Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Parfit, Sidgwick and Kant

The "preface" to On What Matters is a lively affair in which Parfit lays out his indebtedness to other philosophers, focusing particularly upon Henry Sidgwick and Kant. The two thinkers are, however, given strikingly different treatments in the "preface". For, whilst Kant is described as "the greatest moral philosopher since the Greeks", Sidgwick is still given an overwhelming positive response in the "preface" whilst the references to Kant are invariably ones that seek to express disquiet.

The differences in reaction to Kant and Sidgwick on Parfit's part are instructive. Whilst Sidgwick is defended from the charge Parfit takes to be most usual (namely that he is "boring"), Kant is rather indicted for the charge that Parfit assumes most common (that he is "maddening"). Part of the reason for this difference is certainly cultural since Parfit expresses admiration for the distinctive modesty Sidgwick has with regard to his own achievements and disquiet with the tone of Kant, by contrast, who is taken to have the "maddening" characteristic of assuming he has substantive achievements to speak of in philosophy. The reason I take this to be, at least partly, a "cultural" matter is because of the overwhelming preference in UK culture for "modesty" of demeanour and dislike of anyone who takes themselves to people of achievement (and should, therefore, be "taken down a peg or two"). It is, by contrast, rare to find this kind of attitude in US culture (perhaps, though, US academia is, to a certain degree, infected with it). Just as Kant's tone jars with Parfit, so this element of UK general attitudes jars with me when it comes to intellectual matters.

Some of Parfit's citations from Sidgwick, however, also indicate another side to a reason for temperamental liking for him on Parfit's part. It is clearly brought out by some of the passages of Sidgwick that Parfit chooses to give that Sidgwick was a depressed and often troubled man, albeit one that was perennially dissatisfied with his own "answers" in philosophy as a consequence. Again, the drama of this self-doubt has a resonance in contemporary culture of a sort that is, perhaps oddly, related to admiration for "tortured geniuses". Related, in the sense that, the "torture" is what is admired rather than the "genius".

Another element of Partif's liking of Sidgwick that is different from that already focused on is his liking for the "precision" that Sidgwick is concerned with, a view of Sidgwick that clearly resonates with the Rawlsian conception that the Methods of Ethics is essentially the beginning of modern academic moral philosophy. In relation to praising this "precision" it is, however, odd that Parfit does not bother with page numbers when he cites the Methods of Ethics though he may have regarded this as superfluous in a "preface". 

A further element of Parfit's liking for Sidgwick is perhaps the most attractive element of it and this is his citing of Sidgwick's ironical humour as when he cites Sidgwick's quick, and somewhat devastating, criticism of Bradley. This element of Sidgwick's style is nicely emphasised here and is used well to correct the conception of Sidgwick that views him in a simply bad sense as a "Victorian". (For a more extended corrective of this conception of Sidgwick see also Schneewind's book on Sidgwick.)

However, returning to the more important philosophical point that Parfit takes to be gained from reading Sidgwick, the impress of Sidgwick's style is argued to be one that consists primarily in a form of serious and continuous qualification of his own claims. This point leads Parfit to suggest that the first reading of Methods of Ethics is frequently the worst since at this point we rarely see what is exceptional in its arguments, distracted as we are by these qualifications. Parfit, however, even more importantly, takes it that Sidgwick does not make "many" mistakes in moral philosophy and this is the reason why he assumes that the Methods of Ethics is a book "it would be best for everyone interested in ethics to read, remember, and be able to assume that others have read". There is, as we shall see, no similar commendation of either Kant or of any of his works in moral philosophy.

When Parfit turns to Kant it is primarily the Groundwork he has in mind and this may be part of the problem with the image he has of Kant. It is not that the Groundwork is not an important work but to take it to be the key statement of Kant's ethics is somewhat surprising since it is pretty clear that Kant never expected it to be received in this way. The Critique of Practical Reason has, however, received and continues to receive, significantly less attention in Anglo-American contexts and the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant's culminating work in practical philosophy, is only just beginning to be read. Given these facts it is not that surprising that Parfit takes his prime image of Kant from the Groundwork though it is distorting nonetheless.

Just as Parfit claims we are unlikely to gauge the scope of the Methods of Ethics on our first reading, so, by contrast, he argues that our first encounter with the Groundwork is rather likely to be better than later. The reason for this contrast is that the qualifications we have to make to Kant are less obvious to us when we begin reading the Groundwork for the first time and become more evident to us over time. However, this attitude of Parfit's towards the Groundwork is, again, part of a cultural response to Kant that is shared with many important readers of Kant such as Kemp Smith and Onora O'Neill since Parfit assumes he understands what it is to be "clear" in philosophy and, on the basis of this assumption, can attack Kant for "lack" of clarity.

This assumption concerning "clarity" seems to touch most particularly on the view that it consists in using technical terms only in one main sense though which major philosopher can be said to have always done this is something that is at least "unclear" to me. Alongside it is the "maddening" view that when Kant speaks of "autonomy" he doesn't mean I can simply do as I like or accept laws because I feel like it. The failure of a contemporary philosopher of Parfit's stature to gauge the sense of Kantian autonomy is sadly typical.

Parfit's basic suggestion is that he is, however, in temperament more akin to the "extremist" Kant than to the "moderate" Sidgwick and that, due to this, he has worked to find the latter more congenial. This argument is less obvious than Parfit suggests though it is true that many of his arguments in the past have been thought to up-set "common sense" rather more than Sidgwick (or Kant come to that) might have liked. These opening, somewhat conversational points, have two effects. One is to show that Parfit, in explicitly adopting Sidgwick and Kant as his mentors has indeed set out, as Scheffler's "introduction" led us to expect, to relate consequentialism and Kantian thought to each other but they also reveal the "academic" style of Sidgwick to be much more formative of Partif's approach and perhaps this formation is more than stylistic.

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