Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Parfit and Kant on Impartiality

In my last posting on Parfit I looked at Chapter 9 of Climbing the Mountain, the first manuscript-length version of what has recently been published as On What Matters. In this posting I'm going to look at Chapter 10 of Climbing the Mountain where Parfit addresses the notion of impartiality, including, thereby, the relationship between the Formula of Universal Law and the "Golden Rule". 

This chapter opens with a description of Kant's view of beneficence indicating that the duty to beneficence is conceived of by Kant as a duty we owe to others on the grounds that we expect such conduct from others towards ourselves. This way of capturing the duty of beneficence leads Parfit to invoke the "Golden Rule" of the Gospels, famously formulated as do unto others as you would they did unto you. Kant is generally taken to have rejected this rule, a rejection based on citation of a footnote in the Groundwork:

"Let it not be thought that the trivial quod tibia non vis fiery etc. can serve as the benchmark or principle here. For it is, though with various limitations, just derived from the latter; it can be no universal law, for it does not contain the ground of duties to oneself, not of duties of love to others (for many a man would gladly agree that others should not benefit him if only he might be exempt from showing them beneficence), finally not of owed duties to one another; for the criminal would argue on this ground against the judges who punish him, and so on." (Ak. 4: 430n)
A few points are worth making about this citation, the first of which is that Kant does not here cite, as Parfit supposes, the Golden Rule but, rather, the so-called "Silver" Rule, which is a negative formulation to the effect, do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. This point is significant since the problems listed with the Silver Rule by Kant may well not transfer simply to the Golden Rule and, arguing on this basis, it has been suggested by some, that Kant therefore did not mean any direct criticism of the Golden Rule at all.

Kant introduces the cited footnote just after discussing the false promising maxim in relation to the Formula of Humanity, hence, not in connection with the Formula of Universal Law at all. So, when Kant claims that the Silver Rule is "just derived" from the latter, he presumably means by "the latter" the reference to consideration of the ends that are contained in the person of others. The subsequent point is that the Silver Rule is not a "universal" law which, given its negative formulation, is not that surprising a point. It will only operate to forbid conduct, not to promote it and when Kant goes on to the consideration of the third example in relation to the Formula of Humanity (to do with cultivation of talents) he introduces precisely considerations for thinking that there is a positive as well as a negative sense to this formula, thereby demarcating it from the Silver Rule. Kant next amplifies the point about the lack of universality of the Silver Rule pointing out that it is not possible to arrive at the "ground" of a number of duties from it. This argument repeats the point about the essentially negative character of the Silver Rule as it is expansive duties that cannot be arrived at on its basis including duties to oneself and duties of love. Both these kinds of duties are explored not in the Groundwork but in the Doctrine of Virtue where duties of love cover duties with regard to beneficence, gratitude and sympathy so the point clearly again is that such duties cannot be derived from a purely negative formula such as the Silver Rule. Similarly, with duties towards others generally, the Silver Rule is open to the kinds of problems Kant lists with regard to both maxims of indifference and the conduct of the criminal towards the judge.

Unfortunately Parfit conflates the actual rule Kant cites and distances himself from (the Silver Rule) with the rule from the Gospels (the Golden Rule) that Kant does not give and does not discuss. This is a shame, not least since, as the Golden Rule is stated in a positive form, it is not as evidently open to the same riposte Kant sets out against the Silver Rule. Parfit in fact goes further than pursuing the case Kant sets out against the Silver Rule as if it were an argument against the Golden Rule, he also turns Kant's case against another formula that was not at issue for Kant in the citation given, namely, the Formula of Universal Law. Textually problematic as this is Parfit opens with an account of the maxim of indifference and states that if people wish to be helped then they should also wish to help others. Having put the point this way as a case that the Golden Rule can enable to be stated against the maxim of indifference, Parfit argues that the maxim of indifference could be formulated in accord with the Formula of Universal Law although it cannot accord with the Golden Rule. This claim is problematic on a number of levels, not least that Kant at no point relates the Formula of Universal Law to duties but only refers the Formula of the Law of Nature to them. Not only is this so but the maxim of indifference is specifically rejected when related to the Formula of the Law of Nature on the grounds that it could not be "willed" to hold everywhere as a law of nature (the contradiction in the will test). This point is part of showing that the Law of Nature formula has two dimensions and that one of these involves a sense of consistency of willing, not merely of conception.

Parfit does note that Kant discusses this riposte of contradiction in willing but rejects it as inadequate on the grounds that it involves people wanting to be helped whereas it is possible that there could be people who never want to be helped and that with regard to them the reference to universal law will be insufficient. There are further problems with these remarks including the point that wishing to be helped is not an optional extra in human life even though there are situations in which some may be convinced they will never require help. As such the discussion involved in Kant's account of beneficence with regard to universal law includes a sense of what it is that has to apply to finite rational beings due to the nature of their finitude.

Parfit again recognises this point and formulates a response with regard to what he terms "rational" willing. Having recognised it he proceeds to reformulate the Golden Rule in such a way that it includes a similar recognition as appears in Kant's discussion of universal laws. This reformulation on Parfit's part renders it as follows: "We ought to treat others in ways in which, if we had the choice and were rational, we would choose that others treat us". This formulation is condensed further into a reference to what we would rationally choose. Having reformulated the Golden Rule in this way Parfit has significantly altered its scope and understanding. This is furthered when he extends application of the new rule not just to the "actual world" but also to imaginary cases.

Having reformulated and extended the Golden Rule in the ways indicated Parfit next considers cases that might be thought to present difficulties for it including one in which a racist claims to be applying the Golden Rule when refusing admission to his hotel to anyone not of his race. This can be done if the racist assumes only that the rule applies simply to those of different races and not to any of his own race and thus endorses such treatment as applicable universally given that his own race is always in the favourable position. In response Parfit claims that the racist in question has misunderstood the Golden Rule since the rule requires that one relate to others as if one might be in their position. So application of the Golden Rule requires imagining changes not just in other things but also, potentially, in ourselves so that we were as the others we treat now are. This gives the third formulation of the "Golden Rule" that Parfit has: "We ought to treat others only in ways in which we would rationally choose that we ourselves be treated, if we were going to be in these other people's positions, and if we would also be relevantly like them".

This conception of the Golden Rule involves a form of imaginative identification and in so doing is well on the way to being something like an impartial spectator model of moral reasoning. It is clear, however, that the reasoning and the model has reached a point very far removed from the formulation of the Silver Rule Kant criticised in the Groundwork.

Returning to the Groundwork text Parfit refers to the example of the criminal arguing with the judge concerning punishment that Kant gives towards the conclusion of the footnote discussing the Silver Rule. Parfit suggests that the rule Kant is here rejecting is more like a rule that states we ought to treat each other person "only in ways in which we would choose that we ourselves be treated if we were going to be in this person's position". This formulation, the one Parfit imagines Kant to be actually reading into the Silver Rule is like the third formula of the Golden Rule that Parfit has given in the sense that it involves a form of imaginative identification. It however does not include the sense of rational willing that Parfit has built into his third formula of the Golden Rule. Parfit indicates that the kind of identification he takes Kant to be involved in the rule he objects to is one that it is, indeed, right to reject. The reason Parfit rejects it, however, is that it implies a kind of egoistic position. In response Parfit gives another kind of formulation of the Golden Rule that cites it as stating that we "ought to treat other people as we would rationally choose that we be treated if we were going to be in the positions of all of these people, and would be relevantly like them". This extension of the process of imaginative identification clearly makes it impersonal since, if we are to be asked to think of what it would be like to be in the positions of "all" of them then no particular characteristics can be at issue (unlike in the earlier formula where Parfit was precisely building in particular characteristics to forestall the racist move).

The readings of the Golden Rule that involve the kinds of imaginative identification Parfit has in mind are formulated to prevent the kind of appeal the criminal is imagined to be capable of making working on Kant's conception of the Silver Rule. Parfit does, however, simply now adopt the impersonal reading of the Golden Rule and appears just to drop his earlier interpretation of imaginative identification. This is meant to show that punishment is quite capable of being morally justified. 

Parfit next considers the objection Kant makes to the effect that the Silver Rule provides no basis for duties towards oneself and recognises that failure to do this will ensure that others appear always to have priority over oneself, something that is implausible. Given this point Parfit further refines the Golden Rule to meet this point and arrives at another formulation of it. This formulation states: "We ought to treat everyone as we would rationally choose that we be treated if we were going to be in all of these people's positions, and would be relevantly like them". This point is meant to indicate that we are part of the "everyone" in question though, notably, it abstracts from the separateness of persons in precisely the manner Rawls famously objected to utilitarianism for doing.

Parfit next returns to comparing the "Golden Rule" in the formula in which he has now arrived at with the Formula of Universal Law and points out that both involve appeals to claims about what it would be rational for people to choose and include the basic egalitarian point that everyone matters equally (though the way the latter point is recognised in Parfit's "Golden Rule" is quite different from how it is recognised in the Formula of Humanity). The difference between them that Parfit registers concerns the manner in which thought experiments are conducted. The "Golden Rule" is meant to address the question, on Parfit's view, "what if that was done to me" rather than, as he takes to be required on Kant's Formula of Universal Law, "what if everyone did that"? 

Parfit takes the use of Kant's Law of Nature Formula to require reference to different possible worlds and to apply the laws in question as if they were ones everyone followed in these worlds. This differs from another kind of test Parfit attributes to Kant in which we ask what would happen if everyone had certain kinds of moral beliefs. Parfit next invokes the notion of an ideal impartial observer who is not involved in any events and judges as it were from the standpoint of the "universe" (as Sidgwick puts it in The Methods of Ethics) and he contrasts this with the "Consent Principle" that he previously formulated as the first part of the Formula of Humanity.

Parfit confesses, however, that the "Golden Rule" in his account of it faces the objection that it might lead us to ignore the fact that, in the "actual" world, ideal redistributions of benefits and burdens could produce irretrievable losses for some that, at least for them, are not compensated and that this matters when we are considering distributive justice. Due to recognition of this point Parfit thinks that the "Golden Rule" is, as he puts it, "theoretically" inferior to the Impartial Observer Formula and to the "Consent Principle" he earlier stated as the first part of the Formula of Humanity. The point Parfit should here have noted however is that the "Golden Rule" is not the only one of these principles open to this objection and, if it were, it would be not "theoretically" but "practically" inferior to the other formulas.

Parfit next considers some questions that he thinks create difficulties for Kant's discussion of universal laws. The first point considered here is that wrong-doing often involves acts that can only be rarely performed, a point Parfit formulates as the "Rarity Objection" and which is given an example in the case of someone who is willing to let another be punished for a crime that they committed. The question that is asked with regard to this person is whether their maxim falls foul of the Law of Nature Formula. Parfit suggests that the universalisation of the maxim of the person in question is plausible though, in making this point, he does nothing to test the maxim with regard to the criterion Kant uses in the Groundwork in terms of types of contradiction. In failing to refer to the tests in question Parfit simply pre-judges his case against the Formula of the Law of Nature. Similarly Parfit considers an egoistic maxim here and imagines a case where we have an egoist who could live in a world of other egoists, thereby ignoring the points made about this case when Kant discusses consistency of willing.

A much better case is made by Parfit when he moves from the discussion of rarity to one of "high stakes" and imagines cases where the perceived benefit of maxims for those considering them is very great compared to the alternatives. Such cases do show a ground for action in which it is hard to imagine people being persuaded to act in terms of what would be best overall given their own good is so great to them at the time but they do not count against a formal process in which abstraction from questions of the good is required. So again Parfit builds into his case assumptions that do not allow considerations of Kant's point.

The next objection Parfit considers is that the Law of Nature Formula is insufficiently impartial or not impartial in the "right way" unlike the "Golden Rule". The reason for this claimed difference is that Kant's rule does not build in a specific reference to the actor in question. Kant does, however, fail to do this for a specifically good reason that Parfit recognises which is to abstract away from the consideration that the egoist wishes to hold to. However Parfit suggests that this abstraction fails to recognise a key problem, that he terms "non-reversibility" where it is possible that we do to others something that no one is able to do to us in the same way (for whatever reason). This is, in fact, a problem much like the earlier racist suggestion Parfit considered and shows still that the case is being considered continuously in relation to material benefits that are not relevant to Kant's formula with conditions that do not allow for universality of application so, once again, beg the question against Kant's formula.

Parfit seems to think this "non-reversibility" claim is an important one simply due to the realities that something like it may well be involved in many cases of social injustice. So, for example, if men believe rape of women justified this may be because they are not women and not capable of being treated in the same way. However, even should such beliefs be actually held in such situations they are simply not relevant to the consideration of Kant's formula since, in holding to such beliefs the actors in question are not subjecting themselves to the standards of universality Kant is stating.

Parfit considers a response of this sort to his cases of "non-reversibility" but does so through Thomas Nagel's suggestion of a form of imaginative identification much like the one Parfit himself earlier built into the "Golden Rule". In responding to this point Parfit cites the response Kant made to the maxim of indifference in which Kant pointed to the contradiction in the will as being to do with what it would state about the one who formulated this maxim in a world governed by it. This point is taken by Parfit to indicate an illicit partiality in the formula rather than a consideration of the cases of all as in his own "Golden Rule". However the point surely is that cases of "non-reversibility" do not require the introduction of imaginative identification of the sort Parfit has invoked any more than Kant thought of such as involved in the response to the maxim of indifference. It was rather a question of reaching the maxim in question and formulating it as a universal rule that did the trick. Similarly, assuming something like a principle of "non-reversibility" is at work in much wrong-doing let's articulate its general assumption as something like the following: "I will take advantage of the ways in which others are differently vulnerable to myself in order to have mastery over them" and then think of its universal application. Are there are any cases in which this could not be applied to the disadvantage of the one formulating the maxim? It is enough to ask the question to point to the answer.

Parfit does not consider a response like the one I have given but he does mention Rawls' "veil of ignorance" notion only to suggest that Kant does not include reference to anything like it but, in so doing, he fails to discuss the ways in which Rawls interpreted Kant's typic of universal law in order to show considerations of the "veil of ignorance" type were at work there, thus, once again, he merely assumes his point. Similarly, Parfit considers Thomas Scanlon's interpretation which produces an account of universality that asks us to consider what everyone could rationally will only in order to rebut it by mentioning that Kant does not explicitly state things this way which is no answer to Scanlon. 

Parfit subsequently proposes to revise Kant's formulations in order to meet his notion of "non-reversibility" which is done by importing considerations of the sort Scanlon was concerned with when he referred to what everyone could rationally will. Having done so Parfit concludes the chapter with what he terms is the "Kantian Contractualist Formula" and which is stated as: "Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will". Such a formula assimilates Kant to Scanlon.

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