Saturday, 31 December 2011

Parfit and Kant on Respect and Value

In a recent posting on Parfit I looked at his treatment of respect in his 2002 lectures. In Chapter 6 of Climbing the Mountain Parfit returns to this topic and, in the process, extends his discussion. As in the 2002 lecture the chapter opens by pointing out that the Formula of Humanity has been read by some primarily in terms of treating persons with respect but Parfit indicates that such a requirement is not action-guiding. Further, Parfit dissents from Allen Wood's focus on "expression" of respect since no given "expression" of respect is required in terms of treating persons with respect. Parfit does concede that Kant specifically describes some vices as indicative of disrespect but, as he points out, the Formula of Humanity is not meant to cover only some wrong acts and not all wrong acts involve disrespect in the manner that the vices Kant discusses do.

When moving on to the specific notion of respect "for humanity", Wood is on stronger ground against Parfit since the requirement for such respect is somehow related by Kant to the notion of what "humanity" itself consists in. Parfit's objections to this turn principally on indicating that Kant often makes remarks (about lying for example) that we may well find it difficult to accept but this is hardly conclusive evidence against the need to count the respect requirement as part of the meaning of the Formula of Humanity.

In assessing the claim Kant makes concerning the "dignity" of humanity in the Formula of Humanity Parfit arrives at the question of the relationship between the right and the good and mentions Rawls' famous claim that the former has priority over the latter. In responding to this point Parfit mentions the idea of things being good in what he terms a reason-involving sense. Something is "good" in this way if it has a property or feature that would, in some situations, give reasons to respond to these things in certain ways. In tying the notion of the "goodness" of this sort to properties or features of situations Parfit ensures that the goodness in question is not what Christine Korsgaard would term a "final" good since its relationship to situations makes it dependent upon them. Further Parfit adds the claim that many such forms of good have a "value" and adds, somewhat confusingly, that the things, and not the "value" they possess, can be promoted.

This claim about "value" turns into a discussion about events since it is the events that can, apparently, be promoted. Parfit also indicates that he is committed to an "actualist" view of such events which means that possible acts/events are good as ends when they possess intrinsic features that give us reasons to want them to be actual. Such a view does not claim to account for goodness of types that do not belong to events. Since Parfit appears to follow Scanlon in taking a teleological theory of ethics to be one according to which only acts and events have intrinsic value he does not assume that an actualist view is equivalent to a teleological one. 

After making these claims Parfit now arrives at a different account of respect to that involved in the requirements of the Formula of Humanity. This is in terms of respect that applies to things we value in a way that merits the appellation of "respect" but in which it is, again, the things themselves and not the respect attached to them that is the basis of the value the things possess. As examples here Parfit indicates the attitudes that are displayed towards the nation's flag or the oldest tree in a region since these things cannot be used in ways that would tarnish the value attached to them. Respect, in this sense, is a manifestation of a right kind of attitude to a thing but is not intended by Parfit as a form of goodness though the acts that are mandated here can be seen as having an instrumental kind of value.

Parfit next turns to the "value" of human life, a value that Scanlon sees in terms of a kind of respect but which Parfit refuses to view as involving a respect that is distinct from a kind of "promotion". The reason why this move is made is not entirely clear though it has something to do with Parfit's rejection of an absolutist attitude towards suicide since Scanlon views the question about suicide as having to do with a respect for the autonomous decision of the person contemplating such an act. The reason why Parfit tends towards a similar conclusion here as Scanlon is due to the claim on Parfit's part that the kind of value that human life has is to do with a relationship to the requirement of rational consent, which Parfit earlier derived from the first part of the Formula of Humanity.

After mentioning these matters Parfit returns to considering Kantian claims about dignity and mentions how Kant has consideration for three different kinds of ends. Ends that are to be effected are instrumental ends and relate to the hypothetical imperative and these types of end are distinct from "existent" ends which latter are represented by persons. However the notion of such an "existent" end is something distinct from an end-in-itself for Parfit.

The analysis of Kant that Parfit offers involves the claim that a good will is an end we ought to achieve so he tends to assimilate it to the general claim about ends to be effected without, in so doing, making clear how the good will is distinct from a merely instrumental end. Similarly Parfit talks of the realm of ends as a good to be effected, again without making clear how it is nonetheless distinct from an instrumental end. Finally, Parfit describes Kant's notion of the summum bonum as a good we should promote (without distinguishing such a claim from one concerning maximisation).

Turning from these claims back to the status of persons as possessed of dignity Parfit claims that such a status applies to all persons but, since it does, it does not demarcate a kind of goodness. So the treatment of them in certain ways is something that has to be recognised but not on account of any evident value they possess.

The next stage in Parfit's discussion is to look at the relationship between rationality and value for Kant and Parfit views rationality as partly an end-to-be-effected since we can develop our rationality. However Parfit shows little understanding of what Kant might mean by rationality since Parfit equates rationality quite simply with problem-solving capacities. Since, on such a construal, Parfit can find little merit in claims about rationality per se, he instead focuses on a conception of moral rationality.

Having made all these distinctions Parfit then returns to the question about the relationship between the right and the good and denies that Kant affirms the Rawlsian view since it turns out that Kant thinks that some "goods" should be promoted. Since, however, Rawls also takes it to be the case that there are "primary goods" and yet affirms the idea of the priority of the right over the good, I think it can be clearly seen that Parfit's discussion is not a reply to Rawls. Further, since Parfit systematically conflates different kinds of ways ends might be thought of as to be effected and says remarkably little about the notion of the hypothetical imperative, his discussion in this chapter is seriously incomplete.

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