Thursday, 20 December 2012

Herman on Mutual Aid (II)

In the previous posting I began to look at Barbara Herman's reconstruction of Kant's argument for beneficence in the Groundwork. In this posting I want to look at the second part of Herman's argument and respond to some elements of it. If the first part of her reconstruction concentrated primarily on providing a response to prudential readings of Kant's argument, the second part, by contrast, attends to some questions that emerge from her alternative reconstruction.

Herman mentions, for example, Kant's rationale for including some sense of "true needs" in his view of beneficence given that he has apparently "excluded" empirical considerations from his argument. The basis for Kant being able to do both these things is, claims Herman, due to the way he understands the "exclusion" of empirical considerations. On the one hand, empirical considerations are not meant to account for the "foundations" of morality. This is based on Kant's view that reason itself is not to be understood on empiricist lines. Connected to this point is the distinct claim that moral requirements are separate from any contingent and empirical ends we may possess. These claims about the "exclusion" of empirical considerations need not entail (and does not for Herman) that the "content" of morality has no relation to the empirical nature of things.

Despite having made this clarificatory comment about Kant's "exclusion" of empirical data from his view of morality Herman admits that the presence of claims about agential dependence in her reconstruction of the argument for beneficence might still trouble us. After all, what is to prevent there being rational agents who are not dependent in the way we humans appear to be. Given this possibility it would appear that factors trading on contingent characteristics have been given undue weight in her reconstructed argument and this is important given that the categorical imperative is meant to apply to all rational beings. However, in reply, Herman argues that whilst the fundamental categorical imperative would apply to all rational beings this does not entail that the same duties would emerge from the application of it for all rational beings. So there would be rational beings that would not have the duty of beneficence despite being subject to the categorical imperative.

This implication of Herman's account is somewhat surprising and reveals that her claim about indispensable ends is anthropologically inflected. The duty of mutual aid emerges for her as one that attaches to beings that are dependent on each other in the way that humans are. Another surprising element of her view is that the claim of mutual aid can be said to be met if it is recognised as valid even should it be the case that no aid is able to be given. This latter claim involves saying that the claim is "met" in a sense if it is recognised that someone is of the class of persons and hence we can see that their claim is one we should meet if we can. Even though it may be we cannot meet their claim the act of recognition of its validity is a kind of way in which it is acknowledged and this itself appears to Herman to matter.

This second surprising element of Herman's argument is one to which she pays more attention than the first surprising element. Seeing a claim as "valid" is seeing that it is right that the need it expresses be considered she states and this does not entail that the claim even should be met. 

The next element of Herman's account worth remark is that she takes the duty of mutual aid to be one that is indeterminate with regard to action. It expresses what she calls a "general policy maxim" which expresses a form of intent with regard to the formation of specific maxims of action. The intent is that the specific maxims of action should take the general policy to guide their formulation. This view of the way the duty works is now used to begin to formulate what Herman takes to be the casuistry of mutual aid.

In outlining this casuistry Herman argues that the way a maxim is to be understood is in terms of what is "behind" a maxim. So, using the example of refusing to give to charity, she articulates the very different reasons that might lead someone to adopt such a policy and argues that the general policy behind the specific adoption of this view is what matters. The lesson of this example is then applied to other examples including the reason why someone who has ability and opportunity to help another does not do so on a specific occasion. Acknowledging another's need as a claim on one is taking it to provide a reason why one should help them. Relevant reasons for failing to act on the claim are introduced in the context of competing claims. 

The basis of mutual aid is revealed for Herman to be the preservation and support of persons in their activity as rational agents. The basis of refraining from helping others in general is the threat this may pose to our own agency. The same action may therefore be mandated for one and yet not for another so the universality of the duty is not a basis for claiming uniformity of what is required to be done.

A further surprising implication of Herman's account is that if mutual aid really relates to "true needs" then many acts of helping others that we perform are not really acts that are morally mandated and therefore not duties at all. This view is distinct from the claim in the Doctrine of Virtue (Ak. 6: 387-8) that the happiness of others is an obligatory end for us, which implies a more stringent requirement of beneficence than Herman allows. Herman is unhappy with this suggestion since she thinks if interpreted strictly it fails to distinguish between different kinds of need of others. The passage cited from the Doctrine of Virtue is very thin and principally aimed at arguing against the view that I have a duty to promote my own happiness. Herman also has a more moderate view of the passage taking it to mandate no more than possessing a duty of contributing to the meeting of the true needs of others. 

The focus on "true needs" as the basis of the requirement of beneficence is a way of distinguishing between the help that morality mandates and that which may be naturally given by a kindly soul but Herman does not wish to present the difference this way since she argues that a full Kantian account of helping would attempt to integrate both types of help. The problem with this is that the view of kindness offered still stands as one on Herman's account that tends to be viewed in terms of inclination as when she refers to it as "good-heartedness". This construal of it assimilates it to the position of the kindly person described as lacking in moral worth in the first part of the Groundwork

Herman's account of beneficence has, in sum, three difficulties: 1) it surprisingly limits the scope of beneficence to only certain kinds of rational beings; 2) it brings in a view of a relationship between beneficence and kindness that appears to point to a fuller Kantian theory of helping but also undercuts this suggestion; 3) in ruling out more stringent accounts of beneficence it appears to leave a large amount of the filling in of the determinancy of the judgment about this duty to latitude.

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