Sunday, 15 July 2012

Parfit, Kant and Consequentialism

In my last posting on Parfit I discussed the general problems I think there are with his notion of "contractualist consequentialism" as presented in the third of his 2002 Tanner Lectures. In this posting I want to look at the concluding section of this third lecture in order to see how Parfit brings the argument there to a conclusion and to use the discussion of this conclusion to demonstrate again some reasons for thinking that Parfit stacks the deck rather when he reaches the conclusion that Kant gives the basis for a contractualist view that is substantively consequentialist.

Parfit opens the final section of this lecture with a statement that whilst Kant was not a consequentialist the argument's point is not to examine the reasons why Kant was not a consequentialist but instead to point to some reasons for taking it to be the case that we can develop a consequentialist view by appealing to some elements of Kant's positions. In making this case Parfit appeals to an important distinction. The distinction is between what he terms Kant's "moral beliefs" on the one hand and the "implications of his principles" on the other. The former are what are involved in Kant's not being a consequentialist on Parfit's view, whilst the latter, by contrast, point to consequentialist conclusions. This distinction is an important one, as we shall see in looking at the concluding phase of Parfit's argument.

Parfit's case is built by reference to the principle he extracted from Kant's Formula of Humanity as the first part of it. This principle is what Parfit terms "Kant's Consent Principle" (KCP). The "consent" involved is framed by Parfit as "rational consent" and it is connected to the act consequentialist view that rational consent can be seen as agreement that everyone be treated in ways that would make things go best. If we look at rational consent in this manner, then treating people in a way that implies adoption of an axiological standard of value is equivalent to treating them in ways to which they could rationally consent. One of the points Parfit rushes to make here is, however, meant to assuage a problem Rawls raised against utilitarianism. Rawls indicated that a problem with accepting "classical utilitarianism" was that it required some to  sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others and that such a sacrifice was one that the ones being sacrificed could accept only if they were prepared to sacrifice the very point of being in an ethical space at all (so it is connected to his problem with the "separateness of persons"). However Parfit thinks he has a reply here as if the act in question would impose great burdens on some for the sake of greater benefits for others then this act would not make things go best but instead go worse. This is despite the fact that the person in question might "rationally consent" to the act. On this basis Parfit argues that consequentialists don't have to be seen as utilitarians.

The separation of consequentialism from utilitarianism that this argument involves does, however, require, as a consequence that an optimific act is not one that can be assessed only through the prism of rational consent. Rational consent is thus not a means to determine the rightness of the act if such rightness is standardly viewed in terms of optimific understanding. In which case, whilst Parfit thinks that KCP could be accepted by act consequentialists, it is not sufficient as a standard of rightness for them. 

Parfit, however, takes the argument a different way as he now moves away from the consent principle and back to the principle he earlier termed "Kant's Contractualist Formula" (for which see this earlier posting). The contractualist formula requires that we appeal to principles that everyone could rationally choose and we could not rationally will that everyone accepts act consequentialist principles and so the act consequentialist principle is not one we should act upon. Notably, however, and remarkably, Parfit has here done something that cuts heavily against the grain. He has presented act consequentialism as sufficiently robust that it can provide a defence for the separateness of persons, such a defence that it can be distinguished from utilitarianism, and then, having done this, has used an appeal to contractualist views about universal rational acceptance, to undercut act consequentialism after all. It would, according to standard ways of presenting the moral situation, be rather more apt to say that act consequentialism, like act utilitarianism, is insufficiently robust to prevent appeal to demanding notions of self-denial and then use that to support a view of consent principles that did not view the latter in optimific terms. So Parfit's initial argumentative strategy is, to say the least, very odd.

Parfit refers now to the argument Sidgwick famously used that it would be best, from a utilitarian point of view, if not everyone was a utilitarian. This argument, which shows that utilitarianism lacks transparency, is one that Parfit endorses here against act consequentialism. In doing so he appears to appeal to the view that moral beliefs matter in the sense that if we knew it to be true that it would not make things go best if everyone acted in ways dictated by principles of maximising what would go best, we should prefer it that not everyone had the belief that they should make things go best. Indeed, not only does Parfit appear to make this move, but he also uses it to prefer rule consequentialism to act consequentialism since rule consequentialism requires us to act on principles whose acceptance would make things go best even should this be the view that not everyone believe that they should act in ways that make things go best.

Parfit now constructs an argument that is meant to move from  Kant's "contractualist formula" that we ought to act on principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally choose to the conclusion that rule consequentialism is correct on Kantian contractualist grounds. Now there are several stages in this argument which bear close analysis if a response is to be made. The first point to look at is how Parfit views reasons. Parfit introduces and critically interrogates the premise everyone could rationally choose whatever they would have sufficient reason to choose. This premise is interrogated as what we have sufficient reason to choose is argued by Parfit to depend on facts whilst what we rationally choose is, by contrast, based on beliefs. The difference matters since false beliefs give us reasons to choose something that it is not ultimately rational to choose. So the application of Kant's "contractualist formula" requires congruence between beliefs and facts. 

The next premise is to the effect that everyone would have sufficient reason to choose that everyone accept the principles whose acceptance would make things go best assuming the congruence we have established as a requirement for this. Now, in critically evaluating this premise, Parfit points to the "impartial reason-involving" sense of normative reason as the basis for viewing how to evaluate whether or not things have gone best. However, in assessing this claim, Parfit also refers back to his earlier distinction between "moral beliefs" and "principles" since he rejects the objection that such a principle might produce immoral action on the grounds that such an objection illegitimately introduces moral beliefs. There is a problem with this reply since it assumes that the contractualist procedure is thus far not loaded or is effectively neutral between different views. But it is not. In taking our standard in terms of an axiological conception of evaluation we have already adopted a consequentialist standard into our reasoning so it is evident such a standard will be our conclusion. If, however, our argument precisely concerns a question about how "rational consent" is to be understood, for example, then we cannot simply stipulate that it be seen in not merely an impartial sense but in terms of a view of impartial reason that is pre-set in terms of outcomes. Viewing impartial reason in terms of outcomes incorporates a "moral belief" into the "neutral" evaluation. And it does so in a way that is then used to appeal to "principles" as if they are not described in ways that are set against other "principles" where the other principles are then merely demoted to the status of "beliefs".

The reason why Parfit thinks that such a division between "principles" and "beliefs" is stable is because he sees the former as tracking "facts" and making them congruent with "true beliefs" whilst an insistence on "moral belief" simpliciter is simply an argument from what we "already accept". However the reference to "facts" here is one that involves a view of the factual that is itself normatively loaded since it takes factual support to consist in a view about what is axiologically supported and so it is not neutral between views.

Parfit argues that in pursuing this strategy he is following a standard contractualist procedure and he even appeals here to the example of Rawls to support him. Rawls, however, when constructing the original position, does so by building the position out of what he termed "formal constraints of the concept of right" and such constraints are not discussed by Parfit. Particularly important from such constraints was a solution formally argued to the "priority problem" with regard to principles. Parfit stipulates a solution by taking axiological criteria to be supreme, something that cuts precisely against his earlier recognition of the point that there is a case to be made against abstracting from the separateness of persons.

Parfit next goes on to consider this claim by balancing what he regards as the considerations of personal points of view with those of impartial reason. In doing so Parfit stresses the idea that there are non-self-interested personal reasons which, indeed, there are in terms of different conceptions of the good. However, Parfit does not consider this question in terms of different conceptions of the good but only in terms of personal reasons being seen, if they conflict with impartial ones, as self-interested. Parfit does not consider that personal reasons that oppose what he views as "impartial" reason may also be principled in their opposition. Because of this Parfit simply arrives at the conclusion that it is always optimific to follow impartial reason and that we should accept impartial reasons as personal reasons given that this is so. But this is not evident at all if there are impartial reasons that are non-optimific in form as is the case with non-consequentialist views. 

Because Parfit has construed the choice situation in the way he has he cannot avoid the problem of unreasonable burdens that, at the beginning of the discussion, he wished to argue was not a necessary element of consequentialist views. Assuming that one holds a non-optimific view of goodness by means of a conception of the priority of the right over the good one will always be told that ones view of the good is only personal and should be sacrificed optimifically which is to abstract from the separateness of persons in precisely the way Rawls complains of. This is still the consequence of Parfit's preferred rule consequentialism which is why it still incorporates the classic consequentialist move of requiring us to see impartial reasons as always optimific in form. Parfit thinks he can appeal against this since he argues that ultimately he is appealing to Kant's "contractualist formula" and basing rule consequentialism on this. However this is dishonest as the contractualist formula, in application, is always used to bolster the conception that impartial reason is framed in terms of optimific outcomes so it is only a supplementary principle meant as a support for consequentialism and is not, as Parfit pretends, foundational for ethical principles. 

So whilst Parfit concludes by saying he has not argued that we should become rule consequentialists but only that Kantian and contractualist premises support rule consequentialist conclusions this is not what his argument shows. What his argument shows is, instead, that if contractualist and consent principles are interpreted axiologically then they support consequentialism. But that is only because they have been pre-defined in such a way that consequentialism is their inevitable focus. Parfit assumes that the only response to this argument is to favour "moral beliefs" over "principles" but, as I have argued, this division is founded on an incorporation of a "belief" into his account of "principles" in the first place.

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