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.

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