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.

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