(This marks the fifth of eleven “meetings” of our virtual reading group on Derek Parfit’s Climbing the Mountain—see here for further details. Next week, we will discuss Chapter 7 of the June 7th version of the manuscript, which can be found here.)
In his Formula of Humanity, Kant tells us that “every rational being…must always be regarded as an end…and is an object of respect.” But, as Parfit points out, this requirement to respect all persons doesn’t tell us how we ought to act. In the narrow sense of ‘respect’ (where only acts such as those that are degrading, defamatory, or contemptuous count as being incompatible with respecting persons), we can act wrongly without treating people in ways that are incompatible with respect for them. “But Kant’s formula is intended to cover all wrong acts” (p. 117). So, Kant must have the in the wider sense of ‘respect’ in mind, where all wrong acts are necessarily incompatible with respect for persons. But, in this wider sense, Kant’s requirement to respect all persons tells us only that we must not act wrongly, which isn’t useful or informative.
Perhaps, though, Kant’s claim that rational beings must be treated as ends and that such beings have a kind of supreme value that Kant calls “dignity” is more informative. There are, Parfit claims, two kinds of value. “Some things have a kind of value that is to be promoted. Possible acts and other events [broadly construed to include whatever we can effect: acts, outcomes, processes, states of affairs, etc.] are in this way good when there are facts about them that give us reasons to make them actual” (p. 7). Other things, by contrast, have a kind of value that is to be respected, e.g., persons, our nation’s flag, and the oldest living tree. “Since these things are not events, we cannot want them to happen, or make them happen. But we can respond to them in other ways” (p. 121). We can, for instance, have reasons to treat them in respectful ways. Parfit agrees with Kant that persons have this second kind of value and thus are to be respected rather than promoted. This is what Kant means when he claims that persons have dignity rather than price. Parfit argues, though, that “we are not morally required to respect the value of anyone’s life in ways that conflict with this person’s well-being and autonomy” (p. 7), for it is not human life but the persons who live these lives that have the kind of value that is to be respected. Thus Parfit concludes that neither committing suicide nor assisting suicide need be the sort of act that fails to respect the value of persons.
Interestingly, although Parfit rejects the teleological conception of value (holding that it is not only events, but also certain things—e.g., persons—that are good in themselves), Parfit does endorse the teleological conception of reasons for action, for he endorses what he calls “the 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” (p. 120). So although we have reasons to respond to things with the kind of value that is to be respected by acting in respectful ways toward them, the explanation for why we have these reasons to so act is teleological: such acts are themselves good ends, and the value of such acts is of the kind that is to be promoted/effected.
In the last section of the chapter, Parfit clarifies what Kant means by his claim that “humanity” has dignity. Although some of Kant’s remarks about humanity suggest that he is thereby claiming that non-moral rationality has supreme value, we should interpret Kant to be making the following, different, and much more plausible, claim: “all rational beings have a kind of value that is to be respected rather than promoted” (p. 127). This value is a kind of moral status or standing. Thus Kant believes, not that all rational beings are good, but that they all have the same moral standing. “But, for the idea of moral status to be theoretically useful, it needs to draw some distinction, by singling out, among the members of some wider group, those who meet some further condition” (p. 127). Kant, unfortunately, fails to draw any useful distinction, or so Parfit claims.
It seems, then, that, as with the last chapter, we haven’t made much progress in answering the question: “What ought we morally to do?” We’ve learned from this chapter that we ought to respect persons, but this, we found, isn’t of much help in figuring out what we morally ought to do. Ultimately, Parfit wants to know if we ever have most reason to do what’s wrong. But so far we haven’t made much headway in determining what we morally ought, or ought not, to do.