This marks the seventh of eleven e-meetings of our virtual reading group on Derek Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain—see here for further details. Next week, we will discuss Chapter 9 of the June 7th version of the manuscript, which can be found here.
In chapter 8, Parfit critically examines Kant’s universalizability principle for rightness. Despite his criticisms, Parfit urges not that we reject, but that we improve one version of this principle, by trading reference to maxims for reference to intentional actions. Parfit considers a dizzying array of versions of the principle, so I’ll only mention some more promising ones in summary, flagging some questions as I go.
Sec. 25 is focused on what Parfit calls “The Impossibility Formula,” which says “It is wrong to act on any maxim that could not be a universal law”, in contrast to the focus of Sec. 26 and 27, which he calls the “Formula of Universal Law”: “It is wrong for us to act on any maxim that we could not rationally will to be a universal law.” While Parfit doesn’t mention this, if (as seems reasonable to suppose) we cannot rationally will what (we know) cannot be, then the Formula of Universal Law entails the Impossibility Formula. If that is right, then if Parfit’s attacks on the Impossibility Formula in Sec. 25 are on target, it is hard to see the promise of FUL.
One last preliminary: Parfit uses the label “Formula of Universal Law” in the unusually narrow sense of being only the contradiction-in-will part of what is usually thought of as FUL. In the usual understanding, FUL has not only a contradiction-in-the-will part, but also a contradiction-in-conception part. Parfit means to capture this other part separately in the Impossibility Formula. (I found all of this non-standard usage very confusing, but maybe I’m alone in this.)
Parfit says that (F) is Kant’s actual Impossibility Formula: (F) “It is wrong to act on any maxim of which it is true that, if everyone accepted and acted upon this maxim, or everyone believed that it was permissible to act upon it, that would make it impossible for anyone successfully to act upon it.” On grounds of both doctrine and defensibility, I’m partial to the view that we should eliminate the “or everyone believed that it was permissible to act upon it” clause (though, Parfit rightly notes, there is some evidence for it being Kant’s view), so I’ll go directly the version that removes that clause (Parfit’s (H)).
Parfit rightly cites Herman’s “convenience killing” maxim as a potential counter-example: “Kill or injure other people when that would benefit me” (p. 144). If everyone acted on this maxim, it wouldn’t be impossible for anyone to successfully act upon it (since there will be at least one person left standing), so it incorrectly comes out permissible. On this basis, Parfit rejects (F) (and it applies to (H) too).
But another option is just to come up with a more sensitive way of describing willings in maxims that doesn’t get this result. In general, this escape strategy means that at worst Parfit’s counterexamples leave the plausibility of the formulas open. He saves discussion of action description for Sec. 27 (to which I’ll return), but it seems that it must be sorted out before rejecting the formulas considered in Sec. 25.
Consider, for example, the maxim “Steal when that would benefit me” (145). In a world where everyone acted on this maxim, there would still be property, so, says Parfit, in this world theft could sometimes still happen, and therefore this maxim is incorrectly rendered permissible. But maybe an action redescription is appropriate here: “Steal when that would benefit me for the purpose of reliably having goods at my disposal.” Once we incorporate this purpose (and it seems unreasonable to suppress it—if there is some other purpose that avoids what I’m about to say, Parfit should tell us what that is), the action is undermined upon universalization. If everyone’s stealing, I cannot reliably have goods at my disposal, and therefore the maxim is impermissible.
Parfit presents other false positives, but while I have similar concerns about those cases, I won’t go on about that here. Instead, consider his false negatives to (H), e.g. “Give generously to the poor.” If everyone did this, the poor would disappear, and then we would fail in our attempts to give to them, apparently making that maxim wrong, incorrectly. However, since people would achieve their aim of eliminating poverty, Parfit changes the maxim to “Give generously to the poor in order to gain admiration.” This aim would be frustrated upon universalization.
Once again, though, this maxim could be rendered differently: “Give to the poor in order to gain admiration when doing so is possible.” This is universalizable, but Parfit doesn’t consider such action descriptions. The same problem arises in his discussion of coordination maxims, such as “Never take the first slice.” Such a simple maxim would fail the test, but such simple maxims might not be the ones that should be tested. Rather, the ones to be tested could also (at least implicitly) reference circumstances and purpose, such as “Never take the first slice, unless it’s my turn.” This is universalizable.
In Sec. 27, Parfit focuses on maxims, in order to ultimately argue that the best Kantian formula—some version of what he is calling the Formula of Universal Law, including the “Law of Nature Formula” and “Moral Belief Formula” from Sec. 26—should replace talk of maxims with talk of intentional actions. Parfit understands maxims to be either “policies,” which are descriptions of actions, or “policies and motives” which make maxims descriptions of both actions and intended purpose of the action (he doesn’t explicitly recognize a circumstance component).
Parfit has multiple objections to testing maxims, rather than intentional actions. One is the “Rarity Objection” (154). If my maxim is “to steal some wallet containing $63 from some woman dressed in white who is eating strawberries while reading the last page of Spinoza’s Ethics,” then this would be permissible, because it would be “unlikely that anyone else could ever act in this way” (the test of the Law of Nature Formula).
Note first, though, that this maxim might be made impermissible on the Law of Nature Formula if Kantians can come up with a principled reason to render features such as what the woman is reading and wearing irrelevant to the maxim that is to be tested by the Law of Nature Formula. Such solutions have been proposed, but Parfit doesn’t consider them.
Note also that rare-because-specific maxims can translate into rare-because-specific intentional actions. I am not sure how Parfit thinks that replacing maxims with intentional actions solves this problem.
Parfit also objects that an Egoist who has only one policy of “Do whatever would be best for me,” where this policy would be rejected by the Law of Nature Formula, would then be wrong to act under this policy not only when he, say, steals, but also (implausibly) when he, say, keeps his promises for self-interested reasons. Generally, the “Flawed Maxims Objection” (157) is that when we act under a very general policy like the Egoist’s, we sometimes act rightly and sometimes wrongly, but a focus on maxims can’t make this distinction.
But a maxim is, plausibly, just a description of what one intends to do (calling into question Parfit’s whole conception of maxims, I guess). So if the Egoist intends to keep his promises for self-interested reasons, then this, not simply “Do what would be best for me,” is his maxim. More broadly, maxims in the right cases bear some feature that is different from similar maxims in the wrong cases. I.e., the more precise maxims are not “unnecessary clutter” (n. 239), but really different maxims.
Maybe another way of putting the concern is this: Parfit holds that we should replace maxim-talk with talk of intentional actions. But if maxims just are descriptions of what one intends to do, this might be a case of much ado about nothing.