Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain, Chapter 13: Conclusions

This is
the last installment of our virtual
reading group
on Derek Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain.  As Dave
noted
a couple of weeks ago, the
most recent version of the manuscript
includes a new final chapter, Chapter
13.  We hadn’t built this chapter into our
schedule, so there won’t be a précis this week, but the Comments section is open for discussion.  Thanks to everyone who has
helped make this a fruitful reading group.

 

29 Replies to “Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain, Chapter 13: Conclusions

  1. First, let me say that this has been quite an amazing book, and big props to all those who’ve participated in the reading group. I’ve learned a lot.
    OK, now with respect to chapter 13, there’s actually quite a lot going on here — maybe too much for its 13 pages — but I just wanted to mention a couple of things. First, on the first page, Parfit seems to address an issue you’d raised last week, Doug. The UA-optimific principles would indeed occasionally require us to do things that wouldn’t make things go best, which means (among other things) that the Kantian formula wouldn’t require us to be Act Consequentialists. He draws on a distinction here between the effects of acts and the effects of motives: “the good effects of everyone’s acts would again be outweighed, I believe, by the ways in which it would be worse if we all had the motives that would lead us to follow AC” (257). So perhaps we have most reason to develop motives to comply with the UA-optimific principles, even when doing so will not be best (in particular circumstances). I was curious what you thought about this, though.
    Second, I thought Parfit’s discussion of the criteria of wrongness with respect to the Triple Theory was just right, and it seems to me to address the ongoing objection to contractualism voiced by both Josh and Doug regarding the seeming irrelevance of citing the contractualist formula to explain the wrongness of certain actions. It’s worth quoting Parfit at length here, so that others who haven’t read it might chime in:

    If we accept this theory [the Triple Theory combining Kantian Contractualism, Scanlonian Contractualism, and Rule Consequentialism], we should admit that, in explaining why some kinds of act are wrong, we do not need to claim that such acts are disalloed by some triply supported principle. In some cases such a claim would be, not merely unnecessary, but also puzzling or offensive. This is like the fact that, after some rape or murder, we ought not to say ‘What if everyone did that?’ or ‘What if everyone believed such acts to be permitted?’ Some acts are open to objections that are both clearer and stronger than the objections to these acts that are provided by Kant’s formulas, or by contractualism, or by rule consequentialism.
    In many other cases, however, it may help to ask whether some act is permitted or disallowed by some triply supported principle. It may be unclear, for example, whether it would be wrong to break some law, or tell some lie to achieve some good end, or steal some object that its owner never uses, or fail to help some people who are in great need, or add our bit to pollution, or fail to vote, or have, in an overpopulated world, more than two children. If any of these kinds of act would be disallowed by one of the principles whose acceptance would make things go best, and by one of the only principles whose being universal laws everyone could rationally will, and any principle permitting these acts could be reasonably rejected, these facts may provide some of the strongest objections to these acts.

  2. Dave,
    I agree with you on your assessment of the book. It’s excellent. But I’m not sure that I see how he’s addressed my worry from last week or the worry that Josh and I have been having for weeks now.
    In this chapter, Parfit confirms my suspicion that the Triple Theory will sometimes hold that it is wrong to do what will make things go both partially and impartially best. Imagine, for instance, that by lying so as to benefit me and my family, I can prevent two others from lying so as to benefit themselves and their families. The triply-supported principles will prohibit lying in such circumstances, but surely I have decisive reason, on the wide value-based theory about reasons, to lie in such circumstances. Thus, if we combine both the Triple Theory with Parfit’s wide value-based theory, we will sometimes have decisive reasons to act wrongly. Insofar as we think that morality is overriding, this means that we should either reject the Triple Theory or the wide value-based theory about reasons.
    In correspondence, Parfit offers two replies. First, he notes that he has not committed himself to the Triple Theory. He claimed not that we ought to accept the Triple Theory, but only that we have strong reasons to accept such a theory. This actually helps with my main worry about this chapter. I was concerned that he thought that he had shown that we ought to accept the Triple Theory and without even comparing the Triple Theory against other theoretical alternatives. Even if Kantians, rule-consequentialists, and contractualists can all agree as to which acts are right and wrong that doesn’t mean that their answers are superior to other given by other theories. Second, he notes that he’s inclined to believe that an act’s wrongness gives us a strong reason not to do it. I find this implausible. I think that X’s being wrong is not a further reason to refrain from X-ing, for I think that wrongness is only the purely formal, higher-order property of having other properties that provide reasons to refrain from X-ing. I also suspect that Parfit’s claim here is inconsistent with the Actualist View, a view he explicitly endorses. But I’m not sure.
    Now to the worry that Josh and I had: Our worry was not that, on contractualism, you have to appeal to principles that no one could reasonably reject to explain why torturing innocent children is wrong. The contractualist can, of course, explain the wrongness of doing so merely by appealing to some derivative principle such as “it’s wrong to cause gratuitous suffering.” Our objection is that when you ask, “Why is it wrong to cause gratuitous suffering?”, the contractualist gives an implausible answer: because the principle “it’s wrong to cause gratuitous suffering” is one that nobody can reasonably reject. Intuitively, the correct answer should appeal directly and ultimately to facts about the suffering and the victim, not to what others would agree to or not agree to. Of course, this is just my intuition. And maybe it is not widely shared.

  3. Regarding your second point, I took Parfit’s latest answer to be perfectly in agreement: sometimes the answer “because it violates principles no one could reasonably reject” (on the Scanlonian construal) will be just puzzling or offensive. In the case you give, the only answer needed is that, well, it causes gratuitous suffering. Now its causing gratuitous suffering is also what makes it an act violating a principle no one could reasonably reject, but citing that formula really does seem puzzling here. On the other hand, there will be actions (such as those Parfit cites) for which citing the more abstract formula will be the only way to provide some clear and compelling objection.
    As to your first point, I guess I hadn’t thought he was maintaining the Triple Theory to be the only correct theory; instead, I took him to making a really interesting descriptive point: these three theories (KC, SC, and RC) are not only compatible but mutually reinforcing.

  4. Dave,
    There are two things that need explaining here. One is why the act is wrong. The other is why it’s wrong to act in a way that causes gratuitous suffering. The explanation for the second thing can’t be that it’s an act of gratuitous suffering. Right? So although both the Portmorian consequentialist (ditto for the Glasgowian Kantian) and the proponent of the Triple Theory agree on the explanation for the first thing, they disagree on the explanation for the second thing.
    As you see it, has Parfit given us any reason for thinking that Triple Theory’s explanation for the second thing is intuitive. If not, Parfit hasn’t addressed our worry. As I see it, Parfit is only discussing the explanation for the first thing.

  5. Doug,
    Interesting posting. Couple of questions though. First, you write:
    ‘Imagine, for instance, that by lying so as to benefit me and my family, I can prevent two others from lying so as to benefit themselves and their families. The triply-supported principles will prohibit lying in such circumstances, but surely I have decisive reason, on the wide value-based theory about reasons, to lie in such circumstances.’
    Why assume that in this case you have decisive reasons on wide value-based theory to lie? What would those reasons be? What reasons to you count these reasons to overweigh? Just sounds like the criticism is not recognising the Kantian reasons for treating others as ends because of their rational nature (or reasons for being able to justify your actions on grounds no-one could reasonably reject) on which the other view is based. In this case, you would be begging the question.
    About the last point. First, at least Scanlon doesn’t have to give the implausible answer. According to him, what it is for something to be wrong just is for it to be forbidden by the principles no-one case reasonably reject. If that’s the case, then it cannot be that something is wrong *because* it’s forbidden by the contractualist principles. That would be to think that something is white because it is white. Rather, Scanlon can say that the act is wrong (i.e. forbidden by the contractualist principles) because it causes gratuitous suffering (that being the relevant burden).
    And finally. You write:
    ‘Intuitively, the correct answer should appeal directly and ultimately to facts about the suffering and the victim, not to what others would agree to or not agree to.’
    I’m still wondering why this intuition doesn’t count against all other moral theories except pluralist, intuitionistic views. Why isn’t this an objection against all consequentialist views as they too don’t just appeal directly and ultimately to facts about suffering and the victim?

  6. Jussi,
    Here’s what Parfit says about the wide value-based theory: “when one possible act would be impartially best, but some other act would be best either for ourselves or for those to whom we have close ties, we often have sufficient reasons to act in either way.” Now, technically, it doesn’t say what we have decisive reason to do. But I was assuming, perhaps wrongly, that when one possible act is both impartially best as well as best both for ourselves and those to whom we have close ties, then we have decisive reason to do this act. This would comport with Parfit’s “Actualist View,” according to which “We have a reason to act in some way if and only if, or just when, this act would in some way be good either as an end, or as a means to some good end.” Now I’m not sure what constitutes a Kantian reason, but unless it is a reason that appeals to what makes things go best partially or impartially, then I don’t see how they factor into the wide value-based theory about reasons.
    About what you call my “last point,” if this is the way to interpret Scanlon, then I have no beef with him. But I believe this issue of interpretation is something that you and Josh have been disagreeing about in the past. And I think that if your interpretation is correct, then Scanlon’s contractualism isn’t a normative ethical theory but a meta-ethical theory.
    Isn’t the fact that suffering is bad a fact about suffering? And it is the badness of suffering, according to the consequentialist, that explains why we ought not to act in ways that cause it unless there is some good reason to.

  7. Doug,
    sorry. Now, I’m getting lost. There’s two acts:
    A) I lie. 1 Benefit for me and my family. Two other persons do not lie. No benefits for their families.
    B) I don’t lie. No benefits for me and my family. Two other persons lie and they and their families get benefits.
    Now, you say that A is forbidden by the triply-supported principles (not sure, maybe) but there is decisive reasons to do so on value-based theory. And, you say that A is impartially best – hence the decisive reasons. How can that be? On B two others and their families get benefits. Isn’t that impartially better than just my and my family’s benefits on A?
    By Kantian reasons, I meant to say that being lied to may for some constitute a burden no matter what effects there are for well-being.
    The point is that the consequentialist must refer to a whole lot more than the badness of suffering. She’ll have to give story about all the alternative actions, their good and bad consequences for different individuals, count these together, say something about optimific actions, and so on. This isn’t appealing to only directly and fundamentally to the victim and the suffering but to a whole lot more. In a similar way, the contractualist does include the victim and her suffering but says also a whole lot more about the situation. Either both fail the irrelevance test or neither does. We can’t move the goalposts from one theory to another.

  8. Jussi,
    I am assuming, as I think that Parfit does, that a lie can itself be impartially bad and, indeed, impartially worse than depriving a couple people of some small benefit. Thus B is impartially worse than A. And B is also worse, partially speaking, for me and those to whom I have close ties.
    If you don’t want to say that a lie is in itself impartially bad but only impartially bad insofar as it produces disutility, then just pick another example where my lying will produce more utility in general as well as more utility for me and those to whom I have close ties. Again the Triple Theory will prohibit my lying in such instances. After all, Parfit insists that the Triple Theory will often coincide with commonsense morality and is not equivalent to act-consequentialism.

  9. Right. But, now, if lying is impartially bad and outweighs the trivial benefits in this case, then wouldn’t the optimific principles include a rule to minimise lyings in this kind of cases? And, thus permit A?

  10. Jussi,
    About the consequentialist vs. contractualist explanation stuff, you might be right. I might just be moving the goal posts. Let me think about it. But I take your point.

  11. Doug: I’m having deja vu. OK, you say:

    The correct answer should appeal directly and ultimately to facts about the suffering and the victim, not to what others would agree to or not agree to. Of course, this is just my intuition. And maybe it is not widely shared.

    The “correct answer” here refers to the explanation of what makes things like causing gratuitous suffering wrong.
    I’m sure all of the following has been said and discussed before, so after this I’ll likely shut up, and we can hash this out in Madison next month. First, I guess we should be more faithful to Parfit: the fundamental belief being appealed to isn’t about agreement, but about principles whose being universally accepted is something everyone could rationally will (266). (I’d been using the Scanlon formulation too in previous comments, so this is my fault.) One might put this as being his “philosophical theory of morality” (as Scanlon puts it in his original contractualism article): on this view, the facts about morality aren’t facts about well-being or about what makes things go best; instead, they’re about what people could rationally will. Now you can disagree about this point, but I don’t think your doing so is then a disagreement about criteria of wrongness. Instead, it is, as you suggest, metaethical.
    Second, even if this is a normative dispute, I fail to see how your case of “gratuitous suffering” makes the more general point you’re trying to make. Yes, you’re right, it seems as if in this sort of case what’s doing the normative work has everything to do with just the facts about the victim and her suffering, so it looks as if any abstract formulation of a principle about rational willing is going to be irrelevant. But I agree with Jussi here that the same question could be asked with respect to the abstract formulations of consequentialism and (some versions of) Kantianism.
    But in another way you’ve cherry-picked your case. Yes, the gratuitous suffering case is a good one to press the triple theorist on. But then what of the other actions Parfit mentions (and this was my point earlier)? Whether it would be wrong to break some law, or tell some lie to achieve some good end, or steal something the owner never uses, or failing to help those in great need, or adding our bit to pollution, or failing to vote, or having more than two children? Now once you specify the relevant facts about victims, and suffering, and enjoyment, and disrespect, etc., what’s going to make various of those facts salient will (on the triple view) be facts about principles people could rationally will. While these aren’t the facts that we will always (or perhaps even often) cite, the general formulations about them are what “gather and subsume” all the more particular facts. Now what I find very interesting about this is that sometimes it will be the Kantian contractualist formula to which one can ultimately appeal, and sometimes it will be the Scanlonian contractualist formula to which one can appeal, and sometimes it will be the Rule Consequentialist formula to which one can appeal (and sometimes it will be two, or all three). But in any event, this story still strikes me as quite plausible. But of course if we’re now simply at a disagreement point over which is more intuitively plausible, perhaps we should just take a poll. But for the life of me I wouldn’t know what to do with the results.

  12. Jussi,
    You ask, But, now, if lying is impartially bad and outweighs the trivial benefits in this case, then wouldn’t the optimific principles include a rule to minimise lyings in this kind of cases? And, thus permit A?
    No. In this chapter, Parfit says as much. He says, “These [optimific] principles would often require us, for example, not to steal, lie, or break our promises, even when such acts would make things go best [in the impartial reason-involving sense].” It can turn out that, in certain instances, abiding by a principle whose universal acceptance would make things go best will not make things go best.

  13. As this is the last meeting of our reading group, it would be nice to say something concluding of what my thoughts were about the book. I guess I have to say, as usual, the more I think about it the more confused I get. My main problem is to do with co-extensionality.
    When I read the 12 chapter and the Kantian and contractualist arguments for rule-consequentialism, I assumed that, unless Kantianism and contractualism are internally incoherent, the success of the argument requires that all three views have the same normative outcomes. That is, for the argument to succeed it must be that a principle is optimific if and only if it is uniquely universally willable, and a principle is uniquely universally willable if and only if it is not reasonably rejectable, and so on.
    Now, given the traditional understandings of rule-consequentialism and contractualism this claim is often thought to be false and counter-exampleable. So, there would be reasons to believe that the argument would not work. But, now the reply seems to be that the traditional rule-consequentialist and contractualist views have got their value theories and views about reasons to reject principles wrong. When these are corrected, the co-extensionality is secured. But, this poses a threat to the argument. If it turns out that rule-consequentialism or contractualism do not have independently plausible views about value and reasons to reject principles, then these views are normatively empty (or either one of them is). If this is true, then the main argument threatens to become trivial. So, only once we have antecedently specified a substantial axiology for RC and the reasons for rejecting principles in contractualism that are conceptually independent of one another, it would be a significant discovery that these views are coextensive. And, it would be quite a cosmic coincidence too.
    However, when I now look at Parfit’s conclusion, I begin to hesitate. Here’s the concise statement of his view:
    Triple Theory: An act is wrong just when such acts are disallowed by some principle that is optimific, uniquely universably willable, and not reasonably rejectable.
    This theory as such doesn’t require that RC, Kantianism and contractualism are coextensive. They may not be. It may be that there are principles that satisfy the criteria of all three views but there may also be principles that satisfy only one or two of the views. All that is required though is that if an act is to be wrong it must be forbidden by a principle which satisfies all three views. This only requires that there is some overlap between the principles of the theories and the result is that these acts are wrong. I’m not sure that this is what Parfit had in mind. But at least the view he ends up with is much weaker than the view that seems to be implied by his main argument.

  14. Jussi and Dave have been defending the contractualist part of the Triple Theory, and I wanted to jump in here and defend the position that Doug and I have been taking the last few weeks. Here are a couple of recent points from Jussi and Dave.

    Jussi: “The point is that the consequentialist must refer to a whole lot more than the badness of suffering. She’ll have to give story about all the alternative actions, their good and bad consequences for different individuals, count these together, say something about optimific actions, and so on. This isn’t appealing to only directly and fundamentally to the victim and the suffering but to a whole lot more. In a similar way, the contractualist does include the victim and her suffering but says also a whole lot more about the situation. Either both fail the irrelevance test or neither does.”

    Dave: “Yes, you’re right, it seems as if in this sort of case what’s doing the normative work has everything to do with just the facts about the victim and her suffering, so it looks as if any abstract formulation of a principle about rational willing is going to be irrelevant. But I agree with Jussi here that the same question could be asked with respect to the abstract formulations of consequentialism and (some versions of) Kantianism.”

    As I see it, the objection isn’t that contractualism has to say some complicated things about what fundamentally makes right acts right. (Or, as Parfit is putting it, about what makes wrong acts wrong–which is his view, independently of how Scanlon sees things. Also, I read his statement on 263 not as suggesting that one of the three wrong-making factors is more basic, but that all three combine into a “single” and “complex” wrong-making property; I’m not sure how to reconcile this point with the point that Dave cites from 266, where it sounds as though the rational willing part is more fundamental. In any case…) That would, as Jussi points out, also be true of consequentialism and Kantianism.
    Rather, the unique objection to the contractualist part of the equation is that its ultimate wrong-making principle is an appeal to authority. So every time a contractualist answer to “What makes phi-ing wrong?” is “A principle allowing phi-ing can be reasonably rejected,” we can rightly demand for a further answer to why it is reasonable to reject such a principle. And, whatever the answer is will then be the truly fundamental answer to “What makes phi-ing wrong?” By contrast, since consequentialism and (non-contractualist) Kantianism do not appeal to authority in their final answers to that question, they are not subject to this same objection. (Relatedly, something very close to them will likely show up in the contractualist’s answer to why it is reasonable to reject such principles.) So, to Jussi’s query that “I’m still wondering why this intuition doesn’t count against all other moral theories except pluralist, intuitionistic views,” I would answer that, first, I take the relevant theoretical contrast class to be consequentialism and Kantianism, and plausibly pluralism (i.e., normative moral theories), rather than intuitionism (i.e., theories of justification or moral epistemology), and, second, that those non-contractualist views don’t appeal to authority.
    That, as I saw it, was the objection that applies to contractualism but not consequentialism or Kantianism. (And while perhaps it is less obvious in this case, I take it on reflection as no less intuitive than the standard Euthyphro Dilemma.) Now, there’s a separate observation that Parfit makes about not needing to appeal to the fundamental wrong-making properties in many cases. This is worth separate discussion, I think. One thing that might explain this phenomenon is that some actions are obviously wrong by all plausible candidate fundamental wrong-making properties, so there’s no need to explore any further as to what makes them wrong.

  15. OK, Josh, that makes sense. But then you shouldn’t feel that Parfit’s Triple Theory is subject to this objection, given that, if morality is fundamentally about rational willing, it doesn’t involve (at that fundamental level) an appeal to authority in the objectionable sense.

  16. Joshua,
    First, the ‘authority’ objection must be different one from the ‘irrelevance’ objection Doug attributed to Parfit. Second, could you explain why contractualism would at any point refer to any authority, whatever that is?
    You write:
    ‘we can rightly demand for a further answer to why it is reasonable to reject such a principle.’
    I agree with this. But there is a sophisticated story to answer this one in Scanlon. We compare the standpoints which alternative sets of moral principles would create for different individuals. Individuals can put forward objections against the moral principles that would create burdens for them. One can reasonably reject a set of principles if it would be such that it creates a burden for one such that some alternative set only creates smaller burdens for everyone. I don’t see the authority here at all. I do see that individuals are assumed to have an equal moral status, that they would make objections for similar generic reasons based on the quality of their lives, and that everyone’s objections are taken to count the same amount in determining which principles are reasonably rejectable. And, these principles are not to be followed because ‘an authority says so’ but because they enable us to form valuable relationships with other persons who can assess and act on reasons. Where’s the authority?
    So, I just cannot see an objection from relying on an authority. Maybe I’m missing something.

  17. Here’s the objection against consequentialism:
    ‘So every time a consequentialist answer to “What makes phi-ing wrong?” is “it has non-optimific consequences,” we can rightly demand for a further answer to what makes those consequences less valuable than those of the alternative actions. And, whatever the answer is will then be the truly fundamental answer to “What makes phi-ing wrong?’
    Here’s one for Kantianism:
    So every time a Kantian answer to “What makes phi-ing wrong?” is “One cannot rationally will the phi-ing maxim to be universalised,” we can rightly demand for a further answer to why one cannot rationally will the maxim to be universalised. And, whatever the answer is will then be the truly fundamental answer to “What makes phi-ing wrong?
    So, contractualists need an account of reasons for rejection, consequentialists an axiology, and Kantians a theory of the limits of rational willing. Where is the difference?

  18. Dave,
    If you’re right that the Triple Theory doesn’t really make use of contractualism at the fundamental level (as you rightly note Parfit suggests on 266), then, yes, the Euthyphro-style problem won’t apply to it. But, as I noted above, on 263, Parfit says that on the Triple Theory there is one highest-level property that “is the complex property” composed of contractualism, universalizability, and consequentialism. This is why it seems to me that Parfit is suggesting that all three are mutually fundamental, rather than just the universalizability principle being fundamental. As I said, though, I’m not sure how to reconcile that with the passage from 266. How do you reconcile them?

  19. Jussi,
    I think this goes back to issues from our discussions on this a week or two ago. “Pure” contractualism, let’s stipulate, says that wrong acts are wrong, just because, fundamentally, principles allowing them can be rejected by the contractors (however they are characterized, as rational, reasonable, etc.). This is an appeal to the authority of the contractors, since there is no more fundamental principle dictating what they can and cannot agree to. By contrast, let us say that “adulterated” contractualism supplies some more fundamental principle. For example, to quote your gloss on Scanlon, an adulterated contractualism might say: “One can reasonably reject a set of principles if it would be such that it creates a burden for one such that some alternative set only creates smaller burdens for everyone.”
    The objection Doug and I have been concerned to raise to contractualism is this: either contractualism is pure or it’s adulterated. If it’s pure, it succumbs to the Euthyphro Dilemma. If it’s adulterated, then–you’re absolutely right–it does not succumb to that problem; however, it then ceases to be an interestingly distinctive kind of theory. For example, one could be a consequentialist contractualist: An act is wrong just when it falls under a principle that can be rejected by the contractors, and such principles are ones that fail to maximize good consequences. Such a view might be right, but what’s doing all of the theoretical heavy lifting here is the consequentialism part of the equation, not the contractualist part. So now contractualism isn’t an interestingly distinctive moral theory, just as if the Divine Command Theorist gives up God’s authority as the ultimate wrong-making property and instead says that God commands as God does just because God sees what does and what does not fail to maximize good consequences.
    Now, in your second post (at 4:20), you revive the possibility that a similar objection could be raised for Kantianism and consequentialism. Let me say, first off, that I share the worry that the universalizability principle might be open to this objection. I should stress the “might” part: I’ve been worrying about it for quite some time, without coming to any satisfactory conclusion. In any case, though, I haven’t been worrying too hard, because I see the Formula of Humanity, rather than any version of FUL, as supplying Kant’s moral criterion. So what fundamentally makes wrong acts wrong is that they fail to treat humanity as an end in itself. And let’s just simplify our view of consequentialism to be ordinary maximizing, act consequentialism, and say that for it what makes wrong acts wrong is that they fail to maximize good consequences.
    Okay, so with those preliminaries out of the way, why don’t they succumb to the same objection, that they’re not truly specifying the fundamental wrong-making properties because they appeal to authority? Because, while they might be incorrect for other reasons, these principles are not appealing to authority. I agree with you that they need a value theory, but that’s not to say that the principles are not fundamental, right? It’s just to say that they need more specification. For example, if some consequentialist specifies “bad consequences” as “states of affairs that make people cry for more than 10 seconds,” that doesn’t give us a wrong-making property that is more fundamental than the consequentialist’s already-stated one. Rather, it just gives us more information about what that already-stated property is, on the given view. So while such a view might be objectionable for other reasons, it won’t be for Euthyphro-type reasons.

  20. Josh,
    Sorry, but I don’t think you are being fair on contractualists. First you write:
    ‘”Pure” contractualism, let’s stipulate, says that wrong acts are wrong, just because, fundamentally, principles allowing them can be rejected by the contractors (however they are characterized, as rational, reasonable, etc.). This is an appeal to the authority of the contractors, since there is no more fundamental principle dictating what they can and cannot agree to.’
    First, it seemed like you posed the argument from authority against contractualism per se. But, now you say that it’s only an argument against ‘pure contractualism’ (don’t like the thick term there). Has anyone ever held that view? That wrongness is based on authority of the contractors without anything limiting what they accept and reject? That would be a mad view. I think it’s unfair to pose a criticism against contractualism against a strange view no-one has held. I’m sure I could come up with versions of consequentialism against which I could put all sorts of objections but I wouldn’t dare to present these as objections against *consequentialism*. Notice also that in the bracketed condition you say that the contractors are rational and reasonable. Doesn’t rationality and reasonableness provide constraints on their choice so that it is not a matter of the *authority* of the contractors which principles pass the test? Unless they choose the principles for the strong reasons they are not being rational and reasonable and thus their choice won’t count. No appeals to authority will help.
    Then you write:
    ‘If it’s adulterated, then–you’re absolutely right–it does not succumb to that problem; however, it then ceases to be an interestingly distinctive kind of theory.’
    Again, I don’t get this. I take it to be distinctive part of contractualism that the sets principles are selected on the basis of objections *individuals* can make on the basis of the features of their lives. This is a distinct view of assessing the principles which bans intrapersonal aggregation of principles. It’s based on a disctinct view about what justifying our actions to others consists of – comparing what kind of burdens the principles would create to each of us personally. If this is an essential part of contractualism for contractualists (Parfit is good on this in his Ratio paper), why isn’t contractualism doing the heavy lifting, being interesting and distinct from all other ethical theories?

  21. Jussi,
    Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood you, but I believe that you’ve missed Josh’s point. When you say:
    “Doesn’t rationality and reasonableness provide constraints on their choice so that it is not a matter of the *authority* of the contractors which principles pass the test?”
    You seem to be taking the second horn of Josh’s dilemma, opting for “adulterated” contractualism. That is, you say that people may reject principles if their rejection conforms to certain standards of either rationality or reasonableness.
    But this is why Josh suggests that contractualism ceases to be distinctive – what’s really doing the work seems to be the standards of rationality or reasonableness that our contractors must adhere to. And if these standards are doing all of the work, then we needn’t appeal to reasonable rejection at all: we might as well appeal directly to those standards of reasonableness/rationality.
    Alex

  22. Alex,
    ok. Let’s accept that which principles contractors can accept are limited by rationality and reasonableness. As a result we get principles which no-one can rationally and reasonably reject. And, the claim is that these principles can be used to account for which acts are wrong. Now, drop everything off from this story which mentions contractors, the principles which no-one can reject so that you only have a view left about rationality and being reasonable. The claim then is that out of the this material you can construct just as good of an account of wrongness. I believe that this can be done when I see it done. My imagination fails how to proceed. Until I see the account I go on thinking that the idea of principles which no-one can reasonably reject does some work in the account.

  23. Jussi,
    You might be right that no one is a pure contractualist (at the times when Parfit seems to talk about contractualism being one of three fundamental principles, he seems to be going this route, but Dave has noted places where Parfit actually seems to be advancing an adulterated version). But as Alex notes, it’s supposed to be a dilemma, so if every contractualist wants to take the horn of adulterated contractualism, I don’t think that’s a problem. As I was thinking of it (and I think Alex picked up on this), it’s not that when the contractors are dropped out of the picture what is left is a view “about rationality and being reasonable.” Rather, the relevant remainder is, as Alex puts it, the set of standards that the (reasonable, rational, etc.) contractors use to make their rejections. One such standard might be the one you gave: “One can reasonably reject a set of principles if it would be such that it creates a burden for one such that some alternative set only creates smaller burdens for everyone.” The horn of the dilemma at work for adulterated contractualism is that it is those standards, rather than the fact of rejection itself, that specify the fundamental wrong-making properties (and those properties explain why it is reasonable to reject such principles).

  24. Josh,
    Good. I think know we are beginning to agree. Contractualism is no longer grounded on authority nor is it not a distinct ethical theory. But, take the standard of reasonableness you quote from me. How does that specify a fundamental wrong-making property which does not make a reference to the rejection of the principles too? What is that property? Why is it a problem for contractualism if merely the fact of rejection only by itself is not the fundamental wrong-making property but rather plays that role together with the appropriate standards for rejecting principles?

  25. Jussi,
    Unfortunately, I think there may still be some distance between our views: I still hold that adulterated contractualism is not a distinctive theory; and my view is not merely that rejection isn’t doing any work when used alone, but, rather, that it isn’t doing any work. If the principle of reasonable rejection you used were the only such principle, an act would be wrong just when it falls under a principle that “creates a burden for one such that some alternative set only creates smaller burdens for everyone.” And, if this is the fundamental principle of wrongness, then the fundamental wrong-making property is an act’s falling under a principle that has this kind of distribution of burdens. There is no reference to rejection or any other element of a contract here, so at the fundamental level contractualism is actually derivative, and under the umbrella of some principle-burden-based view (and it is the burdens that, fundamentally, explain why the contract is reasonable).

  26. Josh,
    Say the view you describe is a moral theory. First, if that was what the contractualist was claiming, it would still be a distinct theory from any other moral theories that have been around thus far. Be that as it may, it can be asked in any case how could that theory explain why we would have reasons not to do wrong acts. I would be loss at how this theory could answer the question.
    On the other hand, if the property you cite makes the principle reasonably rejectable and the act being reasonably rejectable makes the act wrong, then we can use the contractualist machinery to explain the reasons we have for not doing wrong acts. If that’s right, then the contractualist bit about the view is doing substantial work.

  27. Jussi,
    I was assuming that the burdens are relevant because burdens are bad, so that your principle was some version of a consequentialist principle. But your point is well-taken that an adulterated contractualism can be coupled with a distinctive theory. Someone could hold that an act is wrong when it falls under a principle that is reasonable to reject, and it is reasonable to reject a principle when, and because, it affects an amount of people that total a prime number. So the distinctiveness point only applies when the more fundamental principle is some version of a familiar moral theory (and therefore, I suppose, a theory more likely to be plausible). Even when it doesn’t, though, the contractualist part of adulterated contractualism is merely a way-station on the road to explaining why an act is wrong. It doesn’t really do that explanatory work itself. So you’re right to point out that the upshot of this horn of the dilemma isn’t really about distinctiveness; rather it’s that adulterated versions of ethics-by-authority (such as divine command theory) end up, by virtue of their adulterated parts, rendering their authority parts superfluous on the question of what makes right acts right and wrong acts wrong.
    Now you’ve also added some questions that change the subject from what makes an act wrong on a theory to what reason the theory gives us to not do wrong acts. In these threads of discussion, Doug and I have been focused on the former question (that is, on Parfit’s discussion of the former question). The latter question is of course an interesting, if different, question. I don’t have many views on this, other than that it’s a separate question, that it seems like an act’s being wrong is itself a reason not to do it, and that an act’s having an unnecessarily disproportionate distribution of burdens might itself be a reason not to do it.

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