This constitutes the fourth of 11 “meetings” to discuss Parfit’s new manuscript, Climbing the Mountain. First, though, a reminder announcement: all references will be to the June 7th version of the manuscript, and specifically to the PDF version of that manuscript. There are some page discrepancies, it turns out, with the Word version.
OK, now on to this week’s chapter, “Merely as a Means” (Chapter 5). In this chapter, Parfit is, to my mind, exploring whether or not to add a “Mere Means” principle to the list of defensible moral principles he began in chapter 4 with the Consent Principle. Here the idea is to see if we can come up with a relevant and plausibly defensible version of the Kantian principle that it’s wrong to treat any rational being merely as a means. As far as I understand him, the answer is no, at least when it comes to the morality of actions. I here quote from Parfit’s own abstract, adding my own comments in italics where appropriate:
We treat someone in this way [as a mere means] when we both use this person and regard her as a mere tool, whom we would treat in whatever way would best achieve our aims. On a stronger version of Kant’s claim, it is wrong to treat people merely as a means, or to come close to doing that. [This last clause is needed in order to handle the objection from Kamm that the principle is too weak, allowing, for instance, that were I to give just the slightest weight to my slaves’ well-being, I wouldn’t count as treating them as mere means. So the thought is that, in order to beef up the requirement, it must be the case that I don’t give too little weight to someone’s well-being or moral claims.]
We do not treat someone merely as a means, nor are we close to doing that, if either (1) our treatment of this person is governed in sufficiently important ways by some relevant moral belief, or (2) we do or would relevantly choose to bear some great burden for this person’s sake. [I cannot see any positive argument for this claim. If it’s supposed to be the contradictory of the gloss above on treating someone merely as a means, I fail to see how being disposed to bear some great burden for this person’s sake is the contradictory of treating this person in whatever way would best achieve our aims. I may be not disposed to bear such a burden, yet not be treating you in any way, let alone in any way that would best achieve my aims.] Even if we are treating someone merely as a means, we may not be acting wrongly. Consider some Egoist, whose only aim is to benefit himself. When this man keeps his promises, pays his debts, and saves some drowning child in the hope of getting some reward, he may be treating other people merely as a means. But these acts would not be wrong. Kant’s claim could be qualified, so that it would not mistakenly condemn such acts. On this doubly revised claim, it is wrong to treat anyone merely as a means, or to come close to doing that, if our act also harms this person. [Here Parfit is, for one thing, disambiguating two senses of “treating someone merely as a means.” On the one hand, one might regard someone as a mere means; on the other hand, one might, in acting, treat someone as a mere means. The former may not imply that we act wrongly. A gangster who regards most people as mere means, and so who is disposed, say, to injuring them whenever it would suit him, may, in purchasing coffee, regard the vendor as being no more than a vending machine. Nevertheless, he does not act wrongly when purchasing coffee from him.]
Suppose that some driverless run-away train is headed for a tunnel, in which it would kill five people. Our only way to save these people’s lives is to cause someone else, without her consent, to fall onto the track, thereby killing this person but stopping the train. It may seem that, if we acted in this way, we would be treating this person merely as a means. But that may not be true. And this person could rationally consent to being treated in this way. Though such an act may be wrong, it would not be condemned by either the Consent Principle or the Mere Means Principle. [This is the version of the Trolley Problem Parfit calls Bridge, and, consistent with my worries about last week’s claim regarding the rationality of sacrifice for the sake of strangers, I have a very hard time seeing how White could rationally consent to my dropping her, without her knowing that I was going to do it, from a bridge in order to block a train that will kill five others. Parfit’s reasoning here is that, since White could rationally consent to jumping in front of a train to save the five, she could also rationally consent to my pushing her. But there are two crucial disanalogies between the cases. First, in rationally consenting to jumping, she would be consenting to do so in full knowledge of what she’s doing. In rationally consenting to my pushing her, she’d have to be consenting to my doing so in a case where she had no idea what’s happening to her. The conditions of consent are importantly different, then, and I fail to see the rationality of consent in the latter case (further, this case may be particular vulnerable to the conditional objections Robert was running last week). Second, in the former case, she initiates the action; in the latter, she doesn’t, and this difference could be quite significant in her deliberations regarding consent. In other words, in the former case, she saves the five; in the latter case, her body is used to save the five. She could (perhaps!) rationally consent, then, to the former, but any consent she provided with respect to the latter would be (a) odd, if not irrational, and (b) based on different reasons from what might ground her consent in the former case.]
It is widely assumed that, if we harm people, without their consent, as a means of achieving some aim, we thereby treat these people merely as a means, in a way that makes our act wrong. This view involves three mistakes. When we harm people as a means, we may not be treating these people as a means. [If I break your leg as a means to my escape from your attack, I don’t treat you, thereby, as a means.] Even if we are treating these people as a means, we may not be treating them merely as a means. [If I save my child’s life by using your body in such a way that one of your toes is crushed, I do not treat you merely as a means if I believe it would be wrong of me to use your body again (and cause another of your toes to be crushed) in order to save my own life.] And, even if we are treating them merely as a means, we may not be acting wrongly. [See below.] Some people give other accounts of what is involved in treating people merely as a means. These accounts seem to be either mistaken, or unhelpful. [Here there’s a nice little treatise on methodology and concepts, the upshot being that in trying to render Kant able to handle all relevant cases (and thus stretching the definition of “treating as a means” to the breaking point), theorists have done us a real disservice. In order to render Kant relevant, we do better either to simply revise his principles where they give the wrong answer or to recognize that some particular principle is a merely sufficient account of wrongness.]
If it would be wrong to impose certain harms on people as a means of achieving certain good aims, these acts would be wrong even if we were not treating these people merely as a means. [If it would be wrong of me to save the five by killing White, the wrongness of that act would not consist in my treating White merely as a means.] And, if it would not be wrong to impose certain lesser harms on people as a means of achieving these good aims, these acts would not be wrong even if we were treating these people merely as a means. [Here he has in a mind the case of a gangster who saves his child’s leg by bruising Black’s leg, without her consent.] Though it is wrong to regard anyone merely as a means, the wrongness of our acts never or hardly ever depends on whether we are treating people merely as a means.
There are two important projects in this chapter. First, Parfit provides a pellucid analysis of the “Mere Means” principle, constructing the most sympathetic possible version of it. As it turns out, though, the most plausible version includes a clause about not harming people, such that it would be wrong to treat anyone merely as a means (or come close to doing that) if our act will also be likely to harm this person. But by adding this clause about harm, we’ve rendered treating someone as a mere means insufficient for an act’s wrongness. But then the second project is to show that even the harm-appended Mere Means principle is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of moral wrongness in action. What we’re left with, then, is still just the Consent Principle from the previous chapter, which itself remains insufficient to account for all moral wrongness (in action).
I have just a few questions (much of the reasoning seems unassailable to me). First, is this the right interpretation of what’s going on in the chapter? There isn’t any real introduction, or an overall roadmap of any kind, to let us know how this chapter fits into the overall dialectic or what, precisely, the motivation and point is. Just one sentence to indicate all that would have been enormously helpful.
Second, Parfit is obviously trying to build up principles for what makes an action wrong (or right), and the Mere Means principle (even with the harm clause) fails to be relevant on that score, but he also makes provocative remarks about character and moral worth as he goes. At one point, for example, he claims that regarding someone as a mere means is wrong. But wrong in what sense? Rationally? Surely not. Prudentially? Again, surely not. Morally? But on what basis? Suppose I’m the gangster, regarding virtually everyone I know as a mere means, but I wind up being unfailingly polite in all my actions to them (simply because it would be too much trouble for me to be otherwise). Surely I’m a bad person, but where’s the wrongness in that? This is a question both about the scope of morality and the grounds (and coherence) of non-act wrongness on Parfit’s account.
Third, there are the questions I raised in the exposition above, in particular the following: White’s rationally consenting to jump in front of the train does not imply the rationality of White’s consenting that I push her (or, in Parfit’s case, drop her) in front of the train without her knowledge. Are there then other reasons to think of the permissibility of dropping her as justified by the Consent Principle?