Saturday, 26 May 2012

Parfit and Kant on Impartiality (III)

The published Chapter 14 of On What Matters corresponds to the account given in the 2008 version of the work which I treated previously. In many respects the analysis and response to the discussion thus is much of a piece with that given earlier. In order to make the case for a response to Parfit's published version worthwhile, however, I have chosen to focus here on what I now view to be the key methodological device used in Parfit's discussion of impartiality. This is the recourse to a process of imaginative identification as the way in which impartiality is to be understood. The importance of stress on this will become clear when I make subsequently manifest how it ensures that Parfit does not seriously respond to the Kantian view that he takes himself to be replying to in this chapter.

The chapter opens, as previous versions of it did, with a statement of Kant's rejection of a principle that Parfit, along with others, has identified with the "Golden Rule" where the rejected rule incorporates already a notion of imaginative identification as it asks us to treat others as we would wish to be treated by them. Kant rejects this rule and indicates a number of problems with it. The nature of the specific problems that Kant poses with the rule are not identical, however, with how Parfit takes Kant's objections to go. Kant objects that the rule is not fit to be viewed as providing a universal law and he gives 2 reasons why this is so: a) it does not contain the ground of duties toward oneself or of love toward others; b) it does not contain the ground of duties owed to others. The second part of the first objection (concerning the duty of love towards others) is restated on the basis that some would agree to not be benefited by others if only it follows that they are not required to benefit these others. Hence this point is to the effect that the nature of the reciprocity recognised in the rule is insufficient to ground beneficence. The second objection is supported with a reductio proof to the effect that the rejected rule provides no ground for a judge sentencing a criminal since the criminal can ask the judge whether he would like to be punished. In both cases Kant suggests that the process of identification that the rejected rule seems to require is insufficient to ground the duty in question.

Parfit's discussion opens with a description of why the objection to the attempt to ground beneficence on the rejected rule would fail according to Kant. Parfit indicates that the rejected rule is not faulty in the way indicated since the rule does not lapse simply because one is not inclined to ask for the help of others. The reason why Parfit thinks he can make this move is that the rejected rule requires that we help others if we would wish to be helped whereas the exemption suggested in the objection Kant makes is that someone might only say, not, that they don't want help but that they would be willing to forego it if they are thereby freed from obligation towards others. The reason why Parfit thinks this is a reply to Kant appears initially mysterious. After all, isn't the denial of such help thus the basis for saying that I have renounced the need for help and therefore have a ground for asking others to do the same? I think that Parfit fails to see this point as he is held captive to a picture, a picture that runs through the whole of this chapter and the picture is one in which the imaginative appeal of the need of others is taken to provide not only a binding ground of obligation but to have a kind of obvious basis as such a ground, one that no one could really be obtuse enough to deny (except, as we shall see later, in cases where the other person is radically different to oneself).

Parfit is, however, wrong to think that he has replied to Kant's objection. The objection holds since the rejected rule requires and mandates only reciprocity of treatment on the basis of the imagined identification and the person Kant considers has simply requested that others extend to him the courtesy he would to them of refusing to ask for help. This plea is entirely in accord with the rejected rule and is at variance with the Law of Nature formula since the law of nature formula requires not imaginative identification but instead the construction of a world governed by the maxims that are stated in the aim underlying the specific policies of given actions. Here it would be an aim of generalised non-beneficence and this is why Kant views the maxim here as falling foul of the Law of Nature formula in a way it does not fall foul of the rejected rule. It falls foul precisely because such a generalised maxim of indifference could not be willed universally as to will it would undercut a basic condition of agency which requires the help of others to prosecute innumerable policies and their accompanying aims so that the maxim of non-beneficence is in tension with the general conditions of agency, not with imaginative relations to others.

Parfit's next consideration of the case of benevolence states that the rejected rule does not refer to conditions of willing as it does not view people generally as being absolute monarchs or dictators who can make others do what we will, a remark that indicates a complete failure to understand the basis of reference to willing in Kant's case. It is not that Kant wishes us to imagine that any one is an absolute monarch, it is rather that he wishes us to view our will as setting laws that apply to others in the same way as natural laws do, that is, as publicly acknowledged and consistently binding of their action. When so viewed some types of maxim conflict with conditions of agency and this shows the problem with them. Parfit subsequently shifts ground and argues that the rejected rule can also incorporate understanding of this is if it is stated in a form that says something like, "do as you would be done by". However this is simply not equivalent to a recognition of willing as it is rather again an imaginative relation to others in terms of how each of us treat others and requires us, as in the standard form, to regulate our conduct by how we would wish to be treated, thus beginning from a kind of egoistic starting point and requiring that standpoint to be checked by this imagination of others treating us as we have treated them. But this is not the same as thinking about internal requirements of willing and their coherence which is what Kant is concerned with.

The next step in Parfit's treatment of benevolence is to view the rejected rule as having the resource that he thinks is behind Kant's discussion of willing, namely of capturing a notion of rational choice. Then the "Golden" rule becomes: "We ought to treat others only in ways in which we would rationally be willing to be treated by others". This reformulation has the same methodological form as the classic version of the rule since it proceeds exactly in the way just described in the previous paragraph with the addition that now "rational" willing is presented as a form of willing that prudently involves a check on its own exercise for the benefit of the one willing. This converts the "Golden" rule into a kind of instrumental guide for conduct but such a guide is not equivalent to an appeal to the conditions of rational willing as outlined in the Law of Nature argument. 

That the two are not equivalent becomes apparent as Parfit looks at cases in which beneficence is required. To sharpen the  "Golden" rule in his new understanding of it Parfit asks that we apply it to conditions that might not be actual for us so that, for example, in thinking about cases of starvation we should imagine not if we would be willing to do without food now where we may have plentiful ways of getting some in the future and perhaps have been eating too much, but in some quite different case where we really are like those who are starving. Similarly, it is not sufficient, on Parfit's revised "Golden" rule, for a racist to deny others the use of resources on the grounds that they are not a member of the affected race as the revised rule requires that this racist place himself in the position of those who he is harming. This makes clear that identification with the plight of those harmed is to the fore and that this often requires imagination to be stretched as when it may be necessary to imagine that one is a member of a different race, lives elsewhere or even belongs to a different gender. This expanded procedure leads to Parfit viewing the "Golden" rule next as stating that we should treat others as we would rationally wish to be treated ourselves "if we were going to be in these other people's positions, and would be relevantly like them". 

Parfit next looks at the objection Kant makes using a reductio argument to the idea that the rejected rule could treat of duties owed to others with the case of punishment used to suggest a problem. Parfit gives a formulation of the rejected rule that he thinks would face this problem and this produces a further reformulation of it on his part so it now becomes: "we ought to treat other people as we would rationally be willing to be treated if we were going to be in the positions of all of these people, and would be relevantly like them". On this basis the judge can now reject the case the criminal makes for why he should not be punished as the judge takes a wider identification than was at first in view and includes the victims of the crime (for example) in his imaginative extension of his identity. On these grounds the rule can provide a basis for punishment. Notice, however, that the question of the scope of identification is carefully here limited. Imagine further that the criminal had a number of dependants and that their need is greater than that of his victims. Should this be taken into account by the judge in his imaginative identification thus giving the criminal a renewed case? Or is there perhaps something wrong with the whole idea that what matters here is imaginative identification?

The last point that Parfit considers is Kant's suggestion that the rejected rule does not cover duties to oneself. Parfit acknowledges that if the rule does not do this it could have serious consequences and that generally it is likely it has been formulated in a way that does not appear to recognise this point given that we do not tend to ignore our own well-being. In acknowledging this point Parfit simply extends the scope of imaginative identification further so that when we consider how to treat others we are one of the "everyone" who would be affected. Notably, however, this appears to make us simply equivalent to others and, indeed, to render all others commensurable with each other.

Parfit considers the "Golden" rule and Kant's Formula of Universal Law as alike in two respects. Firstly, they both appeal to rational grounds of choice. Secondly, they both take everyone to matter in a way that involves some basic moral egalitarianism. Now, the point I wish to make is that the ground of the "Golden" rule on Parfit's defence of it is quite different, in both these respects, from the ground of Kant's procedure for identification of the supreme principle of morality. In regard to rational grounds of choice the "Golden" rule defines this in terms of needs and benefits and understands these in terms of imaginative processes of identification with others. With regard to moral egalitarianism it further assumes a basic commensurability of moral agents. By contrast, Kant's procedure is to view the ground of universality in terms of conditions of rational agency, not in terms of needs and benefits but instead in terms of what the conditions are for any identification of an agent that has any needs or benefits. Secondly, moral egalitarianism is defined not in terms of commensurability of agents where such commensurability abstracts from the separateness of persons but instead identification of persons as basic moral units.

Parfit views the different questions posed methodologically by appeal to these two notions in a way that is different to how I would put them. According to him the "Golden" rule asks how I would like it if something of a certain sort was done to me. By contrast, the formulas of Kant are alleged to ask "what if everyone did that"? In fact whilst I agree that the "Golden" rule has an implicitly egoistic starting point I don't think that it contrasts with the Kantian procedure primarily just through that being its question whilst Kant asks instead of some kind of universal consequence of others doing certain things. Rather it is the case that the advocates of the "Golden" rule adopt the procedure of asking me to view actions in terms of the consequences to me of certain things becoming universal. Whilst Kant's examples also often appear to do this the basic question underlying them is asking something else in addition: namely, what would happen to agency, my own included, if x, y, or z became universal. So it is not a question of a consequence that is primarily at issue for Kant but of a status being respected, the status, that is, of agency itself.

The "Golden" rule asks questions about points of view for Parfit, the points of view of others and myself in certain situations and assesses rights and wrongs through trying to arrive at a way of harmonising my point of view with others. Kant's procedure is different as he instead wishes to ask us what the conditions of agency themselves require. When Parfit subsequently invokes the idea of the "Impartial Observer" beloved of Adam Smith he is not leaving the ground that he has occupied previously of defence of the "Golden" rule as this "impartial" observer is an external way of visualising the conditions of imaginative identification meant to remove specific peculiarities from how I may view something. By thus abstracting from my own case I am supposed to still be able to carry out imaginative identification without having this any longer involve even partial reference to my own self. This abstractive sense of imagination is still one in which an idea or image of a self is meant to fill the role that for Kant is filled by a general argument about agency itself.

Parfit assumes that a procedure of imaginative identification has more motivational power than the kind of argument Kant uses. Some of the reasons why Parfit thinks this become clear as he motivates some objections to Kant. The first objection is the one he terms the "rarity objection" which essentially consists in imagining cases in which I can ensure that someone else suffers a burden or fails to get a benefit unjustly for my own egoistic reasons due to it being the case that our situation ensures that my actions don't subsequently rebound on me. This rarity objection is a form of maxim-fiddling which is meant to get past Kant's Law of Nature formula on the grounds that if others don't and can't discover what I have done they will not subsequently affect me in the way I have affected an other here. This, however, simply fails to view the maxim in question as one that has been put to Kant's test at all since if it had been it would be a public, universally known law and given that it would there would be no way for concealment to take place. Such a publicity criterion is key to the statement of the Law of Nature formula and failure to bear it in mind ensures that Parfit states an objection that simply does not apply.

A different type of objection is made by Parfit to Kant when he states what he terms the "high stakes objection", based on the problem that in some situations acting against another may well be overwhelmingly plausible to me given that failing to do so would have seriously adverse consequences for me. Parfit is right to think that such circumstances are ones in which terrible temptation is placed before people and that frequently they weaken when this is the case. However, whilst this is true, it is still not sufficient to say that the Law of Nature formula does not apply in the case. It still governs the case and that it does is not affected by the difficulties of the person in question. They are still asked to take the universal law into account, however difficult it is for them psychologically to do so. In similar cases, other moral rules of similar scope would be similarly difficult but would not, due to this alone, have to be contravened.

The third and final objection Parfit makes concerns what he calls the "non-reversibility objection" in which we are in a situation with regard to others that is asymmetric. The example Parfit refers to is again the case of the racist who wishes to deny services to others of other races, something that, as Parfit puts it, is universal "in his social world". Parfit seems to assume that because the maxim of such conduct is currently widely "acted upon" that it poses some special challenge to Kant's account and that the better process of response is the one motivated by the extension of imaginative identification. However it is neither the case that some special problem is stated here nor that the case is better dealt with by appeal to imaginative identification. The reason it is not a special problem is that the wide currency of a practice in some given social circle is not the same as its actual universality and nor would even an actual universality be the same as a normative universality. It is the latter which is at issue and it is not defined by processes of exclusion in which others are arbitrarily treated as undeserving of recognition as rational beings. The reason the extension of imaginative identification is not preferable to the appeal to conditions of rational agency is that the required identification may simply be declared too difficult or, even worse, the racist or sexist might simply state that in such cases they would rightly accept their own inferiority. Appeal to universality of agential requirements does not allow such a response.

In conclusion Parfit considers cases of "defences" of Kant which view the Kantian procedure on the pattern of imaginative identification so that it becomes the case that Kant is treated as if he was formulating "a greatly inflated version of the Golden Rule". This is not the point of Kant's procedure as Nagel suggests when he asks us to think we are in everyone else's position or when T.C. Williams asks us to take the standpoint of the impartial observer. Such methodological moves are alien to the spirit and point of the Kantian method which does not require us to be responsive to others' needs on the basis of sympathy. The ground of benevolence is not found there for Kant. It is, rather, found in conditions of agency itself. It is the point of Kant's objection to the "Golden" rule that this ground is not identified by it as what is morally crucial.

Parfit fails to see this is and this failure is the basis of the concluding move of the chapter, a move in which he argues for an assimilation of Kant's procedure with that of Thomas Scanlon. Scanlon, like Kant, asks the question, "what general principles of action could we all will" and this appears to be viewed by Parfit, at the end of this long chapter, as a question like the one that motivated the "Golden" rule on his construal of it. As we have seen it is not the case that the methodology of the "Golden" rule is the same as that of Kant and nor is it the case that what is salient for the one is equivalent to what is salient to the other. So when Parfit concludes the chapter with his formulation of a "Kantian Contractualist Formula" it remains to ask whether contractualism is to be understood by Parfit after the image of imaginative identification that has guided his account of impartiality.

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