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.

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.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Kjartan Koch Mikalsen in *KSO*

The latest issue of Kant Studies Online has been published and contains a review article by Kjartan Koch Mikalsen (NTNU) of an edited collection Politics and Metaphysics in Kant. The article, like all pieces in KSO, can be freely accessed and downloaded and is available here.

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Adrian Piper in *Kant Studies Online*

A new article has been published in Kant Studies Online. It is by Adrian M.S. Piper (APRA Foundation) and is entitled: "Reconsidering Kant's Self-Legislation Procedure". It includes, amongst other things, one of the most extensive discussions of formulas of the categorical imperative that you are likely to find. The article can be freely accessed and downloaded here. All articles published in the journal are freely available for download and consultation.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Donate to *Kant Studies Online*

The e-journal Kant Studies Online of which I am the Managing Editor now includes on its web-site information intended to make possible donation to the journal to help us with running costs. It lists the bank details of the journal and it would be helpful should any readers wish to donate if you could set up BAC transfers to the account number listed. You can find the info in question here.

Performance Philosophy

A new professional association has been formed for the research and study of the idea of "performance philosophy". The idea of this has been construed in a broadly inter-disciplinary way and is not restricted to the usual areas of theatre, dance and performance art though it is evidently intended to encompass them. The group welcomes new members, is free to join and includes the capacity to set up sub-groups and blogs connected to the venture. In solidarity with the venture I've joined and set up a sub-group on an area long of fascination to me, to which however, I have not, as yet tried to provide substantive pieces of work. This is the area of "fashion and performance". You can check out the broad network for this idea here and see my new sub-group, which I hope some readers will consider joining there as well.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

New articles in *Kant Studies Online*

Two new articles have been published in Kant Studies Online. One is by Gregory Robson from Duke University on the topic of Kant's criticism of the ontological argument for the existence of God and Alvin Plantinga's response to this. The other is by Greg Lynch from Fordham University which concerns the "semantics of self-knowledge" in Kant's Refutation of Idealism. Both articles are freely downloadable and accessible here.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Parfit on Contractualism

Chapter 15 of Parfit's On What Matters concerns contractualism and the first part of his re-working of the third 2002 Tanner Lectures which I treated previously. Contractualism is summarised by Parfit as based principally upon a claim to rational agreement concerning principles all ought to follow. However, whilst this point is relatively uncontroversial, Parfit quickly introduces a methodological reflection on the understanding of such rational agreement that is far from obvious. This is to the effect that the rational agreement in question would be one that produced outcomes that were expectably-best. In focusing on outcomes, and in relating to them in terms of what would be optimal, Parfit assumes that the best test for a contractualist view would be a consequentialist one.

Parfit further makes a second assumption that comes out in his very brief account of, and reply to, the work of David Gauthier. Gauthier's Hobbesian form of contractualism is faulted by Parfit for its basic use of a state of nature device. The real problem with this device, on Parfit's view, is that it concedes ground in advance to the inequality of power that exists between people and hence allows a kind of threat advantage to dictate the terms of the resultant agreement.  This ensures that many "plain duties" as Parfit calls them are effectively flouted. So this second assumption is to the effect that where there appears to be an intuitive understanding of such "plain duties" that this needs to be accounted for on any plausible contractualist view.

Having these assumptions in hand Parfit turns to examining Rawls' form of contractualism though, notably, the way he approaches Rawls is very narrow. Parfit concentrates not on "justice as fairness" but rather only on "rightness as fairness", the general moral view that Rawls refers to a few times but never systematically developed. Part of Parfit's analysis of Rawls also works on the assumption that Rawls is committed to a desire-based view of reason, an assumption that seems to me faulty. It is not that Rawls assumes "desires" to be the basis of reason but that he does take it that there is a "thin theory" of what all people can be said to want which should guide elementary moral psychology.

Parfit looks at different models of the veil of ignorance that Rawls provides and finds fault with the thicker veil that Rawls appeals to. One of the reasons Parfit does this is distinctly odd, however, since he alleges that if there is a good basis for denying knowledge in the original position then such denial should apply as well even to the view that there are inequalities between people (of strength, intelligence, etc) at all. But the extension of the veil in this way has no practical purpose and even foils part of the point in invoking it. This would be the point of ensuring that the result of the procedure of construction of the original position would ensure that the design of the basic structure was most respectful of the worst off. This could not be achieved if we did not assume that there exists such a thing as a group that is worst off. The reason Parfit gets in to this discussion is that he has a prior agenda of bringing Rawls' view as close as possible to utilitarianism and in doing so he continues his methodological move of favouring axiological criteria of morality but this also cuts against the key constraints of the notion of right that Rawls builds into the original position.

These skirmishes with Rawls are still preliminary to Parfit's key discussion in this chapter which concerns what he terms the "Kantian Contractualist Formula", a formula specified as stating that everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will. This formula is evidently intended as a version of Kant's formula of the kingdom of ends. However Parfit cuts this formula off from the general discussions of contractualism in asserting that it is not based on achieving general agreement. It is instead motivated as a formula that is applied by individuals rather than a group so that the results of many over-lapping thought-experiments are meant to point to a generally agreed result. In arguing for this peculiar move Parfit draws on the Rawlsian argument against utilitarianism which alleges that the problem with the latter view is that it enables some to be sacrificed for the sake of the many. Parfit returns to the basic inequality between persons to reject the search for a rational agreement formula using the example of Gauthier to do so though this is again a pretty odd move given that the process of Rawls' original position does not at all model Gautheir's and shows that search for a rational agreement formula need not favour the strongest over the weakest.

More interestingly Parfit argues for a contractualist formula that does not suppose rational agreement is possible on the grounds that if unanimity is able to be achieved through a formula that is not based on presupposing it then it will be all the stronger an agreement. However what is assumed instead of such agreement is shared search by everyone for well-being that replaces the Rawlsian focus on primary goods. 

Parfit proceeds to make two additional moves in the chapter. Firstly he introduces Thomas Scanlon's notion of contractualism according to which everyone should follow the principles that no one can reasonably reject. In introducing this formula however Parfit appears to move away from his earlier recognition of 'plain duties', a recognition that was used against Gauthier. This is done by denying that we should appeal to judgments about what is wrong in applying the contractualist formula and thus removes the ability to appeal to the 'plain duties' that were invoked against Gauthier. Further Scanlon himself states, and Parfit quotes him stating, that the problem with utilitarianism is that it produces results that are starkly at variance with our "widely held convictions", a move that supports the view that there is some ground for thinking that such convictions do affect the evaluation of contractualist formulas and are thus not irrelevant to their application.

In noting this point of Scanlon's Parfit again returns to the principal anti-utilitarian point made by Rawls to the effect that burdens imposed on some just for the benefit of others are prima facie to be rejected. Given judicious use of thought-experiements Parfit moves away from the strict version of this point and tries instead to restrict its application to special cases (such as describe how doctors should treat patients). In so doing the basic force of the principle is weakened. 

Parfit's final move in the chapter concerns his implicit appeal to common sense restrictions on moral principles and these are now justified in terms of the view that contractualist principles are not themselves sufficient to describe wrong-making properties of actions but that they rather state higher-level properties of wrong-making that are intended to include the lower-level properties. This is meant to give us a reason not to include such lower-level properties in the application of the contractualist principle but rather in evaluation of its application. In making this large concession to intuitive views of what is wrong, however, Parfit also ensures that the examples to which he appeals are ones whose evidential force can be established, something of a tall order.

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.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Systematic Overview of Rawls' *Theory of Justice*

Over the last year I have undertaken the task of providing a commentary on the whole of John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. The commentary began on 11th April 2011 and concluded on 11th June 2012 and the postings are mainly inter-linked. I suspect, though am willing to stand corrected, that this is the most extensive commentary on Theory current in the blogosphere. In this posting I want to step back from the details that have been the subject of the postings that were done as the commentary was on-going to reflect on Theory as a whole, giving a general overview of the book and indicating the ways in which the position it articulates holds together. 

A Theory of Justice is a work of nine chapters that is divided evenly into three parts. The titles of the three parts are not, however, particularly helpful in describing the contents of the three parts in question and nor is it the case that Rawls identifies securely the bifurcation of arguments that the work presents. Starting with the division of arguments first, it is important to identify that there are two essential strategies adopted in the work and which are meant to work together. The first and philosophically the most significant is the construction of the original position and the justification of the principles of justice and associated principles for individuals by means of this device. Included in the construction of the original position are formal constraints on the concept of right, a description of what are termed "the circumstances of justice" and a description of the conception of rationality that will enable us to derive the principles of justice. The central philosophical arguments of the book, that belong to Rawls' advocacy of "constructivism", are intended to be justified by means of the construction of the original position. However, whilst this is so, there are included within Theory a number of considerations that are not built from the arguments concerning the original position and hence are not "constructed" philosophically. These considerations are appealed to by reference to "intuition" or "common sense" and Rawls frequently marks them by indicating that accounts using them are not, in his favoured sense of the term, "arguments" strictly speaking. This does not mean, however, that reference to these considerations is without point or relevance within the overall structure of the book. Rather the considerations that are advanced by these means belong to Rawls' general justificatory strategy of showing that there are conditions that can be generally seen to hold or be agreed to and that the original position, in various ways, secures but which are not definitively established by means of it.

The discussion of Rawls' strategies of argument and justification can be illustrated and the nature of the work's contentions be better viewed if we now turn to the way the work is structured. I mentioned above that the titles of the parts are not very helpful in describing the content of what they deal with. The first part is broadly termed "Theory" and in some respects this does describe what is discussed in the first part of the book though only in some respects. The three chapters of the first part discuss, respectively: a) a first general and largely intuitive presentation of the main ideas of the whole theory of justice combined with an initial contrast of it to the standpoint of classical utilitarianism; b) an initial formulation of the two principles of justice and associated principles for individuals; c) an interpretation of the initial situation as the original position and a construction of the original position that culminates in a construction of the two principles of justice and a more substantive contrast of the contract view with classical utilitarianism and also with "average" utility.

It is evident from viewing the structure of the first part of the book that Rawls does not begin with his philosophically favoured method of construction by means of the original position as it is only with the third chapter that he even states this method and uses it to derive both the original position itself and the principles of justice as established by means of it. The first two chapters of the book thus draw upon intuitive considerations of common sense and are meant, by this means, to lead us to accepting the view that the construction of the original position is something we have good reason to undertake and that it will provide us with a more secure basis for the two principles of justice that are initially introduced without its use. Given that the "theory" of justice essentially is a theory that argues for the two principles as the basis of the best considered view of justice and bases this on the construction of the original position it follows that it is only the third chapter of the first part that really states the "Theory" that the whole first part is named after. The first two chapters would be better viewed as being "on the way" to theory rather than statements of the theory itself.

The first chapter of the work is clearly introductory and here we find some key conceptions that are not justified as yet but which will be central to the whole theory subsequently. These include the notion of the "basic structure" as the subject of justice, the idea of the well-ordered society, the original position itself and the problem of how to resolve the difficulty of determining the priority of different principles. The basis of introduction of "intuitionism" as a position is really only in terms of it being a kind of indication of the view that this problem is insoluble and thus a proposal of ad hoc ways of dealing with it. The introduction of the "priority problem" and the other aspects of considerations that are taken to be important to the theory of justice, so important indeed, that section 3 of the first chapter identifies already "the main idea" of the theory are all presented in ways that do not derive them directly from the device of the original position itself. What this means is that the central ideas of Chapter One emerge as Rawls puts it in the concluding section of the whole book from "the tradition of moral philosophy which comprises the historical consensus" about what is central. Arguments which take issue with some of the central ideas introduced within the first chapter (such as those Gerry Cohen used against the idea of the "basic structure") are thus ones that aim not at the central constructive procedure of Theory but rather against its inheritance of concepts.

The second chapter of the work builds on the basic ideas introduced in the first chapter and states, albeit in a preliminary and intuitive way, the two principles of justice and attendant principles for individuals, introducing as well the notion of "primary social goods". Included in this chapter is an argument that concerns the second principle in particular and gives a basis for the second part of the second principle being termed the "difference principle", a point that leads away from certain views of equality towards a very specific way that egalitarianism is to be considered. Again these arguments are not derived from the original position and are stated prior to its construction. Similarly the principle of fairness and the natural duties individuals owe to each other are drawn from intuitive considerations and are not thus here really justified philosophically even though there are some reasons given for favouring them.

It is with the third chapter that Rawls really arrives for the first time at his philosophically favoured strategy of arguing for the principles of justice by means of the construction of the original position. The construction of it proceeds by four devices: a) an outline of the alternative views of justice that will be considered by means of it; b) articulation of the formal constraints of the concept of right; c) use of the "veil of ignorance"; d) an account of the procedure of rational choice within it. Of these four elements the presentation of the alternatives is least secure since it cannot be justified through the original position that Rawls is in the process of constructing. Centrally the traditions that formed the nexus of the considerations of the first two chapters are at work in identifying the views that will be tested by means of the use of the device of the original position and hence reflect an acceptance of the "consensus" concerning the views to be taken seriously. Interestingly, although classical liberalism was considered in the second chapter discussion of the second part of the second principle of justice it is not treated here as providing a conception of justice that will be viewed as an alternative to that provided by the two principles of justice. Nor are libertarian, socialist or communist views of justice, should there be any such, regarded here as providing alternative fundamental principles that need to be viewed as competitors to the two principles of justice. The contrast is instead primarily with variant forms of utilitarianism.

The account of the formal constraints of right determines the construction of the original position by describing conditions that the principles of justice will have to meet. The requirements in question are described by Rawls as "natural enough" and said to be "suitably weak" eliminating in principle only egoistic conceptions that are viewed by Rawls as occupying only the status of the state of nature that would ensue were no agreement on principles of justice to be reached. The five conditions are not themselves constructed but rather constructive of the original position's means of determining the principles of justice that are worthy of consideration. Here we have conditions on such principles and they are five-fold: i) the principles should be general, an idea itself understood in "an intuitive fashion"; ii) they are to be "universal in application" to all who are moral persons which ensures that they have to have a certain simplicity and consistency and this element is derived from a "common basis" with generality; iii) publicity, a condition that is part of the idea of a contractarian standpoint and is said to be implied in the categorical imperative and gives a way of evaluating principles that is meant to support the stability of them; iv) provide an ordering on conflicting claims or resolve the intuitive "priority problem" that was mentioned in Chapter One; v) be final principles that are appealed to in practical reasoning or be the highest standards of such argument which shows that these principles will be over-riding in importance.

Looking at the formal constraints of right we can see that generality and universality are presented here as part of the construction of the original position despite themselves being only introduced in an intuitive way. Publicity is an idea that belongs to the very sense that it is useful to appeal to such a device as the original position so in a sense in accepting it as a criteria we do no more than take the original position seriously as a device. Similarly we have already accepted the importance of the priority problem so a resolution of it is something we have already agreed to take seriously, albeit on the intuitive grounds of its appearance from the consensus of previous forms of normative philosophy. Finally, that the principles should be over-riding is as much as to say that the procedure of construction of the original position is one that will be determinative for the principles of justice that can be seen to meet conditions of general agreement so this condition, like that of publicity, is part of the sense of accepting the device of the original position as seriously worthy of consideration. Given this review of the formal constraints of right we can see that, strictly speaking, publicity and finality emerge as the strongest arguments within the construction of the original position as they belong to the basic sense of it.

The "veil of ignorance" is a means by which the original position effects its general purpose of achieving conditions in which general agreement on principles of justice can be made. The "veil" becomes thicker as the construction of the original position progresses however as a thicker form of it is required to tackle the idea of "average" utility than is needed to respond to classical utilitarianism. The "veil" is also not so thick as to rule out an account of the "circumstances of justice". This is required since an account of these "circumstances" turns out to be part of what is meant by rational choice within the original position. These circumstances are themselves, however, an intuitive description of what Rousseau referred to as an account of "mean as they are" and pose essentially as what we might view as "realist constraints" that are separate from the constraints on the concept of right. They are "background conditions" as Rawls terms them that define necessities of life that have to be considered when the principles of justice are arrived at. Consideration of these circumstances is part of what secures the stability of the conception of justice. Included here are moderate scarcity and the sense that people have distinct conceptions of the good that often lead them to conflict with each other.

The result of the construction of the original position, a construction that defines the conditions of rational choice at work within it, is the basic argument of Chapter 3 for Rawls' two principles of justice, an argument that leads to a modification of the principles by contrast to their first intuitive presentation in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 concludes with a more general description of the requirements of classical utilitarianism that gives an idea of how the notion of impartiality that actuates it becomes one of impersonality, a contrast that allows for a first sense of the kind of persons that are engaged in making the rational choice that leads to the principles of justice being favoured, persons who are not, on Rawls' account, the "bare persons" of the impersonal utilitarian calculation, but, rather, the "determinate" persons we actually are. Interestingly this conception of "determinate" personhood arises as required by reference to the circumstances of justice.

The second part of the book concerns, so the title of it informs us, "institutions" and, again, whilst this title is not entirely apt, it is better than the title for the first part was. The three chapters of the second part are concerned with: a) a four-stage sequence for principles of institutions that are said to articulate the basic structure of society and related to a "Kantian Interpretation" of the doctrine of justice as fairness; b) a more extensive consideration of the second principle of justice that is related to a description of the functions of government; c) a construction of the principles for individuals that are related to the constitution of the basic structure of society and which lead to consideration of the special problem of civil disobedience. 

All three of the chapters of the second part thus do consider "institutions" in a sense though the way they do so requires careful refinement of the principles already given and further determination of these principles. The first of these chapters is officially centred on the idea of equal liberty but the idea of the four-stage sequence that is considered at the beginning of the chapter is said, again, to be an account of "our considered judgments", an intuitive idea. The four-stages involve an account of the justice of legislation, the constitutional arrangements for resolving the priority principle in practice, the grounds and limits of political obligation and the basis of judicial rules and following of them. The argument for the four stages involves an elaboration of the original position that allows for an ideal notion of constitutional formation that is a device for applying the principles of justice. Rawls subsequently goes on to define the conception of liberty more carefully and to consider the point that the "worth" of liberty to persons has to be also considered. This notion of the "worth" of liberty is also later presented as an account of its "fair value" to different persons and the basic structure is now determined as something that has to be arranged to "maximise the worth" to the least well off of the complete scheme of equal liberty, a point presented as defining "the end of social justice" (section 32).

In Chapter IV the first principle is given clearer determination and the rule for its priority over the second principle described. After Rawls has constructed the first principle and its priority he states the "Kantian Interpretation" of the overall doctrine of justice as fairness and makes clear that the original position is a way of rendering Kant's idea of the kingdom of ends. The veil of ignorance is defended here as a way of preventing heteronomy and the motivational assumptions within the original position are related to Kant's notion of autonomy. The original position is here defended as a way of replying to Sidgwick's problem with Kantian autonomy to the effect that the ground for the choice of moral principles is allegedly opaque for Kant. Thus the original position is something like a parallel to the third part of Kant's Groundwork or to his appeal to the "fact of reason". This demonstrates the centrality of the role of the original position in Rawls' theory.

If the fourth chapter defined the first principle of justice more clearly and worked through the means of application of it to institutional formations the fifth chapter applies a similar approach to the second principle of justice. In the process Rawls considers economic systems, justice between generations and a view of the elements of government. The process of consideration of these points leads to a sharper view of both the difference principle and the principle of fair equality of opportunity. The questions considered arise intuitively though the resolution of them involves appeal to the construction of the original position.

The fifth chapter constructs the two forms of principle for individuals that Rawls considers, the principles of natural duty and fairness. Having done so the substantive argument of the chapter considers a special problem that arises from non-ideal theory, namely, the problem of how to deal with "unjust laws" and the possibility of majority rule being unjust. This allows for a statement of a basic theory of civil disobedience. Whilst this is the only form of non-ideal theory considered within Theory it is justified by means of appeal to a problem that is defined within terms of near-perfect compliance and hence approximates to a form of a well-ordered society. 

The final part of the work is termed "ends" which suggests that what will be considered here is a general account of purposes but what is in fact at work here is a discussion of the theory of the good where Rawls moves from the "thin theory" that will be at work within the original position itself to a view of the "full theory" that would be articulated within a "well-ordered society". The three chapters of this final part consider: a) the need for a theory of the good and a basic account of the good for persons; b) the first part of the problem of stability which includes a discussion of moral psychology, the sense of justice and its basis; c) the second part of the problem of stability which includes a final argument for the priority of liberty and an account of how the good of persons is congruent with the social good of justice including a discussion of the unity of the self.

The third part of the work is particularly intricate and consideration of its role in Rawls' theory should include a sense of what kind of moral psychology is here being offered. It is a kind of ideal type of psychology that is normatively rather than "empirically" grounded though it is not intended that it should contravene the requirements for any empirical theory. The basic problem of the third part is to show that the theory of justice presents a stable conception in the sense that it would generate incentives within the members of the society it formed to maintain itself. 

The first chapter of this final part includes a basic theory of deliberative rationality and the introduction of what Rawls terms the "Aristotelian Principle" which latter is presented as meeting what a perfectionist should really want. This principle states a generic form of good for persons in terms of recognition of the complexity that is part of the general acceptance of what we all tend to take to be good. Interestingly this principle is not itself constructed but is meant to echo the consideration of circumstances of justice just as the requirements of deliberative rationality define a sense of self-regard that is meant to echo the requirements of right. In this chapter Rawls also describes the virtues as forms of excellence that relate to the rational notion of self-regard that would arise from seeing it in terms that echo the requirements of right. In a sense the arguments of this chapter belong to a fuller construction of the principles for individuals and fill them out in terms of a rudimentary theory of the virtues.

The second chapter of the third part presents, after giving a general idea of the well-ordered society (which is constructed) an ideal type of moral psychology in terms of how we would develop to the stage of accepting a principled relation to morality under ideal conditions. The point of this is to make psychologically realistic the view that there would be a sense of justice that had relative stability within a well-ordered society.

The third and final chapter of this part and of the book as a whole presents some reasons for thinking that destructive psychological propensities would have little hold within a well-ordered society but this argument is largely intuitive in form. By contrast the congruence argument (in relation to the compatibility of a person's good with the social sense of justice) is one that arises after a final account of the priority of liberty and an argument has been given against "dominant ends" conceptions of the good. The final congruence argument draws upon the argument against "dominant end" conceptions of the good as it shows that the view that the good of persons is congruent with the social good of justice depends upon acceptance of the social good as a defining constraint upon one's good, something reasonable given that there could be no "dominant end" for us as individuals. Given that the congruence argument works like this it follows that its account of the relation between the right and the good depends upon a sense that the structure of the good is one that, even in a thin sense, would not be such that we could find enough determinacy in it to resist the constraints of the right. So it is a form of constructive argument but one that is also related to the ideal type of moral psychology defended in Chapter 8.

Taking the book as a whole then the argument for the construction of the principles of justice in the first part is complemented by a description of the kinds of institutions that would have just form accompanied by a view of the kinds of persons that could sustain them. As a whole it requires the sense that the person in question could themselves be constructed to have the motivations that would sustain the basic structure given that this structure would itself provide them with enough of value and worth to make this plausible. Therefore the theory is as much a theory of the good as it is a theory of the right albeit a theory of the right that constrains the theory of the good.

In future postings I will review the way Rawls' work developed after Theory and also look at the kinds of criticism that Theory has received from others in order to combine these perspectives to understand the subsequent turns his work took. The point of this will be to enable an assessment of Theory that goes beyond viewing it in its own terms in order to see the way it fits into Rawls' overall work and how its central contentions and devices have fared within political philosophy generally. Most important for consideration here, however, will be the fate of the specifically Kantian elements of Rawls' account and the way they are bolstered and weakened at different stages of it.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Constructivism and Common Sense

I've been reading and thinking about constructivism today mainly as a response of some sort to it will have to feature in work I am currently pursuing. Whilst doing so, however, a question arose for me in relation to how constructivism is understood by Onora O'Neill in her criticism of Rawls. This question concerned the priority she gives, in her criticism of Rawls, to the notion of "reflective equilibrium".

The essay of O'Neill's I'm referring to is one that appears in Samuel Freeman's edited collection on Rawls. In this piece O'Neill concentrates on the way in which the constructive procedure in Rawls works looking at the range of what can be constructed according to Rawls, the justification he offers of the constructive procedure and, most importantly for her critique, the address of Rawls' construction. The view offered by her of these topics ranges across Rawls' work, moving from Theory to Political Liberalism

In O'Neill's picture of Theory the key notion is "reflective equilibrium" which is taken to provide a coherentist test of "our considered judgments" and to rely on a conception of the reasonable that is explicitly discussed in Rawls' later notion of "Kantian constructivism". O'Neill subsequently refers to this notion of "reflective equilibrium" when she draws out that "Kantian constructivism" appeals to an idealised Kantian view of the person and rests its appeal to this notion on reference to "our moral experience". Part of what enables this appeal for O'Neill is Rawls' reliance upon a coherentist justification of practical reason in his view of "Kantian constructivism". Her view of Rawls' later "political" turn is that what happens is that the conception of practical reason as rested on a generic coherence is replaced by a closed appeal to "public reason" where the resources of public reason are simply derived from the common conceptions of a democratic culture much as the earlier appeal was to "our moral experience".

In contrast to Rawls' later political turn O'Neill sets out a view of Kantian reason as something that cannot be anchored in a given public culture but accessible in principle to anyone including "outsiders" to the culture of the West that produced Kant's own philosophy. So O'Neill's first move is to depict the appeal to "public reason" Rawls makes as a fatal concession to relativism. The point in doing so is to widen the view of what is to count as public reason suggesting that reasoning is not "completely" public when it rests on appeals to particular properties and beliefs which can appear merely arbitrary to anyone outside the original community that rests on them. In contrast to this view O'Neill states that we need justifications of claims that can be satisfied only in terms of what can be followed in principle by anyone. This is part of what motivates O'Neill's general view that the categorical imperative is not merely the supreme principle of morality but also the supreme principle of reason.

An implication of O'Neill's argument is that reason is "cosmopolitan" for Kant and does not rest on "bounded societies" as political institutions are incapable of conferring justification. This is why O'Neill argues that Kant's view of the construction of ethical principles is more demanding than the "Kantian constructivism" described by Rawls as Kant requires justification to be capable of "aiming to reach all others without restriction". This is why practical reason itself is something that O'Neill argues is capable of construction by Kant as it was not by Rawls.

Having rehearsed O'Neill's critique of Rawls I now want to suggest that there is a central problem with her view that does not apply to Rawls' constructivism and suggests a reason for thinking that Rawls' appeal to "reflective equilibrium" and to "our moral experience" may be less alien to Kant than O'Neill's arguments would lead one to suppose. The first problem that can be posed with O'Neill's view is that it is unclear from her general picture of reason how the process of public reason is to be carried out. She argues that public reason is incomplete if it involves appeal to particular beliefs held by some and thereby appears to take the reference to universal law to require abandonment of commitment to any given prior beliefs and to provide us with a  de novo conception of justification. It is partly due to following a view like this however that the procedure of trying to justify the Kantian appeal to universal laws off the ground gets involved in terrible tangles. The notoriously involved difficulties in providing justifications of universalised maxims that are morally permissible arises from thinking that we need to provide an account for maxims that no one normally takes to need justification at all. Necessarily any and every type of maxim has to be looked at in terms of its permissibility if the point of appeal to universal law is to provide us with a means of assessing morality without bringing in previously agreed moral data.

Moreover, the point of appeal to public reason on O'Neill's view appears to be to arrive at a standard for what can be shown to be acceptable so that the procedure of public reason is itself the arbiter of what we agree can be done. This makes the arrival at universal agreement the ground for permissibility rather than the possibility of convergence being shown to be based upon salient factors that allow the agreement to hold. This seems to put the burden of justification in the wrong place. A second but related point concerns how the standards of public reason on a neutrally determined view of universal reason are to be set out. This point concerns not the kind of consideration that Rawls was interested in with reference to "pluralism" but rather deep problems with reasoning with some who appear to be committed to principles that are deeply antithetical to universality. Racist views for example are directly in contradiction to appeal to universality and would have to be dealt with as providing non-public reason in some sense but if this is not to be stipulative through moral content (as clearly is impossible on O'Neill's view) this has to require a structural notion of formal public reasoning to rule out certain types of reasoning from the start. 

In order to rule out appeal to certain kinds of reasons as non-public there have to be ways of showing to those who adopt these reasons a basis for agreement on their behalf to a standard of reasoning that rules out appeals to their favoured principles. The means that O'Neill appears to favour is by reference to a view of agency that requires us to see the agency of others as intertwined with our own in an important way. So she refers in Towards Justice and Virtue to activity as inclusive of plurality, connection and finitude. What is meant by these notions is that we have to relate to others as independent sources of activity (plurality) who there is a real possibility we will affect by acting (connection) and that these others are limited enough to be vulnerable to our actions (finitude). Conversely we are reciprocally related to them in the same way. So rules of action should generally take these characteristics into account. It is likely that the point of these descriptors is to give a basic notion of moral standing to O'Neill but the problem is that the notion has itself to be constructed in terms of "public reasons" and there are problems with doing so. The basic sense that we would expect from her general view is that the reasons in question would have a neutral status and not require any one to adopt specific beliefs in the sense that she criticises Rawls for requiring. If that is right, however, then the notion of plurality only points to a constraint on my action if I independently have reasons to regard others as having standing as it does not itself provide them with such standing. The fact that I am connected to others and vulnerable to them provides some general prudential constraints on action but, again, is insufficient to give others serious moral standing. The only one of these three criteria that really has the significance that it would provide a reason for morally taking others seriously is the criteria of vulnerability but if I interpret it from a first-person perspective it only grounds a prudential one and requiring as a matter of reason that I see it more broadly is not to follow the basic constructivist rule.

If O'Neill's view of public reason is one that just draws on generic criteria like these it is not going to get off the ground and it requires some additional elements to be taken seriously as a guide for a normative conception of public reason. Such further elements are available if we make the appeal to common sense that Rawls makes with his notion of "reflective equilibrium" and for which O'Neill criticises him. The ability to appeal to "common sense" as a means of understanding conditions of action is part of what is at work in Rawls' discussion of such things as the "circumstances of justice" and the "strains of commitment", both of which build into practical reason the basis for the coherence requirements that O'Neill dislikes. Without them, however, she has to fall back on a generic conception of public reason that is either too thin to build anything from or to implicitly rely on normative commitments that she has not constructively justified. Either way it seems less obvious than O'Neill may think that cosmopolitan conceptions of reason can get by without appeal to some views of pre-conceived moral standards.

Not only is this so but Kant's own procedure seems not to mirror the generic requirements of practical reason that O'Neill presents. Not only does the first part of Kant's Groundwork proceed from data of common human reason but the examples of how to test maxims that are supplied by Kant in this work presuppose the normative existence of practices. This is evident in the way Kant discusses promises, suicide, the cultivation of talents and benevolence. In each case Kant proceeds from a pre-existent conception of moral views and provides a means for understanding, by reference to them, reasons for thinking certain types of maxims are impermissible. The maxims in question do not arise as de novo tests but as ones that have pertinence against the background of a set of practices which give them the sense that they have. Perhaps thus Rawls' reference to "reflective equilibrium" is rather more Kantian than O'Neill's allegedly "cosmopolitan" view of reason.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Kostas Sargentis in *Kant Studies Online*

A new article has been published in Kant Studies Online. It is by Kostas Sargentis and it concerns the topic of "Moral Motivation in Kant". It can be freely accessed and down-loaded here.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Rawls on Congruence and Justification

The last 2 sections of Chapter IX of A Theory of Justice are also the last 2 sections of the whole book. In this posting I will treat them both in turn. Section 86, entitled "the good of the sense of justice" is intended to complete the argument for the view that there is a reasonable expectation that, in a well-ordered society, there would be congruence between justice and the specific conceptions of the good that are adopted by individuals. Since this argument concerning congruence was also motivated at the beginning of Chapter IX as the rationale for the whole argument of this chapter section 86 essentially completes the general purpose of the chapter. The concluding section 87 is meant not to add to this argument but, rather, to offer a general overall summary of the way in which the theory of justice as fairness has been "justified" in the book as a whole.

Section 86 opens with Rawls stating that the completion of the congruence argument basically requires an overall view of the notion of the well-ordered society. In this society the two moral powers of persons - the capacity for a sense of justice and the ability to pursue a particular conception of the good - are congruent with each other or so is the assumption and the argument of the chapter, which is completed here, is intended to show the reasons for taking this to be the case. The central reason for being concerned with the congruence between the two moral powers in the well-ordered society is that such congruence is assumed to be the basis of the stability of it. This does not require reviewing again the rationality of the selection of the principles of justice within the original position as we take for granted by this stage that this selection has been justified. The problem is, rather, "whether the regulative desire to adopt the standpoint of justice belongs to a person's own good" when we view the latter in the light of Rawls' "thin" theory of the good. When we arrive at this point we are no longer behind the veil of ignorance as the "thin" theory can be fully specified.

The justification of the view that it is rational for someone, merely following the thin theory of the good, to accept the claim of the sense of justice to be regulative of their conception of the good, is not equivalent to justification of the sense of justice to an egoist. Nor does Rawls aim to show that, in a well-ordered society, even an egoist would act from a sense of justice. Rawls is instead assuming that there does exist amongst the members of the well-ordered society a settled desire to act from the sense of justice and then raising the question of whether this desire is one that is consistent with the good of these people. This question presupposes only the "thin" theory of the good as anything wider would involve wider presuppositions. So the question concerns only those with a moral psychology that is already, at least in one of its relevant aspects, as we would ideally wish it to be.

Now this does not mean that the question has been so carefully curtailed as to be of little interest. So Rawls is not assuming for example that everyone simply does things due to motivation by pure conscientiousness. It is conceivable, even assuming that there is a settled desire to act from the sense of justice, that this settled desire is one that runs up against formidable resistance when acting upon it appears to cut against some key element of that persons' view of the good. Then the question may arise for them what to do and not be one that they simply take to have an obvious answer. 

Having stated the problem in this way Rawls proceeds to describe the elements of the "grounds of congruence". The first element is that the principles of justice are public, a point he consistently stresses. Since this is so the consideration of acting in a way that does not conform to the principles of justice is one in which we think of ourselves as prepared to act as free riders upon the public good. Given that the settled disposition to act from a sense of justice is one that is given reinforcement by the publicly acknowledged justification of the principles of justice the consideration of acting in such a way is sure to have psychic cost. Not only is this the case but failure to act from the sense of justice is something whose public effect we would have to acknowledge as impacting upon the way the institutions we have accepted to have a public basis would run. The importance of this consideration is that such institutions are also supported publicly by those with whom we are close. This point gives strong grounds for preserving our sense of justice.

Another element of the grounds of congruence is the way that the participation in the public good of the well-ordered society satisfies the Aristotelian Principle. The well-ordered society is one that realises to a pre-eminent degree the forms of human activity and the way in which the cooperation of persons safeguards the well-being of each one of us. To really share in the goods of this society we must acknowledge the principles that regulate activities. A final reason underpinning congruence is bound up with the Kantian conception of the person which states that acting justly is something we want to do inasmuch as we are free and equal rational beings. 

Assuming that the reference to publicity, the Aristotelian Principle and the Kantian conception of the person provide the chief reasons within the "thin" theory of the good to underpin congruence we can now ask whether these reasons are decisive in motivating members of the well-ordered society to generally act in accordance with their sense of justice. It appears that this leads us to a question about how to balance contrary principles. But an element that has not yet been considered is what it is that acting from the sense of justice really requires of us. The congruence between it and our conception of the good depends upon the content of the specific notion of right that has determined the sense of justice taking the form it does. So the good of justice is, we are clear, not akin to that provided by classical utilitarianism which required us to sacrifice our interests when this would be necessary for the greater good of all. The reason why the principles of justice defended by Rawls does not have this stringency is due to the priority of the first principle of justice. It would be hazardous to freedom to accept the stringent requirements defended by writers such as Sidgwick. This is already a point in favour of the view that it is possible to act in accordance with the sense of justice as Rawls conceives it as such a sense of justice is not so stringent and out of keeping with the demands of common sense as the view of Sidgwick.

This does not mean that there are not possible costs to following our sense of justice in action. Certain things will be ruled out for us as possible actions if we follow it. This point is defended by Rawls by an extended comparison between acting from the sense of justice and acting from a view of love of others. The Kantian conception of the person underpins this point and shows grounds for giving first priority to our sense of justice. The principles of justice meet the conditions of finality, they are regulative of our behaviour and acting in accordance with other things is constrained by the claims of the principles of justice. The Kantian conception of the person points to the way that our freedom is best expressed by acting from the sense of justice. Acting against the sense of justice is therefore sure to produce feelings of guilt and shame and set for us a demanding standard of consistency. 

It is possible that there are some persons, even in a well-ordered society, who do not take the affirmation of the sense of justice to be a good. For such people the thin theory of the good has proved insufficient to ground a regulative sentiment in favour of the sense of justice. The question of how to respond to such people requires recourse to partial compliance theory. We have seen that the principles of right are collectively rational and that affirmation of the sense of justice is a collective asset. Given this it is rational to authorise the measures required to maintain just institutions. The nature of those who have not found it part of their good to affirm the sense of justice is unfortunate for them and it is not required to provide sufficient reasons further to convince them. It would be true, however, if there were many such people that this would be an element of instability within the society and the degree to which such persons were present would effect the degree to which penal devices might be required within it. So long as there is no more stable conception of justice than the one Rawls has defined this point does not count against it.

In concluding the congruence argument Rawls specifies in more detail his definition of goodness. In a well-ordered society it is the case that behaving in a way that manifests a definite acceptance of the requirements of the sense of justice is good for each person within it. A well-ordered society is also a "good" society as it satisfies the principles of justice and enables a stable pattern to develop by which individuals come to affirm the sense of justice as regulative of their view of the good.

The final section of Chapter IX and of the book as a whole is mainly intended to address the question of what type of justification the work has produced for Rawls' theory. It is not a justification by reference to the view that there are self-evident principles, hence it is not a rationalist justification. It is also not a justification by means of reference to non-moral properties that are argued, by introducing appeals to common sense and science, to have some important normative significance. So it is also not a view that is broadly "realist" or "naturalist" and nor does it draw upon the justificatory strategies that would be appropriate for such views. 

The three parts of the work are intended to make a unified argument by showing first the essentials of the structure of the view, then applying them to the examination of institutions and finally showing that the view is psychologically feasible. The first part of the argument proceeded by reasonable stipulations concerning choice. The second part related these stipulations to the ways that common sense comprehends the institutions required for our common way of life. The third part looked at questions of stability and congruence. 

Rawls considers possible objections to the structure of justification his argument displays. It might be thought that Rawls' theory is grounded on a simple empirical appeal to agreement or that it depends on an unreasonably restrictive view of feasible conceptions in the choice situation. The response to the first part of this objection is that Rawls' theory proceeds from commonly held views. Now as to the charge that it is unreasonably restrictive in its consideration of alternatives it is less clear that leading candidates widely recognised are not all considered. This does not mean that all views are included and the basis of assessment of other views would require presentation of them and consideration of whether or how they related to views that have been looked at. The list considered is though one that arises from the history of moral philosophy. 

The original position is intended to bring together reasonable constraints into a single conception so that the selection of principles of justice can proceed. The selection of these constraints is not arbitrary. Ordering and finality seem obvious criteria within the choice situation for example. Publicity, by contrast, ensures that the process of justification within the situation is one that can appeal to all parties involved and to be endorsed by all as something that is not chosen for special reasons by some part of the group using esoteric methods of choice. The original position is thus intended to be a kind of "constrained minimum" set of conditions. Each part of the conditions is reasonable taken singly and put together provide a criteria of right independent of the presumed good of any member of the situation. Disinterested motivation is assumed with regard to the parties and this asks little of the parties given the veil of ignorance. Part of what arises from assuming it is an obvious rational basis for freedom of conscience and convergence then on the priority of liberty.

The Kantian components of the theory are related now by Rawls to the way the theory is justified. The general conception of rational choice defines the way that autonomy and the moral law are to be understood as it does also provide a way of grasping the good of community. One thing that emerges clearly here however is that the Kantian conception of the person is part of the "Archimedean point" by means of which the basic structure of society can be judged. This occurs by means of the use of the original position to first determine the content of justice and the later reference back to what has emerged from it as the basis of our sense of justice. The original choice situation is one that allows for the interests that define parties to include determinate attachments. But the principles of justice are not derived from particular principles such as respect for persons. Rather the principles of justice are such as to give a basis for interpretation of such principles. The theory of justice is thus intended to give a rendering of Kantian ideas. 

Once the original position is presented as the basis of the choice situation it provides a way that the social world can always be grasped and responded to. It is an objective situation that recognises autonomous decision. It is akin, says Rawls in his stirring conclusion, to seeing our situation sub specie aeternitatis. "Purity of heart, if one could attain it, would be to see clearly and to act with grace and self-command from this point of view."