Thursday, 19 April 2012

Samuel Freeman's Review of Parfit

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books there is a review of On What Matters by Samuel Freeman. Since I have previously covered reviews of the work by Simon Blackburn and Philip Kitcher it seems only right to provide a general summary and response also to this one by Freeman.

Freeman's review opens with comments aimed at the general reader concerning the philosophical attempt to explain the purposes of common sense moral rules and to resolve moral dilemmas. Freeman refers to Kant almost immediately afterwards mentioning both the unconditional character of moral demands on Kant's conception and the Formula of Humanity. The argument of the first part of the Groundwork is implicitly referred to when Freeman mentions the view that the categorical imperative "justifies" our common sense duties to one another and also provides a "more fine-grained method of reasoning" concerning what we ought to do. Following Parfit's own startling conjunction of names in the "Preface" to On What Matters Freeman moves from Kant to Sidgwick and the latter's argument in The Methods of Ethics that it is the principle of utility that truly "justifies" common sense morality. The move from Kant to Sidgwick also allows Freeman, however, to refer to the Rawlsian challenge to the dominance that the utilitarian tradition had, until recently, in the area of social theory.

The introduction of the account of utilitarianism into Freeman's narrative also allows him to mention that the method of ethical appraisal promoted by this school is really a specific form of the general notion of consequentialism and that many consequentialists today have abandoned a simple commitment to hedonism and do not necessarily view utility as the best way of assessing consequences. After mentioning the shift within moral theory from utilitarianism to consequentialism Freeman fills out his picture of the general state of contemporary moral reflection by mentioning Thomas Scanlon's notion of "contractualism", a much more recent theory than Kantian and consequentialist ones. Scanlon is presented by Freeman as someone who modified the Rawslian view so that it was applied not to the theory of justice but instead to personal duties or duties towards others. Not only is this the basis of contractualism according to Freeman but this view is related by him to the Kantian one in terms of recognising the equal status of persons as integral to moral reasoning and, in making this emphasis so significant, as ensuring that these accounts stand together against consequentialism.

As Freeman mentions in a footnote, the three theories of Kantianism, consequentialism and contractualism are the centre of Parfit's book and are related together by him as the key traditions that have to be brought together, a point that ensures that virtue theory is simply left without consideration by Parfit. Parfit intends overall to articulate what he terms a "Triple Theory" that will combine optimific considerations with Kantian and contractualist ones thus producing what Parfit calls a "Kantian rule consequentialism". This argument for a "Triple Theory" of normative ethics is combined by Parfit with a general account of moral reasons that is aimed at showing their objectivity with the arguments in favour of this claim being the centre of the first and the sixth parts of the book. The latter claim is specifically presented by Parfit in response to subjectivist views of reasons and in riposte to a claimed nihilism with regard to values said to characterise much contemporary theorising about morals.

Parfit's attack on subjectivism is rightly presented by Freeman as mainly consisting in responses to the "Humean" theory of reasons that understands reasons primarily through the prism of desires. In response to such a claim Parfit insists on an account of objective reasons based on a view of intentional objectivity but the nature of the specific theory Parfit here elaborates and the problems with it are not considered by Freeman who simply presents it as laudable that Parfit attacks relativistic subjectivism without discussing whether such an attack is, as stated, either too blunt or unconvincing. This is a peculiar weakness in Freeman's review and is likely connected to a dialectical strategy of refuting the "Triple Theory" but upholding the significance of Parfit's book in terms of the defence of "objectivity" in morals. One of the reasons why Freeman may have taken this tack is due to the prevalence of forms of the "Humean" theory in contemporary economics and the need to challenge such a model as applied there.

Freeman looks at Parfit's treatment of the Formula of Humanity and chides Parfit for considering it in separation from Kant's general moral theory. However there are further significant problems both in terms of how Freeman views Parfit's discussion of the Formula of Humanity and with how Freeman understands the place of the Formula of Humanity in Kant's own theory. With regard to Parfit's treatment Freeman stresses the way that the discussion of the "mere means" requirement appears to be favoured by Parfit above other considerations though this point is here not well made given that Parfit considers another point to flow from the Formula of Humanity than this. Parfit also stresses a notion of "rational consent" that he articulates as the basis of the first part of the Formula and, whilst Freeman may not find this a persuasive reading of the Formula it is remiss of him to simply present Parfit as viewing the Formula only through the "mere means" requirement. It is true that Parfit does not view the Formula in terms of a "respect requirement" but Parfit does provide arguments for not viewing the "respect requirement" as really providing further normative guidance and this requires to be discussed and answered.

Freeman indicates some awareness of the "respect requirement" but moves rather quickly from referring to it to an account of some themes from Kant's philosophy of right including the "innate right to freedom" and the notion of independence from being constrained by another's choice. Since these themes belong not in Kant's general moral theory but to the account of right it is not at all clear why they are referred to by Freeman and it is not remiss of Parfit to have failed to engage with them when formulating his notion of a Kantian consequentialism. It is correct to argue that the Formula of Humanity appears to include a constraint on action in terms of describing something one should not act against but Freeman fails to bring this point out and generic reference to the notion of "individual rights" is insufficient to make clear the specific problem with Parfit's view of the Formula of Humanity.

Parfit is, in any case, as Freeman recognises, more concerned with Kant's discussion of universal law than with the Formula of Humanity. The discussion of universal law is interpreted by Parfit in accord with a principle taken from Thomas Scanlon so that it becomes understood as prescribing the requirement that everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will. This notion of a "Kantian Contractualism" is one that requires viewing the notion of universal law in terms that are not derived from Kant himself but Freeman emphasises more the application of the principles that follow for Parfit. Freeman terms Parfit's application "peculiar" and part of what is thus peculiar is the way the combination of Kant with Scanlon is meant to underpin rule consequentialism. Parfit requires us to see the reference to what makes things go best as grounded on some kind of formal rule process built into an understanding of rational willing. This has the result, as Freeman puts it, that "morality is then a kind of efficiency in promoting universal good". 

Once we have a concentration of this optimific sort ethics clearly becomes axiological and this is part of what Freeman rightly regards as controversial in Parfit's view. Kant and Scanlon are generally taken to have provided moral views that are not consequentialist (although there are other varieties of "Kantian consequentialism" such as the one articulated by David Cummiskey). In making the move of bringing Kant and Scanlon into alliance with consequentialism Parfit follows the method inaugurated by Sidgwick who made a similar move the centre of The Methods of Ethics. Freeman suggests that this move on Parfit's part will have particular effect for Kantians since he claims that: "Parfit's consequentialist interpretation of the categorical imperative will stimulate philosophers for years to come".

Despite making the suggestion that Parfit's reading of Kant is one that is likely to be philosophically significant Freeman rejects quite central aspects of Parfit's methodology. One of the elements of Parfit's work that provoked Simon Blackburn's ire was the insistent use of Trolley problems in the work and Freeman joins with Blackburn in finding recourse to them problematic. One of the reasons Freeman gives for rejecting the use of Trolley problems is that such problems can be varied with resultant differences of appraisal. Freeman also cites Susan Wolf's reply printed in the second volume of On What Matters in which she claims that there is "no single principle" underlying our moral intuitions in Trolley type cases. In citing Wolf (and also Allen Wood) in opposition to the use of these cases, however, Freeman seems simply content to state their objections to Parfit's procedure without considering the extensive replies Parfit includes to interlocutors, something which certainly seems rather odd. Freeman also seems to rest content with claiming that if Trolley problems really are of little use in moral philosophy that this in itself undermines Parfit's 'Triple Theory' thereby implying that there are no substantive arguments given by Parfit with regard to the formulation of the 'Triple Theory' that are separable from the use of Trolley Problems and this contention, as put, seems a rather strong reading of the recourse to Trolley Problems.

Freeman's overall evaluation is strongly negative since he argues that Parfit does not address the questions as to why we should view morality axiologically or provide us with a view of what the ultimate good is that we are to optimise. However, the first point is stronger than Freeman himself ultimately puts it since he recognises a strain in Parfit's work that derives from Sidgwick and is based on the notion of a general impersonality. It may be, as Freeman says, a kind of "refined philosophical sensibility" that prefers this concentration to one on personal affairs of the sort provided by Scanlon but it is the basis of a ground for axiological conceptions of morality. In so being it is, as Freeman rightly stresses, somewhat out of key with Kantian and Scanlonian views of morality and this cuts against the sense that the basis of the three views Parfit treats can easily be reconciled. However in considering why Parfit takes it that there is an ultimate ground of unity between the views Freeman retreats again to the assertion that Parfit's argument substantively depends on an inductive generalisation from the consideration of Trolley problems and this argument is one I think over-states the importance of the Trolley problems Parfit considers.  

It is a separate problem and a better point to argue that Parfit is never specific about the general good that is to be optimised though it seems to me that part of the basis of this general good is to be found in the view of objective reasons that Parfit defends and which Freeman fails to challenge. Freeman concludes his review with a statement to the effect that Sidgwick's syncretic project has been brought to a point by Parfit that ensures it has a greater range than even Sidgwick would have thought possible. Whilst this might be true the grounds of the difficulty with the 'Triple Theory' cannot simply reside within normative ethics alone but must also be grounded on the account of the "objectivity" of ethics that Parfit articulates, an account that Parfit himself presents as importantly in tension with the kind of Rawlsian view that Freeman himself defends and to which therefore Freeman should have taken time to respond in his review.

No comments: