Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Parfit and Kant on Respect and Value (II)

Chapter 10 of On What Matters is officially entitled "respect and value", a topic that was previously treated by Parfit in Chapter 6 of Climbing the Mountain which I responded to here. However, in the published form of On What Matters, Parfit has combined this discussion with that of the "greatest good", a topic that was given a separate chapter in Climbing the Mountain and which, when combined with the account of respect and value, makes this chapter a complicated one to evaluate. The previous account of the "greatest good" was given extended treatment in an earlier posting

The chapter opens with a description of Kant's contention that there is a respect requirement related to the Formula of Humanity that indicates that this requirement is not action-guiding. In the process of making this statement Parfit rejects Allen Wood's conception that respect is here to be viewed as an "expressive" notion. Whilst Wood's notion is problematic I am not convinced by Parfit's argument against it which appears to consist in the claim that the respect requirement is not sufficient to demarcate wrong-making characteristics. The respect requirement is, I would think, part of a "clue" to the meaning Kant is giving to "humanity" in the Formula of Humanity.

One of the problems here is that Parfit does not attempt to locate a specifically Kantian notion of rational nature as, when he responds to Wood, he takes it that the notion of rational nature has no specific content. The other problem is that he simply follows Wood in rejecting certain of Kant's specific claims in practical ethics as misapplications of Kantian normative principles without saying enough about the ways in which such misapplications can arise. 

Parfit's object here, is, however, different from the one that would be attained by focusing on the questions I have just mentioned. The object is, as the chapter title suggests, to look at the relationship between Kant's notion of "respect" and an account of "value" and when the subject of "value" enters the chapter Parfit becomes more interesting. Kant makes the claim that there is a "dignity" that attaches to humanity that is distinct from "price" and Parfit connects this point to the Rawlsian conception that the right is prior to the good. However, the argument that Parfit then proceeds to develop does not go in the direction it does for Rawls.

Parfit begins his response to the Kantian claim about "dignity" and the associated notion of the priority of the right by introducing distinctions of his own. Many things are, Parfit tells us, "good or bad" in a reason-implying sense. What this means is spelled out as follows: "Such things have certain kinds of properties or features that would, in some situations, give us or others reason to respond to these things in certain ways". Now, some of these things have a "value" that is one that we think should be promoted and this is typically how happiness and the negation of suffering have been approached. In such a situation, however, it is "these things, not their value, that we have reasons to promote".

The promotion in question refers, on Parfit's conception, to "events", meaning acts and states of affairs. Events are good to Parfit both as means and as ends in themselves and this is part of the overall view that he terms "actualism". According to "actualism" as Parfit conceives of it, events are good as ends when the appropriate features are "intrinsic" to them but only as means when the features in question are only brought about by them but not inherent in the acts or states of affairs themselves. On Parfit's view actualism "covers everything whose goodness is directly relevant to any decision about what we should do". Since this is so, all action-guiding requirements are described by it. This does not entail that actualism is a general theory of the good, however, since it applies only to events and other things than events are capable of being good. Since Parfit follows Thomas Scanlon in viewing "teleological" theories as those that identify intrinsic goodness with events it follows that Parfit does not view actualism as a "teleological" theory though, in stating this, Parfit adopts an eccentric usage of the term "teleological".

Having spun so much out of the kind of value that is to be promoted Parfit turns next to the kind of value that is to be respected. When there is something of this sort, on Parfit's view, it is the things in question and not their "value" that we respect (which parallels his claim concerning "promotion"). When something has the kind of value that requires respect then certain kinds of "actions and attitudes" according to Scanlon are called for. But these can vary since not everything that is worthy of respect should, simply by meeting that criterion, get treated as, for example, worthy of being preserved. However acting in ways that indicate the required respect is acting in a way that manifests a "value" that should be promoted on Parfit's view.

After having made these distinctions Parfit returns to Kant's claims about value and begins by discussing three different kinds of end that Kant appears to recognise. These three are: a) ends-to-be-produced; b) existent ends; c) ends-in-themselves. There is one feature of Parfit's listing here that is odd since the second category is assumed by him to be met by rational beings whilst the third is also so it is not clear how he distinguishes between them. The second group is also initially mentioned as something that is to be "respected" rather than "promoted" on the view of many.

Parfit's first aim in discussing Kantian claims about "value" is to suggest that Kant does recognise the conception of ends-to-be-produced. In one sense Kant clearly does since hypothetical imperatives generally concern them. However the "good will" is also related to by Parfit as an end we should, on Kantian grounds, aim for and hence try to produce. Here I think there is a confusion. In a sense it is evidently right to say that it is better to have a good will than not. However, this does not entail that the production of the good will is something that contains distinct recommendations that are separate from following the priority of the right and since that is so then describing them in a structurally teleological way does not appear appropriate. A similar point can also be made concerning Parfit's assimilation of the realm of ends to the category of ends-to-be-produced. The most striking such example of a problem with Parfit's assimilation occurs, however, with regard to the summum bonum which is referred to by Kant in the Groundwork precisely by reference to the categorical imperative and not by assumptions of any further sort (e.g. Ak. 4: 438).

Parfit reiterates his failure to recognise any specifically Kantian conception of rationality subsequently since he assimilates it first to "cleverness" and secondly simply to morality in general and he has clearly never tried to grapple with Kant's extensive discussion of reason in the Critique of Pure Reason

When Parfit returns to the question of the relationship between the right and the good it is after he has assimilated the claim Kant makes about the summum bonum with ends-to-be-produced. This enables Parfit to expound a specific "formula" of the "greatest good" so that everyone is enjoined to "strive to promote" a world that meets the ideal of the summum bonum. This assimilation is one that is subsequently amplified when Parfit over-rides Kant's caution with regard to the virtue of others. 

It is now that Parfit's discussion becomes particularly dense as distinctions accumulate at this point as he introduces criteria for how to describe act consequentialism, hedonistic act utilitarianism and value-based act consequentialism. If act consequentialism requires that everyone ought always to aim at whatever would best achieve "one or more common aims", then clearly hedonistic act utilitarianism specifies these aims either positively or negatively. Parfit understands, however, that the problem with these theories is that they are entirely person-neutral and the basic objection to them is that we do have and value many person-relative ends. 

The appeal to value-based act consequentialism appears in the context of Parfit's description of moral theories that are either wholly or partly value-based and value-based act consequentialism specifies that what we ought to do is whatever would make things go best (and is thus optimific). By contrast, some other moral theories assume that the notion of the "good" should be related not to the notion of "value" but instead to that of "ought". Some theories are reductionist in the sense of attempting to assimilate "value" to the "ought" or vice versa but Parfit rejects such a move citing G.E. Moore as someone for whom the "ought" could be reduced to the "good" and then citing Kant as an example of the opposite view. 

Parfit's account of Kant's view here is drawn out carefully and is worth some attention. Parfit argues that Kant uses the term "good" in an "ought-based" rather than a "value-based" sense. After making this claim Parfit returns to assessing the kind of requirement at work in his alleged formula of the greatest good. Surprisingly to most of us Parfit assimilates this view to a form of consequentialism but denies that it is a value-based form of it since it can be stated without reference to optimific language. This weakening of the consequentialist label is furthered when Parfit points out that it is no part of his conception that Kant is an "act" consequentialist, not least because reference to the "formula of the highest good" is not sufficient for Kant given the other formulas of the categorical imperative are the basis of the highest good having any chance of being attained.

Having recognised this point Parfit also indicates that this view of the summum bonum relates not merely to universal virtue but also to the happiness Kant speaks of as "deserved" since it follows from Parfit's reconstruction that it is following often rigorous rules that would best promote happiness. Parfit somewhat surprisingly assimilates this point to Sidgwick's suggestion that happiness is a second-order good. This is surprising since Kant's point about "deserved" happiness seems to be a different kind of claim than Sidgwick's given that Kant is aiming at indicating the reasons why one could assume that one had a "right" to happiness, not the basis of realistic motivations as Sidgwick is after.

Parfit now restrictively defines consequentialism to mean a "value-based" view and, given that he has defined the Kantian conception as instead "ought-based" should at this point openly state that he does not take Kant's view to be consequentialist. Instead he enters into an account of how plausible optimific views are and appears to arrive at a defence of a form of rule consequentialism based on this discussion. After going through this point Parfit returns to Kant's apparently strict view on lying and conceives Kant's claims about lying in reference to "harm". This account of "harm", like Kant's discussion of "happiness" in the summum bonum are related to his general argument about "desert" and rather than concluding the discussion in this chapter with some argument concerning consequentialism, Kant and goodness and value, Parfit instead drops a hint only that he is going to challenge the Kantian view of desert.

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