Sunday, 31 July 2011

Parfit on Moral Concepts

Chapter 7 of On What Matters concludes the first part of the book and is a counterpart of the first chapter which concerned 'normative concepts', concerning as it does 'moral concepts'. This chapter is lengthy and dense and is one that requires summary primarily since it promises to be important for the discussions that will begin in Part 2 of the work.

Parfit opens the chapter by promising to disambiguate the varied senses in which something can be "morally wrong". The peculiarity of the way this discussion is framed is that it indicates an understanding of "facts" albeit ones that are "morally relevant". The 'ordinary' sense of "moral wrong" apparently refers to thinking about acts in the same sense as each other. However the first complication and reason for analysis concerns the apparent ignorance we often suffer when evaluating actions, ignorance with regard to some or all of the "morally relevant" facts. When faced with such ignorance (or with "false beliefs") we find the problem arises that we use "morally wrong" in different ways. Three such differences are distinguished by Parfit.

The first sense we use "morally wrong" in situations of partial ignorance or "false belief" or what we might term 'non-ideal' forms of moral evaluation is to term something 'wrong' in a "fact-relative" sense. Something is 'wrong' in this sense just when it would be wrong in the ordinary sense if all the facts were known. This contrasts with thinking of something as 'wrong' in a belief-relative sense which concerns something being 'wrong' if our beliefs about the acts in question are true. Finally, something is 'wrong' in an 'evidence-relative' sense when we would term it 'wrong' in the ordinary sense if we believe what the available evidence gives us 'decisive reasons' to believe and these beliefs are true.

Parfit's point in making these distinctions is to suggest that none of them overlap with the 'ordinary' use of 'wrong' and that no one of these senses of 'wrong' is sufficient to exhaust what is meant by it. In illustrating the differences between these senses of 'wrong' Parfit discusses the case of a doctor who has various unjustified beliefs about the effects of treatments and possesses the wish to kill someone. In the first example of this the doctor prescribes something in the belief it will save the life of the patient but which kills them as it was sure to do given its properties (hence in which the doctor acts with good intentions but imperfect knowledge).

By contrast, in the second example, the doctor prescribes a treatment in the belief it will kill a patient but which saves their life given its properties (in which the doctor thus acts with a bad intention but imperfect knowledge). Many would simply assimilate both these cases to wrong in the 'belief-relative' senses thus declaring the first conduct 'right' and the second 'wrong' despite the outcomes in question. By contrast Parfit claims the doctor in the first of these cases acted wrongly in two different senses, one in a fact-relative sense and one in an evidence-relative sense since it would have been possible to derive evidence here that would have informed me about what the consequences of the action I was performing would have been.

By contrast, in the second case, the doctor acted rightly in fact-relative and evidence-relative senses despite possessing a bad intention. Now, to complete the basis for his distinctions, Parfit next mentions some further variations on the case in question. In these variations the doctor firstly (Case 3) gives treatment that is almost certain to kill the patient but which saves their life as they unjustifiably believed it would. In Case 4, by contrast, they give treatment that is almost certain to save the patient's life but which kills them, as they hoped it would.

In cases 3 and 4 it would be common to assimilate them to the sense of 'right' and 'wrong' in an evidence-relative sense so that the doctor in case 4 can be declared to be acting rightly whilst that in case 3 is acting 'wrongly'. Again, the point is to get past such a view. In Case 4, on Parfit's view, we should not say that the doctor acted 'rightly' as, when we bring in belief-relative and fact-relative senses, we can say that the doctor in question had murder in mind and succeeded in murdering the patient in question. By contrast, in Case 3, it isn't enough to refer to the evidence-relative sense that would say the doctor in question acted 'wrongly'. We should also refer to fact and belief-relative senses of 'wrong' as these show that the doctor acted in these respects 'rightly'. 

The peculiar characteristic of these four examples concerns what is meant by declaring them wrong in 'fact-relative' sense since the usage Parfit gives does not seem to be based on 'morally relevant' facts but rather on actual facts and hence the 'fact-relative' sense does not appear to pick out a specific characteristic of the actions but to collapse into the 'evidence-relative' sense. In Cases 5 and 6 he aims to indicate why we should not say that things are only 'wrong' in a fact-relative sense. In Case 5 the example is that the doctor gives treatment that is almost certain to save life, as he justifiably believes but which, unfortunately in fact kills you. Here we shouldn't claim the doctor acted 'wrongly' since the sense of 'fact-relative' is here plainly distinguished from 'evidence-relative' but not in a moral manner so different (there is here a difference between 'fact' and 'evidence' but it is an epistemic difference not a moral one).

Finally, in Case 6, the doctor gives treatment that is almost certain to kill the patient as he justifiably believes but which, in fact, saves the patient's life. Again,the doctor did not act rightly since they saved the patient's life but, again, the difference between 'fact' and 'evidence' is only epistemic and not something morally salient. So none of the six examples show that Parfit does have a specific moral sense for his notion of 'fact-relative'. 

In listing the senses Parfit's intention was to identify different questions concerning wrongness. If we think of something as 'wrong' in terms of being blame-worthy, then we include questions about remorse and indignation and focus primarily on belief-relative senses of wrongness. Here we can isolate the non-moral beliefs of the agent and declare that if these beliefs had been accurate and they acted on them in the way indicated by them that this is sufficient for blame to be assigned. So in cases 2, 4 and 6 we can identify wrong action in the blame-worthy sense given the belief-relative notion of 'wrongness'. 

After making this point Parfit further undermines the moral standing of the fact-relative notion of 'wrongness' by showing that it produces the conclusion that whether an act was 'wrong' is purely a matter of luck (how things happen, contingently, to turn out). There are alternatives to this view which effectively confirm the undercutting of the notion of 'fact-relative' wrong. The alternatives are two forms of Kantian view. The basic Kantian view mentioned by Parfit is that an act's blameworthiness doesn't depend on luck. A semi-Kantian view, by contrast, would say it doesn't depend entirely on luck but an act that doesn't depend on it would be more blameworthy than one that did.

As Parfit indicates the so-called 'semi-Kantian' view is much less plausible than the Kantian one since it concedes something to the 'fact-relative' view. Going back to the cases already mentioned, cases 2 and 4 are equally blameworthy for the Kantian but not for the 'semi-Kantian' who takes the success of the attempt to kill the patient in Case 4 as indicative of a greater wrongness in this case than in Case 2. In rejecting this view Parfit underscores the point that epistemic justification of beliefs is not the cardinal point in the blameworthiness of actions which seems thus to indicate that the fact-relative sense of 'wrongness' does not involve moral characteristics at all.

Further, Parfit endorses the Kantian view and this seems sufficient to me to undermine any plausible independent moral status for the 'fact-relative' notion of 'wrongness'. This does not mean that the 'outcome' is not bad when something is, as Parfit put it, fact-relatively wrong. But its badness does not reside in an independent moral quality which is why it can be assimilated to 'luck'. 

Parfit next introduces a different sense of 'wrong' to indicate that something is 'wrong' in a 'moral-belief relative' sense when an agent acts in a way that 'they believe' to be wrong, which, as Parfit puts it, is equivalent to saying that if someone does what they think wrong then this is wrong even if no other consideration would lead one to take it to be wrong. However, this is also an asymmetric case since there is not 'rightness' in a correlative sense as simply believing something to be right is not sufficient for us to reach the conclusion that acting in accordance with this belief makes it right.

This 'moral-belief-relative' sense is, again, insufficient to describe an independent moral characteristic since it assumes that the belief of the person in question can itself make something wrong that no other characteristic of the action would be sufficient to produce the view that it was wrong and this seems false. However, it is often taken, all the same, to be the case that something is 'blameworthy' by being wrong in this 'moral-belief-relative' sense. This may only rest on a confusion since in taking something to be wrong in this way it is possible that the agent is being blamed or blaming themselves only by standards of a belief that itself has no salient force. (It does, however, appear that often when 'conscience' is at issue it is this kind of belief that is being invoked though 'conscience', it seems to be, has quite a different force to this.)

Now, returning to the 'fact-relative' notion it appears that much of its force concerns what will make things turn out right and hence on consequentialist reasoning. However if this notion is interpreted to mean acting in the way that can produce the best outcomes overall then, as Parfit indicates with his consideration of a case involving trapped miners, this may not be an action we can perform under some cases. Hence Parfit follows the intuition I have been indicating throughout this posting of effectively rejecting the notion of 'fact-relative' wrongness and replacing it by what he calls 'expectabilism' which defines the rightness of an act in terms of outcomes that are 'expectably-best' (and which may thus not be ones that have the best outcomes overall). Thus we should replace the notion of 'fact-relative' wrongness with that of expectable-wrongness where an action is understood to be one that cannot (or is very unlikely) to have the best results that the situation supports (and hence is not being assessed in terms of best overall outcomes possible). Parfit completes the rout of the notion of 'fact-relative' wrongness by pointing out that there is, in any case, no way of acting that would be fact-relatively rightly since we can only act rightly in a belief-relative sense.

So fact-relative effectively gets assimilated to belief-relative in terms of decisions about what we ought to do. Decisive reasons, to use the vocabulary of normative concepts, provide us with the sense of what we would do under ideal conditions. Under conditions that are non-ideal then we should adjust our beliefs to what the evidence points to. 

Parfit next turns to further refinements in the discussion of the 'ordinary' sense of 'wrong' pointing out, for example, that we take something to be 'right' if it is permitted (hence not 'wrong") but to be our duty if it would be 'wrong' not to do it. There are, in the context that these points are made, also some additional points raised about what really does and does not belong to the 'moral' point of view. Thus, unlike Sidgwick, Parfit does not take rational egoism to be a 'method of ethics' but to be an external rival to ethics. The reason for this is that rational egoists operate with a normative conception of 'decisive reasons' that does not take account of moral considerations since the only decisive reasons are ones that refer to personal effects (advantages and disadvantages to the self) without broader consideration of the rightness or wrongness of the acts they point to.

Similarly, consequentialism in the general sense that was rejected when the 'fact-relative' notion of 'wrongness' was undermined is also taken to be an external rival to the moral point of view by Parfit (again, in apparent contrast to the view of Sidgwick). Although adopting wholly impartial reasons for actions involves acceptance of sacrifice in relation to ourselves and thus appears to indicate that we have a moral consideration here in issue Parfit points out that adopting this standard as such (which is equivalent to crude act-consequentialism) involves subordination of all normal moral concerns. Hence someone who adopts this view is led to scepticism concerning duties, blame, remorse and indignation and thus is "an external critic" concerning morality. In making this point Parfit appears to have conceded much of the case against act-consequentialism made by such writers as Bernard Williams.

Friday, 29 July 2011

The Good Will, Duty and Universal Law

I haven't read the Groundwork for a little while so decided today to look at the first section of it to see whether a fresh reading would produce a different slant on it to previously and I have to say I was struck, on re-reading, by the wealth of considerations set out in the first section. So struck was I that I've decided to do a series of postings on the Groundwork, setting out the results of a casual re-reading of a section first and then following up with responses to articles found on the appropriate section. So the next series of Kant postings will focus just on Groundwork I. In this posting I'm going to go through the stages of the argument without raising major interpretative issues, just indicating what strikes me as it comes.

The first sentence of Groundwork I is justly famous as Kant indicates here that the "good will" is the only thing that is good without limitation. After opening with this bold statement he proceeds in the first paragraph to contrast the "good will" with a number of other things that are "good" in order to show that the goodness of these other things is only a limited form of "good". So "good will" is thereby distinguished from goods of talent, goods of temperament and goods of fortune. The distinction between the "good will" and goods of temperament is particularly significant since it indicates that the "good will" is not merely a "virtue" that can be listed alongside other virtues but is something that is over and above anything that could be understood as a "virtue".

After these contrasts have been completed Kant proceeds to distinguish the "good will" from gifts of fortune and the whole she-bang of "happiness" and "well-being". This list of contrasts that fills the first paragraph of Groundwork I is subsequently mitigated slightly in the second paragraph where Kant admits that some qualities are conducive to the "good will" and included under this heading are some of the Aristotelian qualities such as moderation in affects and passions. This partial mitigation indicates the sense in which Kant does see the point in the account of virtue (something that evidently is important in the later Doctrine of Virtue) as is made emphatic when he states that the latter constitute part of the "inner worth" of people. This does not prevent the contrast between these virtues and the "good will" still holding in the sense that the virtues are "conditional" goods, not, like the "good will", unconditional ones.

After distinguishing the "good will" from virtue Kant next contrasts it with considerations of utility and consequences since the "good will" is stated to be something that would be good in itself even were it not able to accomplish anything so long, that is, as it did attempt to (and this enables it to be distinguished from "mere wishing"). It is after this second contrast, however, that the argument takes a different turn as Kant considers the obvious objection that the praise he has given to the "good will" contains something extravagant in it.

In considering this objection the point that Kant includes to test it involves a discussion of "predispositions" (a term that returns in his later work on religion). These "predispositions" are what are at work in an organism and indicate its teleological orientation. What is meant by this is that there is something about the purposes an organism has that suit its nature. The reason these considerations are mentioned are to understand the basis of the presence in a being of reason and a will. Kant's point here is that reason and a will do not appear engineered to ensure the happiness of the one who possesses them. Rather, if the point of reason and the will were to promote "happiness" something would have gone awry since instincts are better at attaining some form of it. So this point is intended to suggest that if reason is something that has sway over the will then the basis of this sway is not to produce "happiness" in the being that has them.

Now these considerations touch even the "arts and sciences" (an indication of Rousseau's influence on Kant). But the basic point of them is to suggest that the practical faculty of reason  points to something different from a result based in "happiness" and thus indicates again the ground for thinking that there is something "good" in itself about a will formed by reason. This consideration suggests something of a "content" for the "good will" since it has here been clearly distinguished from the promptings of instinct and concerns with "happiness" in favour of direction by reason alone. 

After invoking this point suggesting that considerations of purposes cannot lead one to see the point of reason's effect on the will being other than the production of a pure kind of will Kant next unveils the conception of "duty" as something that contains the idea of the "good will" albeit "under certain subjective limitations and hindrances" (Ak 4: 397). This "containment" of the idea of the "good will" is reminiscent of the general procedure of schematism as the latter involves restriction and realisation of a conception. Restriction is indicated in the reference to "limitations and hindrances" but realisation is also referred to as these restrictions "elevate" the conception of the "good will" and allow it to shine more brightly.

Having mentioned the idea of duty Kant now discusses the conception of acting in accordance with duty and mentions how self-seeking aims can produce action that conforms with duty whilst not being done from duty. This point is then contrasted with those who act for a different reason in conformity with duty, due to the gifts of their temperaments (again repeating the point indicated at the beginning that temperament is a conditional good). Being beneficent is not something that should or could depend for its worth on temperament but is grounded in duty as a sole guide to good character.

Similar considerations are again used to rule out determination of worth by reference to acting with regard to one's own happiness before the next point is raised, namely, that actions done from duty do not have their worth in an aim held in view but only on the "principle of the volition" (Ak 4: 400). This principle of the volition is thus understood in a formal way as everything material has been removed from consideration. The result of this isolation of worth is that duty comes to be seen as including in its conception a form of necessity. The "necessity" in question concerns the way that duty presents itself to us. To act in a way that enables us to say we have done something "from" duty is to act with "respect for the law".

The understanding of this notion of "respect" is by means of the will being grounded in a consciousness of law as a representation that undercuts any form of self-love. So respect is something that is distinct from pathological feeling as it is not imposed on us from without but rather given to us by ourselves in relation to law. To say we "respect" law is to say we allow it to move us for itself alone. 

This conception of "respect" requires a sense of the law in question and that is one that is seen purely through a formal representation. The law in question cannot concern anything material since we have already removed any material as a ground of affect upon us. It is after this point has been reached in the argument that Kant decisively introduces the conception of "practical judgment" in relation to "common sense" (or "common human reason"). The "practical judgment" of such a common standpoint is precisely to be understood as operative through the representation of formal law.

An example is introduced to illustrate the notion reached which involves the notion of false promising which is shown to produce a practical contradiction (contradiction in conception). Kant suggests that the case helps to show that the common understanding can be led to the idea of universal formal law by merely being made aware of "its own principle". Furthermore, the philosopher has "no other principle" with which to deal than that of common understanding.

This raises the question of why it is necessary then to invoke philosophy at all. Kant's concluding consideration is that whilst common understanding reaches for the universal formal law in its practical judgment that it nonetheless is caught in a "natural dialectic" in which inclination is at war with the law. The needs and demands of inclination cannot be simply done away with and yet they corrupt the law at its root. In response to this "unnoticed" dialectic that afflicts common understanding there is a need for philosophy in order that the "source" of the principle of judgment that such understanding uses can be brought to light.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Political Philosophers Elected to British Academy

The British Academy has announced the election of new Fellows, amongst whom are named four political philosophers. The four are as follows:
 Professor Fabre from Oxford who is working on a cosmopolitan theory of the just war;
Professor Raymond Geuss from Cambridge whose most recent book concerned politics and imagination;
Professor Jeremy Waldron from Oxford who has been working on a book on torture;
Professor Will Kymlicka from Queen's University Canada, is named a Corresponding Fellow and has recently published a book on animal rights.

Additionally Professor Andrew Hurrell from Oxford has been elected and is a Professor of International Relations whose last book concerned global order. It appears that the British Academy, unlike the Research Excellence Framework, is committed to the recognition and promotion of political philosophy and political theory.

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Parfit, Smith and the "Dualism of Practical Reason"

Parfit has a habit of referring to Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics as a "great, drab book" though the use of the term "drab" applies to some of Parfit's own discussion in Part 1 of On What Matters as Chapter 5 adds very little to the discussion of Chapter 4. Due to this I am turning in this posting to a response to Chapter 6 in which Parfit addresses the theme of the "dualism of practical reason", a topic first raised by Sidgwick.

This topic of the "dualism of practical reason" concerned, for Sidgwick, the contrast between rational claims of impartial reasons for action and rational egoistic claims. It is also stated by Parfit in more directly moral terms as a conflict between duty and self-interest. Sidgwick took the contrast between these two types of reason or moral claim to be a serious problem as he appeared not able to find some neutral third view that allowed for adjudication between their claims. Parfit describes the presence of this problem in Sidgwick as due to Sidgwick believing that there are here two viewpoints. Parfit presents an account of why we should reject the two viewpoints position and this account has, in turn, been critically assessed by Michael Smith.

Parfit's reply to the conception of "two viewpoints" appeals to two main claims. The first is that when we are trying to decide what to do, we should, according to Parfit, ask this question "from our actual point of view" not from an "imagined" impartial point of view. We don't need, says Parfit, to compare the contrast between partial and impartial reasons from a third, neutral point of view as our actual, present point of view is sufficient. What makes it sufficient? After all, according to Sidgwick, such a "present" point of view seems to presuppose the egoistic conception and thus merely beg the question between partiality and impartiality. However, Parfit denies this claim pointing out that we can, and often do, prefer an "impartial" standpoint  in actuality rather than defaulting automatically to an egoistic standpoint. Further, "we have such impartial reasons even when our actual point of view is not impartial". 

Now Chapter 6 does not resolve the "dualism of practical reason" though it is evident that Parfit is aiming to resolve it later. One of the ways it is intended to resolve it is by reference to a notion of "goodness" that Parfit mobilises and which was mentioned already back in Chapter 2. This is "goodness" in the "reason-implying sense" which implies that that there are "certain kinds of facts" about something's nature or properties that would, at least in certain situations, give us strong reasons to respond to it with the appropriate pro-attitude. However, this kind of goodness was contrasted, already in Chapter 2, with the notion of "goodness-for" which indicated something as "good" in relation to our sense of our well-being.

This contrast between two types of "goodness" is related by Michael Smith to a broad characterisation of Parfit as a "consequentialist" where all that Smith means by this is that Parfit thinks that "we can analyse all facts about what we have reason to do in terms of facts about the value of the outcomes of the things that we can do".  This is described by Smith as a "weak" sense of "consequentialism" as it makes no assumptions at all about what is of value including making no assumption to the effect that all values are "impartial". Smith proposes that this "weak" sense of "consequentialism" is the right one by which to characterise Parfit's general view since, in making no such specific assumption about "value" it permits the distinction between two types of "goodness" that Parfit has made in Chapter 2.

However, Smith's challenge now asserts itself, as, in saying that the "weak" sense of "consequentialism", added to the two senses of "goodness", ensures that Parfit's view replicates the "dualism of practical reason". Given the distinction between the two types of goodness it appears that there exists precisely the incommensurability that bothered Sidgwick so that there is not available any means of resolution between the two "viewpoints" they appear to represent.

Now, just on the level of Chapter 6 alone, it is evident that Parfit provides no "resolution" of the "dualism of practical reason". However, there are ways in which he attempts to mitigate it and it is worth reviewing these to see if they help to reduce the difference of "viewpoint" that, on Smith's account, resurfaces in Parfit's characterisation so widely that we have here merely another way of stating the "dualism of practical reason". Well, firstly, as we saw, Parfit takes it that there is no need to search for a "neutral", third, point of view separate from the "standpoints" assumed to exist by Sidgwick. The reason for this is that Parfit argues that our "actual" reasons will be sufficient, something that Smith finds mysterious. Why does Parfit assume that this appeal to "actual" reasons helps at all?

The basic ground for this appeal to "actual" reasons is simply that the situation in which the distinction between partial and impartial reasons manifests itself for us as one in which we have some kind of dilemma is also one in which "reasons" are present in the "facts" in question. This appears then to invoke the "weak" sense of "consequentialism" Smith mentioned as a way of indicating that the "situation" of the judgment is one that speaks to us through the analysis that the "consequentialist" assumption would make. Why does this not, however, simply beg the question against the egoistic view, the one at work in "goodness-for" being assessed as important?

One of the reasons why Parfit seems to think not is due to the next way he attempts to mitigate the conflict which is through introducing "close ties" between ourselves and others, ties that involve us taking the well-being of some others to have special importance. This helps to show that it is not evidently true that the "actual" standpoint has to be one in which egoistic reasons are taken to be supreme but how does that help with the difference between the two types of "goodness"? Perhaps it indicates that what is "good-for" me may include some things that are also "good" in the other, "reason-implying" sense so that these two forms of "goodness" need not be seen, as Smith assumes, as necessarily divergent from each other. This may produce odd results as when we take it to be "good-for" us to promote the interests of someone else above our own interests but isn't this common with, for example, parents in relation to children? This kind of example helps to show that "goodness-for" is not necessarily equivalent to egoistic goodness and so that Parfit's difference between kinds of "goodness" is not as obviously as Smith assumes a replica of the "dualism of practical reason" in other terms.

Parfit's general strategy up to this point in the book has been to try to defend the conception that the "dualism of practical reason" can be defeated by showing that reasons are such that we can, and do, respond to features of "intentional objects" in a way that manifests our concern with their intrinsic properties. I have suggested that most of his arguments to show this have failed as he works with dual assumptions about the divide between "subjective" and "objective" reasons that cut against his arguments. On the one hand he takes Kantian views about reason to be "subjective" and yet, on the other hand, most of his arguments against the "subjective" view of reasons turn on appeals to claims about desire-based reasons (precisely not applicable to Kantian views). As a result Parfit conflates Humean and Kantian views about reasons and thereby does justice to neither. 

However, whilst this general strategy is problematic the desire to locate a view of reason that enables practical reason to be understood in such a way that the move beyond partial reasons to universal ones can be made is commendable and in line with a Kantian impulse. When Parfit comprehends the "two" types of "goodness" in the way he does it is not obvious to me, as it seems to be to Smith, that he thereby simply replicates Sidgwick's dualism. Whether he can resolve the "dualism" turns precisely on how he goes on to comprehend the rational structure of morality and Chapter 6 just starts the turn towards this task. It is from this point on that we should evaluate the success or otherwise of the book.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Rawls on the Principle of Participation

Rawls turns in Chapter IV of A Theory of Justice to an account of the "principle of participation" after concluding his discussion of toleration. This is part of his general discussion of "political justice" by which he means the nature of the constitution and its inclusion in Chapter IV is part of a description of how equal liberty can be constitutionally maintained. Since, however, constitutions are, like jury trials, examples of imperfect procedural justice, they have two specific aspects that govern their arrangement. Firstly, the constitutions have to include procedures that satisfy the requirements of equal liberty and, secondly, they have to have the form that is judged most likely to result in a just "and effective" system of legislation. 

The application of the principle of equal liberty to the constitution produces the principle of participation which is assumed to be "equal" though the nature of this equality, as we shall see, is a peculiar one. It defines political rights in the most general sense and is equal in terms of rights to take part in and determine the outcome of the constitutional process that establishes the laws with which citizens are expected to comply. Now, the "original position" specified such an equal status to all parties and the constitutional convention that was discussed at its conclusion further indicated ways in which the "original position" was to be left as continuing to incorporate the principles that governed its construction. But Rawls now adds that the constitution produced within the well-ordered society should be such that it involves a "transfer" of the principle of participation from the "original position" to the constitution. The point of this is that the constitutional process should "preserve the equality of the original position to the degree that this is practicable". The qualifying clause at the close of this statement will, however, turn out to be important.

Section 36 discusses the principle under "favourable conditions" whilst section 37 indicates "adjustments" to existing conditions which implies a split in Rawls' discussion of the principle of participation but this split is not one between "ideal" and "non-ideal" theory. The rationale of the split is rather to first state the elements of constitutions and then to indicate the reasons for the limitations of these elements by other factors arising from the "circumstances of justice". In section 36 the elements of the constitutional regime are made clear including the selection of a legislature in which there is  the view that political parties should "advance some conception of the public good" and not be mere interest groups. The conception of the election of this legislature is understood here to be governed by a relation to the electorate in which each member of the latter has an equivalent vote and equal rights to become members of the legislature. Guarantees of liberty are also referred to and it is assumed that a lack of unanimity is part of the "circumstances of justice". 

After these preliminaries Rawls goes on to discuss the way that the definition of equal liberty by the principle of participation is to be understood by discussing the meaning of the principle. Its meaning is again specified in terns of each vote having equal weight, something that is related here to equality of constituencies and safeguards against gerrymandering. Also included in the "meaning" of the principle of participation are the earlier points about equality of access to public office with the usual provisos granted concerning age and residence. 

After discussing the "meaning" of the principle of participation in these ways Rawls turns next to the "extent" of its sway. The basic sense he gives to the question of "extent" is the degree to which the majoritarian principle holds sway. As this principle is restricted so is the extent of the principle that much more narrow. The extent of the principle is, naturally, narrowed by reference to such constitutional devices as the separation of powers and the adoption of bills of rights which, as adopted, are then not susceptible to political will in the sense that they are constitutional provisos that govern the way in which such will can be manifested. Assuming that these ways of narrowing the extent of the principle apply to all equally they do not violate the fairness of the principle of participation.

After discussing the "meaning" of the principle of participation and its "extent", Rawls turns next to the way that the constitution can ensure that political liberty possesses "worth" for the citizens. Everyone must have the right to use the public forum and a fair chance to add proposals to the political agenda. However there are countervailing pressures that work against such formal guarantees, not least in relation to inequality of means of relating to the political process, as manifested in market societies by wealth (and in other societies by status). In order that these pressures should not remove the "worth" of political liberties there are needed "compensating steps" as Rawls terms them. In a market society political parties could be given public support to free them from the pressures incurred by seeking donations for example.

In Section 37 Rawls turns to limits on the principle of participation although the scope of such limits was already laid out in some degree in section 36. One of the key such limits concerns the "extent" of the principle's sway through the majoritarian principle being curtailed in application. Such limitation of the majoritarian principle is governed by the way in which this guarantees the greater security and extent of other liberties. Included here are freedom of conscience and freedom of the person, two liberties which bare majoritarian rule could over-ride. The point of the constitutional procedure is to find a way of ensuring such liberties are protected without unduly narrowing the principle of participation's extent. What is not allowed scope in narrowing the principle of participation is, however, mere strength of feeling in a minority as this alone makes no specific reference to principles of justice.

After indicating the basis on which limitations of the principle of participations "extent" can be justified Rawls turns next to limitations of its "meaning" in terms of how some "unequal" liberties could in practice be granted in the constitution despite its overall aim being one of maintaining a position akin to that achieved in the "original position". Such a limitation shows that the "equality" attained in the achieved constitution may not be complete although any such limitation of its equality has to be one that can be justified to those placed in a disadvantaged position by it. It would be one that, in fact, enhanced the protection of the other liberties of those so disadvantaged.

The means by which the "meaning" of the principle of participation could be thus restricted is discussed in terms of the conception of universal equal suffrage being open to limitation. This is an historically recent notion and one that was not accepted by John Stuart Mill or Kant. Rawls does not here discuss, as he could have done, Kant's division of the citizenry between "active" and "passive" members or the account of "independence" that underpinned it. Instead Rawls describes Mill's reasons for granting extra votes to persons with "greater intelligence and education" in order that the judgment of the wiser be given more weight. This does not prevent all from possessing the vote but does require differential weighting of votes. In describing this notion Rawls does not condemn Mill's view but nor does he specifically endorse it. It is rather mentioned for the purpose of illustrating the means by which the "meaning" of the principle of participation could be restricted in application.

One of the problems with proposals like Mill's is, however, that it threatens also to restrict the "worth" of political liberties to the disadvantaged and this worth is part of the bond of citizenship. By means of the process of citizenship it is intended, after all, to raise the sight of all to interests broader than their own and this broadening is not purely a means of political liberty but an essential end of them. Whilst Rawls concludes his discussion with this account of "worth" he does not reflect, as one might think he should, on how it would be reduced by the reduction in the "meaning" of the application of the principle of participation.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Parfit's "Incoherence Argument"

The "Incoherence Argument" is set out by Parfit to respond to sophisticated forms of "subjective" theories of reason and includes a citation from Christine Korsgaard, something that indicates it is meant to apply fairly clearly to a Kantian view of reasons, at least one that is understood in a "constructivist" way. As such it is an argument particularly worth taking seriously here since it is evidently not meant to presuppose that "subjective" theories of reasons imply the "Humean" view of motivation.

The argument itself is stated in a brief and simple form by Parfit. It is a discussion of the reference to reflective endorsement of desires and aims and argues that when such endorsement is properly understood it cannot be coupled with the "subjective" conception of reasons that theorists have tried to link it to. The first step is to understand the process of such reflective endorsement as requiring that "desires and aims" are related to "relevant facts" in the process of reflection. This reference to "relevant facts" is then related to the claim "N" that we try to learn more about "the different possible outcomes of our acts". The combination of concern with "relevant facts" with claim "N" is, states Parfit, to implicitly commit us to viewing possible outcomes as including "intrinsic features that would give us object-given reasons to want either to produce or to prevent these outcomes, if we can". But this commitment is a commitment to an objectivist view of reasons so the practice of reflection itself undercuts the subjective view of reasons on which it is alleged to rely.

The basis of the argument is concealed in the view that commitment to a "subjectivist" view of reasons means that we have to deny that "facts give us reasons", something that Parfit later associates with a remark cited from Korsgaard that it is not necessary on her view to identify "especially rational ends". Whilst Parfit does not give the source of Korsgaard's comment it is fairly clear that what she is here rejecting is the kind of view that identifies the "value" of something with an independent feature of the thing in question (independent, that is, of the process of endorsing its value). And Parfit implies that such a view is effectively equivalent to the "Humean" denial that "facts give us reasons" to value something.

In replying to Parfit a number of points can be made. Firstly, in partial defence of the "Humean", it can be pointed out that, for them, "facts do give us reasons" in all kinds of ways. It is evident to a "Humean" that the fact that I perceive someone running towards me carrying a deadly weapon provides me with a reason to run away. In this basic sense it is evident that "facts give us reasons". But what is involved in the appreciation that this "fact" gives us a reason to act in the way we do? Parfit claims it is the "intrinsic" fact of the nature of the threat in question but Hume would deny this and on this point I am sure Kant would agree. Hume's denial would consist in the claim that it is not the simple "fact" itself that leads to provision of the "reason" as it is rather the perception of this fact conjoined with the "natural inclination" that preserves life that gives me the basis of running away. Such an "inclination" is not a "reason" in one sense, which is that it may not fit Hume's theoretical comprehension of "reasons" but it is a reason in another which is that it fits his naturalistic understanding of us.

For Kant the case would be different given that he does not suppose the naturalist view of reasons Hume possesses and Korsgaard points, in a different passage to the one Parfit cites, to what is at work in Kant's view when she claims that "salience" is determined by adoption of an end which is to "come to perceive the world in the way that having the end requires". On Korsgaard's rendition, the "incoherence argument" gets things the wrong way around. Let's see how that can be put.

First of all, Parfit assumes that the process of reflective endorsement requires fitting "desires and aims" to the "relevant facts". Now, before turning to assumption "N", it is first necessary to understand what the status of these "relevant facts" is. On Korsgaard's construal these facts have the status that they do in relation to the perception we have of the world by means of adoption of an end. It is through the adoption of this end that we can see that the "facts" are, indeed, "relevant". They are not "relevant" in some general sense but relevant instead to the aim chosen. So it is the aim that gives them their salience.

At this point we can see that Parfit's introduction of "N" performs a change of status on the "relevant facts" as these are now viewed in relation to the "different possible outcomes" of our acts, something that assumes consequentialism. But the general consequentialist assumption appears to give outcomes a value independently of the nature of our choice so it requires the adherent of reflective endorsement to automatically view the kind of choice they have undertaken in endorsing an end to have the objectivist structure Parfit then produces to convict the "subjective" theorist of incoherence.

A different type of response would fail to concede the "objectivist" construal of consequentialism and instead see the reference to "different possible outcomes" as part of the "salience" involved in selecting the end. So it is by means of the end selected that the outcomes are viewed rather than the outcomes having an independent status. After all, if outcomes were merely such as affect the end adopted without being also something that was judged by reference to the end then why would we include them in our view of the end? If we view outcomes like this, however, then they are no more "intrinsic" in their features than are ends themselves. So this construal of the consequentialist view would not require us to reject it necessarily but would instead interpret reference to "outcomes" in ways that don't require commit to the objectivist construal of ends.

At this point I think we can also see what is generally wrong with Parfit's comprehension of "values" as intentional objects. If "value" has such an intentional objectivity it is in relation to the coherence of things valued in the willing thereof. It is not that "value" has some status completely independent of willing but rather that its status is internally related to willing. The means by which this internality is to be understood requires the Kantian process of reasoning to be undergone, reasoning that refers, for example, to the notions of universality and the sense of humanity as the one form of end-in-itself. That would be quite a different story to Parfit's but his "Incoherence Argument" does nothing to undermine it.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Simon Blackburn's Review of Parfit

Simon Blackburn has made available a review he was commissioned to write of Parfit's On What Matters here. There appears to be some back-story with regard to the review since those who commissioned it (the Financial Times) decided on receipt of it not to publish. One can only speculate as to the reasons why this was.

Blackburn's review distinguishes between the first-order normative ethics presented by Parfit and the second-order meta-ethical rationalism defended in the work and concentrates quite a bit of his fire on the latter. The discussion attempted to date on this blog of Parfit's book has likewise concentrated so far on the latter. This has been necessary due to the opening part of Parfit's work being concerned with these meta-ethical questions. So, in my response here to Blackburn, I'll mention mainly the way he discusses Parfit's meta-ethics.

Blackburn follows Parfit in seeing the divide in meta-ethics as one between a form of objectivist rationalism on the one hand and non-cognitivist emotivist views (the "Humean" notion of motivation) on the other. Unlike Parfit, however, Blackburn adopts a favourable stance towards the Humean tradition. What is left out of the reply Blackburn makes to Parfit is any serious reference to the Kantian view, something that is particularly surprising given Parfit's tendency to conflate the Kantian and Humean positions under the heading of "subjective" theories of reasons for action. I have pointed out, in previous postings, that Parfit's replies to the Humean tradition are themselves problematic in various ways despite having some sympathy with Parfit's attempt to move beyond the Humean view of moral motivation.

Blackburn's review, however, in its defence of the Humean picture contrives to make Parfit's attack on it rather attractive. In describing the distinction Parfit makes between "objective" and "subjective" theories of reasons Blackburn fails to mention that the point of it for Parfit is to present a basis for taking intentional reference to only be possible on an "objective" view of reasons. So Blackburn denies that any philosopher has ever said we respond to "facts about objects" when we make decisions about what to do apparently without taking on board at all Parfit's argument here which is that "values" are such objects, a view that, like Blackburn, I have problems with but which should be at least correctly presented, something that it is not when Blackburn suggests that Parfit is simply attacking a straw man. It surely is a cardinal point of the "Humean" theory to deny that "values" are "intentional objects" in Parfit's sense (the sense that they could be part of an "objective list") and so simply saying that in summoning up passions in Hume's sense we are "responding to objects" is a cheap and very silly shot at Parfit.

Similarly, saying that any theory includes "subject-given" and "object-given" elements in its account is again not to respond to the question whether such "object-given" elements are involved in values so indicates a sustained failure to address Parfit's question. When Blackburn argues that Parfit's alternative "rationalist" view is "not much help" as the evaluative terms fit together in a coherent inter-locking way, this seems very odd. If Parfit does show they do indeed have this inter-locking status and that this can be combined with an "objective" understanding of evaluative terms then he presumably has accomplished something important. It may well be that he has failed to accomplish this but if he did achieve it then it surely would be "some help" to have done so.

The final paragraph of Blackburn's review seems oddly ad hominem in its swipe at All Souls, particularly coming, as it does, from a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. It is to be hoped that future reviews of On What Matters will not stoop to such odd attacks and will provide more by way of argument against the book as well as perhaps indicate more to appreciate the achievement it surely represents regardless of one's problems with its accounts.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Rawls on Toleration and Equal Liberty

After the opening account of the "constitutional convention" that I discussed in my previous posting  Rawls turns next in Chapter IV of Theory to a description of equal liberty of conscience that leads in to an account of toleration. Chapter IV is concerned as a whole with "equal liberty" so this concentration is one we should expect to emerge here.

When the device of the "original position" was invoked it was for  the purpose of ensuring that principles of justice chosen would definitely not be based on considerations that uniquely favoured given parties. In fact, Rawls even assumes that the problem of future generations can be addressed by means of the device. In relation to the latter problem, the invocation of equal liberty has a special pertinence since it ensures the integrity not only of the parties in the position but continuing lines of descent from it. Rawls even goes so far as to claim that equal liberty of conscience is "the only principle" that the persons in the original condition can acknowledge by which he seems to mean the only one that they can agree to as a condition of anything (and everything) else.

Even were the parties in the "original position" convinced that the principle of utility need not compromise liberty still they could see the point of adopting the principle of equal liberty first in any case. This points to a way that the parties in the "original position" would be prompted to consider pluralist or "mixed" doctrines rather than the allegedly  "monistic" one of utilitarianism. Further the principle of equal liberty of conscience meets the criterion of finality as it is not a principle, once adopted, that can be bent in favour of something else. The "veil of ignorance" strengthens the case for its adoption since it ensures one has no means of knowing whether one would have views that were in the majority.

The discussion of future generations furthers the case for equal liberty since the adoption of the principle is one that members of other generations can be assumed to also desire for the same reason that parties in the original position would do so. It also meets the test of a reasonable paternalism in being a principle that we can assume those under our guardianship would adopt on attainment of the age of reason.

Having presented the basic argument for the principle of equal liberty Rawls goes on to discuss toleration. Liberty of conscience is something that can be restricted under special circumstances that involve severe threats to public order and security. However these are the only conditions as there is nothing in political authority strictly considered that provides it with competence in other domains. The restriction of liberty in the severe circumstances mentioned would be accepted within the original position since disruption of the conditions of liberty is a danger to all. Hence restriction in these cases is an "enabling right" in relation to the provision of liberty itself.

It follows from this point that toleration is a general consequence of the acceptance of the principle of equal liberty. Hence granting it is granting something that is just, denying it is unjust. As Rawls puts it in a very Kantian formula: "Liberty is governed by the necessary conditions for liberty itself". This formula echoes the universal principle of right in the Doctrine of Right that referred to freedom in accordance with a universal law so that "the freedom of choice of each can coexist with everyone's freedom" (Ak. 6: 230).

After arriving at this point Rawls concludes by providing some reasons why toleration should even extend to the intolerant despite the fact that intolerant groups would have no right to complain where toleration not to be extended to them. No particular view of religious truth can be accepted in the original position so there is no basis for anyone thinking that their own views have any privileged status. One of the nice points Rawls makes in this connection is that even the intolerant principle that all should obey the injunctions of God at the expense of anything else is indeterminate in the sense that no one has a status that politically can enable them to determine what these injunctions consist in.

The political basis for toleration of the intolerant consists, fundamentally, however, in the stability of just institutions in the sense that they reproduce adherence to themselves. This psychological truth about just institutions is one that should give members of a well-ordered society confidence in these institutions. The only case in which the intolerant have toleration withdrawn are where their intolerance poses danger to the whole body politic (and hence this is not a special principle applied to the intolerant). 

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Rawls on Liberty and Constitutions

Chapter IV of A Theory of Justice opens the second part of the book which is concerned with "institutions" or, as Rawls also puts it, with the "content" of the principles of justice. The first two sections of this chapter describe, first, the emergence of a basic structure from out of the "original position" and, second, a basic "definition" of liberty. Given the chapter is entitled "Equal Liberty" it is evident that part of its point is to articulate the meaning of an egalitarian approach to the distribution of liberties.

If the first part of Theory was itself entitled "theory" it was clearly because the basic building blocks of Rawls' account were provided there. In articulating the application of the two principles of justice that have been elaborated through the device of the "original position" Rawls now turns to the second stage of his main argument. This is the one in which the means of application of these principles begins to be seriously considered.

In order to begin the process of articulating the means of application of principles Rawls first lays out 3 kinds of judgment that a citizen typically has to make concerning justice. Firstly, a citizen has to come to a view about the justice of legislation and social policies. This first judgment immediately produces a problem though which is that there is recognisable conflict between different conceptions of justice. That produces the second kind of judgment required from the citizen. This concerns which kinds of constitutional arrangements are just for reconciling conflicting opinions. However, there is also a third problem that emerges assuming the first two have been settled. This concerns the point that political processes produce only imperfect procedural justice so it is necessary that the citizen determine when the judgments of the majority are worthy of being complied with. Put together these three problems the citizen has to face are "the grounds and limits of political duty and obligation".

After laying out these typical problems a citizen has to face Rawls returns to the device of the "original position" and elaborates its role in his account. Previously we were led to think that the invocation of this device would lead only to the selection of principles of justice after which the parties in the original position would return to society. Now, however, Rawls instead introduces an intermediate process between the selection of the principles in the original position and the return to society. 

This intermediate process involves thus an extension of the use of the device of the "original position". After the principles of justice have been chosen the parties in this position move to form a kind of convention that is meant to describe a constitution for the society that they will move to from the "original position". Thus the parties are now moving to construct a "basic structure" after having chosen the principles of justice. The procedure by which this construction takes place is evidently regulated by reference to the principles of justice already chosen. However, one of the key problems that has to be faced now is the second difficulty of the citizen, namely, how to determine which arrangements are just for reconciling political differences.

Whilst we are still within the "original position" at this stage the "veil of ignorance" has been partially lifted given that we have principles of justice chosen. Along with these principles certain information is now released such as the natural circumstances of the society, its level of economic advance and also, apparently, its "political culture" (though it is hard to know what Rawls could mean by this).

There are two problems to deal with at this stage. Firstly, a just procedure has to be designed to arrange a just outcome. In reference to this Rawls points to the need to incorporate the liberties of equal citizenship into the constitution. Without such liberties he assumes no just procedure could be followed. However, the problem of imperfect procedural justice now arises again and requires addressing. To address it a further lifting of the "veil of ignorance" takes place which enables knowledge of the beliefs and interests men are liable to have and the political tactics they would be likely to use (which answers the earlier point about political culture but then also suggests it was otiose to mention it at the previous stage).

The two principles of justice already define an independent standard of the desired outcome. Having reached this point in the process a next stage in the development of the basic structure can take place. It involves invoking the notion of the legislature in the sense of a representative legislator who assesses the justice of laws and policies from the perspective of the independent standard.

However Rawls also accepts that the understanding of the justice of laws and policies is much more difficult with reference to the second principle of justice than with regard to the first. Violations of the first principle can be clearly seen to be unjust whereas violations of the second are harder to see. The principle of equal liberty is safeguarded by the process of the constitution which establishes a secure common status of equal citizenship. The second principle is what guides the decisions of the legislator, subject to the primary reference to the principle of equal citizenship. 

Next there is required the application of rules to particular cases by judges and administrators and following of rules by citizens. When we reach this stage the "veil of ignorance" is completely lifted and we are back in society. But it is not at that stage the grounds and limits of political duty and obligation are determined as that question belongs to partial compliance theory which is formulated during the original position but after the choice of the principles of justice.

The stages of construction of a "basic structure" are thus laid out in section 31 and in section 32 Rawls turns to describing the concept of liberty that is so important in the construction of this structure. In doing so Rawls leaves aside the questions about "positive" and "negative" liberty that were so important to Isaiah Berlin to focus only on a minimal sketch of liberty referring to the parties that are free, the restrictions they are free from and what it is they are free to do. Liberty is thus understood primarily in relation to constitutional and legal restrictions so that, as Rawls puts it in the second edition, "persons are at liberty to do something when they are free from certain constraints either to do it or not to do it and when their doing it or not doing it is protected from interference by other persons".

The basic liberties are presented as a unitary whole and it is suggested that under favourable conditions it is possible to define them in such a way that the most central applications of each can be secured. Finally, it is assumed to be clear whether an institution restricts a liberty or only regulates it. Inability to take advantage of liberty is assessed by Rawls not as a constraint of liberty but as something that affects its perceived value. Inasmuch as it has value for someone liberty is the means by which they are able to attempt to attain their ends.