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. 

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