parfit. Parfit seems to be arguing, firstly, that the objection misses its target which it does not and secondly that it would apply to FUL which it would not. FUL does not focus on need but on the ground of obligation and the ground of obligation is one that requires universalisation of maxims in accordance with formal rules. These latter do not permit the exemption begged by the one who does not wish to be helped.

Parfit goes on to consider Kant's argument to this effect treating it as a requirement of rationality. When seen this way Parfit appears then to think that the rejected rule would make the same requirement but in doing so he fails to note the reciprocity stated in the rejected rule which is what allows the begged exemption to be stated and which is not involved in FUL in terms of needs. In an attempt to capture some of the force of this idea Parfit restates the rejected rule as follows: "We ought to treat others only in ways in which we would rationally be willing to be treated by others". However this restated form of the rejected rule is one that is then given an objection by Parfit in terms of a different type of begged exemption. Given the reformulation the begged exemption this time does not refer to need but instead is formulated in racist terms with the example being someone who is willing to universally treat those of another race in a way that denies them treatment of a sort that would not be denied to himself. The point that Parfit makes in response is that such a begged exemption misunderstands the reformulated rule which asks us to treat others as we would be treated by them were we in their position.

This additional requirement leads Parfit to restate the rejected rule in a new way: "We ought to treat others only in ways in which we would rationally be willing to be treated, if we were going to be in these other people's positions, and would be relevantly like them".  This point brings in a form of imaginative identification and in so doing is meant to counteract the racist move. Having reached this point Parfit assumes that he has reached a formula that is not subject to Kant's objection that the rule be rejected because it does not supply a basis for duties of "love" towards others and turns instead to Kant's objection that the rule does not cover duties "owed" to others. That objection was stated in a form that was appropriate to a duty of right since Kant stated that we need a formula that does not lead - absurdly - to the situation that a convicted criminal can argue with his judge that the judge would not wish to be imprisoned and thus has no right to imprison others. Parfit concedes that certain kinds of view of the rejected rule would have this result. However the right interpretation of the rule would not have this effect and in making this point Parfit revises the rule again: "We ought to treat other people as we would rationally be willing to be treated if we were going to be in the positions of all of these people, and would be relevantly like them".  This rule is meant to rule out the absurd result but has the effect that the nature of its application is much harder to see.

The judge is apparently to be asked, in response, to commit the act of imaginative identification not merely of the state of the criminal but of those affected by the criminal's acts. Due to this the judge would not be sympathetic to the criminal's plea. Seen this way, however, it would be the case that the rule has to be viewed as much more extensive than the initial formulation suggested and that might well lead us to the view that it is no longer the same rule that Kant objected to. 

The final objection that Kant made to the rejected rule was that it does not disclose the basis of duties to oneself. Parfit first suggests that it is not meant to do this and so this is not an objection to it but concedes that failure to describe such duties might also distort our sense of obligations to others. In order to meet this objection, however, Parfit makes a move that appears questionably consequentialist. It is to reformulate the rejected rule as follows: "We ought to treat everyone as we would rationally be willing to be treated if we were going to be in all of these people's positions, and would be relevantly like them". This response is meant to cover the objection based on duties to oneself by treating oneself, as Mill famously put it, as "one and no more than one" which is precisely the grounds on which Rawls stated that utilitarianism abstracts from the separateness of persons. After all, one is not simply equivalent to others and to treat one in this way is to view obligations as an occasion for maximisation. In fact Parfit does state an awareness of this point but does not attempt to reformulate further the rejected rule in order to meet it.

Rather than do this Parfit looks again at FUL and at Onora O'Neill's view that it is intended to pick out the intuitive idea that we should not treat ourselves as worthy of special treatment. Parfit does specifically mention Rawls' separateness of persons objection and concedes that one person's burdens are not compensated by another's benefits. 

Parfit next considers some objections that can be made against universal impartial principles beginning with the Rarity Objection that applies to actions that would be "too rare" to have significant effects on others. This includes cases in which some might be punished for crimes they have not committed on the maxim "let others be punished for my crimes", a maxim that Parfit thinks could pass the Law of Nature test. In appearing to think this Parfit reveals a lack of understanding of the test since the only way this could be taken to be a rule universally applicable is if one could will it applying universally so that others could likewise state it something that would provide a clear contradiction in the will. Parfit seems to think that this is an insufficient response since he thinks this is only a question of a calculated risk not of a real Law of Nature despite affecting to consider the application of the Law of Nature formula. Parfit thus does not really consider the application of the Law of Nature formula in this case at all.

A different objection that Parfit considers is what he terms the High Stakes Objection where performing some kind of act would be undertaken due to it being the case that not to perform would have unusually high consequences for the one in question. So, for example, unless I steal a particular drug from another who also needs it, I'll die. In such a case there is a particularly strong incentive to perform the act in question and this undercuts the appeal to the Law of Nature formula. In fact although it might well be particularly difficult to follow the advice of the Law of Nature formula here this example does not undercut it since, again, application of the maxim in question as a universal law of nature would also render me vulnerable in the same way and thus still be problematic as a universal law to will.

The next point Parfit makes is that the rejected rule is more direct in its impartiality than is the Law of Nature formula. However it is not obvious this is so. The rejected formula requires an act of imaginative identification which fails to include a real sense of agency in it whereas the Law of Nature formula, by contrast, in making its appeal directly to the conditions of agency, could be said to be more direct in its appeal. If what is meant with the claim of indirectness here is that the Law of Nature formula is less directly about the others affected the point is that it is only the ground of the duty, it is not the duty itself which is to the others directly but not directly about them in ground.

The next objection Parfit states is what he calls the Non-Reversibility one which is meant to say that in some cases there is a lack of symmetry between self and others that the Law of Nature formula does not capture. So: "we may know that, even if everyone did these things to others, no one would do these things to us". However this point views the universality tests as if they are meant to seen in terms of actual effects on us rather than as applying to the world in which we would live through the laws that would apply. Such laws would apply to how others related to us in general even if not in specific terms with regard to a given act. Seen like this I fail to see how a non-reversibility claim can be made. Parfit assumes that the racist case cannot be ruled out on the basis of the Law of Nature formula but this is only because he does not think of the racist formula as one that can be used by all races against each other and that this is what is precisely not being willed by the racist (who is therefore "begging an exemption").

Similarly Parfit rightly points out that in many cases privileged people are acting on maxims that allow them to be privileged in appropriate ways. However the point is one not of whether privilege as such is to be viewed as given but of whether behaviour is to rightly based on the ground of duty expressed in the Law of Nature formula. And this does not allow begging of exemption on the part of groups any more than on the part of individuals. So Parfit's examples of treatments of women or slaves are not counter cases to the Law of Nature as treating other groups as inferior on the basis of certain characteristics is not relating to them as rational beings who themselves have the capacity to state and govern themselves by universal laws. It is here that the wrong of such maxims resides.

Parfit fails to grasp this and thus thinks that a different type of rule to the Law of Nature requirement is needed to address specifically disadvantaged groups. This is why he refers to the kinds of imaginative identification that was involved in his reformulation of the rejected rule. This is taken to be preferable to Kant's insistence on a first-personal reference in the Formula of Universal Law. However the point of such reference is to bring out that it is a question of willing that is at issue and this is not involved as clearly in Parfit's reformulation of the "Golden" Rule. Parfit prefers to the Law of Nature formula a version of Moral Belief that is stated on the grounds of a proposal from Thomas Scanlon as follows: "It is wrong for us to  act on some maxim unless everyone could rationally will it to be true that everyone believes that such acts are morally permitted". This reference to moral belief has the advantage of bringing in a kind of publicity requirement although the way it does it is not notably preferable to the form of publicity involved in mandating laws to hold as laws of nature. Parfit thinks that the formulation from Scanlon addresses the situation of oppressed groups better but I have seen no reason to accept this.

Parfit's argument concludes with a suggestion that the best way of viewing the situation of rational willing is in terms of a further revision that is expressed as the Kantian Contractualist formula as follows: "Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will". This formula assimilates Kant to Scanlon but leaves open all the questions about the relationship between the two.