Monday, 2 April 2012

Parfit and Kant on Universal Law (II)

In my last posting on Parfit I looked at the way in which Parfit addressed the topic of universal laws in the second of his 2002 Tanner Lectures. In this posting, by contrast, I'm going to look at the way in which Parfit addresses the topic in Climbing the Mountain, the first draft of Parfit's book, On What Matters.

Chapter 8 of Climbing the Mountain is concentrated on the question of "universal laws" and opens, as did the second of Parfit's Tanner Lectures of 2002, with a description of the variety of statements that appear to be classified by Kant as "maxims". Having listed these Parfit goes on to discuss the question of what underlies the Formula of Universal Law. Essentially Parfit is here attempting to assess what could underpin it for a successful version of Kantian ethics to be mounted and he is not interested, strictly speaking, in whatever it might have been that Kant himself was up to.

So the first candidate for the essential thrust of the Formula of Universal Law that Parfit considers is the one he terms "the Impossibility Formula" that alleges that there is something wrong in acting on a maxim that could not be a universal law. However, Parfit is not content to rest the understanding of the Formula of Universal Law on the Impossibility Formula alone since he wishes to offer further interpretation of what it is claiming to be impossible. Is it, as Parfit considers first, acting on maxims that we could not all accept? Well, if this refers to questions about psychological plausibility then it is not a formula that would work so Parfit shifts from this account to a different one where it would mean that acting on a maxim that it would be impossible for everyone to act upon would be wrong.

Here, however, the reference to "everyone" requires careful attention since many maxims can only be acted on by some. Children whose parents are mentally ill or imprisoned have no basis to expect that these parents are able to act on the general maxim of caring for their children and nor can the childless act upon such a maxim. These points are pretty obvious and show that the formula cannot be interpreted in ways that lead to such objections. Parfit reformulates Kant's notion as based upon an idea like the following: "It is wrong to act on any maxim of which it is true that, if everyone accepted and acted upon this maxim, or everyone believed that it was permissible to act upon it, that would make it impossible for anyone successfully to act upon it". (151)

The question that Parfit then raises concerning this more extended view of the Formula of Universal Law is whether he has reached an understanding of what the wrong-making characteristics of something are. However, Parfit still understands the question in a way that seems to me eccentric although the eccentricity of understanding here is not his alone. Barbara Herman, like Parfit, seems to think that it would be possible, in accordance with this criteria, to adopt the maxim of killing or injuring others wherever that would benefit me. The suggestion that this could be adopted as a maxim under the rules of the above citation strikes me as bizarre. Once this maxim has been generally adopted it would follow that all were constantly vigilant against being attacked by each other and that the general result would have to be to establish conditions that prevented such mutual harm. A structural argument of this sort is precisely at work in Kant's philosophy of right and it is very odd of Parfit and Herman to ignore it.

A similar point applies to Parfit's attempt to evade the logic of the universalisation of the practice of lying undermining the practice of lies. Parfit here indicates that some lies wouldn't then be told due to no longer being believed but that some lies would be told still since not every lie could be detected. In this case Parfit abstracts from the example Kant explicitly considers in the Groundwork which does not concern lying per se but lying promises and that what Kant was considering was the undermining of the practice of promising. Since generalised lying would ensure that no promise could be accepted as it stood it is promises that would be undermined, exactly as Kant argues. Parfit does later arrive at the point about promising only to channel it into an account of generalised permissibility without stopping to examine the basis of the claim about promising. Similarly, Parfit generally neglects the distinction between examples of contradiction in conception and contradiction in the will and looks at all of Kant's cases as if they were examples of the former.

Parfit does later arrive at questions about practices but, in invoking practices that he has reasons to think are bad ones, neglects to ask why Kant focused on the cases that he did.
The discussion of examples that Parfit gives is consistently in terms of checking different versions of what he thinks lies behind the Formula of Universal Law. Included here are questions about what it is to "successfully" act on certain maxims but Parfit basically rejects the notion that the Formula of Universal Law itself can help us with maxims that guide actions without revealing that Kant does not specifically apply it in this way in the Groundwork. Kant instead moves to the Formula of the Law of Nature before he turns to examples and Parfit follows Kant in this without indicating that he has done so. When he moves to the law of nature formula, however, Parfit for the first time considers "rational willing" though only to conflate this with formulas of his own devising concerning permissibility and "moral belief". The latter notion is used to ask whether acting on certain types of belief would produce wrong results. 

Once Parfit has arrived at this view he considers what he terms "policy-and-motive maxims" though this still leads him into muddles when he considers cases of egoistic action, actions that are not consistently treated by Parfit in terms of moral worth. The basic problem seems to be that Parfit takes a maxim to formulate an intention rather than an underlying policy that may not feature in conscious acts at all. Due to this Parfit consistently sets his examples in a peculiar light. Further, due to failing to get this right, Parfit gets confused about the point of understanding something having "moral worth". The formulations in Chapter 8 of Climbing the Mountain are thus little better than they were in the 2002 lectures.

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