Thursday, 24 November 2011

CFP on Global Taxation

The Journal of Applied Philosophy has a call for papers for a special issue on global taxation that is due to be co-edited by three important writers in the area of global justice. They are Thomas Pogge, Tom Campbell and Gillian Brock, the last of whom I also reported had a special issue of Global Justice devoted to her textbook on the same topic. The call for papers is reproduced below:

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 

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 

Monday, 21 November 2011

Rawls and Alternative Views of Justice

In my last posting on Rawls I looked at his response to "common sense" precepts of justice. There we discovered some reasons why "common sense" precepts are at the wrong level of generality to serve as primary principles of justice. However, Rawls concludes Chapter V of A Theory of Justice by considering two other alternatives to his argument for the two principles as the right ones to be adopted in the original position. In section 49 he addresses "mixed" conceptions of justice and in section 50 concludes with a response to the arguments that have been presented for a principle of political perfectionism. In this posting I will look at these arguments in turn.

At the opening of section 49 Rawls makes clear that the "mixed" conceptions considered are ones that require the adoption of the first principle of justice and, concomitantly with this, also agree to its lexical priority over the preferred second principle where this second principle is thought to have replaced the complicated conjunction of fair equality of opportunity and the difference principle that Rawls has advocated as required. So essentially the "mixed" conceptions supplement the liberty principle with something different than the directly egalitarian concerns Rawls has presented them with. An obvious example of a "mixed" conception would be a combination of the liberty principle with the principle of utility where, however, given lexical priority, the principle of utility would be subordinate to the liberty principle. 

Such "mixed" conceptions would be in the classic position of intuitionist positions generally on Rawls' view which is that they would lack precision in application. You could, for example, view the second principle as a combination of "average" utility with some chosen minimum level of agreed income but it would still be an open question how to govern the relations between these elements. Effectively it might well be the case, Rawls suggests, that the difference principle would be being covertly appealed to in such a case. The difficulty here is much as with the appeal to "common sense" precepts which is that the intuitive nature of the combination in question leaves much undecided and without evident mechanisms available for decisions to be made. The difference principle, by contrast, allows for a direct form of appeal to be made in evaluation of decisions and this is a clear advantage of it.

Appeal to utility, even in a combined or "mixed" conception, constantly creates the problem of how the utility functions are to be measured. Maximisation has to include some measurement function and perhaps the most obvious one is the zero-one claim (everyone's preferences to count for one and no more than one). However this leaves a lot undecided between positive and negative outcomes and could lead, for example, to a preference for a large population that was relatively uneducated on the grounds that greater net utility was more easily achieved given greater numbers and fewer wants, an outcome that is, to say the least about it, not intuitive. (To see that Rawls' argument here is far from implausible it suffices only to consider what Parfit, in Reasons and Persons, termed the Repugnant Conclusion.)  Generally speaking "mixed" conceptions that involve the principle of utility can be objected to both on grounds that they involve unacceptable uncertainty given their intuitionist basis and unacceptable risks given their utilitarian element. 

In section 50 Rawls gives the principle of political perfectionism his attention and distinguishes between an absolute and a moderate variant of the principle. The "absolute" variant places a premium on the production of excellence above all else whilst the moderate version is a "mixed" conception that places the weight of excellence alongside other considerations. Essentially principles of perfection involve selection of certain types of lives as those which are given preference over others given their greater intrinsic value. Rawls terms this an "ideal-regarding" principle rather than a "want-regarding" principle. In one sense such a principle as that of perfection is close to Rawls' own endeavour since the principles of justice themselves are taken to have ideal requirements and to encourage certain types of character. But the principles of justice do not require reference to standards of excellence. 

Principles of perfection would not be adopted in the original position on Rawls' view as there is no shared standard of perfection given in the original position. There is only an index of primary goods, which are assumed to be something all would want, not a standard of excellence which only some would aspire to incarnating or aiming towards. Only if a natural duty was assumed in the original position that was accepted as culturally viable could there be space within it for the choice of the principle of perfection. This does not mean that all activities will be taken to be of equal value but that there is not an assumption that the attainment of particular types of excellence will shape the basic structure.

The principle of perfection, if combined with another in the moderate "mixed" version, faces the familiar problems Rawls always poses to intuitionist views. Generally Rawls also considers the appeal to "excellence" to involve considerations that are distinct from those of justice. So, for example, appeals for certain kinds of prohibitions on behaviour (as with sodomy statutes) often require that particular ways of life be given special privilege but this consideration, given as such, has no obvious claim to be a just one. As Rawls puts it, "subtle aesthetic preferences and personal feelings of propriety" shape standards of excellence and these types of preference are not obvious bases for just evaluations.

With the rejection of the principle of perfection in both absolute and moderate forms Rawls concludes Chapter V, a conclusion that effectively closes his consideration of how the principles of justice relate to institutions in a general sense although, as we shall see, in due course, one very important question of institutional type is left for discussion in Chapter VI.

Korsgaard and Kant on Valuing Humanity

I should open this posting with thanks to a member of the Facebook group that supports this blog who brought to my attention the recent piece Christine Korsgaard has added to her website and which up-dates her view on valuing humanity as to it is to this piece that this posting is devoted. Essentially the point of the piece is to present some reflections that respond to the ways that others have viewed her original article on the formula of humanity that is available in Creating the Kingdom of Ends. In that original piece Korsgaard argued that there is a fundamental kind of value involved in our capacity to confer values on things and that the value involved in this capacity is what is at stake in the Formula of Humanity. However, some critics have responded to this argument by claiming that it is not apparent from it why it should follow that each of us should be led to value the capacity as present in others as well as in themselves.

In responding to this objection Korsgaard looks at the question of what the value of morality itself is meant to be. As Kant argues in the Groundwork that morality is the condition under which a rational being can be an end in itself (Ak. 4: 435) there is the clear suggestion that we realise our own value in some way by choosing morally. Since this whole point is made whilst articulating the Formula of Humanity it also appears that this discussion of rational beings involves a type of elevation of humans above "mere" animals and this appears to raise a further question about the type of valuation that the formula invites us to make. As Korsgaard takes this second point seriously she wanders somewhat away from concentration on the first point for quite sometime in the article.

The first stage of Korsgaard's reply to the second question involves a consideration of moral realism as moral realists appear to see the claim that human beings respond to morality as a kind of "superior" capacity that we possess. And in looking at this claim Korsgaard is led initially away from considerations of morality in a sense since the question about animals becomes one of what types of "reason" they possess to respond to considerations. For example, Korsgaard speaks about the distinction between "objective" and "subjective" reasons and points to an example of the former being that the possession of certain properties of an object give us "reasons" to act in certain ways towards this object although we might not be aware of the fact that the object possesses these characteristics (hence have no "subjective" reason to act in this way). The point of mentioning this characteristic would be that, on a moral realists view, moral properties are "objective" reasons to act in certain ways that animals "subjectively" lack. "Subjective" reasons, on this construal, would be reasons relative to one's beliefs about things (and to one's other "reasons"). If animals thus fail to respond subjectively to these objective properties then there is a sense in which they might be thought to be "inferior" to those creatures (such as ourselves) who can respond to these properties.

Some "moral realists" might well try to deny this consequence of their view by denying that there is any normative situation present to animals in the moral sense so no "deficiency" exists in failing to respond to it. This leads to a distinction between practical and theoretical beliefs however since, in this case, practical reality would be constituted by reasons for acting rather than reasons for believing. Or, as Korsgaard thinks follows on Scanlon's view, animals have "interests" but not moral reasons. This kind of defensive move on the part of moral realists is meant to deflate the challenge that it appears, on their view, that animals "have" certain kinds of reasons that they are unaware of. However it is still true that such moral realists take the normativity of reasons to be something objective in its nature.

But it is possible, says Korsgaard, to deny the notion that possession of moral characteristics gives humans some "superiority" over animals without having to endorse a conception of moral reasons as having "objective" standing. One of the reasons why the suggestion of "superiority" here appears so odd, says Korsgaard, is that it is not clear for whom it is "better" to have the conception of "moral reasons". Is it better for those who possess such reasons that they have them or would it better for "animals" to possess them (which latter view seems to be required for the superiority thesis to be held). The latter view is, however, an odd one as Korsgaard illustrates by reference to John Stuart Mill's claim concerning it being better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. This claim is odd in the sense that it is not clear here what status the "being better" statement has. Would it be better for the pig if it were dissatisfied in the way Socrates is? It is unclear how this could be true. But this does not mean that we have to deny there is clear value, all the same, in being Socrates!

This takes Korsgaard back to her original claim about valuing the capacity to be able to claim something has value. When you act on reasons you affirm the value of so acting and when you act on moral reasons you take these to have a particular importance. And these claims have to be distinguished from ones that lead to the superiority claim. Korsgaard makes this distinction by separating two types of claims to value something. On the first sense of valuing, we value something by placing it within a domain to which evaluative standards apply. This is different from valuing something within an evaluable domain as meeting standards internal to that domain. So placing something within the domain of moral standards need not entail that lives that are outside such a domain in the way animal lives appear to be are thereby denigrated. An analogy that is made to support this involves the sense that being a parent is taken to be a moral status of a certain sort and within its status domain claims can be made that distinguish between performing this function well or badly. It doesn't follow from such claims that parenting as an activity has to be taken as a preferable form of life to a life that does not include it.

Returning now to the sense in which humanity is valued in the Formula of Humanity, Korsgaard indicates that the power to determine ends is a property that confers a sort of normative standing and that viewing it in this way enables one to respond to the critic who argues that it is possible simply to value their own humanity without taking account of the humanity of others.  But to see whether this argument goes any way to understanding Kant's position Korsgaard looks at some of Kant's specific casuistical arguments. In the case of beneficence there is a positive obligation to others that appears to require recognition that these others possess normative standing and this supports the conception that humanity itself is the source of such a standing. However, at other times, there do appear grounds for the notion that there are "valuable properties" at issue such as when Kant talks about development of talents. Korsgaard, however, does not think we need give up the latter arguments simply due to having adopted her preferred conception of humanity. The reason why she takes this to be the case, however, is that she moves to conflate the two conceptions of humanity by stating that it is the possession of normative standing itself that is the valuable property in question. Whether that is a sufficient response to the question she has set would require a different type of posting to this one.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Barbara Herman and Kant on Moral Worth

In my previous posting I looked at Richard Henson's article on Kant and moral worth and reported the basis of his conclusion that we may not have a duty to perform actions that have moral worth. The point of Henson's argument was to take the sting out of the view, as reported in part of the Groundwork, that there is a sense in which the presence of inclination is apparently sufficient to undermine the moral worth of an action. Henson's argument, whilst ingenious in its way, and certainly influential, has not gone without opposition. In this posting I am going to look at the reply to Henson made by Barbara Herman

Herman opens her piece by indicating that her sense of Henson's achievement consists in the notion that he has managed to salvage Kant's view by indicating two distinct views of moral worth in Kant's texts and that only one of these requires the view that the presence of inclinations undermines the moral worth of an action. The view that cuts against this conception, on Herman's account, is the fitness-report model of moral worth but this view is not, on Henson's report, the model of moral worth that Kant adopts in the Groundwork.  Henson appears to view the Groundwork account as requiring that respect for duty be present if an act is to have moral worth (and this is what he terms a "battle-citation" view). In responding to Henson, Herman's first move is to return to the text of the Groundwork to see if it supports the account that Henson has given.

Henson's interpretation of the Groundwork is based largely on the account of the sympathetic man (or "friend of mankind") mentioned in the first part of the work. This person normally does what is right due to finding an inner satisfaction in doing so. However, in extremis, when overcome by sorrow, he finds a ground for doing the right thing despite no longer having any inclination to do so and now for the first time, as Kant puts it, "his action has its genuine moral worth" (Ak. 4: 398). Henson generalises from this case to the position that there is a basic problem with inclination in the Groundwork which produces his "battle-citation" conception of moral worth. 

Herman, however, in returning to the text of the Groundwork, goes back prior to the invocation of this example by Kant in order to look at the wider context of the discussion in the first section of the work within which this example occurs. The first part of the Groundwork is evidently concerned with the conception of the good will and after the concept of duty has  introduced "certain subjective limitations" on the good will we arrive at the discussion of moral worth and the examples of acting for the sake of duty. This suggests, says Herman, that moral worth is part of an account of what it is that is involved in the good will. Now, the key to the good will, as appears from its connection to duty, concerns the motive involved in performing a dutiful act. The important thing, however, is that the motivation here considered is one in which acting dutifully means acting for the sake of duty rather than for the sake of something else.

This limitation on dutiful acts is undertaken in order to contrast such a form of motivation from ones in which dutiful acts are undertaken for some other end with the example of a dutiful act undertaken for self-seeking ends (as in the case of the shopkeeper) and due to immediate inclination (in the case of the "friend of man") brought in as contrastive to the action undertaken for the sake of duty alone. In the shopkeeper example it is evident that acting honestly is undertaken instrumentally and hence need not apply in all circumstances. Now this problem with the maxim of the shopkeeper does not obviously apply to the philanthropist who is generally disposed to act in ways that do accord with duty. Whilst the philanthropist has not adopted the right maxim instrumentally, however, it is still true, Kant suggests, that there is only a contingent connection between the ground of their maxims and right action and it lacks, he says, "moral content". In other words, the philanthropist is essentially indifferent to morality. 

Looked at in general terms, Herman argues, Kant's discussion of the examples is not intended to give an overall account of moral worth. But what it does do is show us a problem with dutiful actions being performed for motives that are not themselves dutiful. The key point then would not concern inclination ultimately (as it does for Henson) but, instead, an understanding of what is involved in moral motivation which is, for Herman, the claim that a moral motive, to be truly said to exist, has to give the agent adopting it an interest in the rightness of their actions. So the problem with Henson's account of "overdetermination" of motives really concerns whether such motives involve attention being directed to such rightness as, if they do not, their connection to the rightness of actions remains only contingent. To be sure that an action has moral worth we thus need a non-contingent (or necessary) relation between the motive of the agent and the duty that the action would manifest.

Once things are put in this way Herman can move to complicate the details of Henson's original picture which she does by considering two models of her own of moral worth. On the first account the fitness-report model of moral worth that Henson argues is articulated in the Groundwork requires to be understood through a notion of "greater strength". What this involves is that an action would be judged only to have moral worth if the moral motive was sufficiently strong to prevail over other inclinations regardless of whether they cooperation or conflicted with the moral motive. The battle-citation model is only different in the sense that it has here been specified that the moral motive has won out. In other words, on Herman's account, it becomes implausible to view Kant as having adopted different models of moral worth in the Groundwork and the Doctrine of Virtue as Henson argued. However the problem with this first account is that since it really collapses the two views of moral worth into one by upholding the battle-citation model that it seems to require that moral worth be understood as the same as moral virtue. 

On the alternative reading Herman requires that the moral motive be the one on which the agent acted and that the configuration of motives be one that is reliable in its outcome. The reliability of outcome seems to be guaranteed not by an appeal to "strength" (which perhaps was still a contingent measure) but by the direct invocation of the moral motive as the ground of the action so that an action with moral worth was produced. The stress here seems to fall on the action rather than the agent as the general structure of the agent's character is what is meant by virtue. The disambiguation that Herman has carried out in distinguishing this second alternative from the first thus consisted in seeing the appeal to the ground of the maxim as crucial to the given action rather than taking it to represent a permanent alteration in the structure of the agent's willing.

Herman's account of dutiful actions thus indicates the nature of the appeal to the moral motive as the assessment of the moral worth of the action undertaken. The motives provide what she calls "limiting conditions" on what we can do for other motives than the moral one. The key is that the moral motive be the effective ground of the action undertaken regardless of the presence or otherwise of other elements. It limits the effective presence of other motivations but is also a ground of appeal when we do act in its own right. 

However Herman's picture becomes more complicated when we note that she speaks of duty being a motive in a primary sense in dutiful actions whilst it is only limitative of the presence of other motives in, for example, merely permissible (but not mandatory) actions. So the role of duty is not always expressive in the primary sense as it can simply act as a means of filtering out immoral temptations. 

Going back to the "friend of humanity" who was important for Henson's original argument, Herman now presents this person in terms of a change of temperament and the point concerns not the kind of view that Schiller endorsed (and towards which Henson's interpretation inevitably drifts) but rather that this case has broken the person in question from having only a contingent connection between their willing and an action that can be said to be right. In support of this Herman also cites Kant's discussion of suicide in Groundwork I in which it becomes clear that it is not normally morally worthy that we avoid it but it becomes so when we are robbed of the normal reasons inclination provides us with not to wish for it. Inclination alone provides us with nothing that has moral worth as it gives no reason to act morally. So the appeal to being free of inclination in order for an act to have moral worth concerns, as Herman concludes by arguing, a situation of independence from circumstances and it is that which we have when inclination ceases to be the ground on which we act.

Richard Henson and Kant on Moral Worth

I have posted a number of pieces recently concerned with how different commentators have responded to the argument of the first part of the Groundwork, including, most recently, Christine Korsgaard's account of its argument. However, what I have not addressed thus far in the postings given over to this topic, have been the contributions in the secondary literature that have focused specific attention to the topic of "moral worth", something that is worth some detailed attention as the literature on this topic has, in recent years, rather grown. As one of the first pieces devoted specifically to discussing moral worth was by Richard Henson I will, in this piece, seek to retrace the main points of Henson's argument in order that the subsequent responses to it can be given separate consideration in later postings.

Henson's article is meant to focus on the question of what is involved in attribution of "moral worth" to an action given Kant's statements and the statement analysed in particular in Henson's article is in the first section of the Groundwork. It is worth adding, however, that Henson also emphasises the notion that moral motivation can be "overdetermined" as it may involve a mixture of inclinations and determining reasons. In relation to the maxim being taken to be a moral one Henson also points out that it is not sufficient that it pass the universalisation test (although it is necessary that it does so) but failure to carry out the action should also be wrong. However, the key point for Henson doesn't concern duty itself but rather "moral worth" and the suggestion that an act "only" has such worth if it is done from duty. Finally, for the purposes of introduction of Henson's argument, the suggestion that moral worth attaches only to actions done from duty, is taken by him only to feature as an argument in the Groundwork and not to be part of the argument of the Doctrine of Virtue, not least because, in the latter work, we have a distinct class of "duties of virtue" which are simply not performed at all unless done from duty.

The key passage from the Groundwork on which Henson builds so much is the one concerning the "friend to mankind" who has been overcome by some sorrow such that they are no longer capable of possessing an inclination to do a good act but manage to tear themselves "out of this dead insensibility" and perform the required act "without any inclination" and then have performed an act which has "genuine moral worth" (Ak. 4: 398). Having cited this passage Henson questions its import on two levels, asking both (A) what it means to ascribe moral worth to an act and (B) under what circumstances we are to say that someone has acted from duty. The first question concerning the ascription of moral worth is one that is presented as having two possible answers, either (a) that the person at the time of performing the action was in a "fit moral condition" or (b) that the person at the time acted in such a way that we feel they won a significant battle against evil.

The second question (B), by contrast, concerns overdetermination of acts given that it is often the case that one may well have many distinct motives for performing a given act. Henson argues that Kant gives no direct answer to this second question but that he could have given one of three possible answers to it: 1) reverence for duty was present and would be enough without anything further; 2) other inclinations were present and show the act was not  done from duty; 3) both could be present but this does not show, in any given case, on which motive the agent was acting. Henson effectively rules out 3) (despite giving it some supporting grounds) in order to argue between 1) and 2) and argues that the example given at Ak 4: 398 tells in favour of 2) and thus to support the view that it is only when one acts without any supporting inclination that one is acting from duty.

Henson does concede, however, that many would be tempted to deny that Kant adopts 2) as the right answer to B) simply because it seems to leave him open to the view of Schiller to the effect that he is endorsing the suggestion that having pleasure in doing duty is itself "wrong", an odd and counter-intuitive result and one that most Kantians have always been concerned to reject. 

In order to respond to this putative objection to his account Henson rolls together his responses to A) and B) now in order to articulate what he takes the full Kantian reply to be to the question of what it means to say that a dutiful act has moral worth and he states that the choice is between one of two answers: i) provided respect for duty was present then it doesn't matter whether or not there were other motives; ii) only if respect for duty was the sole motive was there moral worth in the act performed. Now this full response also relates back to the alternative answers given to question A) since the  fitness report model (a) would coincide with i) whereas the battle model would require ii). 

Now, having stated these points Henson returns to the putative objection from Schiller and points out that it counts as such only if Kant agrees c) that the presence of inclinations defeats the attribution of moral worth and d) it is a moral defect not to perform actions which require moral worth. Both conditions are required for Schiller's response to the Kantian account to be the right one since the failure of c) would ensure that the presence of inclinations had no effect on the award of moral worth to an action whereas the failure of d) would show that it was not necessary to put oneself in positions where it is was required to act from duty. (So there would not be a duty to act from duty.)

Assuming that Henson's earlier argument was accepted it would follow that part of Schiller's condition was fulfilled since c) would hold and the presence of inclinations would have an effect on the award of moral worth to an action but this does not, by itself, entail that d) also has to hold. This means that the battle that could be won in overcoming evil is not one that we would necessarily encourage people to undertake. A reason for adopting this view, according to Henson, is that the argument of the Groundwork does not lead to the conclusion that we have to perform acts that have moral worth (or even, he says, that we "ought" to). The reason for this is that the situation that requires moral worth is not one that we should wish to be placed in and nor is it one that we have a duty to find ourselves in. A supporting argument for this view is the suggestion made at Ak. 4: 428 concerning the wish to be free from inclinations which Henson takes merely to require that we be free of inclinations which would hinder us from performing our duties not of inclinations per se (which takes part of the sting out of Schiller's attack).

The final part of Henson's argument turns on his view of the case in the Doctrine of Virtue since the duties of virtue require, he states, that we adopt the end in question and if we lacked it we would not have performed the said duties at all. On this model it does become the case that it is a moral defect to fail to perform acts having moral worth (d) on Schiller's account but not evidently a problem that there be cooperating inclinations. So neither the Doctrine of Virtue account nor that of the Groundwork satisfies both conditions of Schiller's gibe though each work possesses one of the conditions of meeting it. This does suggest that the works are inconsistent with each other on Henson's view but he argues the reason for this inconsistency is that Kant failed to pay sufficient attention to the question of overdetermination of actions. 

Having set Henson's argument out in detail I will, in future postings on moral worth, review some of the responses to it that have appeared in the secondary literature but will link back to this posting when I do so in order that the replies can be evaluated in terms of how well they have depicted Henson's original argument.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Parfit's Thought Experiments Concerning Persons

In my last posting on Parfit I began to discuss how he responds to the Kantian injunction concerning treating persons as ends in his 2002 lectures. Today I want to look further at these lectures in terms of how he utilises thought-experiment arguments to prosecute his understanding of how the Formula of Humanity's injunction should be understood. I am not in this posting going to address the question of whether the use of thought-experiments in the manner that Parfit does is plausible from a Kantian viewpoint though this question, as raised by Allen Wood's response to these lectures, will be discussed sometime in the future since that response is one of the ones Parfit includes in volume 2 of On What Matters.

In the last posting we had reached Parfit's understanding of how to comprehend the two parts of the Formula of Humanity and the introduction of examples that occurs next is part of his way of testing the understanding of the formula at this point. Essentially Parfit produces now some classic "trolley problem" arguments of the type that Judith Jarvis Thompson initially introduced into moral philosophy. As originally formulated by Thompson these problems literally refer to potential outcomes when faced with runaway trains. Parfit introduces three examples that fairly closely parallel Thompson's originals. Firstly he refers to the "Lifeboat" example in which one person (termed "White") is stuck on a rock somewhere whilst five others are elsewhere and our lifeboat can either rescue White or the five others but not both. Secondly, Parfit invokes "tunnel" in which a runaway train is heading towards five people but could be redirected away from them, at, however, the cost of hitting and killing poor old White. Finally, in "Bridge" the train is again aiming at the five but there isn't a parallel track but we could, using a trap-door, get White off a Bridge above the track into the path of the on-coming train thus saving the five. (The second two are pretty transparent replicas of two of Thompson's originals.)

In terms of "outcomes" alone all three examples have the same structure of enabling us to act in such a way that we save the five at the expense of the one. However, the manner in which this outcome is produced is different in each case as, in "Lifeboat", it's simply the case that, given the constraints of time, there's no way to save the five and the one and so a trade-off between them seems plausible in which we justify our action through a classic commissions/omissions defence. In "Tunnel" the saving of the five happens more directly through a fore-seen harm being produced to the one which we have directly brought about (so that the commissions/omissions defence we could give in "Lifeboat" isn't here available). Finally, in "Bridge" we, even more directly, aim at harming White in order to save the five and often it is with this example that intuition rings an alarm bell leading many to reject this action despite plausibly having sacrificed White in the two previous cases.

If "Bridge" is a case where many object, some draw a line earlier and rule out the action even in "Tunnel" on the grounds that we have an over-riding duty not to directly harm so that White can't be made the victim there either. If you don't draw the line at "Tunnel", however, there are less obvious reasons than might be thought why you should do so in the case of "Bridge". Now, Parfit's point in bringing in these thought-experiments is not to repeat the arguments that have swirled ever since Thompson set out the originals of these cases but rather to see what difference application of the two sub-principles he takes the Formula of Humanity to comprise of, make to the cases under consideration.

Recall that Parfit divided the Formula of Humanity into two sub-parts that he described as incarnating a Rational Consent notion and a Mere Means principle. Rational Consent taken alone implies treating people in ways to which they could, in principle, give rational consent even if, in the actual cases under consideration, they don't manifest the tendency to give such consent (or perhaps wouldn't if we were in a position to ask them). With regard to this principle Parfit assumes that White could give Rational Consent to sacrificing themselves with the proviso that this sacrifice would (or would at least tend) to save the other five. So the Rational Consent principle alone, on Parfit's construal, would not rule out taking action that produced this outcome.

It might next be asked whether the addition of the Mere Means principle would make any difference to Parfit's verdict here but he takes it to be the case that it wouldn't affect the verdict since, if we treat people in accord with the Rational Consent principle, then we wouldn't be violating the Mere Means principle. Taking the examples in turn, "Lifeboat" doesn't seem problematic since here we can see what would be meant by "Rational Consent" in terms of how White might, assuming a Rawslian veil of ignorance, adopt the position of thinking that the five should here be saved were they to be asked about the example without knowing whether they were a member of the five or the one left, unfortunately, to the fate of the waves.

Given this argument Parfit also takes it to be true that there would be no relevant difference between the case of "Lifeboat" and "Tunnel". Viewed in relation to "Rational Consent" alone Parfit also thinks that there is no relevant difference again between "Lifeboat" and "Bridge" though this is, as indicated above, certainly a counter-intuitive result. However, at this point we may still be unconvinced that the application of the Mere Means principle could validate the same outcome in the case of "Bridge" at least as Parfit's suggestion about Rational Consent has done.

In considering this objection Parfit mentions one understanding of the Mere Means principle that runs counter to the one he has adopted and that is the view of Robert Nozick who, in Anarchy, State & Utopia, presents the Mere Means principle as a basis for appeal to deontological side-constraints that overcome the consequentialist reasoning that Parfit has adopted up to this point. On Nozick's view the side-constraint in question enables one to deny that it is right to sacrifice someone in order to achieve an end they have not consented to the adoption of. Noticeably, Nozick's reading requires not just that the Mere Means principle is understood differently from how Parfit has presented but also alters the understanding of what is involved in reference to consent as here actual consent makes an appearance rather than Parfit's ideas of "rational" consent.

Parfit states that the Nozickian view requires us to view the Mere Means principle in such a way that it it becomes sufficient for someone to be treated as a mere means if we act towards them in a way that they have not actually consented to (and subsequently harm them in the process). If this is the implication of Nozick's understanding of Mere Means then Parfit has a reply ready to hand as it may be necessary (as he gives an additional example to show) that someone be injured (in ways to which they have not actually consented) in a relatively minor way in order that someone else be saved from a much worse fate and yet we wouldn't generally regard that as sufficient to say that the injured person had been treated merely as a means. This riposte to Nozick's case is, however, surely insufficient since, in the examples under consideration the level of harm involved is life-threatening and not only does that undermine actual consent being available but it destroys all conditions of agency as such.

Parfit considers this riposte but not, I think, in its full sense since he views it only in terms of limitation of harm, not in terms of protecting the conditions of agency as such. Later Parfit does arrive at consideration of such a case which is considered in a very classic consequentialist way. This is the case he dubs "Catastrophe" where we can prevent some awful event occurring only at the cost of killing some innocent person. This does directly involve consideration of undercutting of the conditions of agency and it is treated in traditional way through maximisation of the good. 

If Parfit's pattern of reasoning is here somewhat predictable he does use it to modify Nozick's objection through formulation of a "harm principle" that states that it is plausible to harm people without their consent in order to achieve a good aim so long as the harm in question is not "disproportionate" with regard to the aim. Parfit does give a final consideration to the objection from agency I have mentioned stating that Thompson assumes that there is some absolute value attaching to it such that it cannot be over-ridden whatever the supposed good outcome in question. Assuming that someone maintains this view Parfit proposes a modified version of his 'harm principle'  that allows lesser harms to be inflicted on people without their consent assuming the good end is the basis of this.

Part of the point of this whole "trolley" discussion on Parfit's part has been to bolster his argument that we cannot apply the Mere Means principle directly to our evaluation of actions. Rather than applying it to the evaluation of actions it should apply, on Parfit's conception, only to the evaluation of attitudes. This produces the outcome that the second half of the Formula of Humanity is now understood in one way when it applies to evaluation of attitudes (where the Mere Means principle applies) and another at the level of evaluation of actions (where it is replaced by the Harm principle). However there is another element to the Formula of Humanity which has yet to be considered and that is its reference to "respect" for rational nature and the way in which this is treated in the first of Parfit's 2002 lectures will be the subject of my next posting on Parfit.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Allison on Kant's Ethical Predecessors

In my last posting on Henry Allison's commentary on the Groundwork I expressed some disappointment over the coverage given in its first chapter to historical questions. The first chapter laid out, in somewhat rudimentary form, some of the background to Kant's writing of the Groundwork. The second chapter, by contrast, looks at the two approaches to moral philosophy that were likely to be foremost in Kant's mind as alternatives to his own approach when he composed the Groundwork. These are the Wolffian notion of "universal practical philosophy" and the approach, associated by Allison here with Christian Garve, of "popular moral philosophy". Whilst the discussion of these approaches in Allison's second chapter does not aim to compete with the more extensive discussions on offer elsewhere this second chapter is certainly more useful in giving the reader of the Groundwork historical background than anything Allison provided in the first chapter.

The second chapter is intended only to give, as Allison explicitly states, a "sketch" of the relevant features of the approaches discussed and a brief analysis of some of Kant's reactions (though the latter is provided only really with regard to the Wolffian system). Kant's use of Baumgarten's textbook is well recorded in the lecture notes that have come down to us from Kant's teaching practice and the textbook by Baumgarten that Kant used was published as late as 1760 so was certainly current material, even at the time of the publication of the Groundwork. Allison chooses, however, to base most of his reportage of the approach of the Wolffian school not on Baumgarten's textbook but on one by Georg Meier who, though not referred to by Kant in his lectures on ethics, produced what Allison regards as "the most accessible and comprehensive treatment" of the approach.

As Allison points out, one of the features of "universal practical philosophy" that would have appealed to Kant was that it does give a kind of metaphysics of morals as it aims to provide the only viable foundation for a system of human duties. It also focuses on general rules governing free actions which, due to their normative necessity, are taken to be laws. However, the metaphysics in this approach involves a compatibilist conception of freedom that ultimately derives from Leibniz's conception that free actions are necessary in the sense that they are derived from the principle of sufficient reason. So, on this view, the morally possible and the morally necessary become extensionally equivalent.

Wolff's general idea of obligation, by contrast, focused on an idea of perfection which, in a practical sense, viewed it as requiring the harmony of all volitions with each other so that none ran counter to the others. This produced his moral imperative: "Do what makes you and your condition more perfect and omit what makes you and your condition less perfect", modified slightly by Baumgarten to read "seek perfection as much as you can". This perfectionism was also linked, at least by Baumgarten, to a Stoic principle of living according to nature in order to attain the perfection in question (thus providing an interpretation of perfectionism that bends in the direction of a kind of naturalism). 

Allison provides Kant's response to the standpoint of universal practical philosophy in two phases, looking first at Kant's lectures on ethics as transcribed by Collins (1780s lectures) and, secondly, and more briefly, at the remarks Kant makes on it in the "Preface" to the Groundwork. In relation to the analysis of obligation by Baumgarten, Kant is recorded in the lectures as stating that not all imperatives yield obligations (which is part of his distinction of hypothetical from categorical imperatives). Similarly, being necessitated has to be distinguished from being obligated since natural necessitation is not the basis of moral obligation. Kant does here show himself more favourably disposed towards the principle of perfection than to many other moral principles since he took it to state something that does have a certain use as it can be understood to refer to the "completeness of man" (thus to a kind of idea of totality). This can also be seen to be lasting given Kant's remarks on perfection in the Metaphysics of Morals.

By contrast, Kant's discussions of freedom in the Collins lectures are obviously at odds with Leibnizian compatibilism but share something different with a Leibnizian approach (though it has to be said Allison does not discuss this as a connection between Kant and Leibniz), namely, a sense that moral action is more "free" than immoral action. Kant's remark on universal practical philosophy in the "Preface" to the Groundwork explicitly states that the approach of this work is not to be confused with that of the "universal practical philosophy", not least because the latter has not isolated the conception of a will determined fully from a priori principles. Starting from this notion of a possible pure will (as Kant does in Groundwork I) differentiates the approach adopted from one that refers to a conception of volition derived largely from psychology. Allison stresses the point made here by Kant about "purity" in order to underline the distinctive method of the Groundwork by contrast to that of "universal practical philosophy". Kant also suggests in the "Preface" that the treatment of obligation in "universal practical philosophy" is insufficient for an ethics to arise.

The second part of Allison's discussion concerns the work of Christian Garve, which is taken to be illustrative of the approach of "popular moral philosophy" and Garve is specifically looked at due to the fact that he provided a translation, with commentary, of Cicero's De Officiis in 1783, a point significant given that Kant apparently had a long-standing interest in Cicero. Further, the importance of the "Garve-Feder" review of the Critique of Pure Reason, a review that led Kant to write the Prolegomena (and, arguably, was important in the revisions of the Critique itself in its second edition) give additional weighty reasons for the focus on Garve. The original version of this review, by Garve alone, also contained some paragraphs responding to the account of morality Kant gave in the Canon section of the Critique. Allison points out that in the Canon Kant assumes that there really are moral laws a priori and that they command absolutely although in this work Kant also excluded moral philosophy from the scope of transcendental philosophy so did not proceed to an investigation of these claims.

Further, the account in the Canon does refer to the notion of the summum bonum that will recur in the Critique of Practical Reason. However, Allison claims that at the time of the composition of the Critique of Pure Reason that Kant was not in possession of the notion of autonomy of the will so that the location of happiness would not have been an evident problem to Kant at the time this work was published. By contrast, in Garve's brief comment on the Canon, the question of the basis in nature for a view of the correlation between happiness and morality is raised as an explicit problem (thus foreshadowing the argument of the Dialectic of the Second Critique). Allison takes the ground for Kant's views about this connection in the Critique of Pure Reason to be quite different from what they became in the Second Critique and suggests Garve's criticism may have been a spur to the development of Kant's thought here.

A second line of thought taken from Garve by Allison concerns the emphasis placed on popularity in his alleged "popular moral philosophy". Kant himself rejected this emphasis as a proper way to approach the beginning of moral philosophy in the Groundwork and as a false way of responding to the critique of metaphysics in the Critique of Pure Reason but the writing of the Prolegomena does suggest a sense of a need for a response to popular criticism of his work. However, it remained Kant's view that scholastic precision and throughness of argumentation could not be replicated in "popular" treatises.

Garve's approach to moral philosophy as illustrated in his translation of Cicero shows a decided emphasis on the importance to him of popularity since he did not assume familiarity on the part of his readers with the Latin text. However, it was not purely such matters that were part of Garve's "popular" approach but also his understanding of philosophical method. The decision to translate De Officiis at all, rather than Cicero's De Finibus, occurs because of a view that the former work is easier in form and that this "popularity" of it is a distinct virtue. Over and above these points, however, Garve approved of the way in which Cicero identified moral goodness with happiness in terms of his analysis of human nature. Indeed, Garve essentially simplifies Cicero's account of virtue since, on Garve's account, there is really only one essential virtue which turns out to be "prudence".

Garve, unlike the advocates of the Wolffian approach, does not advocate a compatibilist view of freedom but essentially gives up on the problems connected to freedom indicating that we should just "live" the aporias felt here. Part of the lesson derived from this is that it would be arrogant to assume we are in possession of virtue since we are not even properly speaking responsible for its production. These points indicate some of the basis for Kant's dismissive view of "popular moral philosophy" as a form of eclecticism and the requirement, by contrast, to develop a clearer moral philosophy that is built more firmly on concepts of rational agents rather than empirical concepts.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Rawls and Common Sense Precepts of Justice

In my last posting on Rawls I discussed the form the two principles of justice reach in Chapter V of A Theory of Justice. Having stated this form I then wondered what justified the rest of the work, or at least, the rest of Chapter V. Chapter V is, in fact, subsequently, an argument concerning different views of justice to that articulated in the notion of justice as fairness. Two sections concern "common sense" precepts, one the notion of "mixed conceptions" of justice and a final one, the principle of perfection. In this posting I'm simply going to fix on the discussion of "common sense" precepts which is the main subject of sections 47 and 48 of Chapter V.

Section 47 opens with a reiteration of the point that the sketch of the system of institutions that satisfies the two principles of justice is now complete. Assuming the basic structure has this form the distribution that results will be just (or, minimally, not unjust) and the analogy here, as is typical of much of the argument of Theory, is with the outcome of a fair game. However, at this point, Rawls turns to consider the question of how the conception of justice as fairness relates to our common sense precepts of justice. 

Common sense precepts have within them the problem of priority that Rawls articulated back in Chapter I as arising for intuitionist conceptions and which the various arguments for priority of principles that he gave in the previous sections of Chapter V show a basis for having overcome on the conception of justice as fairness. The two principles of justice are taken to define the basic criterion of how we will understand justice but are themselves arranged in an hierarchical order and contain (in the case of the second principle) sub-parts that themselves need articulating in order.

Rawls now considers various types of "common sense" precept and how they arise. However, he is less interested in these precepts themselves than with how different conceptions of justice lead to different ways of weighing them. The difference between different conceptions of justice is not understood by Rawls to reside in different types of common sense precepts but, instead, in different types of attention to them. A society that provides for fair equality of opportunity (the first part of the second principle of justice) responds differently to common sense precepts once this principle is part of its basic structure than does another society that does not provide for fair equality of opportunity in this way.

For one thing the provision of opportunities according to this principle tends to produce greater levelling of incomes with the result that the precept of rewarding each according to training is given less weight in this society than in alternative ones that have not built the principle of fair equality of opportunity into their basic structure. What this example is meant to show is that the type of generality that common sense precepts possess is the wrong sort for the articulation of principles of justice. This is despite the fact that some common sense precepts do initially appear general enough, such as ones that stress the natural right of property in the fruits of our labour (a kind of Lockean view). However, for this view to really be generally applicable it must be the case that the distribution it refers to is part of a generally just order, it cannot simply define one. It is, after all, just one of many precepts with another, also often appealed to and clearly off-setting this, referring to distribution according to need.

In market situations the general problem, at work in the kind of Lockean conception, is one in which contributions are expected to be rewarded. But what matters for any given kind of contribution is the relation of it to the whole system of norms in question. In this respect the questions of choice of occupation and free association are parts of a system of justice but the overall principle of fair equality of opportunity is one that determines the rewards that would arise in relation to them.

If section 47 articulates the problem that common sense precepts lack sufficient generality to stand in for principles of justice at the level of the basic structure, section 48, by contrast, tackles one specific type of principle that would threaten to reduce questions of justice to questions of virtue. This would be the adoption of a general principle that rewards should be adjusted by connection to virtue or moral worth shown (a kind of "republic of virtue"). Justice as fairness is in opposition to such a notion despite recognising the place of legitimate expectations within systems of justice.

The extent of a contribution someone has made at a given time is often determined impersonally by mechanisms such as markets that price the reward of a given effort in ways that may have little connection to the individual effort involved. This is a problem with viewing the conception of just distributive shares as a process of maximising returns by reference to conscientious effort. It also shows the difficulty of adopting such a principle as a public one. Moral worth, whether defined through conscientious effort or in some other way, is not a principle of distributive justice. Indeed, so little is this the case according to Rawls that there would be something grossly offensive about thinking of justice in this way as he suggests in the following striking comparison: "For a society to organize itself with the aim of rewarding moral desert as a first principle would be like having the institution of property in order to punish thieves".

The reason for this striking analogy concerns the distinction Rawls draws between a conception of reward determined by virtue and one that draws on the correct notion of legitimate expectations. In the latter case the expectations are what arise from doing things encouraged by existing arrangements and these would be best defined, on Rawls' view, by reference to the principle of fairness and the natural duty of justice. Institutions are bound to realise legitimate expectations they have encouraged in relation to these superordinate principles of justice. However, even when we have a system of justice that is governed by such principles there is no way of ensuring that conscientious effort or any other such type of moral worth would lead to higher rewards.

In this respect distributive justice is quite unlike retributive justice. If the purpose of the latter is to uphold basic natural duties through the provision of penalties attached to their violation, the purpose of distributive justice is only to ensure a generally just order and to reward individuals for carrying out generally valued social functions, so the variations in rewards should only be concerned with promoting the general ends of the basic structure, not the elevation of particular individuals in a parallel to the degradation suffered by those who have violated natural duties.

In sum then, Rawls concludes that most common sense precepts of justice are insufficiently general to be possible candidates in the original position for the status of general principles of justice and he specifically rules out views that would conceive of social justice as a wide form of reward for virtue since the latter view conflates the purposes of distributive justice with those of retributive justice.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Jacco Verburgt in *Kant Studies Online*

The latest issue of Kant Studies Online is out and includes a review article by Jacco Verburgt responding to a collection of pieces on Kant's metaphysics edited by Norbert Fischer. It can be freely accessed and downloaded here.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Analytic and Continental Philosophy

I spent part of yesterday listening to the BBC Radio 4 programme In Our Time that was devoted to discussing the relationship between "continental" and analytical philosophy and thought it was worth offering some comments on it. The show, chaired as always by Lord Melvyn Bragg, has a number of problems generally since it forces into 45 minutes discussions that are hardly fitted to such a compressed format.  On the panel were Stephen Mulhall (best known for his work on Wittgenstein), Hans Glock (who has worked on the nature of analytic philosophy) and Beatrice Han-Pile (best known for her work on Foucault). 

The basic problem at the heart of the show concerned the inability of the guests to really deal with "Continental philosophy", perhaps because, as was indicated more than once, it is less a philosophical category than a get-out clause that has been used often by Anglo-American thinkers to describe whatever it is that they don't do themselves. However, somewhat parallel to this, and less investigated than it should have been, is the demise of traditional "analytic" philosophy. Mulhall, who had the opening shot on the show, described the arrival of "analytic" philosophy at the beginning of the twentieth century, through the work of Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein (though he oddly neglected to refer to G.E. Moore). Subsequently, and perhaps because it has been popularly heard of, came the "logical positivists" after which it became somewhat unclear how the "analytic" tradition developed or what it is now. Glock did indicate at one point the view that the distinctive character of "analytic philosophy" was being increasingly lost though he didn't say either why this was so or what it meant for it to be the case. 

The general point that the demise of the early twentieth century belief that philosophy had a sound logical method that could sweep all before it (oddly later revived in terms of a turn to language in ordinary language philosophy) meant that Anglo-American philosophers essentially had to return to the grand themes of philosophy (as noted in the general revival now of "metaphysics") went missing. However, without some understanding of the way in which the early mission of analytic philosophy was dissipated it becomes hard to understand either how it got cut off from "Continental philosophy" or the ways in which it is now re-engaging with the latter. The conventional argument that the analytic tradition began in revolt against idealism tells us little about how it is that idealism can now be found throughout Anglo-American philosophy all over again (and not just because of the influence of the Pittsburg school). 

Similarly, the "Continental" tradition was presented by Han-Pile in terms of a concern with existential questions and a concentration on hermeneutic approaches. This emphasis naturally leaves aside the origins of phenomenology or the emphasis on rigid mathematical thought in the contemporary work of Badiou. In presenting "Continental" thought through the prism of existential questions something is caught about the use of literary methods but this again is something also important for such an evident Anglo-American thinker as Martha Nussbaum. 

The generic reflections attempted focused on the way in which the Idealist response to Kant marked a rupture of sorts that was not followed in Anglo-American thinking but runs into the inconvenient fact of the British Idealist school which precisely was concerned with a relation to the classic Idealists. What comes out of thinking through these questions is the immense difficulty of finding anything obvious to say about a division which clearly does matter institutionally and yet is very difficult to capture either historically or conceptually.

A different story I would tell would concern the way in which the formation of contemporary institutions arises from late nineteenth century developments. It was in the 1870s that we saw the arrival of philosophy journals and around this time we also have the Neo-Kantian school in Germany. The latter school devised many of the divisions in philosophy that became determinative for it in universities. Curricula that moved away from concentration on Greek philosophy and looked instead to modern philosophy finding its founding in the work of Descartes is a product of historical and conceptual work during the 19th century and with it arrived the distinctions between logic, epistemology, ethics and the "lesser disciplines" that became central to the manner in which analytic philosophy was institutionally disseminated. The questions of pedagogy that both played into this and also gave it a particular impetus have rarely been studied.

By contrast, French and German universities underwent different processes of formation, processes that themselves would require study. However what remained important here was a constant historical reference in philosophy that prevented the response to philosophy as merely a set of "problems". America, by contrast to both the UK and to the French and German situations, took longer to arrive at a determinate sense of philosophy and when it did it owed a lot to the efforts of Wilfrid Sellars. Sellars, himself, unlike many British examples, looked always back to historical examples and the arrival of new forms of idealism in American philosophy refer back to his influence.

By contrast to these reflections, the general emphasis of the guests on In Our Time focused only on the "great" thinkers and on reactions to them. I think, however, the institutional ways in which thinkers become canonised and the selection of questions from them requires understanding by means of how divisions in a subject become seminal. This requires a different type of approach to the conventional but don't expect to see it soon!