Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Parfit and Kant on Treating Persons as Ends (II)

In a recent posting I looked at how Parfit discusses the Formula of Humanity's declarations against treating persons merely as a means in his 2002 lectures. Now I want to turn to looking, by contrast, at how Parfit's account of this topic is set out in Climbing the Mountain, the first book-length form of the work that eventually became On What Matters. The material from the 2002 lectures that I have been looking at in recent postings on Parfit is developed in Climbing the Mountain into three chapters, two of which expand on the discussions given first in the first of the 2002 lectures, and the last of which introduces topics that were not part of the first of the 2002 lectures at all. So it will require 3 postings to look in full at the way the treatment of the Formula of Humanity is presented in Climbing the Mountain.

Chapter 5 of Climbing the Mountain replicates and expands the discussion of the element of the Formula of Humanity that concerns treating people merely as a means and opens with material that is essentially the same as in the first 2002 lecture. This includes distinguishing between treating people as a means (meaning just using someone's abilities, activities or body) and treating them "merely" as a means (viewing them purely as an instrument or tool). However, an objection is mentioned from Frances Kamm who took this understanding of treating someone merely as a means to be too weak since, on this account, it would appear sufficient for a slave-holder not to be said to be treating someone merely as a means if he allowed the slaves to rest during the hottest part of the day. Parfit takes this objection seriously though it is far from clear to me why he does since, after all, treating someone as a slave is prima facie to treat them merely as a tool (as Aristotle recognised clearly). After all, if a tool is essential for a task one wants to perform then you don't act in such a way as to break it so the slave-holder in the example is merely a prudent tool-owner, not someone who is failing to treat his slaves merely as a means.

Parfit, however, affects to take Kamm's objection seriously and re-formulates the mere means principle so that it states not just that it is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means but, in his second formulation of the principle, that is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means "or to come close to that" (apparently as a way of responding to Kamm). So the slave-holder only "comes close" to treating someone merely as a means if they are sufficiently considerate to allow them to take time off work during the hottest part of the day. As already indicated I find this concession utterly unnecessary.

After beginning in this confusing way Parfit moves on to a negative claim involving what kinds of concerns would rule out the idea that our treatment of someone was not to be correctly viewed as treating them merely as a means. This restrictive negative construal indicates that we are not treating someone merely as a means if our treatment of them is either a) governed or guided in "sufficiently important ways" by a relevant moral belief or concern or b) we do or would relevantly choose to bear some great burden for this person's sake. 

The first of these ways of preventing some treatment of someone as not being subject to the charge that we are viewing them merely as a means is treated with some care by Parfit. So, for example, if a slave-holder doesn't whip his slaves merely because he is aware that this would give him a sadistic pleasure then this does not show that he is not treating the slaves merely as a means, an odd point given Parfit's apparent earlier allowance of Kamm's flawed objection. Part of the point of raising this odd case is, however, to suggest that it is not always obvious if we have a case of the first type at hand (since, apparently, if the slave-holder wasn't whipping the slaves due to some "belief" in their worth that would exculpate him!).

The second way of preventing something being viewed as treating a persons merely as a means does not only involve taking on great burdens for someone else as these burdens also have to have sufficient moral relevance to the acts being considered. The introduction of these qualifiers is meant to sharpen the way Parfit has distinguished between treating a person simply as a means and treating them merely as a means. Treating someone as a means is viewed by him as only referring to our intentions whereas, by contrast, treating someone merely as a means depends not only on this but also on underlying attitudes and policies (akin to how some have viewed the Kantian idea of a "maxim").

After reinforcing this distinction Parfit next points to an ambiguity in the notion of treating someone merely as a means since it could refer either to attitudes or to actions and he views the application of the notion to actions as something that is more difficult. In making this point Parfit introduces the example of the egoist who saves a child from drowning but only with the aim of being rewarded. The point of introducing this example is to state that whilst the attitude here is a wrong one, the action is not. However, understanding the principled basis of this distinction proves complex as becomes clear when Parfit discusses ways of incorporating reference to it in one's general account of the mere means principle. So, incorporating the distinction, in reference to the case of the egoist just considered, might lead us to introducing a third restrictive condition on evaluation of what kinds of things would not merit the charge of treating someone merely as a means.

The way that would go would be to give the formulation that we don't treat someone merely as a means if we know our acts won't harm the person in question. However, as Parfit uses an imaginary case to show, this way of framing an exemption from treating someone as a mere means is pretty problematic since it would seem to allow conduct short of actual harm even though it was motivated entirely by egoistic considerations and included no reference to benefiting someone and that appears odd. So it might well be safer, rather than trying to add this third restrictive condition on the evaluation of the action of the egoist saving the child, to instead regard this action only as one that lacks moral worth.

This leads Parfit next to a third formulation of the mere means principle so it now states that it is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means or to come close to that, if our act will also be likely to cause harm to the person. This is another puzzling feature of Parfit's argumentation, however, since stating that the act of the egoist is one that lacks moral worth is to state something quite different from saying that their action is wrong and yet this amendment is introduced as a way to indicate that treating someone merely as a means is not a distinctively wrong-making manner of treating them and this simply does not follow from his argument.

Parfit next moves to the stage of trying to give a unified treatment of the Formula of Humanity by tying together the mere means principle with the Consent Principle that he earlier located as expressed in the first part of Kant's formula. The restrictions on the application of the mere means principle included reference to conduct governed by a relevant moral belief or principle and the Consent Principle is now taken to be such a principle and hence to play the role of the first way of restricting the application of the Mere Means principle to evaluation.

Parfit next introduces the same "trolley" examples that were given in the 2002 lecture and which I discussed here. As in the 2002 lecture the point of introducing these trolley examples is to argue that the sense of "consent" in the Consent Principle is not actual consent. However, after making this argument, Parfit now adds some additional considerations that were not present in the 2002 lecture. These involve a potential objection to his argument that trades on a different understanding of the mere means principle to that which Parfit himself has given. This different understanding is expressed in what Parfit terms "the standard view" which states: "if we harm people, without their consent, as a means of achieving some aim, we thereby treat these people merely as a means, in a way that makes our act wrong".

Parfit objects to this "standard view" not least because it misidentifies what may be happening in harming people as a means since we may not be treating these particular people as a means and, even if we are, we may not be treating them merely as a means. But, most importantly for Parfit's own discussion, even if we are so treating them, this may not be sufficient for it to be said that we have acted wrongly. So you might harm someone (as in self-defence) without treating them as a means. Secondly, we might treat someone merely as a means on the standard view without evidently having done something wrong as when you cause harm to someone to save someone else (who is not yourself). 

Parfit next considers some typical claims that have been made about treating people merely as means as when Onora O'Neill and Christine Korsgaard highlight coercion and deception as treating others merely as a means. However, in response, Parfit points out that if I prevent someone from killing me by giving them a false impression of what I have done or am going to do this seems insufficient for the act in question to be viewed as wrong. Korsgaard also makes a point about free-riding pointing out that wrong actions are often such in that they only work due to the assumption that they won't form a general pattern of behaviour. However, as Parfit points out in a Bad Samaritan case I am not treating someone merely as a means if I walk on by ignoring the injured party so the wrong-making characteristic of this action has not been pulled out by application of the mere means principle (which, thus, cannot be identified simply with the generalised injunction against free-riding).

The point about the Bad Samaritan example, on Parfit's construal, is that the person responded to in the way indicated is treated not as a mere means but rather as a thing (hence not as a person at all). This may well indicate a different kind of wrongness to that of treating someone merely as a means and a much more serious moral failing thus may be involved here (although Parfit does not, having made this point, return to Korsgaard's point about free-riding). 

In the conclusion of this chapter of Climbing the Mountain Parfit returns to the distinction between regarding people merely as a means and treating them in this way. Treating someone merely as a means is viewed by Parfit in a very restrictive sense, however, since he regards a gangster who buys a cup of coffee merely because it would be too much trouble to steal it as treating the vendor merely as a means. This is a case, however, of acting in a way that lacks moral worth but it is far from obvious that it means treating someone merely as a means (it may just involve treating them simply as a means). The introduction of this flawed example is meant to pave the way to a further consideration of the third way Parfit formulated the mere means principle and includes a further treatment of harmful means in which harm is regarded as something that ought not to be caused except if it is the least harmful way to achieve an aim and, given the goodness of the aim, the harm caused is not disproportionate.

In considering this amendment to the third mere means principle Parfit points out that we have no obvious guidance for how to consider disproportionate harm. However, whilst this is a fair point, Parfit over-plays it since he takes it that the amendment proposed would rule out even mild forms of harm, something hard to square with the point about proportionality. 

Parfit's general aim in the chapter is surprisingly negative. It consists in a general claim to the effect that the mere means principle is insufficient to characterise an action as wrong (though it can define an attitude as wrong). This is in accord with the treatment of the principle that was given in his 2002 lecture but the chapter of Climbing the Mountain works harder to establish this conclusion without, however, being obviously persuasive.

No comments: