Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Herman and Mutual Aid (I)

Apologies to readers of this blog for my extended absence from writing. Various things came up and for a while they created problems with finding time and space for blogging. In returning to the practice I want to look at an essay from the collection on Kant's Groundwork that was edited by Paul Guyer. The piece I'm going to address here and in the next posting is the one by Barbara Herman on mutual aid (which originally appeared in 1984 in an issue of Ethics).

Herman's piece opens with a long epigraph from the Groundwork (Ak. 4: 423) where Kant relates the question of beneficence to the formula of the law of nature. After citing this Herman claims that it is not a "crude misunderstanding" of the passage to see it as making a "prudential claim" for the duty of beneficence. The example as given relates the duty to the conception of a contradiction in the will and does so by pointing out that the adoption of a maxim of non-beneficence would lead an agent to deprive themselves of the help they will in future need for themselves. The "prudential" understanding of this argument has a substantial history going back to Schopenhauer and being repeated in one way by Sidgwick. It is, despite the evident reasons for championing it, a reading that runs full tilt against the overwhelming general case made in the Groundwork for distinguishing morality from prudential foundations. This general heuristic point gives one a clear reason for rejecting the prudential reading of the beneficence example.

In addition to referring to this heuristic point Herman points out a "double function" of the categorical imperative. One part of this is to "establish" moral requirements, the other is to assess actions and policies whose "permissibility" is uncertain. This "double function" should lead to seeing the use of examples as part of the general case for the duty in question and not as severed from it.

Herman's argument subsequently develops a view of the way the test that is given in the example is meant to work. Her overall claim is that the point of it should be to establish that the categorical imperative "correlates well with our considered judgments" (134). This notion of "considered judgments" is unclear since it could involve a notion of "common sense" or it may refer to a "reflective" kind of work that is undertaken on the typical judgments of "common sense". Further Herman refers to the point that Kant takes it that the categorical imperative is, in some way, "embedded" in ordinary judgments as would seem to follow from the argument of the first part of the Groundwork. "Correlation" is not a strong enough link to establish this claim but this claim could itself be interpreted in a similarly dual fashion as requiring either that common sense exhibits the categorical imperative or that a reflective analysis of its operation would demonstrate the categorical imperative whose result therefore would not be equivalent to a descriptive analysis of the operation of common sense.

This first issue is thus far unresolved. The next point that arises concerns the way that Herman views the operation of the procedure of moral judgment. This is done by means of iteration of the method of the "typic" outlined in the Critique of Practical Reason where Kant speaks of construction of a "world" in which the maxim in question has got the status of being a law of nature. If something can't be adopted as such a law without a contradiction of one of two kinds (in either conception or in willing) resulting then the maxim must be rejected. (Herman neglects to engage here in any discussion of the theory of maxims.) The example from the Groundwork involves no contradiction in conception and instead Kant there insists on the notion that there is a contradiction in the will.

The prudential reading of the example produces no specifically moral reason for acting on a maxim of beneficence. It typically instead trades on considerations of the vulnerability to misfortune of the agent with the putatively non-beneficent maxim. But if the argument is a prudential one it follows that there are many situations in which helping others is very inconvenient and that a generalized maxim of non-beneficence might, on the whole, be preferable. It would also produce a non-universalizable conception of beneficence since, as Herman puts it, some might be more whilst others are less willing to "risk it" that they will need and want help in the future. The whole problem seems then to turn into one about insurance and assurance and then the degree of beneficence one is willing to practice becomes dependent upon the way one calculates one's real risks of being in need.

The result of the prudential conception of the beneficence example is that the consideration of it becomes one in which moral actions are viewed in terms of "pay-off" and resultant expectations of well-being and this seems not to capture correctly the intuition we have of the importance of morality in our life. Herman mentions a possible alternative view to the prudential reading of the example as used by Rawls in his lectures on Kant's moral philosophy. Here Rawls invokes his conception of the veil of ignorance but Herman interprets it in   terms of the prudential argument for beneficence since it merely makes everyone conservative about risk taking. There are passages where Rawls suggests this in Theory but I don't take this to be his point here. In Theory, as Herman rightly states, the veil of ignorance is used against the backdrop of the "original position" but Rawls makes no reference to the latter when he interprets Kant's moral philosophy in his lectures. So I don't think the "prudential" reading that makes some sense of Rawls' overall political argument is one that is evidently right with regard to his reconstruction of Kant's moral philosophy.

Herman's interpretation of Rawls' view of the beneficence argument leads to seeing it as based on a view of the "representative person" rather than on an assessment of the position individuals are placed in. The point of emphasizing the latter is that Kant's examples generally function to counter the typical strategy revealed in many maxims of "exempting" oneself, just for this once, from a rule accepted to hold generally. Seeing the example this way makes the question of testing the maxim of non-beneficence one that is merely a special case of a general problem of egoistic self-preference. This way of seeing the example has the virtue of being close to the prudential reading in one central respect whilst also presenting a case for the prudential reading being wrong overall.

A second element of Herman's resistance to the Rawlsian reading concerns the fact that maxims appear to be tested by Kant as they are willed by the agent and hence the test of them has to include information of a sort ruled out by the veil of ignorance. I am unconvinced by this second "problem" with Rawls' reconstruction since the information that is relevant is only the generic information concerning the rationale for adopting the maxim. It doesn't incorporate specifically individual features into its consideration, the Herman reading, and nor could it or should it. In not doing so however it is no better placed than the Rawlsian reading.

Herman's interpretation turns, not like the Rawlsian one, on a view of information but instead on a view of rationality. Herman wishes to show that the adoption of the maxim of non-beneficence is irrational but not because of its implications of being non-prudential. In presenting an alternative view of the irrationality of the maxim of non-beneficence Herman looks in particular at the qualities of "ends" agents adopt. She wishes to show two qualities of ends that will be sufficient to show the irrationality of the maxim of non-beneficence. These are, firstly, that there are ends that are more important to agents than any alleged benefit derived from the aim of non-beneficence and, secondly, that there are ends that it is not possible for agents to forego. These two claims could be termed the importance claim (as in "importance of what we care about") and indispensable ends claim (ends we cannot fail to have).

So the categorical imperative procedure is viewed by Herman as showing that these two claims hold with regard to our ends. Central to her reconstruction will be showing that the aid of others is something we cannot do without and thus that aiming to maintain relations with others that will ensure that such aid is forthcoming should it be required is an indispensable aim for us. This point requires looking again at the theory of action that Kant outlines in his account of hypothetical imperatives. The conception of these was that means are not contingently connected to ends in the sense that certain kinds of means are essential to the accomplishment of certain kinds of ends. To this Herman adds that we essentially have recourse to three kinds of means: the utilisation of our own powers (as is discussed in the duty of self-improvement), the use of "things" or "objects" and the use of the services of others. Put like this the argument concerning beneficence aims to show that one of the basic conditions of our action incorporates a relation to the services of others.

In response to this Herman conjures up the figure of a "negative Stoic" who is prepared to give up any end that will require the help of others to be realised. Such an agent has taken the Stoical end to be a limit on all other ends. This does require taking this end to have a supreme kind of value and if there are other ends that are also taken to be important the problem with maintaining such a view will be manifested in demonstrating to oneself why this end should always have over-riding value. Not only is this so but whether the conditions faced by this agent are ones that present serious problems for them are not themselves under the agent's control. It may be that one will need help to resist temptations that are very strong and if this is resisted then the maxim of independence may become self-defeating. Whilst this argument doesn't strike me as having conclusive force what it does show is that any given end has to be related to the conditions that enable it to be realized and that one of the elements that have to be considered there is the potential help of others. Cutting oneself off from this seems unreasonable whatever one's ends otherwise are.

Herman's central claim is that there are ends that a rational being cannot give up and this is her gloss on Kant's notion of "true needs". Included amongst these are the need for the help of others given the natural limits on our powers as agents. As Herman puts this: "Because we are dependent rational beings with true needs, we are constrained to act in certain ways" (143). It is not obvious how this argument fails to be a variant on the conception that the duty of beneficence turns out to be something that it is prudent to accept. Herman's view that conditions of agency include the ability to call on the help of others seems right but this ability to call on the help of others is neither always requiring of beneficent acts nor does it mandate the scope of these acts. Further whilst a relation to others does seem to manifest a "true need" there are reasons to think separation from others is also so required (as in Kant's discussion of friendship).

Herman herself, however, appears more concerned with the suggestion that an implausibly stringent requirement of beneficence might be thought to follow from her argument. So she considers a maxim of non-sacrificial beneficence as a means to counter such a result and suggests that it would fail the categorical imperative test. However, in countering the suggestion that such a result points to an implausibly strong duty she argues that what is required when sacrificial help is needed is not "sacrifice" itself but something specific and availability of this latter depends on contingent circumstances.  Hence a maxim of non-sacrificial beneficence does not involve a contradiction in the will in the way that a maxim of non-beneficence generically does.

However it might seem that such an argument can be used against the duty of beneficence in general. Whenever help is needed it is something specific that is required not the help as such. Whilst this is true it is only the agency of another that can provide the help in question whatever that is.

What Herman's argument as shown does do not do is demonstrate that there may not be imprudent consequences from acting in a way that serves our own "true needs". Further she cannot demonstrate that our "true needs" may fail to be met in future because we acted beneficently. So, in an example she considers, it may be that a rich person will give away resources beneficently that will later make it impossible for this person to get an expensive medical treatment that would have had major effects on their life. This fact shows that the argument for beneficence is far from an easy one to sell. Herman herself deals with this in terms of how there is no requirement to meet all contingent circumstances in such cases but only to show what is required for agency to be truly realised. But given that the circumstances of scarcity seem far from "contingent" if they are likely to always hold in an agent's life this argument is not clearly conclusive.

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