Monday, 12 December 2011

Parfit and Kant on respect

In my last posting on Parfit I looked closely at how he uses thought experiments in the first of his 2002 lectures, the lectures that present the core origin of his book On What Matters. In this piece I'm going to address the remainder of that first 2002 lecture where Parfit looks at the topic of respect.

Up until this point Parfit has concentrated on dividing the Formula of Humanity into two sub-parts, one of which relates to consent and the other of which concerns the reference to not treating others as "mere means". However, as Parfit points out, others have looked at the Formula of Humanity instead in terms of respect for the worth of humanity and this reference to dignity or worth appears particularly important in the Doctrine of Virtue. This leads Parfit to formulate a "respect principle" that simply formulates this demand for action in relation to respect for the dignity or worth or rational beings. However, after so formulating this principle, Parfit differs from Allen Wood's treatment of it as Wood appears to believe that respect is not a state of mind and hence does not relate to attitudes. Parfit, by contrast, takes the respect principle to cover both attitudes and acts. 

The major question concerning the respect principle, however, is what application of it would involve. Here Parfit differs from Kant's own sense of what appears to be involved in respecting humanity given that Kant indicates that such an attitude would indicate that suicide is generally wrong. Part of Parfit's disagreement with Kant is only an indication of the refinement which Kant showed in practice in discussing cases of consideration of suicide since Kant did indicate that the Stoic attitude towards suicide might not be blameworthy. However Parfit also broadly suggests that Kant's understanding of what an attitude of respect might involve is not necessarily reliable. This latter, stronger, point, is, however, not articulated very clearly in terms of how Kant's "going wrong" is itself theoretically grounded and what other grounds might be adopted in preference.

Similarly, when Parfit disagrees with other views of respect he is somewhat cavalier in his treatment. Citing Thomas Hill's view that respect is most indicative of the value of rationality Parfit just assumes that the type of rationality Hill here means is something purely theoretical and thus easy to reject, a rather questionable and unlikely assumption. 

The final section of the first lecture turns, by contrast, to Parfit's generic contrast between types of theories of practical reason reiterating the by now familiar contrast between desire-based and value-based theories and affirming the latter against the former. Unlike monistic theorists, however, Parfit affirms a plurality of goods including the sense that some things are good for their own sakes which is what enables him to say that his value-based theory is a "wide" and not a "narrow" one. Having drawn this contrast Parfit returns to some of the examples discussed in my previous posting in order to argue that desire-based theories have more problems with them than his favoured value-based theory would have. 

However a second aspect of Parfit's review of the cases in question is a suggestion that Kant's "consent principle" may conflict too strongly with common sense morality and that other principles than consent surely matter to us. Finally, Parfit indicates that the Formula of Humanity is not the best principle to appeal to in order to determine what is wrong but that the Formula of Universal Law is to be preferred to it, a conclusion that, whilst at odds with much contemporary Kantian writing, does conform to Kant's own strong statements with regard to universality. This is where the first 2002 lecture ends and, in subsequent postings on Parfit, I'll look at how the concluding considerations of this first lecture are refined in the subsequent texts leading up to the publication of On What Matters and, indeed, in On What Matters itself.

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