Monday, 31 October 2011

Parfit and Kant On Treating Persons As Ends

In my recent postings on Parfit I have concentrated on how he looks at the first part of Kant's formula of humanity, the part that he believes involves discussion of the notion of "rational consent". The first place where Parfit formulated this view was in his 2002 Tanner Lectures and I broke off from consideration of these lectures after this posting in order to track the development of the views first expressed there in subsequent drafts preparatory to the publication of On What Matters and, finally, in the chapter length-discussion in On What Matters that was the subject of my last posting on Parfit. 

I want now to open a series of postings that focuses both on how Parfit responds to the second part of Kant's formulation of humanity and how he sets out a general reading of the overall formula of humanity. This will require, firstly, a lengthier analysis of the first of Parfit's 2002 Tanner Lectures and subsequently an account of the further preparatory drafts leading up to On What Matters before we can return to the analysis of the next chapter of On What Matters. As previously, therefore, the next element of discussion of Parfit's encounter with Kant will be lengthy and textually complicated.

The second section of the first 2002 lecture opens with a report of the general complaint that using people is wrong. As Parfit explains, however, it is far from clear that, when the complaint is so simply made, that it is right since there appears nothing wrong in principle with using a friend as a dictionary or a loved one as a pillow. This is why, in Kant's formula, it is not treating people as a means that is condemned but treating them merely as a means and not also as ends in themselves. So it is not using people that is wrong as such but just using them.

The way to avoid just using someone is to act with regard to them in such a way that one's actions can reasonably be said to be constrained by some form of consideration for them or, put otherwise, if one can be said to be acting under some moral principle that constrains one's conduct with regard to them. Parfit construes the reference to "maxims" in Kant's formulations as an expression of what he calls "underlying policies and attitudes" and considers actions that are constrained in the appropriate way as expressions of such "policies and attitudes".

However, although Parfit appears to present action as expressive of such policies and attitudes and to take the Formula of Humanity to govern the way in which attitudes and policies can be appropriately formulated such that they are constrained in the right way he nonetheless is not thereby convinced that actions that treat someone as a mere means are thereby necessarily wrong. In other words, Parfit's first move appears to be one of viewing the Formula of Humanity as providing us, in its reference to not treating others merely as means, as giving us an appropriate guideline for the attitudes that underlie actions without thereby providing us with a means of assessing the right actions to perform.

The reason for the appearance of this split in Parfit's account is that the attitude expressed by someone in a situation may be wrong without the action that follows from the expressed attitude also being wrong. Since, however, it appeared that Parfit was presenting the reference to maxims as indicative of how to understand the policy that Kant was recommending it follows from his construal that this policy is not sufficiently comprehensive to determine the attitude we should have to the conduct that is produced by the adoption of the "wrong" attitude.

To make this point clearer Parfit refers to the example of someone who treats a coffee seller as a mere means. Such a person pays the coffee seller rather than stealing from them only because in many cases it would be too much trouble to steal from them. The person in question thus has an attitude towards the coffee seller that is worthy of moral condemnation but, unless they proceed to steal from the coffee seller, their action is not appropriately one that should be taken to worthy of moral condemnation (even if it is also not one that is worthy of moral praise as follows from Kant's examples in Groundwork I).

Generally we could say of the person with this bad attitude that they are acting in accordance with duty but not from duty just as is the case with the shopkeeper who only gives everyone the right change because this is generally in accord with their best interest and not because this is the right thing to do. So Parfit now formulates a "mere means principle" as indicating that there two ways in which treating someone as a "mere means" can be said to be wrong, either by "regarding" them merely as a means or by also harming them, without their consent, and thus acting in such a way that one treats them merely as a means. 

After having arrived at this formulation of the second part of the Formula of Humanity Parfit now combines it with his view of the first half of the Formula to produce the overall account of it as stating that we do not treat someone as a mere means if we adopt the Rational Consent principle as an appropriate constraint on our means of acting with regard to them. What this entails is subsequently set out by consideration of a set of thought experiments that bear close comparison to classic "trolley" problems but I will leave consideration of these to the next posting I do on Parfit.

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