Friday, 24 June 2011

Global Tax Call for Papers

The Journal of Applied Philosophy has put out a call for papers with regard to a special issue on Global Tax. The call is reproduced here:

For a proposed special issue of the Journal of Applied Philosophy

Concerns over climate change, global recessions, financial volatility, 
health deficits in poor countries, world poverty, and economic injustice 
have all resulted in global taxation policy proposals.  These include 
proposals of carbon taxes, currency transaction taxes, air-ticket taxes, 
and of reforms governing tax havens and disclosure requirements.  Such 
initiatives are currently enjoying serious analysis, attention and, in 
some cases, implementation success.  While issues concerning national 
taxation have long concerned philosophers — invoking core questions about 
the legitimacy of governments and their appropriate functions and about 
the nature of freedom, coercion, and property rights — the issue of global 
taxation has not received anything like the same attention. Through a 
special issue of this journal, we aim to remedy such neglect. 

Some of the questions that the issue may address include:

1) What moral justifications can be offered for global taxation?

2) Who should be taxed?  Should some individuals or countries be exempt?  
Should there be global taxes on businesses and multinational corporations?

3) What should be taxed? What arguments favour taxing consumption, wealth, 
income, speculation, trade, sales, natural resources, or a host of other 
potential tax bases?

4) It seems important to ensure that governance arrangements concerning 
taxation (including matters of collection, disbursement of revenue, and 
other decision-making) be accountable.  Is there a special problem of 
accountability at the global level?

5) What entity(ies) should implement or enforce global taxation policies?  
If these are to be transnational entities, what would be the source of 
legitimate authority for them to do so?  Would this authority conflict 
with state sovereignty?

6) How (if at all) do implementation or feasibility issues affect the 
desirability of various tax proposals?

7) Do arguments about global taxation shed light on some of the core 
concerns in political philosophy, such as the nature of property rights, 
freedom, coercion, interpersonal obligations, the legitimacy of authority, 
or appropriate governance of collective affairs?

We especially welcome papers that move discussion of global taxation 
topics in new directions.

The guest co-editors of the proposed volume will be Gillian Brock 
(Auckland), Tom Campbell (CAPPE, Australia), and Thomas Pogge (Yale).

The Journal now invites submissions of papers for this special issue. 
Submissions should be sent as an email attachment to in a 
form suitable for blind review.  The maximum length of submissions to the 
Journal is 8000 words.  Please mark the email subject heading: ‘For Global 
Taxation Special issue’. The deadline for submissions for this special 
issue is 15 January 2013.

Any queries about the proposed special issue can be directed to Gillian 

New Kant Blog

Readers of this blog might be interested to hear of a new Kant blog that has been set up by Dennis Schulting and is called Kant's Idealism. It's focus is on Kant's metaphysics and you can find it here.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Parfit's "Agony Argument"

Parfit presents a number of different arguments against what he terms "subjectivist" views of reasons in Chapters 3 and 4 of On What Matters but the first argument, termed by Parfit the "agony argument", is given special stress by him and in this posting I will look at the argument prior to reviewing  Michael Smith's critical response to it.

Parfit presents the "agony argument" in response to what he terms "Case One" and in "Case One" he assumes that some future event will cause a period of agony but, even after ideal deliberation, I find I have no desire to avoid it and adds, somewhat implausibly, that there is no other desire or aim whose fulfilment would be prevented either by the agony in question or by my having no desire to avoid it. Once the case is fully set out it is clear that Parfit has here rather stacked the cards since it is hard to conceive of a period of agony that would not prevent some desires or aims having fulfilment. 

The result of the way of describing it that Parfit has given is that in the case in point "subjective" theories of reasons would give no reason to avoid the agony in question. The reason why Parfit takes it that the case has plausibility at all is because he refers to the way in which we relate to present and future agony in terms of having what he elsewhere terms a "bias towards the near". This kind of bias is fairly commonly exhibited since, to take a case that does not usually involve "agony" exactly it is not uncommon to drink to excess despite awareness that later there will be suffering to endure as a consequence. Since the suffering is in the future and the enjoyment is taking place now, the suggestion goes, we rationalise a way of going through the later experience of suffering.

It is not as obvious as these remarks might suggest that the reason why we behave in the way indicated in my example is due to a "bias towards the near" and nor does the example, in any event, show that "future agony" will be accepted in quite the same way as the consequence of heavy drinking often appears to be. In any case the argument Parfit is making is that a "subjective" view of reasons provides no reason in the example of "Case One" to avoid the future agony. 

An obvious retort that is considered by Parfit is that when the future occasion of agony becomes present I will at that point have clear desires to avoid the agony in question and that this is sufficient to give me a desire in the present to avoid this future agony. However Parfit suggests that "subjective" theorists of reasons cannot come to this conclusion as one committed to such a view cannot say that "facts about our future desires give us reasons". The ground of this claim is clearly indicated to be that commitment to such a "subjective" theory of reasons ensures that such "facts" cannot be taken into account as taking them into account involves treating the "facts" as "objects" and hence adopting an objective theory of reasons.

This claim concerning the difference between the subjective and objective theories has a peculiar structure like much that Parfit writes about this distinction. It appears to arrogate only to the objectivist a concern with the "facts" since only the objectivist can admit that "facts" are "objects" of self-sufficient standing. However the point about agony is simply that it is something of a phenomenological description and that its phenomenological description points sufficiently of itself to its undesirable nature without having to invoke "objective" qualities at all here.

Parfit attempts to resist this kind of move by suggesting that to make it already involves a "mixed" conception in implying an objective theory of reasons has been coupled with a subjective view of well-being. However I see no need for the "subjectivist" to admit to such a "mixed" conception here at all since the agony in question is a "fact" of a phenomenological kind and not of a different sort. This phenomenological kind of "fact" would be sufficient of itself to make the reason for its avoidance also subjective and not objective and Parfit has provided no reason as yet to think otherwise.

The structure of the "subjective" theory that Parfit supposes becomes clearer when he mentions the notion of temporal neutrality as contrastive with the theory being considered. If you were committed to temporal neutrality you would take the period at which agony was suffered to be indifferent since any such point would be regarded in the same way but Parfit takes the subjective theory under consideration to be constituted by its temporal bias towards the near. At this point, however, it becomes unclear why the argument is being advanced since it touches only upon a specially selected type of subjective theory of reasons and within the body of subjective theories as Parfit has described them it can be seen as an especially eccentric type but nothing in the argument as given touches on subjective theories of reasons as such.

The furtherance of the claim that this argument nonetheless tells against "subjective" theories of reasons in a general way occurs by Parfit citing something from Rawls where Rawls stated that we have no means of telling in advance what ends rational people will pursue and Parfit uses this to argue that it is not possible to claim, on subjectivist grounds alone, that anyone who is fully rational would want to avoid future agony. However, as mentioned before, the simple experience of the agony is reason enough and this can be cited by any type of subjectivist and most definitely by Rawls as agony would be the opposite of a "primary good".

Smith, in replying to Parfit's "agony argument" also refers to the Kantian reply that can be made to it mentioning how universalisation can apply to the very ability to make autonomous choices and that periods of agony are periods in which such choices cannot be made. Since this is so, says Smith, there is a plausible simple universalisation argument that can prohibit future agony. 

Parfit's argument was intended to show that there are no plausible reasons on a subjective theory of reasons to avoid future agony but his example required us to accept that subjective theories of reasons manifest an untenable bias towards the near which bias, however, is far from being obviously one that all "subjective" theories of reasons have to manifest. Further, Parfit in presenting this argument neglected the point that agony is subjectively undesirable and hence could be ruled out on these grounds on one type of subjective theory that did not manifest bias towards the near. Finally, as has been noted throughout consideration of Parfit's treatment of "subjective" theories of reasons, he has failed to take the measure of Kantian universalisation (or of Rawls' commitment to the notion of 'primary goods').

Rawls, Classical Utilitarianism and Benevolence

The final section of Chapter III of A Theory of Justice returns to the topic of "classical" utilitarianism in the wake of the argument in the chapter that the utilitarian principle that would be seriously considered in the "original position" would not be the "classical" utilitarian one but rather the notion of "average" utility. The point of returning, at the conclusion of the chapter devoted to the "original position" to consideration of "classical" utilitarianism is to work through the conceptual means by which this view is justified since on the argument of the chapter it cannot have been by means of any kind of contractarian concern.

In indicating the problem of understanding the question of where the "classical" conception of utilitarianism can turn for its justification Rawls invokes the view of the "impartial spectator" used by Hume and Adam Smith. This notion of impartiality shows a commitment to a form of idealisation that is distinct from that involved in the conception of the "original position". The idea in general is that the "impartial spectator" has a general point of view that enables possession of knowledge of the relevant circumstances. The first point, after identifying this notion, is to work out what kinds of consideration the impartial spectator is concerned with and to see how they relate to those at work in the "original position".

The key difference between the impartial spectator and the original position on Rawls' argument is simply that the former's definition includes no assumptions from which the two principles of justice could be derived. Rawls views the basis for this claim to reside in the more restrictive sense of concern that applies to the impartial spectator. The impartial spectator's definition does not include any reference to deductive provision of reasons to adopt principles. 

So the first look at the impartial spectator leads to a kind of "empty formalism" objection to its use. However, rather than stopping with this kind of criticism of the device Rawls looks instead at the means by which it can be given more determinate content. One way would be to supply this spectator with a form of moral psychology such as to give them plentiful supplies of sympathy (thus bending the device in a sentimentalist direction). Once this is done the derivation of "classical" utilitarianism can take place. Rawls points to Hume's account of utility as one example of how the link between the impartial spectator and a classical notion of utilitarianism can take place. On the Humean account there can be supposed increases in pleasure in the impartial spectator as the forms of pleasure felt within the social whole increase. So sympathy is here taken to be a principle that provides us with a psychological ground for impartiality.

The impartial spectator thus works through a form of empathetic identification with members of the society. Impartiality works here to weaken self-interest and knowledge of circumstances and a real capacity for identification guarantees that others are genuinely taken into account. Once the device's role is filled out it becomes apparent that it plays the role for the "classical" utilitarian that the "original position" has been designed by Rawls to play for the contractarian. They are hence competing devices. Interestingly, the appeal to the impartial spectator has also been explicitly made in Sen's recent work The Idea of Justice so Sen, in making this appeal, indicates a commitment to the idealising device that was, in Rawls' view, central to the formulation of "classical" utilitarianism.

If the impartial spectator requires sympathetic identification, the original position, by contrast, supposes nothing similar, instead taking the parties to the agreement to be mutually disinterested (as is the case with Adam Smith's market operators). Further, there is no appeal in the original position to either knowledge (which is generally not possessed due to the "veil of ignorance" with certain exceptions in regard to moral psychology) and, given the notion of mutual disinterest, nothing like the idea of sympathetic identification. Thus, in one sense, the moral psychology presupposed in the "original position" appears less generous than that applied to the "impartial spectator" though, in a different way, that allowed in the "original position" is greater due to the determinate notion of "person" allowed within the "original position". Generality is arrived at in the "original position" not by means of sympathy but instead precisely from the need, given the veil of ignorance, to assume it as a vantage point since one has little else to go on.

The determinate sense of personhood involved in the "original position" is in terms of the general meta-commitment each member of the contracting parties has to protection of their interests including the interest in being able to prosecute their own notions of the good. By contrast, the sense of person in the impartial spectator situation is appropriately "bare" with no indication included either of specific interests or of meta-interests. This is the basis, as Rawls now points out, for the charge that utilitarianism abstracts from the separateness of persons. The capacity for sympathy has replaced all specific interests and, in doing so, has robbed from participants any real sense of selfhood at all.

The abstraction from determinate qualities of persons in the impartial spectator device requires the notion of "impersonality" to fill the requirement of impartiality. Rawls views this as conflating all possible desires into a single system of desire. At this point the real reason why the "classical" utilitarian doctrine would not be adopted in the "original position" becomes evident as a consequence of the moral psychology assumed to be applicable to the contracting parties. Only if the contracting parties were assumed, not to be, as they are, disinterested but instead as perfect altruists, would there arise adoption of the classical principle of utility. "Thus we arrive at the unexpected conclusion that while the average principle of utility is the ethic of a single rational individual (with no aversion to risk) who tries to maximise his own prospects, the classical doctrine is the ethic of perfect altruists." Hence the conception of personhood presupposed in the different formulations of the principle of utility is not equivalent in the two cases.

Having brought out the psychological assumptions underpinning the "classical" utilitarian doctrine Rawls next turns to what these assumptions themselves involve. The perfect altruist of the "classical" doctrine is effectively without any specific desires of their own so they are parasitic upon the existence of others who possess such desires. This is presumably why Sidgwick and others have tended to the view that it might well not be best, from a utilitarian point of view, if all are utilitarians. If all were so assumed to be there would be no place at which any view of distribution could be centred. By contrast, the assumption of mutual disinterest in the original position takes it that there are separate interests which are in conflict and thereby works on the assumption that justice is concerned with the reconciliation with such competing interests.

One of the bases of the utilitarian appeal becomes clear from the considerations of this discussion. It is that it presents an intuitive rendering of the sense that moral judgments involve impartiality. But the device of the "original position" presents this appeal to impartiality in a different way by making different psychological assumptions and the assumptions that the original position requires are ones that Rawls can present as more "realistic" than those of the device of the impartial spectator. Rawls indicates that the interpretation of impartiality by utilitarianism is in terms of impersonality and that it is this interpretation that requires abstraction from the separateness of persons.

The possibility opens at this point in Rawls' discussion of a different theory of justice should the impartial spectator device be adopted but not involve conflation of desires into one system. Philanthropy as a principle, however, runs into similar problems as the adoption of benevolence would if it does not assume conflicting desires are present and if such conflicts exist then it follows that philanthropy will become selective and cease to operate as a general principle. The general point that emerges is that the problem with principles based on sympathy, benevolence or love all face the difficulty that they are second-order notions that are parasitic on first-order commitments. This is a new way of endorsing Kant's objection to pathological emotion as a form of ethical generalisation. Kant objected on the grounds of the instability of feeling. Rawls adds to this the point that feelings are, in any event, generally partial in consideration and to adopt an impartial conception of them is to require the continued existence of partiality and this continued existence of partiality is itself a problem for public adoption of sentimental principles. So "nothing would have been gained by attributing benevolence to the parties in the original position".

However, in conclusion, Rawls does allow the contracting parties in the original position to have a "sense of justice", albeit not one that requires commitment to supererogation almost as a matter of course. The principles of justice, once adopted, are indicated by Rawls to later also be the basis of a sense of virtue. This appears to advert again to his earlier notion of "rightness as fairness" though, as usual, Rawls does not work this through at this point.

With the completion of section 30 Chapter III ends and so also does the first part of Theory, the part itself entitled "Theory". The key philosophical role of this part of the work is evident, not least in Chapter III itself. In the "preface" to the original edition Rawls indicated some parts of Chapter IV were also included in the "essentials" of the text but it is apparent that the first part of the book provides most of the "foundations" of the theory. As such, they have also provided some of the most important philosophical points of dispute with Rawls. It will be necessary, however, to press on in future postings to look in more detail at the ways in which the next parts of the book develop in order to see how Rawls goes on to "introduce order and system into our considered judgments" as he puts in the original introduction.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Two Principles of Justice and the Original Position

In recent postings on Chapter III of A Theory of Justice I have discussed the means by which the "original position" is arrived at by contrast to the more neutral "initial situation" and how it is constructed. The discussion of the reasoning that led to the notion of "average" utility also indicated both how it was preferable to "classical" utilitarianism in the "original position" and yet why Rawls can argue that it would not, nonetheless, be chosen.

In this posting I want to look at section 29, the key section of Chapter III as it is here that Rawls justifies the claim that the two principles of justice described in Chapter II are the principles that would be chosen within the "original position". In the process the methodological import of a number of features that have been referred to earlier in the chapter become more apparent. 

In opening section 29 Rawls argues that the conditions of publicity and finality will give some of the main arguments for the two principles of justice. In section 23, when outlining the constraints of the concept of right, Rawls gave the principle of publicity third but concluded with the condition of finality (the other constraints being generality, universality, and the need for a resolution of the problem of ordering principles). In opening section 29 by specifically emphasising the notions of publicity and finality he gives these notions a specific form of importance and, as we will see, part of the reason for the emphasis placed on publicity concerns his response to utilitarianism.

After referring to these two elements that are constraints of the concept of right Rawls refers next to the heuristic schema suggested by the reasons for following the maximin rule. In section 26 when Rawls gave an earlier, more intuitively based set of arguments for the two principles of justice, he referred for the first time to the maximin rule. At that point the maximin rule was specified as asking us to rank alternatives by the worst possible outcome that could emerge from following them. In simpler terms, the worse the worst case scenario would be from following something, the less it emerges as something we can sensibly choose. Given that the maximin rule applies to choice under conditions of uncertainty its bite really requires the addition of the veil of ignorance.

In the revised edition of Theory Rawls indicates that the point of a contractarian scheme is precisely that it does set the condition of publicity as a limit upon what can be agreed to. This comment suggests that Rawls views the condition of publicity as a basis under which the Kantian claim that the point of the contract should be to set the conditions of possible consent is met by reference to the requirements of publicity. This suggestion relates also, as Rawls earlier recognised, to the appeal made to principles of publicity by Kant in Perpetual Peace.

However, despite these opening references to the conditions of publicity and finality on the one hand and the maximin rule on the other, Rawls begins the argument of section 29 by reference to the "strains of commitment". As was remarked in section 25 there is the assumption in the "original position" that the parties involved in negotiation are possessed of a "capacity for justice" and that they can rely on one another to carry out the agreement once the principles have been agreed to. However, there is something that cuts against this assurance and this is what Rawls terms the "strains of commitment". Effectively what is meant by this is that the agreement reached cannot be one that would be impossible to be carried out by the parties subsequently. Further, if there are  circumstances that would be produced by the agreement that would render such agreement very unlikely then this also cuts against any principles that would create such circumstances. The contract, resting as it does on a mutual trust that has to be its basis, is not one that can be abandoned later so the agreement reached has to be one that will be capable of generating circumstances that will later enhance rather than undercut the motivational commitment to the agreement.

Having made these points about the "strains of commitment" Rawls considers the principles available for choice in terms of how they might or might not operate as forms of insurance for those who have chosen them. The two principles of justice are taken to meet this test as they provide insurance against the worst eventualities, not least in terms of guaranteeing basic liberties (first principle). By contrast, commitment to utility would ensure that any form of "primary good" held by one (including the basic liberties) is open to later removal if this appears to best satisfy general utility (whether summatively or averagely). This points to the requirement of the "strains of commitment" as it appears that no form of utilitarian principle can meet the test of providing insurance of the sort that these strains suggest is required. Hence Rawls' first argument for the choice of the two principles rather than a principle of utility in the original position rests upon moral psychology in relation to a specific application of the maximin rule. The moral psychology points to the sense that outcomes that could be conceived as unjust by individuals or groups are not insured against and the maximin rule has brought out the specifically urgent nature of the problem.

It is after consideration of the "strains of commitment" that Rawls next invokes the publicity condition though this again has a relationship to a view of psychological stability in the sense of asking what are the conditions that will enable conceptions of justice to generate their own support. Here Rawls refers to the "conservative" assumption made much of by Sidgwick in terms of stating that if the basic structure can publicly satisfy its principles for a good period of time then this produces a general favour for the principles continuance. Failure to satisfy these principles over time, by contrast, weakens commitment to them, particularly if the failure is one that cannot be publicly accounted for in ways that match the pre-existent "capacity for justice" of the parties in the contract.

This "conservative" point about justice is the basis of Rawls' appeal to the notion of "stability" as that is stable which responds to the requirement of providing conditions that generate its own acceptance. The principle of utility, by contrast to the two principles of justice, seems to require a form of identification with the interests of others (in terms of "impartiality"). Now if this identification is not a simple one to bring about then it will offend against stability and thus not perform the role of generating the condition of its own acceptance.

The first principle of justice has already been given some ground as an insurance principle and this is now coupled with the point that the second principle of justice shows that there is mutual benefit in social cooperation. The point about mutual benefit is then contrasted with what can be expected from the principle of utility which appears to require that some may be more favoured than others for the sake of the good of the whole. The principle of utility seems thus to require commitment to sacrifice on the part of those less fortunate but these sacrifices are not small ones but rather of the prospects in life of the less favoured. This is why Rawls describes the principle of utility as presenting an "extreme demand".

Utilitarians require impartial principles of benevolence which Rawls takes to be "less realistic" as a basis for social order than the notion of reciprocal advantage stated in the second principle of justice. This suggestion of a test that relates to "realism" brings out again the point of reference to the "strains of commitment" since these strains tell against, as was above emphasised, any demand that is unlikely to be followed in practice.

Returning to the point about publicity, Rawls emphasises next the argument that recognition of the two principles of justice increases the support given to self-respect. This claim relates less to the "strains of commitment" and more to moral psychology. Self-respect is taken to be grounded on the sense that one does receive respect from others and is thus a "natural duty" (or principle for individuals). Since it is such a duty the presence of it is something that tends to be mutually reinforcing, requiring respect for others to be manifested as a means of ensuring respect for oneself in turn. This point about self-respect produces a cooperative relationship between parties and it is thus a desideratum that a public conception of justice should strengthen it. Since the difference principle commits all to a notion of mutual benefit it meets the case of publicly strengthening self-respect.

In making this claim about self-respect Rawls refers explicitly to Kant and to the formula of humanity. Rather than expounding Kant's view that we should each treat each other as ends rather than merely as means Rawls interprets the principle in a contractarian manner and does so by viewing the principle through Kant's own claim that the foundation of public right is the conception that laws should be capable of possible consent by those governed. Rawls views this latter claim as the political form of the formula of humanity and then suggests that rather than applying it to positive law it should rather be related to the basic structure viewing it as arising from an original position of equality.

Seeing the original position as the ground of the social order and as a position of original equality is similar in force also to Kant's claim about the original right of each to claim the surface of the earth. "For in this situation men have equal representation as moral persons who regard themselves as ends and the principles they accept will be rationally designed to protect the claims of their person." So the point about seeing the formula of humanity in this political setting is that it enables the consent that is given to the social order to be related to an egalitarian sense of personhood.

The way in which this commitment is to be secured in the basic structure is by means of the two principles of justice as Rawls suggests that they give equality in relation to basic liberties and the difference principle ensures that persons are all treated as ends in themselves. Hence it is the difference principle that is viewed as the political equivalent of the formula of humanity. The reason Rawls views it in this way is because it requires that gains that are not mutually sustainable should be given up. This is why, having stigmatised the principle of utility as "extreme" Rawls now claims that the difference principle, by contrast, "has a reasonable interpretation".

Staying with the appeal to the argument from reference to the data of moral psychology and, in particular to a sense of self-respect, Rawls indicates that the principle of utility lacks advantages in this respect. Given that it can always require sacrifices of one group for another it is not a doctrine that is likely to produce generalised self-respect. In making this point Rawls then encounters the resistance that can be met by insistence on the principle of "average" utility. And in replying to this Rawls makes an especially significant appeal to the principle of publicity. 

If the principle of "average" utility is to be adopted then it must be publicly affirmed as the principle governing society. It cannot be used to encourage people to adopt non-utilitarian positions. Rawls makes this stipulation without referring to a notorious element of Sidgwick's doctrine to which however he is here clearly referring. Sidgwick's position was often referred to as "Government House" utilitarianism on the grounds that Sidgwick was prepared to countenance the point that it might not be of the greatest social utility to have general endorsement of the principle of utility. Sidgwick himself was therefore prepared to adopt the view that the governance of arrangements by the principle of utility should be a secret.

In insisting on the principle of publicity Rawls aims to prevent this strategic move on Sidgwick's part. If public recognition of utilitarianism required weakening of self-respect then this consequence would have to be faced in adopting the principle as the means of arranging society. It may be the case that average utility will be increased by adopting instead the two principles of justice but, if this is so, this cannot be claimed as an indication that the principle of average utility has been adopted as the basis of the two principles of justice since its "adoption" here would be secret. And then the adoption of the two principles would not be a result of a public commitment to utilitarianism.

The initial argument from the "strains of commitment" rules out a randomizing relation to the principles of justice making clear the central importance of agreement on the correct principles of justice.  Generality, universality and limited information are insufficient to bring us to a decision in the original position and this shows why further commitments than these were required. Amongst those were views about persons, such as the claim that persons possess commitments to fundamental interests and that they are not "bare". Key to these commitments was the meta-commitment to liberty as a means of revising and altering the other ends possessed. However, the possession of interests indicates, amongst other things, the point about the need for social insurance and the first principle of justice is meant to meet this demand. Further, the veil of ignorance brings out that there is no way that probabilities can be appealed to as a ground and this, when combined with the point about basic interests, suggests that the criteria used by utilitarians has little efficacy within the original position.

The argument of section 29 is not the conclusion of Chapter III as Rawls goes on to look in more detail at "classical" utilitarianism in the concluding section 30. But the argument of section 29 provides the crucial grounds for choice of the two principles of justice within the original position and it is revealing that these arguments are based on the "strains of commitment", moral psychology and the publicity condition. These build in the point of taking care of the interests of persons and bring out, on Rawls' construal, the ground for viewing the second part of the second principle as a political analogue of the formula of humanity.

Goodness and "Subjective" Theories of Reasons

In the last posting I looked at the debate between Parfit and Smith concerning "subjective" theories of reasons and concluded that whilst Parfit's account of them was more sophisticated in certain respects than Smith appeared to allow, that, nonetheless, Parfit's distinction between "subjective" and "objective" theories of reasons appeared not to capture the place of Kantian theories of normativity. In this one I want to continue to respond to the debate between Parfit and Smith by looking next at the account of types of "goodness" that Parfit allows for and how, on Smith's view, this undercuts Parfit's argument for thinking that Parfit has provided a theory that is intrinsically different from the "desire-based" or "subjective" theories of reasons that Parfit wishes to oppose.

Parfit allows, in Chapter 1 of On What Matters, for a distinction between different kinds of way in which things can be termed "good" though, as Smith points out, it is unclear whether these are three types of thing that share the common property of "goodness" or, rather, whether "goodness" is itself something that can be determined as existing in three distinct ways. This topic, whilst of some importance in relation to Parfit's response to Sidgwick, is not one that I will attempt to adjudicate on in this posting. 

However, the types of goodness that Parfit considers are all related in being forms of goodness that are termed by him "reason-implying". Something that is "good" in a reason-implying sense, is something that has "certain kinds of fact" about it that, in at least certain situations, give us strong reasons to choose it (or use it or produce it etc). This is what Parfit terms "the most important use" of goodness. Since the types of reason-implying goodness refer, in some way, to "facts", the next question concerns what might be meant here by a "fact" and what ways the "facts" in question could give us reasons.

Since we are concerned, when Parfit refers to "reason-implying" senses of goodness, with reasons in the sense of reasons for action, it would be expected that the types of goodness that Parfit is concerned with would be good in the sense of providing us with a strong reason to act in certain ways. There are three such types of goodness discussed by Parfit. The first is that something is "good for us", in the sense that it contributes, in some way, to our well-being. However, Parfit does not intend well-being to be considered here in a purely instrumental way, as when something contributes to my "well-being" by improving my finances. Rather, Parfit is focusing on "well-being" in an intrinsic sense that involves "one of the features of our lives in which our well-being consists" or what he elsewhere (in Reasons and Persons) describes as something that enables our life to go best. Now this seems to involve reference to what Rawls termed "primary goods" and can include states of certain sorts but broadly speaking these types of goods are things we have self-interest in relation to without being selfish.

This first type of goodness, goodness-for, is understood by Smith plausibly to involve phenomenological considerations and does at least partially get captured by hedonic theories of goodness. By contrast to such goodness-for there is also person-relative forms of goodness in which we have reasons to be partial towards people who we are related to in certain ways. This person-relative goodness is something that has raised considerable questions in contemporary moral philosophy since some take it to require departures from formal universal procedures (as Bernard Williams famously argued in his "one thought too many" discussion).

The third type of goodness is goodness in an impartial sense though this kind of goodness is determined in two different ways by Parfit. On the one hand, there is impartial goodness in terms of reasons to care about the well-being of anyone and, on the other, there are the reasons we would have if we had an impartial point of view. The first type of impartial reason is claimed by Parfit to involve substantive beliefs about well-being whilst the point of view of impartiality need not give us such beliefs automatically since we might have to over-rule as well other types of preferences (such as aesthetic ones though, oddly, Parfit views these as not involving "reasons" at all but perhaps he only means reasons that should normatively matter). When something is impartially good it is impersonal since we don't prefer it because it would be good-for someone even though such benefits are what, in the outcome, would be termed "good".

Parfit's consideration of "objective" theories of value suggests that such theories have their reasons provided to them by "facts about the objects" that are involved in reasons and aims. These contrast with facts that are, apparently, merely facts about "us" with the latter being stated to be the concern of "subjective" theories of value. So an "objective" theory concerns itself not merely with aims and desires but with the worthwhile character of them in relation to their "objects". Given that the theory that Parfit is elaborating and terming "objective" is nonetheless concerned with desires and aims and with the way in which such desires and aims are formed in a sense that is worthwhile Smith claims that Parfit's "objective" theory is only a form of desire-based theory. This is because, as was demonstrated in the last posting, there is no problem with a "subjective" theory adopting the view that there is required reflection on desires and principles needed for their formation. Since Parfit also takes Kantian theories of normativity to be "subjective" in these ways it is clear that Smith is right about this.

So, just as in the last posting it emerged that Parfit's distinction between subjective and objective theories of reasons had no valid place for Kantian theories of normativity so, in this posting, we can see that Parfit's classifications of types of goodness does not meaningfully allow him to distinguish his account of reason-implication from a Kantian one. In neither of these ways can Parfit sustain his distinction between "objective" and "subjective" theories of reasons or his apparent insistence that his own theory of reasons is one that is intrinsically different from and opposed to Kantian theories of reasons.

Smith's general claim is that Parfit's own theory is a desire-based one that depends on the principle that "if someone believes that p and that p produces q, then they believe that q is something intrinsically desirable". If Parfit's account does involve commitment to any principle of this sort (and the three forms of goodness can all be converted to reference this) then it is the case that he has failed to meaningfully define his theory as "objective" and hence distinct from the "subjective" theories he is opposed to.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Parfit, Smith and "Subjective" Theories of Reasons

After discussing "objective" theories of reasons in the second chapter of volume 1 of On What Matters Parfit turns next to "subjective" theories of reasons, subjecting these latter to a two-chapter treatment. The account of "subjective" theories is controversial since, in the special issue of Ratio (firewall) devoted to On What Matters Michael Smith has set out a detailed riposte to Parfit's view. In this posting I will focus on part of the dispute between them, looking only at the way that Parfit seeks to articulate and justify his distinction between two types of theory of reasons for action.

The discussion of Parfit's distinction between "subjective" and "objective" theories of reason by Smith in Ratio is of the version entitled Climbing the Mountain which is available for consultation here. As Smith mentions, however, in the course of the article replying to Parfit, the manuscript subsequently underwent some further significant changes producing the form reached at the end of 2008 which is available here. Climbing the Mountain does not formulate a distinction between "objective" and "subjective" theories of reasons but between desire-based and value-based theories of reason though Smith treats this as a distinction without a difference, assuming that desire-based theories are effectively the same as what Parfit later terms "subjective" theories and mutatis mutandis with "objective" theories and value-based ones. 

In Climbing the Mountain Parfit introduces the distinction in broader terms than appear in the final published form of On What Matters. In the earlier form Parfit's distinction is first made in the second section of Chapter 1. The desire-based theory is initially presented as concerned with stating that our reasons for acting are grounded on actual present aims and desires though Parfit quickly complicates this by building in references to potential desires in hypothetical situations. The desire-based theory is understood to be a form of "internalism" about reasons, something that Parfit is less explicit about in the final published manuscript though the "subjective" theory discussed there clearly is also internalist.

The "value-based" theory, by contrast to the "desire-based" one, understands reasons for action as provided by the facts that make certain outcomes worth producing or preventing and is hence externalist. Not only do these theories describe reasons for action in different ways but they are often each thought to rule out the types of reason the other theory takes itself to have described. So, if, as Parfit is, one is an externalist about reasons for action, then, frequently (and certainly in Parfit's own case) one will deny that the other types of reason even exist.

The "internalist" theory as Parfit presents it is one that is broadly articulated in contemporary philosophy as dependent upon a "Humean" notion of motivation and I described it this way in a posting back in December. Notably, Smith defended an articulated version of the "Humean" theory sometime ago (in an article in Mind in 1987) so Smith and Parfit are at odds on some fundamental questions. However, the key point here is less with the "Humean" theory of motivation itself than with whether Parfit's distinctions have the force he thinks they do.

In the 2008 version of On What Matters Parfit has reached the formulation of the distinction that remains into the published work, the one between "subjective" and "objective" theories of reasons. The point of the distinction's difference from that used in Climbing the Mountain is to bring out the intentional quality of the claims involved in what the earlier manuscript had simply termed "value-based" views. As is clear from having looked at the chapter on "objective" theories of reasons, Parfit's understanding of these arises from the sense that "reasons are given by facts about the objects" of aims and desires. This reference to the "object" was missing in the formulation of "value-based" theories that Parfit used in Climbing the Mountain. Further, having identified this reference to "objects" in reasons Parfit can add that if we take the view that all reasons for action involve such "objects" then we are "objectivists" about reasons (or take reasons for action all to be intentional in nature). Smith is right in taking this to be equivalent to a "value-based" view as Parfit explicitly says it is but this does not mean that the account has not been filled out by making its intentional nature more apparent.

Now, the subjectivist theories of reasons will not simply deny that there are such "objects" present in reasons for actions. They will present reasons for actions as having a different structure than the objectivist has stated. Rather than taking the "facts" that provide reasons to have this object-oriented or intentional character the subjectivist rather views them as having reference to desires or aims and a subjectivist about reasons takes all reasons for action to be of this sort. Smith, however, cites also a passage from a version of Parfit's work dating from April 2008 (which is not available in the public domain) in which Parfit suggested that there could exist a theory that, whilst closer to objectivism than subjectivism was nonetheless distinct from both. According to the citation Smith provides from this version Parfit referred to "some Kantians" who held that "if we set ourselves any end or aim, we are not fully procedurally rational unless we also value the capacity of all other rational beings to set their ends and we commit ourselves to treating others only in ways to which they could rationally consent". In the passage cited by Smith, Parfit claims that such a Kantian view is "subjectivist" in appealing to what we would want or choose if fully informed. However, his general view is that it would be more appropriate to term holders of this view "systematic Coherentists" who take reasons to require commitment to such systematic coherence in order to be binding. The point Smith makes against Parfit in citing this passage is that such a Kantian view does provide us with "objective" reasons but not through its appeal to the place of "objects" in reasons but rather from the derivative character of such placing on the procedure of universalisation. That Parfit, at least at one point, entertained such a notion and then did not pay sustained attention to it, weakens his subsequent formulations that include Christine Korsgaard and Rawls amongst subjectivists about reasons.

Parfit's general account of "subjectivism", in any case, builds in a sense of reflection required for consideration of relevant facts at every point of declension after the simplest desire-based theory has been described. Since there is this reference to reflection it follows that "subjectivists" about reasons for action do not rest their case only upon reference to states (and thus they do not adopt a state-given reason or at least if one is involved it is combined with a reflective appeal as well). This is clear in the "subjectivist" theories Parfit lists such as the "error-free desire theory", "the telic desire theory", "the informed desire theory" and "the deliberative theory". When formulating the last of these Parfit reaches for another way of distinguishing between "objective" and "subjective" theories of reasons.

The "deliberative theory" is stated by Parfit to involve the claim that we have most reason to do whatever, after fully informed and rational deliberation, we would choose to do. And, put like this, the theory can appear to be an "objectivist" one when it is not. The difference between the "deliberative theory" and an "objectivist" theory is said by Parfit to consist in the kinds of rationality invoked in the two theories. The upholders of the "deliberative theory" appeal only to "procedural rationality" whilst the objectivist, by contrast, makes reference to "substantial" rationality. The difference is instructively stated. The "subjectivist" deliberative view is said to require involving reference to procedural rules and imagining "the important effects of our different possible acts" whilst the objectivist, by contrast, claims that there are telic desires and aims that "we all have strong and often decisive object-given reasons to have". 

The difference between the two theories, for Parfit, concerns the way in which the reasons we give for holding something to constitute a reason for action are differently justified for the two sorts of theorists. Essentially, the "deliberative" theory holds that, given procedural constraints, if we would choose something after the process of reasoning, then we have decisive reasons given to act in the way indicated. By contrast, for the objectivist, it is rather the case that there exist decisive reasons to act in a certain way and given these reasons, substantive reasoning would confirm the rightness of acting in the way indicated.

However, after having set the distinction out in this way, Parfit concludes the distinction between the two views in a way that appears very unsatisfactory. Parfit writes:

These Objectivists appeal to normative claims about what, after ideal deliberation, we have reasons to choose, and ought rationally to choose. These Subjectivists appeal to psychological claims about what, after such deliberation, we would in fact choose.

This claim, from p. 63 of the published version of the work, appears wrong. It amounts to a claim that only the objectivist has made a normative claim and the "deliberative" theorist has, rather, much like the "Humean", only referred to some "facts" and taken these "facts" to be irreducible. And that doesn't describe any kind of deliberative view of procedural rationality. It is not the claim made by those who adopt a procedural view of deliberation that it is only a "matter of fact" that some things emerge as rightly chosen after reflection and nor is it their claim that what so emerges does so as a result of a psychologistic kind concerning the structure of reasons. Both kinds of commitment, whilst possibly held by a "Humean", are certainly not held by someone who takes deliberative rationality to involve central procedural constraints.

 This is seen most clearly in the "Kantian" view that Parfit referred to in the early 2008 version of his work that Smith saw but which appears not to now be in the public domain. On that view the appeal made to systematic coherence rested upon a prior view about universalisation and universalisation is not itself a peculiarly psychological process and nor do its results only emerge factually without normative status. The point about such a process of universalisation is precisely that it provides, starting from a "thin" commitment, some substantive results. (Smith rightly emphasizes this in his reply to Parfit despite having sceptical doubts himself concerning the Kantian claim.)

To conflate this claim with the "Humean" commitment to psychologism and hence to make the view of Korsgaard and Rawls "subjective" in the sense of involving an implied form of internalism is a serious error in terms of rendition of Kantian accounts of reasons for action. Smith's criticism of Parfit in terms of the latter's failure to see that you could, if committed to a Kantian view, take it to be the case that substantive principles follow from procedural ones, seems to me correct. The point Smith does not make, and that I would, is that it is not at all obvious either that commitment to a Kantian view involves internalism (though some of Korsgaard's statements suggest that she, at least, can be careless in this regard).

Like Smith I also take it to be the case that the distinction between substantive and procedural views is less informative than Parfit thinks though, unlike Smith, I don't think it has no value. It has the value, as Parfit correctly brings out, of indicating the pattern of justifications and this pattern is at least part of what is at issue. But Parfit fails to see that substantive principles can be justified by procedural ones and also does not comprehend that procedural rationality need not involve psychologistic internalism.