Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Parfit and Kant on Moral Dilemmas

In the previous posting on Parfit I looked at Chapter 8 of Climbing the Mountain, the first full monograph-length version of what later was to become published as On What Matters and suggested some significant problems with the treatment Parfit gave there of Kantian formulas of universal law. In this posting I'm going to look at Chapter 9 of Climbing the Mountain where Parfit moves on to addressing some moral dilemmas and connects the understanding of these dilemmas to questions about universalisation tests.

One of the points that this chapter raises concerns the world that is being referred to when universalisation tests are formulated. Is it the "actual" world or not? There are good reasons to think not, not least some remarks Kant makes in his discussion of the typic in the Critique of Practical Reason where he makes clear that we frequently give ourselves a pass with regard to moral requirements precisely on the grounds that not everyone will follow our example in the actual world. Parfit construes this point as requiring the test that is formulated by the Law of Nature Formula to be understood as asking us whether it would be better if no one acted in a certain way.

Parfit takes the Law of Nature Formula to work best when applied to maxims of which 3 things are true: a) it is possible for many people to act on this maxim; b) whatever the number of people who act on it the effects of each such act would be similar; c) these effects would be roughly equally distributed between different people. After stating these points Parfit moves on to the real business of this chapter which is to discuss moral dilemmas, beginning with the case of "each-we dilemmas" in which "if each rather than none of us does what would be better in some kind of way, we would be doing what would be, in this way, worse" (171). These cases are next summarised in terms of well-being.

The basic move that Parfit thus makes, apparently casually, in this chapter, is to examine types of moral dilemma that are based on a general consequentialist appraisal basis and to apply versions of the universality test to cases so considered. Such cases have a wide range, involving free-rider considerations for example, as applied to "public goods" such as the provision of law and order (with cases of tax evasion having force here). The general cases of each-we dilemmas also touch upon special questions from common sense morality that involve those to whom we have special obligations (such as children, clients or colleagues). Each-we dilemmas arise in these cases in particular affecting the people Parfit dubs M-related to us.

Moral cases of each-we dilemmas are often resolved by appeal to forms of utilitarianism but Parfit considers here Kantian solutions though he does so not by asking the question with which the chapter is titled, namely, "what if everyone did that", but rather its negative complement, "what if no one did that". The reasons for invoking this formula in these cases, according to Parfit, is that it will lead us to revise widely held moral beliefs that are mistaken. Not only will appeal to Kant's Law of Nature Formula have this effect, on Parfit's view, it will also challenge common sense beliefs here in an especially forceful way.

When Parfit comes to apply the Law of Nature Formula to the each-we dilemmas he does so with a proviso. This is that we consider acts whose rightness depends at least in part on their predictable effects. The point Parfit is after here is that certain types of maxims are fine if restrictively applied whilst they would become problematic if widely adopted. This type of problem is widely stated in secondary literature on Kant's universal law formulas and would require more consideration than can be given here. Parfit's example is of the maxim "have no children so I can devote myself to philosophy", a maxim that is fine in restricted application but would be disastrous if adopted universally.This is what is termed by Parfit the "permissible acts objection".

With regard to these "permissible acts" most maxims concerning them are formulated in a conditional way and this points to Parfit to restrictions on the maxims in question that are taken by him to be broadly in accord with the standards of the hypothetical imperative (though he doesn't explicitly refer here to the hypothetical imperative). However, in accord with Parfit's general conflation of maxims with intentions he reformulates the Law of Nature Formula to say that we act wrongly unless what we are intentionally doing is something that we could rationally will everyone to do.

After considering this first objection Parfit moves on to a second one. This again is formulated in terms of effects of adopting certain maxims. However, in this case, the problem is taken to be that Kant's general standard is that of an ideal world. Parfit here follows Christine Korsgaard in stating that there might be a problem with stating things in terms of ideal worlds since, in the "actual" world, disastrous results could ensue from following maxims that would ideally be alright. This "Ideal World Objection" applies, for example, to any maxims that rule against violence as such since, in the "actual" world, use of it cannot be unrestrictedly ruled out. However, once we have admitted this and formulated maxims to meet it, there is a different ideal world objection, namely, that maxims might thus become too permissive.

This objection concerning permissiveness is applied by Parfit to the general formulations that are often given of rule consequentialism, and used to further revise the Law of Nature formula. However the revision that arises from considering the permissiveness objection also has the effect of making the kind of consequentialism that Parfit has been building in to the moral situation one that becomes closer to that envisaged by act consequentialists. The chapter closes with this construal of the Law of Nature Formula having become thus close to a modified notion of rule consequentialism that appears well on the way to act consequentialism.

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