Parfit’s CtM, Chapter 11: Contractualism

This marks the 10th of 11 virtual meetings on Derek Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain.  First, though, a programming note: next week, we’ll be discussing chapter 12 of the latest version of Parfit’s manuscript, available here.  As it turns out, though, there’s a 13th chapter in the new manuscript, and we hadn’t planned on that with the rotating schedule we set up for posting this summer.  So here’s the plan for now: next Thursday, Doug will post a summary/discussion of the latest version’s chapter 12, and then the following week we’ll simply set up a post to have an open discussion on the latest version’s chapter 13.  And if a new version of the manuscript comes out in the meantime, well, we give up.

There are three main discussions in this chapter.  The first focuses on objections to Rawlsian contractualism, the second focuses on how what Parfit calls Kantian contractualism avoids the objections to Rawlsian contractualism, and the third explores how certain interpretations of, and revisions to, Scanlonian contractualism can render it a very plausible way to defend the Deontic Beliefs Restriction without abandoning appeal to our moral intuitions as worthless.  I won’t spend a lot of time on the first two issues: I think Parfit’s mostly right, but at any rate he’s simply reiterating (in many cases) objections made by others, albeit in succinct and very clear ways.  I mostly, then, want to try and figure out his defense of a version of Scanlonian contractualism in the final section.

Under the Rational Agreement Formula of contractualism, “Everyone ought to follow the principles to whose universal acceptance it would be rational in self-interested terms for everyone to agree” (200).  However, it’s either unclear what’s implied by this formula, or it gives unfair advantage to those with the greater bargaining power.  Rawls thus attempts to answer these objections by appeal to the veil of ignorance (VI), such that no one knows the particular facts about themselves or their circumstances.  Now according to Rawls, this version of contractualism provides an argument against all forms of utilitarianism, but Parfit argues that this isn’t true, nor does the view support acceptable non-utilitarian principles.  On the one hand, if the idea behind the VI is simply to make us impartial, then you could get this by either giving the relevant contractors no knowledge of the probabilities of ending up in one position or another, as Rawls does, or you could give your contractors an equal chance of ending up in any position.  Following Nagel, Parfit argues that taking the latter option could actually support some form of utilitarianism (viz., the utilitarian average principle), and that Rawls’ reasons for preferring the former are implausible.

On the other hand, even if Rawls admits that the overall view might yield utilitarianism, he can still maintain that it doesn’t have to, that it can also yield the non-utilitarian principles favored by so many.  This is also false, argues Parfit, insofar as Maximin yields certain indefensible moral conclusions in certain cases, and in others it simply yields no clear verdicts (e.g., promise-keeping, lying, imposing risks on others, etc.).  In addition, we think that in ordinary moral life, there are all sorts of relevant considerations other than the size and number of the resulting benefits and burdens in moral reasoning, but Rawlsian principles don’t include any of these non-utilitarian considerations – it’s just all about self-interested calculations among the representative parties.

Of course, I wonder how fair all of this is, particularly in light of the fact that Rawls was merely presenting a theory of distributive justice solely for the basic structure of society, and not a thoroughgoing normative ethical theory (a point made even more clearly in Political Liberalism).  True, some remarks in TJ seem to indicate otherwise, but these might safely be ignored as inconsistent with what’s become evident as the larger, purely political, project.

At any rate, the Kantian Contractualist Formula (KCF) is alleged to be better than Rawls’ formula at achieving Rawls’ own aims in rejecting the Rational Agreement Formula (RAF).  KCF (“Everyone ought to follow the principles whose universal acceptance everyone could rationally will”) and RAF both require unanimity, but KCF doesn’t rely on the notion of agreement.  Given that fact, it avoids the problem of unequal bargaining power.  It also assures impartiality, without the crude “frontal lobotomy” (212) approach of Rawls’ VI.  Unanimity isn’t guaranteed, on KCF, so “it would be morally more significant if unanimity could be achieved.  That would be true if there are some principles that, even with full information, everyone could rationally choose” (212).  Achieving this will actually depend on what we think about reasons and rationality, whether or not, for example, reasons depend on desires or on values.  KCF succeeds only if desire-based theories and Rational Egoism are false.  Furthermore, moral reasoning on KCF may appeal to all sorts of non-utilitarian considerations, so it can certainly support non-utilitarian principles.  Of course, for KCF to succeed, it has to provide clear verdicts sufficiently often, producing one and only one relevant principle that everyone would have sufficient reason to choose.  Parfit thinks this condition could be met, though, demonstrating how the Principle of Equal Shares does so: in cases where some quantity of unowned goods can be shared between different people, and no one has any special claim to these goods, and if equally distributed the goods would produce the greatest sum of benefits (everyone receiving equal benefits from the equal distribution), then everyone could rationally choose the principle giving them equal shares, and this is the only principle that everyone could rationally choose.

I fail to understand how this single demonstration provides an argument for what’s needed here, though, namely, an argument for why KCF would meet this sort of condition sufficiently often.  Indeed, this is sort of a precious case: how many times do we find ourselves in a situation with unowned goods, with no one having a special claim to the goods, and so forth?  Perhaps I’ve just missed the role this is supposed to play in some larger argument, but from what I could tell, there’s a real gap here.

Finally, consider Scanlon’s formula (SF): everyone ought to follow the principles that no one could reasonably reject.  Here, Parfit wants to defend Scanlon from the charge of emptiness.  Since Scanlon uses the term “reasonable” in a partly moral sense, goes the complaint, “everyone could claim that the moral principles which they accept could not be reasonably rejected” (214), such that SF would make no difference to our moral thinking.  But Scanlon explicitly appeals to the Deontic Beliefs Restriction (DBR), which says that when applying some moral formula, we can’t appeal to our intuitive beliefs about which acts are wrong.  What, then, to do?  One option is to reject DBR.  This won’t do, though: the best method of determining the correct moral principles should include appeal to all our beliefs, moral beliefs as well.  Another option is to go strictly constructivist, such that we construct all of the moral facts through some procedure, with the possible implication that all of our currently-held moral beliefs are wrong.  This, too, won’t do.  The best method, then, is going to be that of reflective equilibrium, which includes reference to our intuitive beliefs about wrongness.  We need, then, to preserve DBR, but how can we do so if we also deploy the method of reflective equilibrium?

The answer depends on a distinction between two senses in which some property of an act makes that act wrong.  In one sense, it’s trivially the case that wrongness is just the property that makes some act wrong in a non-causal fashion.  In the other, more important sense, when acts have some other property, e.g., the property of being a lying promise, it’s these other properties that non-causally make these acts wrong.  So the property of being a lying promise isn’t the same property as wrongness; rather, the fact that some act is a lying promise is what non-causally makes that act have the different property of being wrong.

Scanlon’s claim has been that his contractualism gives an account of what it is for acts to be wrong, but Parfit argues that he’s better off claiming instead that contractualist formulas describe, not wrongness itself, but one of the properties that itself non-causally makes an act wrong.  So if some act is a lying promise, then this property would make it one that couldn’t pass the non-rejectible principles test, in which case both these facts (the fact that it’s a lying promise and the fact that it can’t pass the test) are what make the act wrong.  If Scanlon’s formula thus took this form, he could (a) defend DBR, and (b) preserve our moral beliefs as valuable to moral theorizing.  The way to do so would be to insist that:

It is only while we are asking what these contractualist formulas imply that we should not appeal to our beliefs about the wrongness of any of the acts that we are considering.  We can appeal to these beliefs at a later stage, when we are deciding whether we ought to accept these formulas.  (222-223)

As I understand it, then, this revision would undermine two popular objections seen in recent years to contractualism.  On the one hand, it would undermine the aforementioned “emptiness” objection, which is that the contractualist formula (“an act is wrong just in case it fails to pass the non-rejectability test”), if “wrongness” just means “fails to pass the non-rejectability test,” simply means “an act fails to pass the non-rejectability test just in case it fails to pass the non-rejectability test.”  If, however, the Scanlonian formula is taken to give a higher-order account of wrongness, then what the formula means is simply that an act that fails the non-rejectability test is made to have another (lower-order) property of being wrong in some other non-contractualist sense.

Second (and Parfit doesn’t discuss this), it would seem to undermine the “irrelevance” objection (which came up last week in comments), which is essentially that the contractualist formula doesn’t seem to be in close enough contact to actual acts to make them wrong in the sense familiar to moral deliberation.  When I realize that some action will harm a loved one, it strikes me as wrong solely insofar as it would harm that person, and this seems on its face to have nothing to do with non-rejectability.  On Parfit’s revision, however, the fact that it would harm the loved one is what makes this act one that couldn’t pass the non-rejectability test.  But that certainly doesn’t deny that “harms a loved one” isn’t itself a wrong-making property of an act.  And the same would go for “creates uncompensated disvalue,” or “fails to maximize utility,” where these would also fail to pass the non-rejectability test.  Notice, though, that Parfit never talks here in terms of what is the fundamental wrong-making feature of actions; instead, he just says that the contractualist formula is a higher-order wrong-making property, “under which all other such properties or facts can be subsumed, or gathered” (222).  This move can thus render the contractualist formula the supreme principle of morality, without also making it the fundamental criterion of wrongness.  It gives us unity without monism.

Now this is all quite subtle and tricky, and the only thing I’m sure about is that I haven’t done it justice.  I look forward, then, to your comments.

32 Replies to “Parfit’s CtM, Chapter 11: Contractualism

  1. David,
    good work. There’s lot to be said about Parfit’s and your understanding of Scanlonian contractualism and the alleged problems of the view. Unfortunately that would be rather too much work today. I’ll just note that even though Scanlon offered contractualism as an account of the property of wrongness he denied that it is an account of the meaning of the term ‘wrong’. Thus, your construal of the emptiness problem cannot be quite right. The analogy was supposed to be natural kind terms of Putnam and Kripke (see introduction to WWOtEO).
    I do think that that understanding of contractualism too is problematic. But, I want to put that aside. I do have question though. Does anyone know what is meant by a *non-causal making relation* between properties that are understood to be logically independent and existing, ontologically speaking, in their own right? I’ve never ever understood this. Most people I know of, the realists especially, go on saying things like that an act is breaking a promise makes it wrong. Parfit similarly says here that being forbidden by the principles no-one can reasonably reject makes acts wrong. Utilitarians say things like that too. What does it mean? What kind of a relation are we talking about? I think Mackie has a great quote that goes something like ‘what *in the world* is meant by ‘because” in this case. I’m not trying to criticise the view that is put forward – I just really would want to understand it.

  2. Dave, Nice Summary. Thanks.
    You write,

    I fail to understand how this single demonstration provides an argument for what’s needed here, though, namely, an argument for why KCF would meet this sort of condition sufficiently often.

    In Parfit’s defense, I could note that Parfit says only “I shall partly defend this belief [the belief that the uniqueness condition is sufficiently often met] below.” But I think that your point still stands. I don’t see how demonstrating that the uniqueness condition would be met in one, not very common, case constitutes even a partial defense of the claim that it will be met sufficiently often.
    Perhaps, though, the point of the argument is mainly to demonstrate that the Kantian Formula has a chance only if we reject both Rational Egoism and all desire-based theories.

  3. Jussi: I took the “emptiness” objection to be one of meaning, simply because that’s how Parfit characterizes it, talking about the senses in which Scanlon might be using “wrong.”
    I’m with you, though, on the (honest) question about what “non-causally making X wrong” could mean. I was very puzzled by this as well. The only thing I could think of was that, when some act has properties that meet the conditions for inclusion in two distinct ontological categories, it’s then true that its being in one ontological category makes it a member of the other ontological category as well just in virtue of the way we talk, without there being any causal relation between properties in the two categories themselves.

  4. Excellent summary, David. As you say, Parfit manages to reformulate Scanlon´s contractualism in such a way that it is clear that SF is not redundant (thanks to the DBF) and still accommodates the importance of our moral beliefs. I especially liked your point about the “unity without monism” point.
    I have a couple of questions, though.
    (1) Like Jussi, I think that it is true that Scanlon distinguishes between (a) the meaning of “wrong”, (b) the nature of wrongness, and (c) wrong-making properties . He says that his contractualism is primarily focused on (b), and thus perhaps Parfit´s complaint about there being a “concealed tautology” (p.223) may be mistaken (as it seems to suppose that Scanlon presents the SF as accounting for (a) rather than (b)).
    (2) But Parfit´s reconstrual of SF as giving an account of what makes acts wrong (in terms of a higher order propery “gathering” the lower order ones –the ones pertaining to (c)–) seems quite helpful. Scanlon himselfs seems to appreciate this move (see his “Replies” in the collection “On What We Owe to Each Other” ed. P. Stratton-Lake, Blackwell, 2004, p.137). Still, Scanlon has two reasons to insist that SF accounts for (b). The first is that he thinks that “what makes an act wrong” best refers to lower-order properties of the (c) type. This does not seem to me to be a serious complaint, as Parfit´s distinction between lower and higher order wrong-making properties is clear and accommodates Scanlon´s point that lower order properties are the ones one primarily refers to when explaining what makes a certain act wrong. The more serious complaint is the second one. Scanlon wants his contractualism to present not only a criterion to decide what acts are wrong, but also an account of the “normative status of moral wrongness” (“Replies” p. 136). He thinks that reference to the ideal of justifiability to others is crucial for an explication of the special kind of authority (the importance and priority) that judgments of right and wrong have for us. This motivates the questions whether
    Parfit´s reconstrual of contractualism can answer the second concern that Scanlon has. In saying that SF provides a fuller account of (c), need Parfit deny that it also provides an account of (b) (once we acknowledge that (b) is not equivalent to (a), as Jussi says)?
    Of course, Parfit may say that his book is not focused on the issue of what gives moral judgments authority or priority. But it would be interesting to see what he thinks about this question.

  5. Dave,
    I don’t see how Parfit’s distinction helps with what you call the “irrelevance objection.” You write,

    When I realize that some action will harm a loved one, it strikes me as wrong solely insofar as it would harm that person, and this seems on its face to have nothing to do with non-rejectability. On Parfit’s revision, however, the fact that it would harm the loved one is what makes this act one that couldn’t pass the non-rejectability test. But that certainly doesn’t deny that “harms a loved one” isn’t itself a wrong-making property of an act.

    But on Scanlon’s view “harms a loved one” is only, derivatively speaking, a wrong-making property. It’s a wrong-making property only because “violates a principle that can’t be reasonably rejected” is a wrong-making property. Right? As I see it, the objection is not that Scanlon refuses to allow for the fact that “harms a loved one” is a wrong-making property, but rather that Scanlon doesn’t give a plausible account of why harming a loved one is ultimately wrong. Ultimately, the reason seems to have nothing to do with what principles are and are not reasonably rejectable.

  6. I really had trouble with the last few pages, where Parfit distinguishes two senses in which some property might be a wrong-making property. Let X be an immoral act. In the trivial sense, the fact that X has the property of being wrong is what non-causally makes X wrong. This is weird. Is having the property of being the tallest person in the room what makes me the tallest person of the room? It what sense does it make me the tallest person in the room? So I’m not sure I understand what the first sense is. Can anyone help? (Maybe Jussi is expressing the same puzzlement.)
    Also, I’m puzzled by the following remark of Parfit’s: “We should not claim that this formula [viz., if some act is disallowed by the Kantian Contractualist priniciple, then this makes this act wrong] describes the only property or fact that makes acts wrong.” Is the point here only that for any fairly general moral principle describing some wrong-making property of acts, we should not think that this describes the only wrong-making property of acts but think that all derivative moral principles following from this more general moral principle also describe wrong-making properties of acts? Take, for instance, the principle it is wrong to cause pointless suffering. Is Parfit’s point merely that, in this case, we have to acknowledge that not only is the property of causing of pointless suffering wrong-making but so is the property of pointlessly causing severe burns to non-anaesthetized sentient creatures?

  7. Pablo: I don’t see why Parfit couldn’t allow everything Scanlon wants here, both a fuller characterization of your (c), while also providing your (b). You’re right, normative authority doesn’t seem to be part of Parfit’s own project here, but it would make sense, now that there’s an additional wrong-maker at the higher-order level, that that higher-order property could provide Scanlon’s desired explanation for normative authority.

  8. Doug,
    regarding your post second above – I’m having problems in seeing the irrelevance objection. It’s not like harming a loved one is always wrong – sometimes you have to harm the loved ones in order to save them from something worse (I’m picturing Jack Bauer cutting off the hand of his partner to prevent the evil device going off). It then seems like thinking about what our loved ones could reasonably object to provides a nice guide to when harming a loved one would make my action wrong and when it wouldn’t.
    Concerning the last post – that too is weird sense of making but I had in my mind the connections between two distinct properties (unlike the cases of ‘xness’ and ‘being x’).
    About the second point. I think the idea is that there is going to be cases of acts that are wrong but do not satisfy the Kantian/contractualist formula and are not even wrong on the lower order grounds which such a general formula can pick up. One frequent example is treating animals cruelly. If the Kantian/contractualist formula picked up the only wrongmaking feature (or enabled us to pick out the only real ones) then such cases would be counter-examples to the view. With the proviso above, Parfitian Kantians/contractualists can say that these cases only show that there are other wrongmaking features that have nothing to do with the central ones which these theories attempt to capture.

  9. Doug: To your first comment, I agree that citation of one case doesn’t really even constitute a “partial” defense. As to your suggestion that the idea is simply that KCF doesn’t have a chance unless desire-based theories and rational egoism are false, that seems a bit of stretch. The conclusion of that section, after all, is “as this argument shows, this is the only principle [the principle of equal shares] that everyone could rationally choose.” And we could add to the end of that sentence, “given that desire-based theories and rational egoism are false.” So the point seems to be to show that there can be a unique principle everyone could rationally choose. Nevertheless, he’d already shown that in an earlier chapter, so it must be the case in this one that the argument’s somehow supposed to do something more, viz., give us reason to think that this could happen sufficiently often. But as you agree, it does no such thing.

  10. Dave,
    You write,

    As to your suggestion that the idea is simply that KCF doesn’t have a chance unless desire-based theories and rational egoism are false, that seems a bit of stretch. The conclusion of that section, after all, is “as this argument shows, this is the only principle [the principle of equal shares] that everyone could rationally choose.” And we could add to the end of that sentence, “given that desire-based theories and rational egoism are false.” So the point seems to be to show that there can be a unique principle everyone could rationally choose.

    And I would add to your last sentence: “…if we can rightly reject Rational Egoism and desire-based theories.” As Parfit points out, the argument is sound only if we can rightly reject Rational Egoism and desire-based theories. So I don’t see how anything you’ve said is inconsistent with my interpretation.

  11. Doug, you write:

    Is the point here only that for any fairly general moral principle describing some wrong-making property of acts, we should not think that this describes the only wrong-making property of acts but think that all derivative moral principles following from this more general moral principle also describe wrong-making properties of acts? Take, for instance, the principle it is wrong to cause pointless suffering. Is Parfit’s point merely that, in this case, we have to acknowledge that not only is the property of causing of pointless suffering wrong-making but so is the property of pointlessly causing severe burns to non-anaesthetized sentient creatures?

    I took the point to be that we can “truly claim” that what makes some act wrong is that it’s a lying promise, and that we can also truly claim that what makes that act wrong is that its property of being a lying promise makes it an act that violates some non-rejectable principle.

  12. Not sure. ‘Pointlessly’ just seems to be an implicit way of referring to the idea that there are no justifying considerations for this case of harming a loved one, and for that reason the act is worse. Thus, contractualism does not seem to irrelevant but capturing something wrong-making.

  13. Doug: Now that I’m re-reading these passages at the end, I’m struck by how Parfit repeats the phrase I used in the last comment, about how both kinds of facts (facts about lower-level properties and facts about contractualist properties) “can all be truly claimed to make these acts wrong” (222). So once again, this indicates that neither category of wrong-making properties is fundamental, or, in your words, “derivative.”

  14. Jussi,
    You write,

    Not sure. ‘Pointlessly’ just seems to be an implicit way of referring to the idea that there are no justifying considerations for this case of harming a loved one, and for that reason the act is worse.

    Of course, you’re right that using the adverb ‘pointlessly’ is just a way of stipulating the absence of justifying considerations. But note that it’s not wrong to pointlessly wave one’s hands in the air when you’re alone. Some sorts of actions require justification and some don’t. The ultimate reason causing harm requires justification seems to me to be that it is bad, not that it might potentially conflict with principles that no one could reasonably reject. I have the same intuition when it comes to the Divine Command Theory (DCT). Of course, Parfit can claim that DCTist can hold that pointlessly causing harm is also a wrong-making property. Nevertheless, for the DCTist, it’s a wrong-making property only because God wills that we not act in this way. But, intuitively speaking, DCT’s account of the ultimate wrong-making property is implausible, and thus the DCTist gives the incorrect account of what ultimately makes pointlessly causing harm wrong. It seems to have nothing to do with what God wills. Likewise, it seems to have nothing to do with what principles people could and couldn’t reasonably reject.

  15. Dave,
    You write,

    Parfit repeats the phrase I used in the last comment, about how both kinds of facts (facts about lower-level properties and facts about contractualist properties) “can all be truly claimed to make these acts wrong” (222). So once again, this indicates that neither category of wrong-making properties is fundamental, or, in your words, “derivative.”

    I don’t follow your reasoning. We can truly claim of some act X, where X equals the act of lighting a cat on fire for the fun of it, that what makes X wrong is that it has the property of pointlessly causing severe burns to a non-anaesthetized sentient creature. And we can also truly claim that what makes X wrong is that it has the property of pointlessly causing suffering. Do you deny that we can truly make both claims? But, then, how does the fact that we can truly make both claims indicate, as you put it, that “neither category of wrong-making properties is [more] fundamental” than the other? Clearly, one is more fundamental than the other.

  16. Doug & Jussi,
    Doug writes: “In the trivial sense, the fact that X has the property of being wrong is what non-causally makes X wrong. This is weird.”
    I thought that “being wrong” is neither of the two kinds of wrong-making properties discussed by Parfit. The properties are rather the lower level property of, say, pointlessly harming someone, and the higher level property described by Scanlon’s formula (“disallowed by some principle that could not be reasonably rejected”). So “being wrong” is the ‘made’ property, not a property that ‘makes’ wrong.
    That of course still leaves Jussi’s question that what ‘in the world’ could such ‘non-causal’ making be. How about starting from the fact that nothing is just wrong without there being in principle some explanation, which refers to other properties from which wrongness “results from”, or “in virtue of which” it also has the property wrong. This much is easy to grasp, and then we just accept that this is non-causal, and ‘in the world’ 🙂

  17. Arto,
    Here’s the quote from Parfit that troubles me: “In one trivial sense, wrongness is the property that non-causally makes acts wrong.” How does the property of wrongness make wrong acts wrong anymore than the property of blueness makes blue objects blue?

  18. Doug,
    right, that is weird. Putting that to one side, that still leaves the higher and lower level properties which meaningfully can be taken to be wrong-making,
    Arto

  19. Doug: You’re right, I put that poorly. What I meant was this. Some act A has, let’s say, the property of being a lying promise (LP). One might truly claim that an act with the property LP makes that act have the different property of being wrong (W). One might also truly claim that having LP makes an act one that is disallowed by contractualist principles (DCP). And being DCP makes that act have the different property of W. So we might truly claim that A has the property of being wrong insofar as it has LP, or we might claim it’s wrong in virtue of being DCP. Neither LP nor DCP are derivative from one another, however (unlike the cat/suffering case).

  20. Dave, You write: “Neither LP nor DCP are derivative from one another.”
    Since LP and DCP are, as you define them, properties, then, yes, of course, neither is derivative of the other. But consider the following.
    Principle 1: Having LP makes an act one that is DCP.
    Principle 2: Being DCP makes an act have property of W.
    Principle 3: Having LP makes an act have the property of W.
    Can’t Principle 3 be derived from Principles 2, given Principle 1? Hence, isn’t Principle 2 more fundamental than Principle 3?
    Parfit says,

    Our claim should instead be that this formula describes a higher-level wrong-making property or fact, under which all other such properties or facts can be subsumed, or gathered.

    This suggests to me that DCP is a higher-level property under which LP is subsumed. And thus we should consider Principle 3 to be derivative or Principle 2.
    But nothing Parfit has said so far seems to show that KCF or SF correctly describes the higher-level wrong-making property that accounts for the property of pointlessly causing suffering being a wrong-making property. Indeed, I think that all ethics-by-authority-type theories (e.g., Divine Command Theory, KCF, virtue ethics, etc.) give an implausible account of what the highest-level wrong-making property is.

  21. Doug: I think part of the disagreement here is over what you mean by the relation “more fundamental than.” Just because “p” can be derived from “p & q” doesn’t render “p & q” more “fundamental” than p. And just because KCF can “gather together” all lower-level wrong-making properties doesn’t mean that it’s more fundamental than those lower-level properties. It could instead function simply as a description of what all the lower-level properties have in common. So one could still cite either the lower-level or the higher-level properties to explain some action’s wrongness.
    But at any rate, your real beef seems to be that Parfit hasn’t given you any reason to believe that “KCF or SF correctly describes the higher-level wrong-making property that accounts for the property of pointlessly causing suffering being a wrong-making property.” But what would count as satisfying your demand here?

  22. Dave, You write: “It [KCF] could instead function simply as a description of what all the lower-level properties have in common.” But if the property DCP (that of being disallowed by contractualist principles) is merely a description of what all lower-level wrong-making properties have in common, then I fail to see why we should consider it to be, itself, a wrong-making property. After all, being potentially irritating to listen to may be an accurate description of what all noise-making properties have in common, but is the property of being potentially irritating to listen to, itself, a noise-making property?
    You ask: “your real beef seems to be that Parfit hasn’t given you any reason to believe that ‘KCF or SF correctly describes the higher-level wrong-making property that accounts for the property of pointlessly causing suffering being a wrong-making property’. But what would count as satisfying your demand here?”
    Anything that seemed remotely intuitively plausible. A Kantian account seems to have some intuitive plausibility to it. Not surprisingly, a consequentialist acount seem intuitively plausible to me. But none of the authority-appealing accounts seems intuitively plausible.
    Do you find the Divine Command Theory’s account plausible? Why not? Isn’t the only answer that it just seems wrong. Ditto for SF and KCF. Or, at least, that’s how things seem to me and Glasgow and Kamm and Thomson and others.

  23. Doug,
    if the irrelevance objection is good against contractualism why isn’t it against consequentialism? Don’t consequentialists too have to say something like that an act being non-optimific (or forbidden by non-optimific principles) makes it wrong? Can’t we then make the same move of claiming that in the case of pointless harming of a loved one what makes the act wrong has nothing to do with optimality but merely the act being pointless harming of a loved one? If that point makes contractualism irrelevant why doesn’t it work against consequentialism? In fact, why wouldn’t it work against any philosophical account that tried to explain why different things make acts wrong? Wouldn’t we be left with only radical pluralism in which only different basic considerations are wrong-making as a brute fact?

  24. Jussi,
    You rightly ask, “Can’t we then make the same move of claiming that in the case of pointless harming of a loved one what makes the act wrong has nothing to do with optimality but merely the act being pointless harming of a loved one?”
    Well, yes, you could ask that. But is it implausible to suppose that what makes the act wrong is that it is so bad and that it is, indeed, worse than another available alternative you could perform instead? Take the case of torturing innocent children for fun. It seems much more plausible (a) to say that this is wrong because it fails to respect their humanity or because it is worse than some other available alternative than (b) to say that this is wrong because God forbids it or because it would not be allowed by principles that no one could reasonably reject. In the case of the latter two, the explanation seems to go the other way. Torturing innocent children is forbidden by God and disallowed by principles that no one could reasonably reject because it’s wrong, not the other way around.

  25. One thing that distinguishes DCT from the latest Parfitian version of KCF and SF is that, while God’s command is allegedly the only thing that makes something wrong on DCT, what makes something wrong on KCF and SF can truly be claimed to be certain non-contractualist properties of the acts themselves.

  26. Dave,
    Why can’t DCTist make the same move? Why can’t the DCTist say that ‘causing pointless suffering’ is a lower-level wrong-making property subsumed by the higher-level DCT?

  27. Doug,
    but now the objection just seems to be that contractualism/DCT is less plausible that Kantianism/consequentialism. You may think that even though many people’s intuitions about what is plausible differ. However, what is clear now is that we have moved on from the irrelevance objection that seemed to be a substantial objection where the crux is that torturing innocent children for fun already *really* makes the act wrong and that nothing more we would want to say about this would be irrelevant and redundant. We already know what makes it wrong.
    Also, it’s odd that you think that Kantian views are not irrelevant in this way but contractualism is. I’d thought that they would be in the same point. After all, in Scanlon, the reason for following the principles which no-one can reasonably reject just is the Kantian reason that by doing say we respect their humanity, i.e., being able to follow reasons, be rational, and so on.

  28. I can’t speak for Doug, but since he and I share roughly the same view on this, I wanted to suggest an answer to Jussi’s last question. Jussi, you wrote

    Also, it’s odd that you think that Kantian views are not irrelevant in this way but contractualism is. I’d thought that they would be in the same point. After all, in Scanlon, the reason for following the principles which no-one can reasonably reject just is the Kantian reason that by doing say we respect their humanity, i.e., being able to follow reasons, be rational, and so on.

    I think that this is actually a (charitable) interpretation of Scanlon. While he makes comments to just this effect, he also in some places (particularly the intro, if memory serves) suggests that an act’s comporting with principles that no one can reasonably reject is the ultimate reason it is permissible. That is, it doesn’t trace to some more fundamental Kantian Formula of Humanity.
    However, if it were based on FH, I would say (and I suspect Doug would agree) that then this mid-level contractualism moves into the realm of plausibility. But that gain is purchased at the cost that it’s no longer a distinctive theory. Euthyphro-style dilemmas bear on pure ethics-by-authority views, so they can avoid the dilemma by not being purely based on authority. But then they’re no longer distinctive. The adulterated contractualist (or DCT or whatever) principle is no longer an alternative to the Formula of Humanity; rather, it becomes one specification or implication of it.

  29. Jussi,
    You write, “but now the objection just seems to be that contractualism/DCT is less plausible that Kantianism/consequentialism.” But, in the end, aren’t all objections to a particular moral theory like this? The best theory is the one that is the most plausible on wide reflective equilibrium. Some theories will be less plausible than others because they have more counter-intuitive implications. Some theories will be more plausible than others because they can explain more with less theoretical apparatus. And some theories will be more plausible than others, because, considered in the abstract, they give a more intuitively plausible account of what the fundamental wrong-making features of acts are.
    As to the second part of your comment, I endorse what Josh says.

  30. Josh,
    good point. I like to be charitable to philosophers, maybe in an all too partial way.
    Doug,
    sorry to push the comparative point with regards to consequentialism. Do you really think that the property of acts of being non-optimific is a plausible candidate for the fundamental wrong-making property? Incidentally, Scanlon pushes this question in the WWOtEO with regards to not helping the victims of starvation. He says something like it doesn’t seem like to source of the bad he feels of not acting in the morally right way could be the abstract consequentialist principle but rather than that there are people starving and he is not helping. That aside, if the consequentialist principle was the fundamental wrong-making property wouldn’t most of our acts have some degree of wrongness? My typing this comment on the PEA Soup probably doesn’t go anything go best but is it wrong to some degree for that reason? Maybe, my anti-consequentialist intuitions just run too deep.

  31. Jussi,
    Yes, at the most abstract level, the idea that what I did was wrong because I could have done something else that would have made the world more like what I have decisive reasons to want the world to be like seems quite intuitive to me. Of course, if we’re act-utilitarians, we’ll have to accept that we always have decisive reasons to want the world to have as much utility as possible. And, this generates all sorts of counter-intuitive implications at the practical level. But that doesn’t mean that consequentialism’s account of the most fundamental wrong-making feature is counter-intuitive in the way that, say, DCT’s is. So act-utilitarianism is better that DCT and SF in one respect and much worse than SF in another respect (I’m not sure what DCT implies in particular cases).
    Now I guess that I should have noted that I use ‘consequentialism’ differently than Parfit does. I’m an agent-relative consequentialist. And this form of consequentialism doesn’t have the counter-intuitive implications that worry you. Agent-relative consequentialism seems better than SF in at least one respect and no worse with respect to having intuitive practical implications.

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