Monday, 30 January 2012

Skorupski on morality and normativity

It is sometime now since I last blogged on John Skorupski's book The Domain of Reasons. This book, which is presented by some as an alternative to Parfit's On What Matters and which concerns, like Parfit, a general theory of reason, is one whose preliminary account of sentimentalism about practical reason (not morality) I looked at in my last posting on it. In the present posting I want to conclude my review of the introduction to Skorupski's book so that future postings on it can begin the arduous task of going through the major sections of the work.

Skorupski concludes his introduction to the work by discussing morality further and linking his view of morality to his general claims about normativity. With regard to morality Skorupski makes clear that an examination of the "sentiment" of blame is one that he thinks will help us to understand the "categoricity" of morality. By the "categoricity" of morality Skorupski means that morality is categorical in the sense that "it is a priori that if someone has a moral obligation to a he has reason to a" (28). The link of this to the view of blame is that to blame someone for something is to take them to have had a reason not to do the thing that they did. Further, blame (along with a list of other dispositions that Skorupski gives) involves a withdrawal of recognition from the one blamed. This does not mean that the one from whom recognition is withdrawn cannot retrieve the situation though Skorupski is perhaps going too far in claiming that the situation is one that can, as he puts it, "always" be retrieved since I can certainly think of cases (without having to move into serious crime) where it certainly is not possible for someone to recover from this withdrawal.

Skorupski's general view of morality, in addition to aiming to understand its categoricity, also aims at grasping the spontaneity of it as something that is basic to the epistemology of all norms. Skorupski relates this spontaneity to a conception of discussion that seems to suggest a relationship between his view and the Habermasian notion of communicative reason.

Skorupski's overall conception is one he terms the "Normative view" and he intends this to be the basis of a new form of "Critical" philosophy. As with previous forms of "Critical" philosophy Skorupski accepts a basic duality between spontaneity and receptivity but assumes that the epistemology of reasons requires that there are purely spontaneous responses with regards to norms. Reason relations, whilst irreal for Skorupski, are objective and form the "unconditioned condition" on which he will account for the possibility of knowledge and freedom. The account of the relationship between reason relations, normativity and morality will be central to the basic arguments of The Domain of Reasons and must constitute the main basis for assessing the success of the work.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Allison and Kant on Humanity

In my last posting on Allison I looked at Chapter 7 of his commentary on the Groundwork that addressed Kant's formulas of universal law. In this posting I'm going to look at Chapter 8 where Allison moves on to a discussion of Kant's formula of humanity.

Allison opens the chapter by citing Kant's claim that "the will is a capacity to determine itself to act in conformity with [gemass] the representation of certain laws" and adds to it that what Kant here brings out is that rational beings set their own ends for themselves, a point that refers us forward to Kant's notion of autonomy although Allison, somewhat oddly, fails to draw this consequence. That the concept of moral obligation presupposes an end that is necessary in itself, is, however, something that Allison suggests Kant had a long commitment to, pre-dating even the composition of the Groundwork. However, the ends that are presupposed by the categorical imperative are taken by Allison to be ends only in a negative sense. What this means is that they are ends that are sources of constraint on the acts one can permissibly perform. 

After opening with these claims about ends Allison moves on to more careful distinctions within the Kantian discussion of ends. Firstly, Allison looks at the difference between "objective" and "subjective" ends for Kant aligning objective ends with motives and subjective ends with inclinations. However Allison is also careful to point out that by "objective" ends Kant does not merely mean a source of reasons for action but also ends that are given by pure reason. Any end that is capable of grounding a categorical imperative must, on Allison's view, meet two conditions. It must, firstly, be objective in the sense of being given by pure reason, and, secondly, it must have a self-standing character.

Now the "end" that Kant takes to meet these conditions is that of "humanity" so the key question concerns what the notion of "humanity" consists in for Kant. This question is complicated by the fact that, in different texts, Kant contrasts "humanity" on some occasions with "animality" and on others with "personality". Christine Korsgaard appears to take the relationship between "humanity" and "animality" to be the central one but also to view the distinguishing feature of humanity to consist in a rather minimal capacity, namely, that of purely being able to set ends. By contrast, Allen Wood, who frames the distinction between "humanity" and "personality" as the central one, sees the capacity to set ends "through reason" as what holds together the capacities of humanity. 

However Wood seems to take the reference to "reason" here to mean that Kant frames "humanity" in the Formula of Humanity in a way that involves no specific reference to morality (as fits his view that humanity is primarily a contrastive term with "personality" as the latter clearly does incorporate moral notions in itself). Wood's basic reason appears to be that the categorical imperative requires preserving and respecting rational nature in general, not just its moral function. However, as Allison rightly points out, this is beside the point since the issue is not what the categorical imperative requires but rather in virtue of what capacity "humanity" has the property of being an end in itself. Allison thinks that ambiguity on Kant's point might well have led Wood to adopt this view but it is not one that Allison can accept and his rejection of this view is one that I certainly endorse.

Another view of the "capacity" of humanity that Allison critically discusses is that of Richard Dean who identifies "humanity" with the good will. Dean's point is that Kant's argument leads to the conclusion that something is good in all circumstances only if its value is independent of inclination and that this is how Kant identifies the good will so the good will must be equivalent to the capacity of humanity. Allison regards this claim as based on a conflation of two distinct senses of end, namely "end" as something to be effected and "end" as something self-standing. The good will is an end to be effected (perhaps the ultimate such one) but it is not a self-standing end. 

After canvassing these views, Allison takes instead the claim that Kant is making about humanity to consist in the view that it is the capacity to be moral that is identified by Kant with "humanity" and uses citations from the Critique of Practical Reason to help make this point. The mere capacity to set ends is described by Kant in the Metaphysics of Morals as having only "extrinsic value" (Ak. 6: 434) which appears to rule out Korsgaard's minimal view. However, what is problematic in Allison's identification of humanity with the capacity for morality is surely that it leaves Kant's view as a highly general one (and leaves out reference to what makes this capacity possible, namely, autonomy).

After going through the discussion concerning what the capacity for humanity consists in Allison moves on to looking at Kant's derivation of the formula of humanity which, he alleges, occupies only two paragraphs of the Groundwork. Allison views this derivation as having two steps. The first is that the possibility of a categorical imperative presupposes the existence of something as an end in itself and then gives an argument for elimination concerning what that something must be. The second step is to argue that we have good reasons to regard rational agents as ends in themselves.

The argument for elimination that accompanies the first step rules out objects of inclination, inclinations themselves and what Kant terms "things". Allison's account of the inclinations themselves indicates that we don't have to accept Kant's apparently more extreme views of inclinations to accept this claim. However whilst Allison appears to find Kant's argument by elimination convincing he does not uncover a specific argument for viewing rational beings as the appropriate "something" in the first stage of the argument which is why he turns to the second stage in order to uncover this.

There are three parts to the second stage of Kant's derivation according to Allison. The first part is the claim that human beings necessarily represent their own existence in this way so that it is a subjective principle of action (based on Ak. 4: 429). One of the points Allison stresses in presenting this claim is that when one sets an end, one makes it one's own end. Further, to take oneself as an end is to make the consequential claim that one cannot be regarded as nothing more than a means to some other end. So the unconditioned worth that Kant was after in the "something" lies in the end-setter rather than in any particular end that they set for themselves.

The second part of the argument for Allison moves beyond the "subjective" claim of the first part as it claims that every rational being necessarily represent their existence in this way so that it is an "objective" principle (Ak. 4: 429). Allison views this as making a claim for the objective validity of my conception of myself as an end in itself. Allison takes this to introduce a normative import to the discussion that he did not find present previously though it is unclear to me where he finds this import since he still does not uncover the source of the claim to reside in autonomy. The third part of the derivation for Allison is the translation into imperatival form of the principle that rational nature exists as an end in itself. 

The final part of Allison's chapter turns to looking at Kant's uses of examples of application of the Formula of Humanity in the second part of the Groundwork. Since Allen Wood, amongst others, have argued that the Formula of Humanity has a status that is practically superior to that of the formulas of universal law, this is particularly interesting to do with regard to the Formula of Humanity. The same examples are treated with regard to this formula as were related to the formula of the universal law of nature previously and they are given in the same order.

Kant begins with the example of suicide and asks whether the maxim related to it could subsist together with the idea of humanity as an end in itself (Ak. 4: 429). In denying that these are compatible Kant points out that since human beings are not merely things they cannot be used merely as means, and this mere means requirement of the Formula of Humanity is here mentioned for the first time by Allison. Allison finds the application of this requirement in this case to be unclear since he is not sure what end humanity is here being used for. Further, Allison seems to think it is a reply to this argument of Kant's to say that if the self is the source of all value that it is also the source of its own value, a view that cuts against any serious understanding of autonomy and brings out again his failure in this chapter to consider it.

Allison's positive view is that Kant rules out the maxim underlying the case of suicide considered on the grounds that it involves an authorisation to withdraw from obligation, something that is the source of the "contradiction" Kant finds here and enables Allison to prescind from Kant's own reference to the mere means requirement. However the argument is not filled out by Allison and in leaving out the mere means requirement he seems not to support the positive sense of humanity very clearly here.

The case of false promising, by contrast, is one in which Allison can pull out the sense of the mere means requirement but only by conflating it with what Parfit has termed the "consent" requirement, namely by referring to the ability of the other to endorse the end embodied in the action. The discussion of neglecting one's talents appears not to refer to the mere means requirement to Allison but, given that he has seen the formula of humanity as giving only the basis for saying that certain ends should not be acted against and not a positive ground for any specific ends to be accomplished, he cannot see any basis for Kant's claim that reference to humanity should prevent neglect of talents. At least with regard to non-beneficence Allison's reading does partially work since the reference to ends one should not act against is here sufficient to strike down active non-beneficence but it is insufficient to produce a positive claim for beneficence.

In summary, then, Allison's chapter strikes me as problematic for two different reasons. Firstly, the identification of the capacity for humanity purely with a capacity for morality without identifying what this latter capacity consists in or what grounds it is insufficient. It ensures that the relationship between humanity and autonomy does not become clear. Secondly, and as a consequence of the first problem, Allison can give no persuasive account of the discussion of examples Kant gives in the second part of the Groundwork of the application of the Formula of Humanity. So whilst the discussion of the derivation of the Formula of Humanity is an intriguing addition to the secondary literature there are as many problems with Allison's account of humanity as he finds beset his predecessors views.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Philip Kitcher's review of Parfit

Philip Kitcher has published a review of On What Matters in the New Republic and it is available here. The review is unusually long, as is fitting given the length of Parfit's book and it is divided into four parts. In the first part Kitcher responds to the popular conception of ethics as based, in some way, on religion which he uses to bring out the general reasons why philosophers tend to resist this assimilation. As Kitcher states, Plato was already suspicious of such a connection and posed some clear problems for anyone who wished to take religion as the basis of ethics. Not only is there such a rich tradition of philosophy seeking to set ethics apart from religion but, even given the reign of specialisation in contemporary intellectual life, ethics seems to be one area where philosophy contributes to the general cultural conversation.

Having opened with these general comments Kitcher introduces Parfit to New Republic's readers as the author of Reasons and Persons and points out that the new book will be intensively studied given the status that the earlier book gave Parfit. The second section of the review turns to some of the distinctive elements of On What Matters introducing, for example, Parfit's discussion of "reasons" and his search for a "supreme principle" of morality. After mentioning the formulation of the "supreme principle" that Parfit eventually reaches, Kitcher mentions that Parfit does not take this principle to be capable of deciding all ethical questions (which is hardly surprising). Parfit's search for the supreme principle takes place by means of assessing and bringing together the rival claims of consequentialism, contractualism and something called "Kantianism" though there would be rather a lot to say about the ways Parfit characterises the latter (and in this blog I have discussed in some detail a number of elements of Parfit's account).

Since the first volume seems to present the manner that Parfit sees the problem and already to invoke the tools by which he aims to resolve it, the question of the status of the second volume of his work is a pertinent one that Kitcher raises. It appears to have two central points, one of which is to state and respond to the views of a number of critics of the views espoused in the first volume, and the other of which is to explore the nature of Parfit's problem with naturalistic views of ethics. 

The third section of Kitcher's review is where he begins to lay out reservations concerning the positions adopted in On What Matters. Whilst one central question concerns the success of Parfit's convergence between the three theories he takes seriously, Kitcher raises two other questions as ones he is more concerned with than this one. Kitcher's first question concerns the goal Parfit has adopted, in terms of assuming that the convergence between the three theories would have important practical consequences if established. The reason Kitcher appears to be sceptical about this does not strike me, however, as a good one. Kitcher's scepticism concerns whether the formulation of a successful theory of convergence with regard to the major traditions of ethical theory would really matter given that we would still have the messy task of making ethical judgments. But this seems to me to rest on a misunderstanding of the import of ethical theory. Surely no one would seriously contend that a successful ethical theory would remove the need for judgment? Anyone who thought this would have a very odd view not merely of ethics but of the relationship between general formulations and particular circumstances in relation to theoretical models. No theoretical model can "saturate" the terrain it describes which is why there are levels of generality within such models and one of the ways these levels are marked precisely concerns the need for judgments of application. So it strikes me as odd to think that the point of Parfit's endeavour would be the removal of the appeal to judgment (though if it is successful it should presumably guide the process by which we form judgments, it could not tell us exhaustively when and where we need to apply them).

The reason why Kitcher appears to think that this appeal to judgment is somehow an objection to Parfit concerns the way in which he understands the formulation of a "supreme principle". Kitcher, in appealing in a pluralist way, to the notion that many principles might be needed, appears to take the invocation of a "supreme principle" to be something that leaves behind diversity of considerations though this can hardly be held to be true of others, like Kant, who have searched for such supreme principles. Kant takes the "supreme principle" of morality to be the principle of autonomy but anyone reading about the categorical imperative would be aware that distinct formulations of it exist and that these formulations appear to pick out different ways in which action can be assessed. This point, like the one about judgment, appears to be based on an odd view of Kitcher's.

Kitcher's second objection concerns the nature of Parfit's appeal to thought experiments. Again Kitcher points to the need for readers, when reviewing Parfit's thought experiments to come to views about whether the experiments in question have been formulated well by Parfit and whether they support his conclusions. Kitcher argues that Parfit possesses "no standard of objectivity for provoking reliable responses" which appears again to mistake what Parfit is up to. The suggestion of a standard of objectivity that is separate or distinct from Parfit's conception of "reasons" strikes me as otiose but, further, the assessment of thought experiments, whilst difficult given how far they take us from our ordinary use of concepts, is very standard in a lot of contemporary ethical theory and it appears odd to strike at Parfit in particular for favouring it. Some of Parfit's critics on this score, such as Allen Wood, have resorted on occasion to such experiments themselves and it is hard to imagine moral theory proceeding without some version of them.

The real thrust of Kitcher's problem with thought experiments is, however, posed in a sharper way when he suggests that the experiments are "rigged" and that questions of life and death appear to rest upon them. In fact it is not obvious to me that Parfit's theories rest as solidly upon the appeal to thought experiments as this suggests as he usually uses them in order not to decide an issue but rather to sharpen the precision of a formula. Secondly, in taking them to be "rigged" Kitcher appears to have recourse to a distinct way of describing ethical dilemmas that does not involve important presuppositions and I find this hard to comprehend.

In his response to Parfit's criticism of naturalism Kitcher fastens on an apparent admission of the role of intuition by Parfit and appears to take Parfit to view intuition in an especially mysterious way, something again that seems to require us to think that the appeal Parfit makes to intuition is different in kind or more suspect than the appeal others have made to it. Again, this is difficult to comprehend. The sum of the problems raised in the third part of Kitcher's review is meant to lead one to the conclusion that Parfit's work lacks the potential to contribute to the broader cultural discussion of ethics with which Kitcher began but it is hard for me to see that he has succeeded in making this point.

The fourth and final part of Kitcher's review presents an alternative to the conception of ethical theory that Kitcher views Parfit as having presented. This alternative is presented initially on epistemic grounds with Kitcher again picturing Parfit's method in question-begging terms as apparently being an heroic attempt to generate ethical obligations ab initio (a view for which I find no support in my reading of On What Matters). In response Kitcher appeals to a kind of Aristotelian picture of beginning in the middle of things, by which he means not in the middle of common sense morality but rather from the morass of detail provided about human beings within the human, natural and social sciences. In other words, Kitcher, like Blackburn, adopts an essentially Humean picture of moral theory that sees philosophy as offering no more than a generalization of the results of investigations into "human nature". 

Ethics is thus seen on Kitcher's picture as a form of social technology that developed by trial and error in humanity's natural history, an approach that he fails to see as having substantial problems in accounting for the apparently necessarily binding character of ethical obligation. This appears to be the basis of Kitcher's rather misguided resistance to searches for the "supreme principle of morality". Kitcher's review strikes me as misguided in the types of objections and problems it poses to Parfit and the way in which it is so misguided reflects a real divide within ethical theory, a divide between those who take the point of such theory to have a distinctive philosophical basis and those, instead, who would follow Hume in advocating a drastic diminution of the role of philosophy in intellectual life. Whilst I have voiced, and will continue to voice, many criticisms of Parfit's work, it seems to me that in relation to this divide, Parfit is on the right side.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Rawls on Natural Duty and Fairness

My last posting on Rawls looked at the concluding part of Chapter V of A Theory of Justice. In this posting I am going to begin reading Chapter VI of Theory, a chapter that is focused on the twin topics of duty and obligation. The first two sections of this chapter return to a topic that was previously raised in sections 18 and 19 of Chapter I, namely the question of principles for individuals, a topic that I treated in relation to the earlier discussion in Chapter I, here.

The opening section of Chapter VI immediately refers back to Rawls' earlier discussion in Chapter I where principles of fairness and natural duty were outlined but differentiates the treatment now being offered by stating that the purpose of the present discussion is to show the basis of the claim that these principles would be chosen by individuals in the original position. Rawls begins with the question of natural duty (reversing the order of exposition adopted in Chapter I). The key "natural duty" from the standpoint of the theory of justice is supporting and furthering just institutions. There are two parts to this duty. The first part is showing that we comply with and do our share "within" just institutions assuming they exist and have reference to us. The second part is to establish such institutions where they do not exist though Rawls adds the rider "at least when this can be done with little cost to ourselves" which appears to be a kind of prudential limitation on the second part of the duty, one that Rawls does not assume requires justification.

The alternative to this principle of natural duty that Rawls considers is the principle of utility but adoption of this by individuals after the basic structure has been regulated by the two principles of justice is assumed by him to lead to an "incoherent" conception of right. The actions that would be mandated by the principle of utility would not cohere with that demanded by the two principles of justice and should there be an accidental convergence it would lack stability. Hence given that the two principles of justice are regulative of the basic structure it appears that principles for individuals should be congruent with them. This is the reason why Rawls describes natural duty in the way he does. There is still the question of whether the natural duty could not be sensibly qualified by individuals in accord with some general idea of costs and benefits but Rawls rules this out on the basis that the full complement of equal liberties have been guaranteed by the two principles so that there could be nothing further for individuals to bargain for.

In the previous chapter Rawls stressed the importance of public knowledge that an effective sense of justice applied across a well-ordered society. Such a public knowledge produces greater stability and undermines the temptation of free-riding. At this point Rawls differentiates between two kinds of threats to the stability of a system of justice. On the one hand there are self-interested reasons for free-riding that accrue from taking the share of general social goods to be available without requisite effort being needed for all agents. However, in addition to the self-interested way in which free-riding can be articulated, there is also a second type of threat to the stability of systems of justice. This second threat is what arises when people have reason to believe that others will not do their part in relation to the obligations that the system generates. This second kind of instability has a particular urgency when there appear dangers with complying with the demands of institutions. It is a general problem of assurance and is analytically distinct from the tendencies of self-interest as it can create problems even for those committed to principles of a just sort.

How does the assurance problem get responded to in a just system thus enabling it to substantially generate stability of the second sort? There has to be something voluntary about adherence to the institutions in question and this is best achieved by the propagation of natural duty as the key principle for individuals. One of the advantages of such a principle, by comparison with the principle of utility, is that it is simple and clear. However natural duty is not exhausted by the general commitment to just institutions as there are other natural duties in addition. For example, there is the duty to show a person the respect which is due to them as moral beings. In developing this natural duty we need to understand the aims and interests of others in relation to the standpoint of these others and, separately but related, we need to develop a general willingness of persons to do each other small favours and courtesies. The development of mutual respect has mutually beneficial consequences though Rawls neglects here an obvious chance to develop a more extensive account of respect such as appears in Kant due to this discussion (a discussion that really belongs to his theory of "rightness as fairness") being only of a very general character.

Other natural duties include the duty of beneficence that Kant, again, develops a more extended account of and which Rawls does here refer to. What is built in to Rawls' discussion of beneficence, however, is the general public quality of it as a natural duty that is required of us in terms of the assurance it gives us of the character of our fellow citizens. This reference to publicity is part of the general case Rawls makes that whilst the natural duties are not taken by him to be individual cases of a general principle that they are nonetheless all adopted for similar reasons.

Having made these remarks about natural duty, however, Rawls returns to what, following the remarks of section 8 of Chapter I, we can term the "priority problem" with regard to the relationship between distinct principles of natural duty. Rawls shows no evident path through this problem referring only to "certain procedures of aggregation" that are meant to enable us to take a larger view but only illustrating this (and not in this section) by reference to the problems of civil disobedience and conscientious refusal to which I will return in a later posting.

The remaining parts of section 51 are concerned with the relationship between a duty other things being equal (taken by  Rawls to be equivalent to W.D. Ross' notion of prima facie duties) and a duty all things considered. A principle does not express a universal statement which always suffices to establish how we should act on Rawls' account but, rather, singles out relevant features of moral situations such that these features lend support to a certain ethical judgment. By contrast, when prima facie duties are invoked, we are, according to Rawls, deliberately restricting our range to only a certain part of a larger scheme of reasons. These general remarks are, to say the least, hardly helpful in resolving the questions raised by Ross and whilst Rawls concludes section 51 with an agreement with Ross that the Kantian distinction between perfect and imperfect duties is inadequate, this agreement on Rawls' part is not based on any kind of careful assessment of the Kantian distinction and nor is it obviously related to the overall question of the connection between prima facie duties and duties all things considered. This concluding part of section 51 is a disappointing discussion, particularly after the general account of natural duties.

Section 52 turns to an examination of the principle of fairness and Rawls opens the section with the bold claim that "all obligations arise" from this principle. Fairness is what mandates that cooperative ventures should involve similar acquiescences with regard to restrictions on conduct. Hence obligations arise only given that the right background conditions are secured. By contrast, unjust arrangements are a form of extortion so that consent to them is not of a form that can be said to really be binding on conduct.

However, it might be argued that assuming that the natural duties hold then it follows that there is no requirement for an additional principle of fairness. Whilst this has some merit with regard to the basic structure, however, it has none in regard to voluntary conduct of citizens in relation to each other. Rawls also distinguishes between obligations and duties on the grounds that they arise in different ways. So the better-placed members of societies are more likely to emerge as its rulers and this binds them more tightly than others to the scheme of justice. This form of being bound is what we can view as the imposition of "obligations" upon these citizens whilst "duties" refer to the more general and varied considerations that were adduced in section 51. Viewed this way it is in relation to the general principle of fairness that obligations are best understood as generated and regulated whilst duties are preferably understood as governed by the reference to natural duty.

Rawls fills out this distinction by describing promising as a form of conduct that is governed by the principle of fairness. Promising expresses a general intent to perform an action as an obligation voluntarily undertaken on the basis that when others give one promises there is a similar expectation that they will be fulfilled. This assumes certain general conditions of "normal" promising are met. When the practice of promising is just it assumes voluntary and stable conditions apply and these conditions are what make the practice a just one. But the rule of promising is not itself expressive of a commitment to fidelity since it simply, on Rawls' view, states a convention whereas the moral principle in question is that of fidelity, a principle that is based upon the principle of fairness.

Promising is, however, something that is done with a public intention of incurring an obligation and this is integral to it being governed by the principle of fidelity. We both want the practice that expresses such an obligation to exist and we expect others to be aware of our willingness to be governed by the obligation in question. So the practice requires mutual confidence to make sense. Such confidence and trust allow for mutually advantageous schemes of cooperation to develop. This is why the principle of fairness can be seen to be one that would be agreed to in the original position.

However it is interesting to bring out that it is an important consequence of Rawls' view of fairness that institutions do not, in themselves, mandate moral requirements. We have seen this in the case of promising as the rules of it are not equivalent for Rawls to the principle of fidelity. It is only by assumption of the principle of fairness that the latter arises, it cannot be assumed simply on the basis of the rules of promises alone but is rather what regulates these rules and gives them moral sense. So moral reasons are those which enable a judgment to be made that refers us to generic principles as governing our practices.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Parfit and Kant on the Greatest Good

In my last posting on Parfit I looked at Chapter 6 of Climbing the Mountain, a chapter that still corresponded to part of the second of his 2002 lectures. In this posting I am moving on to Chapter 7 of Climbing the Mountain, a chapter that offers material that is not found in the second of the 2002 lectures. 

Chapter 7 is concerned with the notion of the "greatest good" and enlists Kant in order to discuss it. Following Kant's discussions in the Critique of Practical Reason Parfit pulls out what he terms the "formula of the greatest good" which, in Parfit's formulation, reads: "everyone ought always to strive to promote a world of universal virtue and deserved happiness". The relation between virtue and happiness was explicitly set forth in the dialectic of the Critique of Practical Reason as a way of seeing that "the good" is not homogeneous since it encompasses matters of real normative import and a demand of inclination. In the Critique of Practical Reason this leads to Kant formulating what he terms there an "antinomy" and which is resolved only by means of utilising the practical postulates. 

Parfit's discussion abstracts from the account of practical postulates and the dialectic between the two elements of "the good" in order to present the "formula" as stating a goal we should aim to achieve. However this aim is one that it is necessary that Parfit distinguish from the classic one attributed to hedonistic act utilitarianism (HAU). The view of HAU concerns the maximisation of happiness and is understood by Parfit as "wholly telic" in concentrating entirely on promotion of a common end or aim. Some telic theories are also described by Parfit as "value-based" in the sense that they appeal to claims about the reason-involving goodness of what they tell us to achieve. This reference to an impartial reason-involving sense is built into Parfit's conception of "consequentialism". 

Parfit also discusses the relationship between claims about what is good and what we ought morally to do distinguishing between theories that take "the good" to be fundamental and define what ought to be done in terms of it on the one hand from those that take the conception of moral obligatoriness to be fundamental and derive the sense of the good from it. Parfit affirms, however, a different view according to which neither of these terms is taken to be fundamental and takes them to be independent of each other. In taking such a stance, however, Parfit is departing from Kant as he goes on to acknowledge, since Kant views the notion of the "good" as determined by the moral law as he clearly states in the Critique of Practical Reason. This commitment of Kant to the priority of the right over the good is central to his resistance to consequentialism and is of no small importance.

Rather than addressing this point immediately Parfit prefers instead to look at some of Kant's other claims concerning goodness. So, for example, Kant makes the statement, at the very beginning of the Groundwork, to the effect that good wills have a form of goodness that is higher than all other kinds. Parfit converts this claim, following the logic of the argument of the first part of the Groundwork, into the classic formulation that we ought to try to have wills that are dutiful. 

After presenting these two opening moves Parfit goes on to look at the claim with which he opened the chapter, to wit, that everyone ought to strive to promote the greatest good, a view based on the conception of the summum bonum. The point of reintroducing reference to this claim is to compare it now with the act consequentialist view that everyone ought always to try to produce the greatest amount of good. As Parfit states, it may seem that the act consequentialist view is close to what Kant is after when Kant discusses the greatest good. However since Kant's claim concerning the greatest good is one that can be translated back into the apparently more sober point concerning a world of universal virtue and deserved happiness, then it follows that Kant's conception, unlike that of the act consequentialist, is not a value-based view. Kant's view is ought-based, not value-based, and so has a different foundation to the act consequentialist view despite surface similarities of formulation.

Having distinguished Kant's view from that of the act consequentialists Parfit goes on to look at the relationship between Kant's claims about the greatest good and the formulas of universal law and humanity. It is clear from the pre-eminent status of the appeals to the other formulas that it is by following the moral law, understood as formulated in them, that the promotion of the greatest good will be best followed according to Kant. This seems an unexceptionable claim but Parfit conjoins to it the view that Kant is committed also to the suggestion that following the moral law is sufficient to give the happiness that their virtue would make them deserve and this is a clear error on Parfit's part. Kant makes no such assumption as this but only presents the much weaker claim that following the moral law would make one worthy of happiness, not that it will be sufficient to enable this happiness.

The reason why Parfit makes this mistake is due to the kind of concentration he has on happiness. Parfit is on sounder ground when he reports Sidgwick's remark that happiness is best taken as a second-order rather than a first-order end since taking it as a first-order end will often be self-defeating. This suggestion is mixed up by Parfit with an understanding of Kant's claim concerning worthiness to be happy but Kant is making no suggestion here of taking happiness to be an end in adopting the moral law (even a second-order end). Rather Kant is making the quite different point that it is only in making the moral law our chief guide in action that we become worthy of receipt of happiness, a point quite different to Sidgwick's.

Parfit is much more concerned with Sidgwick's claim than with Kant's quite different one and relates Sidgwick's claim to the need to follow the precepts of common sense morality (at least for the most part). Having made this point concerning the sense in which adopting happiness is not a first end requirement Parfit turns to assessing the claim bound up with this one concerning common sense morality. One way of understanding the connection between common sense morality and the promotion of happiness is by means of what Parfit terms the "marginalist" view. On this view we decide how much good an act would do by determining what difference it would make. So: "the good that some act would do is the amount by which, if this act were done, things would go better than they would have gone if this act had not been done".

This "marginalist" view can, however, imply some very implausible things. So if, for example, the actions of four people coordinated together are sufficient to save a group of others then five people undertaking this action is superfluous and if five people do join it would appear to follow that none of the five saved the lives in question. In order to avoid this consequence, we can appeal to the claim that it is what people do in conjunction that produces the right outcomes, a claim that Parfit terms the "share of the total view" so that "when some group of people together produce some good effect, the good that each person does is this person's share of the total good".

The "share of the total view" avoids the implausible consequence of the "marginalist" view and leads to ignoring the specific effects of particular actions in focusing instead on the way that actions accumulate to produce results. As Parfit mentions Hume shared a similar view, though Hume's conception is even wider in scope. Hume's view is termed by Parfit the "whole scheme view" and asks us to look beyond the specific acts that may, considered alone, have bad effects to the set of acts that are done at different times or by different people in order to assess the best effects. The acts that, considered in this set manner, have such effects are then the ones that we should regard as doing the most good. The appeal of referring to a view such as Hume's for Parfit is that it leads away from act consequentialism towards grounds for accepting general rules in accordance with their overall effects.

After making these claims, claims that require a more general notion of consequentialism than is involved in act consequentialism, Parfit makes a parallel move with regard to Kant. In considering Kant's writings concerning lying Parfit emphasises the point that Kant views lying as undermining humanity in making the source of right "unusable". This point, which would require sustained attention to the role of the discussion of lying (and promising) in Kant's philosophy of right, is used by Parfit to make the more minimal point that it appears that Kant's response to lying is part of a commitment on Kant's part to rejecting things that cause "harm" (a claim that can only be sustained with an unusually broad sense of "harm" being given here). 

Subsequently to producing this reading of Kant's view of lying Parfit goes on to suggest a further way of aligning Kant's view with that of a form of consequentialism when he cites some fragments of Kant's in a rather tendentious way. In a lecture of 1778 Kant speaks of worthiness to be happy as consisting in the practical agreement of our actions with the idea of universal happiness (Ak. 28: 377). This is viewed by Parfit as equivalent to a form of hedonistic act utilitarianism but what is missed by Parfit when he makes this claim is any account of the status of "ideas" in Kant's practical philosophy. Absent this the parallel with utilitarianism is plausible but once it is present it shows that Kant is far from taking as an actual consequence of virtuous action an increase in overall happiness.

Parfit is concentrated on viewing the ideal world that Kant understands through the summum bonum as stating a single ultimate end rather than aligning two distinct forms of good and also being placed in a dialectical situation precisely due to the lack of congruence between these two forms of good. Parfit does, in conclusion, understand that the reference to the summum bonum includes a conception of desert that is distinct from the formulas of the categorical imperative. Parfit's chapter unexpectedly breaks off however, just after he  has stated he will show Kant's view of desert to be mistaken.

This chapter introduces new material and the account of the greatest good in Kant provides Parfit with opportunities to attempt a form of assimilation of Kant's view to consequentialist ones but only due to failing to refer back again to the centrality of the priority of the right over the good that Parfit cited earlier in the chapter. 

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Allison and Kant on Universal Law

Due to being away traveling in the earlier part of this month it is a little while since I last blogged. My last posting on Allison's book on the Groundwork was about a month previous to this one and concerned chapter 6 where Allison discussed rational agency and the general notion of imperatives. In this posting I will comment on the seventh chapter where Allison gives his account of the two formulas of universal law as they appear in the second part of the Groundwork, and which includes an account of the examples Kant gives there.

The first issue Allison raises in this chapter concerns the claim Kant makes at Ak. 4: 421 that all "imperatives of his duty" can be "derived" from the "single imperative" of universal law that Kant unequivocally identifies with the categorical imperative formula of universal law. The word translated as "derived" is abgeleitet and Allison asks whether Kant here means that the test of the categorical imperative concerns whether all generally recognised duties can be derived from it or whether he has something weaker in mind. Allison also raises a second immediate question concerning Kant's use of the notion of "nature" in the formula of the law of nature and asks what function this reference serves for Kant. 

In addressing this second question Allison turns, unsurprisingly, to the account in the Critique of Practical Reason, of the "typic" of pure practical judgment where Kant gives a general discussion of the notion of practical schematism. Here the notion of natural law is described as serving as a "type" or schema of the general notion of law in the process of formulating imperatives. In the second Critique this leads to the formulation: "Ask yourself whether, if the action you propose were to take place by a law of nature of which you were yourself a part, you could indeed regard it as possible through your will" (Ak. 5: 69). This is indicated to be substantially the same as the formula of the law of nature in the Groundwork by Allison though he does little to use the "typic" to make clear the means by which the formula of the law of nature is justified.

The point that comes out by use of the typic is that actions that cannot meet it are, by virtue of this, morally impossible. However, rather than focus on this point, Allison chooses instead to return to the question of what is meant by the claim that imperatives of duty are "derived" from the reference to the law of nature. This question leads Allison to think of the reference to the law of nature as one that is intended to be "fertile" in the sense that it enables a discussion of how lists of duty are supposedly meant to arise. Despite formulating the alleged task of the reference to the law of nature in this way, however, Allison reaches the conclusion that the most that it can do is indicate the impermissibility of a course of action under a given maxim. In other words, it provides a test of moral permissibility rather than providing for specific determination of duties. 

Allison also defends this reading of what can be accomplished by the reference to the law of nature against other views, principally against the claim of Stephen Engstrom that fundamental duties of justice and beneficence can be directly derived from this reference. Essentially the reason why Allison disagrees with Engstrom appears to be that Allison does not think that the reference to universal laws of nature is sufficient to arrive at a generally acceptable conception of what is rationally universally required. 

In turning to Kant's use of examples, which appear after the formulation of the reference to universal laws of nature, Allison notes some points about Kant's procedure. Amongst other things, it is important on Allison's view to see that the examples include courses of action that run against generally accepted duties. Also the examples are meant to bring out a form of contradiction that will arise in willing the course of action in question. 

The first example is that of suicide but important in considering it is the understanding that the maxim here is one of taking shortening one's life to be acceptable if its longer duration promises more ill than agreeableness. So the maxim is one that rests upon an appeal to inclinations. However Allison takes it that the contradiction that arises from this maxim is a teleological one but also views Kant's argument here as unsuccessful. One of the points that Allison makes here is that there is no way of formulating the argument concerning suicide in terms of a simple reference to universal law simplicter. This seems to entail that Allison views the incorporation of reference to universal laws of nature as requiring some sense of teleology though it is far from clear why this should be so. Indeed, Allison himself accepts that taking a strongly teleological view of nature seems a rather large step in order to show a problem with reference to inclinations in a maxim concerning suicide and yet still thinks that Kant requires this. It appears to me that Allison's treatment of this example is marred in failing to justify the necessity of seeing Kant's treatment of it as having to involve assumptions that are far from evidently required.

Moving on to the example of false promises Kant invokes specific circumstances to make this example a strong one. In the case in question there is a reason why the false promise has a real attraction for the agent which is that they are in clear difficulties. Given these difficulties there is a need for something like the appeal to the device of the typic to test the maxim in question. The maxim then emerges as one in which a promise is to be made that I do not intend to fulfil. It is only within the device of the thought experiment that the problem that such a maxim involves can be clearly stated. It is within the device that a contradiction emerges, not within the maxim simply as such. 

Allison considers the type of contradiction that is meant to emerge from the false promising case, discussing whether it is a strict logical contradiction or, as Christine Korsgaard has suggested, a "practical" contradiction. Whilst the former is suggested to show that the contradiction would render the institution of promising impossible, the latter is rather supposed to show that there is a problem with the end of the agent. Allison favours the latter view though he does not think there is a single form of contradiction underlying all of Kant's examples. In this case, however, Allison's reading leads to the view that it is the "intention qua universal law" that generates a contradiction.

The third example concerning the development of talents is treated by Allison as including two different lines of argument, one that concerns a teleological contradiction and the other a practical contradiction. The former, however, if it is involved at all, is one that runs into difficulties of the same sort that would apply to reading the suicide example in this way. The latter, by contrast, has the difficulty that it could simply amount to a case concerning prudential rather than moral reasoning. The way that Allison avoids the latter is by reference to a conception of "true needs" that are essential to finite rational agency and that would be compromised if talents were not developed. However this leads Allison to reading the third example in a way that is weaker than is standard since it produces the outcome not that we are required to cultivate our talents but only that we not adopt a maxim of completely neglecting them. The fourth example concerning non-beneficence is ruled out by Kant in terms of universal laws of nature but this is again viewed by Allison in terms of "true needs" of finite rational agents. This is again thought to produce a form of practical contradiction in the maxim in question.

After treating Kant's four examples Allison moves on to the decidedly tricky ground of the counter-examples that have been stated in the literature to Kant's account. There are two types of such counter-examples: false positives and false negatives. False positives come in two versions, those based on attributing to an agent a highly specific maxim, on the basis of which a proposed course of action could pass the universalisability test and a second set that don't involve such specific reference. The first type of examples are used in particular by Allen Wood. In these cases the high specificity of the examples is meant to evade the reference to universality. In response to these examples Allison stresses the point that increasing the specificity of the maxim has the consequence of narrowing the scope of universalization without evading the universalizability requirement. The more general problem that such a procedure of false positives is meant to reveal is, however, that actions can be presented under a variety of descriptions and not all of such descriptions exclude universalisation. In response Allison stresses the point that use of such false positives depends on a very specific conception of what "maxims" are, namely, identifying them with intentions or actions rather than general determinations of the basis of conduct.

The second type of false positives, by contrast to the ones based on very specific formulations of maxims, tend to concern what Korsgaard has termed "natural" as opposed to "conventional" actions. Such "natural" actions don't require reference to institutions (such as "promising") and, in not requiring this, are allegedly more open to response by invocation of false positives. So the example of killing babies who disturb one's sleep does not appear to run into an immediate contradiction of either logical or practical type once universalised. The strategies of dealing with these types of example that Allison mentions are not entirely successful as responses. Korsgaard, for example, responds to them by stating that they involve reference to some further end than that immediately suggested by the maxim and that this further end is one that cannot be secured consistently with willing the maxim itself (a kind of "practical" contradiction suggestion). However that requires clear assumptions concerning these further ends and is thus open to the kinds of objections that Allison has mentioned when treating the example of cultivation of talents.

The second strategy in responding to these types of false positives is to invoke the contradiction in the will test rather than the contradiction in conception test. Barbara Herman, for example, favours this response. However, this has the peculiar consequence that the maxim concerning the killing of babies appears now to only violate an imperfect rather than a perfect duty, which is surely false. The third strategy, promoted by Onora O'Neill, is to say that the examples in question presuppose practices that would undercut the agency of those they victimise (which appears to imply some kind of reference to humanity and/or autonomy). Allison takes this strategy to be the best on offer but to be implausible as a reading of the requirements of reference to universal law alone. In making this point Allison argues that the formulas of universal law are only intra-subjective and not inter-subjective. What is meant by this is that the formulas of universal law, on Allison's reading, test only the compatibility of an agent's maxim with the same maxim considered as a universal law whilst an inter-subjective test relates the maxim to its possibility of endorsement by other rational agents. Since Allison views the reference to universal law to only involve the former and not the latter form of universalizability he is correct to see the strategy of O'Neill as not persuasive though the case for seeing the formulas of universal law in this restrictive way is not seriously made in this chapter.

After treating false positives, Allison moves on to false negatives that are used against Kant. These are cases of maxims that would be generally agreed not to be morally objectionable but which, it is argued, would fail Kant's test. They include what Herman terms "timing" problems where we state maxims that include references to doing things at given times (such as playing tennis on occasions when the courts aren't widely used). Again, Allen Wood has invoked many of these cases. As with the false positives the real question being raised by these examples concerns the nature of the description of the maxims that is appropriate. Again, Allison responds by distinguishing maxims from intentions. In the Critique of Practical Reason Kant describes maxims as "propositions that contain a general determination of the will having under it several practical rules" though Allison indicates that the nature of the claim that practical rules fall under a maxim is ambiguous. It is ambiguous as the rules could be seen as deduced from the maxim or that the maxim could be seen as providing the normative criterion for the rules but Allison sees the second as correct.

On this ground Allison revisits the alleged problem with the tennis example and points out that the real question concerns the end for the sake of which the agent is engaging in the activity in question. This accords with his point that we should be focusing not on specific intentions when we consider maxims but instead on general determinations of the will. Maxims are thus viewed as containing grounds that are found in agent's practical interests not in their specific intentions.

However, even on Allison's account there are still some problems left unaccounted for. Assuming with him that maxims are best tested by practical contradiction tests and that universal law formulas are seen in terms of intra-subjective validity, it follows that the example of the killing of the baby that disturbs one's sleep, appears not to be ruled out by reference to universal law. Since this is so it follows that Allison will need a stronger account of Kant's other formulas than he gives for the formulas of universal law if Kant's procedure is to be robust enough to rule out maxims that it would appear clearly counter-intuitive to leave undisturbed.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

The 12 Key Postings on this Blog in 2011

I opened last year with a summary of the best postings from each month of the year that had just closed and have decided to open this year's postings the same way. Amongst other things it enables a sense to emerge of how the blog develops over 12 months, in terms of trends of interest at different times of year and an indication of which topics have attracted or should have attracted wider engagement.


A month that lacked any clear focus in postings last year but which did include a report on the Netroots conference I attended and which attracted some considerable interest from others who were present so I'd like to recommend this posting to anyone who wasn't there who might like an indication of what the conference concerned. 


A quiet month in terms of postings but included a detailed description and response to the announcement of the philosophy panel in the so-called "research excellence framework". This posting provides important details on those involved in the panel and is worth consulting by anyone in the UK who is likely to have their work judged in due course.


This was the busiest month of the year in terms of postings, which ranged in focus from discussions of the original version of John Rawls' notion of the "original position" to reports on campaigns to keep philosophy alive at Greenwich and Keele universities. Perhaps the most philosophically interesting posting, however, was the first of two that responded to an early Rawls paper on distributive justice


A fall-off in quantity of postings followed the height of March, partly due to a difficult personal situation during this period. During the course of this month I began blogging my way through Rawls' Theory of Justice, something far from finished by year-end! One of the early postings on this topic that emerged this month is the first one on Rawls' view of utilitarianism which I would recommend. 


A small number of postings, mainly focused again on Rawls but, towards the end of the month, I also laid out a sustained defence of the notion of open access publishing and journals which, I think, merits perusal.


A month with a large number of postings on a variety of topics from a response to the New College of Humanities to the beginning of a series of postings on Derek Parfit's new book On What Matters, responses which are on-going on this blog. However, despite the beginning of the responses to Parfit occurring during the course of this month, I think the more important posting during the month concerned Rawls again with a piece on what is involved in constructing the original position that is, I think, one of the best of the year by far. 


Postings during this month divided between responses to Rawls and Parfit with, however, the opening of some on Kant's Groundwork. One of the postings of this month succeeded however in attracting a fair amount of attention and this was my response to Simon Blackburn's review of Parfit's book which you can find here.


This was a month with a lot of postings on a very varied range of subjects ranging from a reply to Nelson Potter's reading of the first part of Kant's Groundwork to some opening discussion of John Skorupski's book The Domain of Reasons.  The most visited posting of the year was posted this month on the topic of the wrongness of prostitution but I would prefer it if readers looked instead at the first of two postings that respond to Skorupski and his conception of "Critical philosophy". 


A slight fall-off in the number of postings after the output of August. Postings again focused on topics as disparate as the annual report on the UK Kant Society conference and a response to the exhibition on Ford Madox Brown held in Manchester. However the response I set out to a profile of Derek Parfit in the New Yorker both served to informed readers of what that profile says and to indicate some additional sides to Parfit himself. 


Postings during the course of this month included further replies to Nelson Potter's reading of Kant's Groundwork and a posting on a conference I attended in Romania on cosmopolitics. The month ended with a posting on the account Derek Parfit gives to treating persons as ends during his 2002 Tanner lectures. 


A month in which the number of postings increased significantly again and ranged from the beginning of a series of postings on Henry Allison's new book on Kant's Groundwork to some new postings on Rawls. Perhaps the highlight of the month though was a report on Barbara Herman's account of moral worth in Kant. 


Final month of the year involved responses to Allison's book on the Groundwork and Parfit's work. Of the Parfit postings the second on his account of treating persons as ends looks at how this developed in his early version of On What Matters which he called Climbing the Mountain.