Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Alfie Meadows in Court

It's sometime now since I mentioned the case of Alfie Meadows, the student who was struck down by police during the protests following the UK Coalition government's decision to make university funding dependent directly upon student revenue alone in many subjects. Subsequently to sustaining his injuries, Alfie Meadows was charged by the police for offences allegedly committed by him during the course of the demonstration and his case has now come to court. There is a specific blog that has been established to report on this case and it can be found here.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Rawls' "Thin" Theory of the Good

My last posting on Rawls closed the second part of A Theory of Justice. In this posting I begin to look at the third and final part of Theory, dedicated to the discussion of what Rawls terms "ends". The first chapter of this part is the seventh chapter of the whole book and is concerned with the topic of "goodness as rationality". In this posting I will, after a brief preliminary account of the rationale Rawls gives of the final part of the book, focus on the first three parts of Chapter VII, where he sets out the need for a theory of the good and the need, within this theory, to distinguish between two senses of "the good".

Rawls opens Chapter VII with a general description of what is occurring in the final part of Theory. Here he indicates that he will be looking at the theory of the good and arguing for a more comprehensive view of it than has been presented thus far in the book. This includes a discussion of moral psychology and it is generally this topic that will be at the forefront, so he tells us, of Chapter VII. On the basis of the general account of the good in Chapter VII Rawls subsequently aims to provide a fuller account of the reasons for taking justice as fairness to be a "stable" conception, an argument that culminates in the discussion in Chapter IX of the "congruence" between justice and goodness. Included in the final part is also a description of the social values and of how justice relates to the good of community. However, Rawls warns that the structure of the final part is likely to appear less evident than was the case in the previous two parts and transitions to appear more abrupt. Nonetheless, as with the previous parts of the book, I will endeavour, in commentating, to indicate the joints between the sections and to bring out the basis of a coherent reading of the whole.

The first section of Chapter VII turns immediately to the topic of the concept of goodness. It was previously used in the general account of primary goods and Rawls here makes clear that this notion of "primary goods" was specifically formulated in ways that enabled the sense of such goods to conform to the public recognition of principles of right. Now Rawls turns to an explicit distinction within the theory of the good that was neglected until this point. This is between what he terms the "thin" theory of the good and the "full" theory of it. Given that justice as fairness affirms the priority of the right over the good it was necessary for its construction that primary goods related closely to the principles of right. However these principles of right had themselves to be motivated within the original position. So there was required an implicit conception of the good in the original position that made plausible the principles of right selected even though the primary goods allowed within it were also essentially modelled to fit the principles of right. For this procedure not to be simply circular a theory of the good that was allowed within the original position has to be specified and this is what Rawls now terms "the thin theory".

Having specified the need for an account of the good within the original position that assists reflection within it without endangering the priority of the right that is integral to justice as fairness Rawls next reminds us of the role played by the theory of the good within the original position. One of the roles the thin theory plays within the original position is identification of the "least favoured" members of society. Some sense of who they are and what merits applying this designation to them is essential to the arrival at the principles of justice (particularly the second principle). This is not to determine the degree of disadvantage this group suffers, since whatever degree of suffering it faces, it still has to be addressed by the theory of justice. Rather, it is to determine what characteristics are possessed by those who are understood to fit the role of being "least advantaged".

This is done by the notion of "primary goods" since the least advantaged are such in terms of their more limited possession of them. Included amongst such "primary goods" are wide ranges of liberty and opportunity and greater rather than lesser wealth and income. This indicates that the least advantaged are those with narrower opportunities, lesser wealth and income and correspondingly to these material inequalities a formal weakening of liberty for members of this group. Alongside these points Rawls also lists self-respect as a "primary" good, suggesting again that the "least advantaged" are least likely to possess this characteristic. 

If one part of the "thin theory" of the good is to determine a way of characterising the "least advantaged", another reason for calling upon it is to determine the basis upon which justice as fairness can respond to suggestions that the original position is too thin a basis for rational decision. If the original position is one that enables some clarity for decision it must do this through recognition of goods that are not basically the subject of general disagreement. The thin theory of the good gives the parties entering into the discussion a basis for assuming that their conceptions of the good do have a structure and this leads to the sense that the decision made within the original position is itself a rational one.

If the thin theory of the good thus provides the basis of both a view of the good that has sufficient neutrality to serve within the original position whilst preventing the original position from being cast as too thin for rational decision making it is still the case that this thin theory requires supplementation eventually by a more comprehensive theory of the good. One of the reasons mentioned by Rawls for claiming this is that without a fuller theory of the good there would be little point in general ethical discussion, including, for example, an account of supererogatory acts. However, the primary reason for a fuller theory of the good is not to incorporate the possibility of wider ethical discussion. It is rather to allow for a fuller sense to emerge than has been possible up to this point in Theory of "the moral worth of persons". A result of the account Rawls aims to provide of this good is the eventual congruence of justice and goodness.

The distinction made between the thin theory and the full theory of the good requires that, from now on, it be made clear which sense of the good is being appealed to when something is determined as good. So "final ends" are generally part of the comprehensive or full theory and in so being are distinct from primary goods. Similarly a real sense of social values draws not on the thin theory but on the full theory. But the notion of social values requires that there be a "sense of justice" developed that maintains them and whether this sense is itself good can only be determined by reference to the thin theory.

Having begun with a description of the need for a theory of the good and the division within this theory Rawls turns next to the discussion of rationality with regard to planning decisions. This is determined through things being related to by the decision-makers as "good" for them. As Rawls puts this: "once we establish that an object has the properties that it is rational for someone with a rational plan of life to want, then we have shown that it is good for him". Put this way, the theory of rationality appears to specify something like properties of instrumental rationality in relation to the selection of ends. However, Rawls points out that some things satisfy these conditions for everyone or that this is at least potentially true. Anything that could meet this standard would thus be determined as a "human good". Liberty and opportunity, which provide the basis of the two principles of right, are goods that are meant to emerge from the original position as fitting this role.

After making these remarks Rawls looks at certain kinds of categories which are generally related to as possessed of something that is "good" and which includes artifacts, functional parts of systems, occupations and roles. Things that are good in relation to these categories have general set characteristics that can be enumerated. These characteristics can also vary depending on the use to which the things in question are intended for. There is always, as Rawls puts it, "a point of view" in the background when something belonging to these categories is assessed as good. The definition of goodness in general is not one that is determinately sufficient to show the way that something will be accepted as "good". With some things the fact that it is a good of the sort that it is can be far from a commendation of it (a point that repeats Kant's discussion of the problems with relative forms of good in Groundwork I). So in a general sense when applied to these categories the term "good" lacks any moral substance. Rationality alone, taken in a generically instrumental way, is far from being able to give the notion of "good" a serious moral sense. For some other roles, by contrast, to be able to determine what it is to be good in relation to them, requires a comprehensive sense of the good (think here about what it means, for example, to be a "good" friend).

Rawls subsequently expands on these semantic dissertations on "goodness" by looking at the meaning of judgments of value. Such judgments are taken by all who dispute about them to include at least the characteristics of giving advice and counsel on the one hand and in varying with regard to different things. However, once this point has been recognised there remain disputes about these judgments between those who wish to give them an entirely descriptive sense and those who, by contrast, think they can only be determined prescriptively.

Rawls indicates that the elements of a descriptive view have to include the sense that the term "good" has something constant about it despite the variety of cases it is applied to. The other point is that this constant core meaning is part of what is appealed to when counsel and advice is given. The rational sense of "good" provided in the instrumental conception given already recognises a core component to "goodness" as is required for the first sense of "descriptive". The second sense is met by indicating that the counsels give appeal to the purposes in question. So the sense of goodness given thus purely descriptively fits the generic notion of instrumentality that we saw was insufficient to provide the basis for a substantive view of the good. In the next posting I'll look at how Rawls expands upon this initial sense of the "good" in order to build up a fuller sense of rationality.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

The Continuum Companion to Kant

A new publication is always a pleasure to announce but the arrival of The Continuum Companion to Kant is one that I am particularly pleased with. It is a collection I edited with Dennis Schulting and Nigel Hems. The Companion is intended to function in a different way to many volumes that are called "companions". Generally a work with this title includes a dozen essays by experts on different topics and a brief bibliography. Our companion, by contrast, is quite different. The nature of the difference can be seen by looking at how our companion is structured.

It opens with an introduction that orients the reader with regard to key topics, giving indicators of major trends in contemporary Kant scholarship. This is followed by a lengthy section on "key works" in which all of Kant's major works are discussed in chronological order with the central themes examined and critically assessed. The section on "key works" is unlike the rest of the volume since it is entirely composed by one person which enables an overview to arise of Kant's works. It is followed by a section on Kant's "contexts" that looks firstly on the philosophical and historical context of Kant's work and secondly at the sources and influences to which he was responding. They are followed by an A-Z list of entries that covers all the major themes and topics of Kant's work from "aesthetic judgment" to "will (choice)". A section devoted to longer essays on the reception and influence of Kant's works covers everything from the immediate responses to Kant's work to surveys of contemporary analytic readings of his ethics. Finally there is a very extensive bibliography that covers English-language secondary sources on all aspects of Kant's philosophy and is perhaps one of the most extensive such bibliographies recently produced.

The price of the volume is not cheap but I think I can truthfully say that any university that aims to cover trends in academic philosophy should include a copy in its library so I hope all readers of this blog will petition any university libraries to which they belong to purchase a copy!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Rawls and the Role of Civil Disobedience

In my last posting on Rawls I looked at the account of the justification of civil disobedience that is provided in A Theory of Justice and in this posting I am going to discuss the last part of his account of the topic of civil disobedience. This final part of Rawls' discussion concerns the "role" of civil disobedience within a constitutional system and its connection to a democratic polity. This account not only concludes Rawls' treatment of civil disobedience in Theory it also closes both Chapter VI and the second part of the book, the part that has been concerned with "institutions".

Rawls, as is consistent with his treatment both of the "definition" of civil disobedience and its "justification", places his view of its "role" within the context of an account of a society that is nearly just. This involves, amongst other things, the view that the society in question is, broadly speaking, democratic. One of the features of a democratic society on Rawls' conception is that it is a form of society within which there is a broad public recognition of the principles of justice and so, when civil disobedience is resorted to, it is invoked as a way of addressing the sense of justice assumed already to exist within the society in question.  This is an important point and is connected to the kinds of grievance that Rawls indicated justify the appeal to civil disobedience, grievances, for example, of a minority unjustly discriminated against. It is because a democratic polity implies the sense that persons are equal that it is legitimate to appeal against unjust discrimination against some whereas a society that did not adopt this principle of moral equality would not be moved by an appeal to a sense of justice that included this principle.

It is also indicated by Rawls that part of the "role" of civil disobedience in the type of society in which he envisages it being resorted to is to stabilise the society in question by inhibiting departures from the principles that the society itself publicly acknowledges as just ones. The general discussion of civil disobedience has been set out in the chapter in which Rawls is discussing principles of natural duty and obligation and this background is explicitly invoked again when the "role" of civil disobedience is discussed. 

In the original position persons need to look at guidelines for the strength of the obligation to comply with a just constitution on the one hand and find reasonable principles for dealing with unjust situations on the other. Given these assumptions it follows for Rawls that the justification previously discussed of civil disobedience is one that would commend itself to persons in the original position. Denying justice to another is failing to treat them as equals and is thus in violation of the second principle of justice. Given this point infraction of the principles of justice is something to which civil disobedience is a reasonable response and a response that will strengthen rather weaken the principles of justice.

Further the theory provided by Rawls of civil disobedience is one that belongs within his conception of justice and is based on no principles other than political ones. Civil disobedience on this view appeals to the "moral basis of civic life" and thus upon common sense principles of justice. This is why Rawls takes it to be part of "the theory of free government". The theory of civil disobedience is seen by Rawls as a supplement to a purely legal theory of constitutional democracy that attempts to formulate the way in which legitimate democratic authority can be dissented from in a way that, whilst illegal, does not depart from the aims of the democratic constitution. 

Having laid out this understanding of the role of civil disobedience Rawls considers a basic objection to his account grounded on a conception of moral psychology that basically denies that a sense of justice is a real motivating factor for political actors. In response Rawls reiterates that the conception offered is part of his view of a nearly just society which thus possesses a collective sentiment of considerable strength. Given this is so it is reasonable to assume that courts, in sentencing those who have committed civilly disobedient acts, will acknowledge the commitment that such acts have continued to show to the basic principles of justice that animate the constitution. 

It is not necessary, on Rawls' view, that the way the appealed to "sense of justice" is understood is in terms of requiring self-sacrifice to an unreasonable degree. It is rather that the sense of justice will temper the responses to acts of a civilly disobedient sort. Similarly it is not required that all citizens understand the principles of justice in entirely the same way since an "overlapping of professed conceptions of justice" that leads to endorsement of the constitutional order in general is sufficient. There is a problem here that is mentioned perhaps too briefly, however, and which affects the possible rise of intolerant groups who use the provisions for civil disobedience in a reckless and cynical way. Rawls in response invokes the striking notion that such intolerant citizens are akin to "free riders" who seek the advantage of free institutions without doing their share to uphold them. Questions could here be pursued much further about this matter but Rawls moves on here perhaps too swiftly.

There are, however, risks acknowledged with regard to civil disobedience and here Rawls comes closer to indicating reasons why many are inherently suspicious of the very idea of civil disobedience. A prime risk is, for example, that the public reading of the political conception of justice is here being contested and that it is, as Rawls puts it, "at a certain point better that the law and its interpretation be settled than that it be settled rightly". This conservative point is the basis of appeal to sovereign power as against an active citizenry. The problem can be put at its starkest as a threat of anarchy. Rawls in a sense concedes some of the power of this counter-argument agreeing that it is ultimately the case that the theory of civil disobedience does acknowledge latitude for the citizen in terms of their understanding of the limits that apply to their adherence to the principle of the rule of law. However, whilst the theory of civil disobedience does thus invoke a possibly troubling threat of relativism Rawls curtails this by appealing to the point that the theory set out is not one that is arbitrary in its standards since it appeals throughout to the principles of justice taken to guide the society in question. Because of this the citizen who reaches the conclusion that an act of civil disobedience is required is not one who can be taken simply to be acting from personal motives but is rather invoking a deeply political conception.

Another way of putting this point is a democratic society, on Rawls' conception of it, is one that does assume responsibility by each citizen for their interpretation of the principles of justice. This is so even though the provision of a supreme court is meant to finally decide all such disputed questions. The point of such an institution is to articulate in terms of public reasons the basic principles of the constitution and their application. But a court is also fallible and has no other persuasive power than that of reason. So there does exist no final means of preventing the possibility of civil strife even though sovereignty theorists since Hobbes have wished to achieve this. In making this point Rawls even points to the conduct of constitutional authorities as equally at stake with those who commit acts of a civilly disobedient nature if matters seem to be in crisis between them. 

With these remarks Rawls closes his account of the role of civil disobedience, the chapter on duties and obligations and the second part of Theory which has concerned institutions. The theory of institutions provided is part of ideal conceptions even though the discussion of civil disobedience points up a sense in which there can be questions in dispute even in well-ordered societies. The point of raising this question has been to show the connection between ideal and non-ideal theory and now in closing the account of institutions Rawls has exhausted two-thirds of Theory. Future postings will be concerned with the third part, which is focused upon what Rawls terms the "ends" of the theory thus far provided.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Rawls and the Justification of Civil Disobedience (II)

Sometime ago I posted a piece on Rawls' 1969 article concerning the justification of civil disobedience. Since I have, more recently, been going through Chapter VI of A Theory of Justice where Rawls returns to the topic of civil disobedience and distinguishes it from conscientious refusal, I will, in discussing in this posting the account of the justification of civil disobedience Rawls provides in this chapter, reflect also on how it relates to the earlier justification given in his 1969 article.

Rawls opens the account of the "justification" of civil disobedience in Theory by limiting it to cases of domestic institutions and thus to responses to injustice taken to be internal to a given society though he conjoins this with a parallel account of conscientious refusal with regard to questions of war, which latter is worth returning to in the light of Rawls' interestingly different discussion in The Law of Peoples.

Rawls begins by laying out what he terms "reasonable conditions" for engaging in civil disobedience and this opens with a description of the type of wrong against which it would appear right to respond in such a fashion. The wrong in question should be, indicates Rawls, a "substantial and clear injustice" and preferably be of a kind that obstructs the path to removing other kinds of injustice. The substantial nature of the injustice thus protested against is clearly meant to limit the opportunity to appeal to this kind of protest given that it is a protest which is, as Rawls indicated earlier in this chapter, at the "limit" of adherence to the rule of law. The "presumption" is in favour of restricting civil disobedience to infringements of the first principle of justice and to blatant violations of the second part of the second principle, namely the principle of fair equality of opportunity.

Examples are provided of the kinds of violations that would fall under these headings including denial of the right to vote or hold office for minorities or the denial of other basic rights to them such as the right to own property or to freely change habitation. These injustices have the characteristic in common of being publicly expressed and thus visible in nature. However the question of the appropriate response to denial of the difference principle is more difficult for Rawls since, as he puts it, there could be "a wide range of conflicting yet rational opinion" as to whether it was being satisfied. Given this it follows that protest against tax laws taken to be unjust would not, at least "normally", be eligible for response by reference to acts of civil disobedience. In indicating the restriction in relation to "normality" Rawls appears here to leave open complaint that the case in question is not, for some given stated reason, "normal" and it is notable that this restriction would have ensured that protests against a "poll tax" for example, would not correctly be met with by acts of civil disobedience.

The question of "normality" is however addressed in Rawls' second criteria of justifiable civil disobedience which defines it by reference to "normal appeals" to the political majority. Rawls here evidently means appeals that conform to the usual political processes have been made but the majority have not responded to these appeals. However, even here it is still required for Rawls that it be demonstrated in some way that civil disobedience is "necessary" by which he appears to mean that further resort to the usual political processes has become evidently shown to be useless in some way. This second criteria is, like the first one, a presumption but in the case of this second criteria Rawls also points out that cases may be so extreme that there is no duty incumbent on the aggrieved party to use only legal means of opposition. A case cited would be if the religion of a minority were outright banned.

The third and last condition Rawls gives is described by him in unusually turgid terms but can be described rather more briefly than he does by reference to "fairness" in exercise of the right to civil disobedience. Essentially what is here described is that it is possible distinct minorities have separate reasons to protest by means of the use of civil disobedience but that if all do so the protests of each will thereby receive less attention and hence the point of the protests of each will be diminished. This requires, therefore, some kind of understanding to be reached between the different minorities in regard to the fair ways in which such protests can be coordinated and planned. Having listed these conditions Rawls turns next to the pragmatic matter of the question of the prudence of turning to the use of civil disobedience as a factor that has to be considered by the aggrieved parties though this is hardly part of the theory of justice in his sense. 

The account given in Theory can be usefully contrasted with that provided in the earlier 1969 article as in the previous piece Rawls referred to 4 conditions under which civil disobedience could be justified and these are not entirely coterminous with the criteria listed above. In 1969 the first criteria given was that there was no "normal" means of addressing the grievance in question which we have found repeated in Theory where it is defined clearly which it was not in 1969. The second criteria in the earlier article was that fundamentals should be involved in order to appeal to civil disobedience which is repeated in the reference to "substantial wrongs" in Theory. Just as would be repeated in Theory it was also here made clear that violations of the difference principle would not be sufficient to qualify. However a generality requirement was invoked in 1969 that Rawls does not discuss in Theory to the effect that recognition of cases in which one felt oneself entitled to civil disobedience has to meet the same standards one would apply to others in similar cases and it is unclear why this was dropped in Theory. Also, in 1969, Rawls does not invoke prudential considerations but rather ones of efficacy as ones that should weigh for the aggrieved parties. Whilst efficacy does not really relate to the theory of justice any more than prudence it is more linked to a theory of institutions than prudence alone is.

Rawls' subsequent discussion in Theory concerns the justification of conscientious refusal, a topic not considered in 1969 and which relates not to domestic institutions but to foreign policy. In considering this topic Rawls extends the theory of justice beyond the closed society model that is dominant in Theory to the law of nations. This extension is related to the question of serving in wars as this relates to political objections to the wars in question. In making this extension Rawls explicitly extends the veil of ignorance so that it encompasses citizens of different states in order to nullify the contingencies and biases of history. The principles of justice that are assumed to be chosen in these circumstances  provide for equality of rights which guarantees a principle of self-determination, self-defense and the sanctity of treaties. The point of these principles is to define the nature of just causes for war and the means that could be used during war. In stating these Rawls is concerned to constrain the activity of war so that a just peace can emerge from it.

Given these points the consideration of conscientious refusal relates to the principles of justice that are taken to have been shown to be reasonable for states to observe. Soldiers are thereby released from following orders that contradict the basis of just war-making. The question of the basis of refusal to serve in war is also addressed by reference to the general theory of just rules that govern states. So wars that are not ones of self-defence are clearly wars that it is legitimate to refuse to serve in and similarly wars that were prosecuted in unjust ways could be objected to in the same way. In sufficiently grievous cases there would be a duty and not only a right to conscientious refusal. The inclusion of rules of discrimination based on the principles of justice is thus recommended by the theory of justice as part of domestic right for states that are well ordered and they should replace exemptions that refer only to pacifist convictions or religious grounds. This would ensure that the recognised right of conscientious refusal would be seen to have a political character and not merely to be based on individual moral or religious claims.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Parfit and Kant on Universal Law

When I last looked at Parfit's 2002 Tanner Lectures, the "Ur-text" of On What Matters, it was to discuss the first of those lectures, and, not least, to examine how there Parfit interpreted Kant's Formula of Humanity. In this posting I'm going to look at Parfit's second 2002 lecture where he turns, by contrast, to the discussion of Kant's Formula(s) of Universal Law.

Parfit opens the second of his lectures with a discussion of the nature of Kant's references to "maxims" in his account of the rightness of acts. Parfit lists some statements that are described by Kant as "maxims" and then proceeds to describe what he terms Kant's "stated criterion of strict duties" which is: "it is wrong to act on maxims that could not be universal laws" though this seems to be based on Ak. 4: 424 where Kant in fact, by referring to at least two types of contradiction, refers to notions of "conception" and "willing" to distinguish them, a distinction that Parfit appears to make nothing of. Parfit looks instead at the notion that what is tested by the reference to universal laws is the "permissibility" of certain maxims (not their "possibility" of being experienced which is what Kant discusses). The notion of "permissibility" is not, in any case, taken by Parfit to be a very helpful way of understanding Kant's notion of universalisation and he raises questions about maxim-formation that have been circulating in the literature for some time in terms of the "test" of universality being either under-determined or over-determined. 

In the process of raising these points Parfit criticises ways of understanding universal laws that have been made by Onora O'Neill which culminates in a switch from the initial "stated criterion of strict duties" to a different "actual criterion of strict duties" which latter states that: "it is wrong to act on maxims whose being universally accepted, or believed to be permissible, would make it impossible for anyone successfully to act upon them". This criteria has the advantage that it appears to make questions of publicity emerge as key to the way universal laws are meant to work. However, it is not this, but instead the notion of "success" that Parfit fixes on, arguing, as he does, that the alleged maxim of coercing others wherever this would benefit me, even if adopted universally, would not be universally impossible to successfully achieve. This objection strikes me as a pretty odd one since such a situation would, if it was the basis of all known and avowed maxims, make rather a large number of actions impossible of success and is the basic reason why, in the Doctrine of Right, Kant can provide an argument for the need for a sovereign power.

Parfit does not consider such a case, however, preferring instead to look at Kant's arguments against lying and stealing which are, however, themselves interpreted by Parfit in ways that are pretty eccentric since he focuses primarily on the question of the egoist, which was not obviously on Kant's agenda at all here. Parfit makes a better point with regard to lying promises since it is here that he sees that the practice of promising is conditional on the notion that keeping them is the general rule to be observed. This leads Parfit to begin to consider the reference to universality in a different way to previously as based not merely on an account of maxims in relation to acts but also in relation to beliefs concerning acts. However Parfit still has difficulties with the kind of criteria that the reference to universal laws seems to involve since, as he can easily point out, there are cases where lying promises might seem to be required. 

The first lesson derived from the discussion by Parfit emerges at this point which is to the effect that relating maxims permissibility to a standard of universal successful accomplishment appears to make the universality criteria either much too weak or much too strong. It is only after this point has been stated that Parfit actually states Kant's Formula of Universal Law which is, however, given in a form that Kant never explicitly gives. The Formula in Parfit's telling emerges as follows: "It is wrong to act on some maxim unless we could also rationally will it to be true that this maxim is a universal law". Shortly after giving this formula Parfit also adds the "law of nature formula" and what he terms "the Permissibility Formula" which latter is said to state: "It is wrong to act on some maxim unless we could also rationally will it to be true that everyone is morally permitted to act in this way".  This latter notion is said to be derived from Thomas Scanlon and is freely admitted by Parfit to be one that is not generally recognised.

Nor does Parfit stop here, however, since after giving the "permissibility formula" he adds that Kant's basic assumption in this alleged formula refers to effects of beliefs people hold and thus depends on what Parfit calls a "Moral Belief Formula", something that he implicitly appealed to earlier in the lecture but which is now explicitly presented as stating: "It is wrong to act on some maxim unless we could also rationally will it to be true that everyone believes such acts to be permissible". This formula is, however, implicitly conservative since it appears to require recognition of actual beliefs and thus not to test them. 

As often, however, Parfit moves on to a different question than the one that seems obvious since his question about the alleged formulas given does not turn on any particular type of objection to their coherence but instead he goes back again to the question of the status of "maxims" for Kant. Here Parfit makes the point that when Kant speaks of "maxims" it seems that different types of things can be at issue. Thus, on some occasions it appears that Kant is using "maxim" to indicate the "policy" on which someone is acting, on others to the relationship between "policy" and "aim". Having made this point Parfit returns to the general problem of having a view of maxims that provides a serious wrong-making criteria and indicates that many maxims have a "mixed" status in the sense that it is not always bad to act on them nor always good. This is termed by Parfit the "mixed maxims objection" to the accounts of maxims that have been discussed by him up to this point. In response to it Parfit suggests a revision of Kant's Formula(s). The point of the revision is, however, a rather odd one. Having indicated that his basic problem is with "mixed maxims" Parfit suggests that the way that maxims are referred to should not be by means of policies or aims but instead by what persons are "intentionally doing". In fact, in stating this, Parfit seems unusually poorly informed since making the understanding of maxims refer to "intentions" is a proposal that has been widely considered and it has provoked serious objections from a range of philosophers.

Nor, in any case, is it obvious that what Parfit goes on to do is to discuss a revision that is really based on this notion of "intentions". It is instead Parfit's move to begin discussing rational willing and this appears to involve some sense of instrumental coherence, a notion that requires no explicit reference to "intentions" at all. 

Parfit states that Kant's Formula(s) of universal law work best when 3 conditions are satisfied, namely, that it would be (a) possible to act on the maxim; (b) the effects of the maxim would be much the same however many people acted on it; (c) these effects could be randomly or equally distributed between people. Understanding Kant's formulas in this way brings them close to considerations that are at work in standard decision theories and in games theories (much as Parfit invokes in Reasons and Persons). Parfit's claim is that the problems that arise for the Kantian formulas are related to failure of one of these conditions. The only failure Parfit explicitly considers is (c) which leads to burdens being imposed only on select groups. In raising this point Parfit gets to the notion of "impartiality" and indicates that there is no guarantee of impartial consideration in weighing universal acceptability. The example of this given is one that I find extremely unpersuasive though and appears to me to be a prime example of what is often termed "maxim-fiddling". 

The example is of a racist who takes it that there would be no problem of universalising maxims of segregation and unequal treatment. But in allowing the racist this claim Parfit neglects to conceive of the world that would therefore be being willed which would be a world in which there would therefore be no problem with the racist himself suffering the same treatment whenever they were in the minority. In failing to conceive of the general test in this way Parfit has simply fiddled the maxim in the racist's favour.

Parfit eventually gets to a version of this response when he considers Thomas Nagel's account of the maxims concerning benevolence which is the classic counterpart of the problem with contradiction of the will that I have transposed here to the case of the racist. Nagel appears to view the benevolence example as requiring us to be placed in "everyone else's position" but this is too strong and all that is needed is precisely what Parfit agrees is found in the discussion of benevolence in the Groundwork which is the failure of rational willing even in the case of the one willing non-beneficence. It is due to such failure that Rawls, as Parfit cites, invokes his idea of the "veil of ignorance" as a way of seeing the problem here. It is not that Kant has to have directly supposed that we do need to invoke this veil, as Parfit wrongly assumes. It is rather that the veil is an alternative way to make the same point in the same spirit.

In response to the discussion at this point Parfit invokes another way of understanding Kant's formulas of universal law in terms that recognises the question about impartiality in an explicit form. This leads Parfit to give what he terms the "Formula of Universally Willed Acts" which is as follows: "An act is wrong unless it could be rationally willed by everyone". This formula is an extension of the Consent Principle that Parfit found to be the first part of Kant's Formula of Humanity. It faces at least the problem Parfit himself mentions which is that Kant does not refer in this way to "what everyone could rationally will" though it is evident he does require some sense of rational willing to be understood. However Parfit concludes the second lecture with 2 final formulas. The first is meant to build in a reference to beliefs and produces what Parfit terms "Kant's Contractualist Formula" which is: "We ought to act on the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will". This version brings Kant into the vicinity of Thomas Scanlon though this point is not explored in this lecture.

Finally Parfit concludes with a formula that explicitly brings in a reference to Rawls' notion of the "veil of ignorance" and is stated simply as "Rawls's Formula" and is given as follows: "We ought to act on the principles that it would be rational for everyone to choose, as the principles that we would all accept, if no one knew anything about themselves or their circumstances".

Parfit concludes the second 2002 lecture with the claim that the third lecture will be devoted to consideration of the contractualist formula though it surely also considers its relationship to Rawls's Formula and indicates a resolution of some sort of the two formulas. However, before looking at the third and final 2002 lecture I will first consider the ways in which the discussion of the second 2002 lecture becomes transformed and reworked in Climbing the Mountain and the pre-publication version of On What Matters to become, eventually, Chapters 12 to 14 of the published book.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Allison and Kant on the Moral Law

My last posting on Allison concluded a series on Chapter 9 of his commentary on the Groundwork, a chapter that raised so many questions it seemed to be necessary to split it between a number of postings. Chapter 9 also culminated Allison's discussion of the second part of the Groundwork. In this posting I am going to address Chapter 10 where Allison begins his discussion of the third section of the Groundwork.

If Groundwork II is particularly significant due to the question of the formulas of the categorical imperative being addressed there, Groundwork III is traditionally taken to have a problematic status due to its account of a "deduction" of the principle of morality and in this chapter part of Allison's task is to discuss what precisely it is that Kant is providing here a deduction of. This turns out to be problematic since it appears that there are at least two differing views concerning this question. The basic question turns out to be whether Kant provides only a deduction of the categorical imperative or whether he also provides one of the "moral law".  Allison distinguishes these two readings terming the view that Kant only provides a deduction of the categorical imperative a "single deduction" reading as opposed to the "double deduction" one that focuses on the moral law as distinct from the categorical imperative and assumes that Kant here provides deductions of both.

Allison himself prefers the "double deduction" reading and rests part of his argument on what he claims to be distinct referents in the text of Groundwork III for the term "deduction". On Allison's reading "the moral law" is the term Kant uses for a descriptive principle which depicts the modus operandi of an agent in abstraction from whatever ends or interests they have in view whilst the categorical imperative, by contrast, is taken to be a prescriptive principle which only applies to certain types of agents (finite or imperfectly rational ones). However there are some problems with this distinction, not least, as Allison himself notes, Kant rarely refers to "the moral law" in the Groundwork although he cites Ak. 4: 449 as evidence that Kant equates it with the principle of the autonomy of the will. This principle is distinguished by Allison from autonomy as a formula of the categorical imperative. 

The second problem is that the textual questions at issue for showing that the distinction is relevant to the description of the overall task of Groundwork III are pretty difficult ones. So Allison cites for example Ak. 4: 444 where Kant speaks of a "synthetic practical proposition" without clearly identifying the proposition in question. On Allison's own reading the passage is ambiguous and capable of being read in two different ways so that Allison's preference for taking it to refer to the moral law doesn't appear very firmly grounded. Indeed Allison himself agrees that: "the obscurity of the text makes any interpretation hazardous". 

Another issue that Allison addresses in this chapter concerns whether "the moral law" is analytic or synthetic. Again the argument here turns on some very fine textual details but Allison's claim that "the moral law" is be taken generically as a synthetic principle is surely correct assuming that "the moral law" is a substantive principle that Kant is affirming. The other point about the suggestion that there is a distinct "deduction" of this "moral law" is, however, as Allison again confesses, that, should it exist, it must be quite different from the "deduction" of the categorical imperative. The reason why it must be different is that the categorical imperative states something that is binding and the deduction of it would aim to establish this bindingness. By contrast, the "moral law" cannot be binding as it does not state an imperative so that the deduction of it would only be a deduction of a "descriptive" law. Should Kant be attempting such a deduction it has to be said it is far from obvious what status it would have for him.

The other topic that Allison addresses in Chapter 10 concerns the relationship asserted there between freedom and autonomy. Allison takes Kant to be arguing in Groundwork III that freedom is not only a necessary but also a sufficient condition for autonomy and that freedom and unconditional practical law imply each other. The general name Allison gives to this claim is the "reciprocity thesis" and he finds Kant's argument for it to reside in a short passage at Ak. 4: 446. Back in the Critique of Pure Reason Kant already presented an argument for a kind of "law of freedom" though he did not there present this law as equivalent to autonomy. However Allison is not convinced that the argument Kant gives for the notion of autonomy as a necessary law of freedom is compelling finding it only a basis for saying that some kind of internal (and thus possibly only contingent) "law" is required. This leads Allison to distinguish between two different senses of "autonomy", namely moral autonomy and free agency in a general (even only contingent) sense. 

Allison uncovers what he takes to be a better argument for the reciprocity thesis in the Critique of Practical Reason, better in the sense that it does not, on his reading, equivocate between two senses of autonomy, though he continues to fault it for having an ambiguous use of "form", moving from the sense of it to indicate abstraction from matter to the quite different sense of "lawgiving". Thus Allison eventually arrives instead at the claim that the real basis for the "reciprocity thesis" asserted in Groundwork III is found not there, nor in the Critique of Practical Reason but instead in Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone. In the latter work Kant asserts what Allison terms the "incorporation thesis" which requires maxims, in order to be justified, to be self-consciously understood as acts of free agency. The point of invoking this thesis is that the notion of such incorporation requires, on the one hand, that only such agency can be seen as the real source of the maxim and hence rules out appeals to sensuousness as normatively determinative and that it enables the first principle of maxims to be clearly described.

Thus it is not merely the choice that agents are making when they formulate maxims but also the reason for the choice that matters, a point that is central to the understanding of autonomy. Whilst this argument for the reciprocity thesis has some importance, however, it is clearly not sufficient as yet to provide a deduction of the categorical imperative and to that Allison will turn in the next two chapters of his commentary.

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Philosophy, Infanticide and Death Threats

It appears that quite a storm has broken out over the recent publication of an article in The Journal of Medical Ethics. The article, which is freely available on-line, is by Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva, and concerns the ethics of what the authors term "after-birth abortion". Unusually for an article in the area of practical ethics it has been reported in the UK in the Daily Mail and, as has been reported by both the Australian paper The Age and by the editor of The Journal of Medical Ethics, the authors of the original article have received intense negative publicity and a series of death threats.

In order to respond to what has occurred here there are a number of things that will need to be sorted out. Firstly, the philosophical context of the article. It mounts its case against a backdrop of other serious philosophical material that addresses similar issues. Peter Singer, likely the most prominent writer in the generic area of practical ethics, already arrived at arguments proposing what he termed "euthanasia" for severely disabled infants in the book Should the Baby Live? which, for better or worse, has a classic status in the literature. Singer's general approach to the question was shaped by his commitment to utilitarianism, and the authors of the controversial paper share the basic outlook of Singer. If you adopt the kind of reasoning that is shaped by this approach it is true that counter-intuitive conclusions are often reached. Some of these have included the advocacy of vegetarianism and animal liberation (Singer here following in the tradition begun by Bentham), and, since the time of John Stuart Mill, a concern with women's liberation. Amongst the achievements of the latter have been supports for female suffrage, the establishment of colleges for women (supported by Henry Sidgwick) and the general opening of social institutions to accommodate them better. Singer has spoken in general about "widening" the domain of the ethical so that more can be included within it than has tended to fit the demands of an often conservative "common sense" morality.

Utilitarians and consequentialists can be said to have acted often as social reformers and to have frequently shown disregard for the sensitivities of others. Alongside the reforming zeal that has come with this approach has emerged a conception of "humanity" that tends to assimilate it to either capacities (as in the work of Amartya Sen) or in terms of a conception of "personhood" that is deemed distinct from simply being human. The latter conception animates the controversial paper and leads to a distinction between "actual" and "potential" persons and to the conclusion that since new born babies are just as much "potential" persons as fetuses that it follows that the moral status of each is equivalent. It is on these grounds that the authors argue for the conclusion that the new born baby lacks any specific interests of its own and can, therefore, suffer no discernible "harm" if its life is terminated.

Before turning to the public reaction to these propositions I should first point out that just as the paper merely extends positions that have been elaborated in much recent philosophical work that there are others who have argued even more "extreme" points. David Benatar, for example, in his book Better Never To Have Been, taking an approach that is similar to Singer and the authors, argues that coming into existence is itself "always a harm" and that ceasing to be will be a benefit and, in endorsing this view, argues against people having any children and in favour of euthanasia. Whilst this view has not been without its critics, Benatar has been robust in his response to them. A similar argument of Derek Parfit's has led to problems with accepting that "future generations" have any real claims on current moral concern.

So the article that has caused this general controversy and brought such opprobrium to its authors is one that, if placed in its general intellectual context, is rather less extraordinary than it likely appears to the general public. This is part of the problem with its being presented to the general public, that, in being "explained" to them, it appears without context and thus simply as a kind of Swiftian "modest proposal". Not only is this the case but it is also propelled into a general political climate in which opponents of abortion have very frequently and overtly compared it to infanticide. When the general public's lack of awareness of philosophical debate is combined with a highly charged political atmosphere surrounding the whole issue of abortion, the poisonous reaction to the authors of the contentious article becomes more understandable.

It is the context of publicity being given to philosophical propositions that produces the explosive response that appears to have taken the authors of the article rather by surprise. As Andrew Brown has pointed out, in his rather sanguine piece in The Guardian, the authors should, in a sense, have expected such a response once their article became public since the result of applying the author's arguments would be abhorrent. Brown points out that publicity was given to the article by political campaigners such as Glenn Beck and that the use of the article in this campaign was simply to bolster the anti-abortion case. The editor of The Journal of Medical Ethics has also agreed that using the premises of the article's argument one could easily reach an anti-abortion conclusion.

So there are three contexts to the way the article has been received and the collision between them has been unfortunate for the article's authors. The philosophical context is one in which others, more authoritatively than the article's authors, have essentially constructed a position that allows this article to appear as an application of a view that, whilst controversial, has a certain philosophical solidity. The general context of public outcry is constituted partly by ignorance of this background and partly by a clear understanding that implementation of the position argued for as a policy would be socially unacceptable. The political context gives the argument a twist that is quite different from the author's intent and shows that philosophy, like contemporary art, has the potential to play a role in today's "culture wars".

It would be the subject of a different and much more extensive piece to work through reasons why there are rather better philosophical positions than those adopted by the authors that support a general possibility of abortion and which enable it to be clearly distinguished from infanticide. Whilst common sense morality is not always a reliable guide and ethical intuitions can be faulty there are good reasons to trust both in this case. It is, however, important to make three key observations in relation to this situation. Firstly, philosophical reflection is rarely equivalent to formulation of public policy and Francesca Minerva, in defending the article, makes the point herself that it was not an argument for introducing a policy. Secondly, philosophical reflection is by its nature such that it often reaches conclusions and positions that will appear implausible, impractical or immoral to many others. The offence that a philosophical position will cause is not itself however an argument against it and if no better arguments can be made against deeply counter-intuitive views than such offence then the ability to be able to reason in public appears to have reached a nadir. Thirdly, defence of the right of philosophers to be open in their inquiry and not to feel the usual burdens of restraint that weigh on other sorts of public discourse is more urgent against a backdrop of increased publicity of the results of reflection. It is late to be arguing for a responsible media that enables some sense to arise amongst the public at large of the point and context of difficult and abstruse argument but without some form of acceptance that there is responsibility amongst more popular forms of communication to accept the rights of philosophers and others to engage in such debate precious freedoms will be placed in danger. Defending the right of philosophers to advocate infanticide is not defending infanticide itself but the defence of this right is not optional given that without it the ability to challenge conventional wisdom and overturn established truths will be seriously endangered.