Skorupski on Impartiality In the preface to his

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Skorupski on Impartiality

In the preface to his English-Language Philosophy 1750 to 1945, John Skorupski says: “This is a philosopher’s, not a historian’s, history.... I have been more opinionated than a historian of ideas would care to be, and much more selective. I tell the story from a present philosophical vantage point, without forswearing hindsight.”1 The paper he has presented to us is in the same mode. For instance, he discusses Kant, Mill and Sidgwick in terms none of them used or knew, such as “agent relative” and “agent neutral”. We might call this a “time-neutral” way of writing history of philosophy. I prefer another way, but I don’t intend to quarrel about that matter here.

In a number of papers, Skorupski has argued for a non-relativistic pluralism of principles and goods. He has also tried to show how normativity can be explained in naturalistic terms. In the present lecture he takes impartiality as a case to support both of these systematic points, using Kant and Mill, advocates of single-principle ethics, to illustrate his position.

Impartiality, Skorupski says, requires that “everyone, or everyone’s interests... count positively and count equally.”(2) Kant and Mill each think that a principle of impartiality can be derived from or is included in their own basic principle - the moral law or the utilitarian principle. Skorupski first denies that either philosopher can obtain a principle of impartiality in this way. If that’s right, it helps his claim that impartiality requires what he calls an epistemological basis of its own. Its justification can’t be piggybacked on whatever justification there is for the moral law or the utilitarian principle.2

Second, Skorupski turns “to examine what epistemological defense Kant and Mill can give of their respective impartial principles.” (2) He argues for the surprising - I’d say astonishing - view that the two of them have “a similar idea as to the epistemic basis of pure practical reason.” (3) More precisely, he thinks that Kant and Mill appeal to the very same “epistemological basis for impartiality”. Skorupski says this is his “main point.” (13) I’ll begin with his first claim, that neither Kant nor Mill can derive a principle of impartiality from their basic principle of pure practical reason.


Skorupski says that Sidgwick’s “critical point” is where he’ll start. He’s not very explicit about just what that point is. Against Mill, Sidgwick points out that “there may be many different ways of distributing the same quantum of happiness among the same number of persons.” So we need to ask what is the best distribution. The utilitarian formula itself gives no answer. Most utilitarians accept Bentham’s formula: “everyone to count for one, and nobody for more than one.” This, Sidgwick says, is “the only one which does not need a special justification,” because as the Kantian requirement of universalizability shows, “it must be reasonable to treat any one man in the same way as any other, if there be no reason apparent for treating him differently.” 3 So Sidgwick thinks that a separate principle of impartiality can join utilitarianism, via universalizability. Skorupski ignores this argument. But it would not convince him.

Against Kant, Sidgwick says that universalizability gives a necessary condition of the rightness of maxims but not a sufficient condition. A maxim that passes the test “may after all be wrong.” (ME 209-10) This does not seem to bear especially on impartiality. What does bear on it is the principle of rational egoism. Sidgwick famously defends this principle. I think that the defensibility of egoism must be the Sidgwickian objection to both Kant and Mill that Skorupski has in mind. Unlike the categorical imperative and the utilitarian principle, the egoist’s principle is agent-relative. Nonetheless, Skorupski claims, the egoist’s “reasons and ends” are “just as universalizable as the Kantian’s.” So “we cannot get from universality to impartiality by analysis alone.” (4).

Skorupski works through various possible Kantian replies to the egoist and claims that they all fail. I am not going to engage with this new effort to show that the categorical imperative does not yield what we need for morality. I want instead to look at Skorupski’s formulation of egoism, which is a bit different from Sidgwick’s.

Sidgwick says that the egoist must claim only that “he ought to take his own happiness ... as his ultimate end”. He must not claim that “his happiness is Good, not only for him, but from the point of view of the universe.” (ME420) If he does that he is open to rational argument to move him to utilitarianism. Skorupski says:

Rational egoists follow the maxim “Always do the action that is best for you.” They readily acknowledge the universality of that principle: everyone should always do the action that is best for them. (4)

Now how are we to understand the universality of the principle here? Does Skorupski’s egoist flout Sidgwick’s warning about not claiming that his own end is good simpliciter? If so he would be making an agent-neutral claim about his own good. (ME 420-1) So this can’t be how Skorupski thinks egoism is to be universalized.

In Skorupski’s formulation, the egoist’s maxim is not the same as his principle. In the principle the egoist says that everyone should always do the action that is best for them. In his remarks on Sidgwick’s intuitionism (16) Skorupski stresses that practical reason yields not theoretical insights but principles calling for and directing action. What actions does the egoist’s principle dictate? Must he, for instance, advise or help others to do what’s best for them even if it harms him? If so, his principle seems to be in conflict with his maxim. I would welcome a fuller account of just how the egoist’s maxim is universalizable and how the egoist can accept and act on a universalized form of it. Lacking this it will look as if no universalizable egoistic principle is available to argue against Kant and Mill that impartiality requires a separately justified basic principle.


I turn now to what Skorupski says is his major claim, that there is an “epistemological basis for impartiality” that is “equally available ... to both Kant and Mill.”

(13) Consideration of Sidgwick’s objections to them requires, he says, “significant restatement” of both their positions. And “the required reformulation must lead both of them to a similar idea as to the epistemic basis of pure practical reason.” (3)

Skorupski starts from Mill’s famous claim that people’s actual desires provide the only evidence there can be that something is desirable. Mill makes no appeal to intuition (nor does Kant). His view is that “actual affective dispositions” that are “spontaneous and resilient, and cannot be reduced to others” provide the “evidence” for “what there is reason to feel - to desire, to admire, to disdain, and so forth.” (8) Mill makes a similar point about what there is reason to believe. That in the end comes down to “our spontaneous, resilient, irreducible dispositions to believe” on inductive grounds. “In general”, Skorupski says,

on Mill’s showing the epistemic basis for normative claims is nothing other than such dispositions. The work that epistemology can do consists solely in criticism of our dispositions, with a view to identifying which ones really are spontaneous, resilient, and irreducible. (9)

Mill holds that the utility principle - which is the principle of all practical reason - is agent-neutral. Now even if the agent-neutrality of the principle requires its own justification, Mill can provide one. We have the pertinent kind of permanent disposition; but it is not a disposition of feeling or desire, because “we have no such impartial dispositions of feeling or desire.” Mill must appeal to “the spontaneous dispositions of the will.” Skorupski reminds us here that Mill goes to some pains to show how according to his own associationist psychology will can evolve into an “active phenomenon” that is independent of the desires in which it originates. Skorupski then uses his own “green button- red button” example to make his point. Suppose we are told that if we push green buttons on a gadget, we will help unknown others to their unknown ends, while if we push red buttons we will hinder them. Skorupski thinks that we would all choose to push all the green buttons. This shows that the will has a spontaneous disposition toward impartial beneficence. We would also think that this choice is “an apt, appropriate, reasonable thing”. This disposition of the will is not tied to any particular feelings. It is “spontaneous, unconditioned, and disinterested.” (12) And it entitles Mill to think that the agent-neutrality - the impartiality - of the utilitarian principle has its own special justification. (13-14)4

I pass over questions about whether will as a “phenomenon” that can only be produced after much time and education can be or do anything really spontaneous. And I will not ask how well all this works as an expansion of Mill’s notorious argument in support of his basic principle. I ask only whether Skorupski is successful in stuffing Kant into the same basket with Mill about the basis for a principle of impartiality. He admits that neither of them “exactly comes clean” about appealing to this basis. (15) I think that Kant would and could have nothing to do with it. There are two kinds of reasons why.

First, there are texts that oppose Skorupski’s claim. There are two places where Kant does come clean about what he thinks is the basis for the moral law. Skorupski discusses neither. One is in Part III of the Groundwork, the other is in the second Critique. In the former Kant says that we must take ourselves to be free in accepting reasons for doing as well as for believing. If we think we are free then we take ourselves to be under the moral law. In the other he does not use this argument. He appeals instead to the “Fact of Reason”, which he takes to be our direct but non-intuitive consciousness of the moral law (5.31).5 In neither place does he try to justify the moral law by appeal to a separate disposition to impartiality in the will.

In the second Critique, his argument, in fact, goes the other way. We know we have obligations that bind us regardless of our desires. We can infer from this that we are able to do as we are required. And this entails, among other things, that we always have a sufficient motive to do so. This is how we get the practical knowledge that there must be in the will a standing disposition (as Skorupski puts it) to obey the moral law

In neither argument does Kant say that a motivating disposition in the will grounds the moral law. In the second argument we infer the motivating disposition in the will from the awareness of the moral law, not the other way around. If Kant knew Hume’s argument in Book III of the Treatise, he might here be seen as setting himself in direct opposition to it. In that Book Hume argues that we can only call any sort of behavior a virtue after we know that agents have settled motives of which we approve to act in the way the virtue directs. As a slogan: Hume goes from motive to morals, Kant from morals to motive. Mill may well join Hume; Kant won’t.

Second, another part of Kant’s over-all position works against Skorupski’s claim. Skorupski says that for Kant “knowledge of pure practical principles ... is founded on the spontaneous dispositions of the will.” (10) But at the epistemic level, which is what he is discussing, we have, for Kant, no immediate knowledge of the will. The will is noumenal, not phenomenal.

Skorupski objects to just this point. Kant, he says, “puts his good distinction between feeling and will into the distorting framework of transcendental idealism.” (11) If we drop that framework, we might look to the empirical will, as Mill does, for a spontaneous and irreducible disposition to impartiality. But if we try to have Kant make this move, we run into a serious difficulty.

The difficulty comes from Kant’s view of radical evil. Kant thinks that humans have by nature a propensity to moral evil. It does not consists in our fragility, or what now would be called our weakness of will, nor in our impurity, or our tendency to need non-moral along with the moral motivation to get us to do what we ought. It consists in depravity. We tend to adopt maxims that “subordinate the incentives of the moral law to others (not moral ones)”. Even if we act in a legally correct way, the mind’s attitude is “corrupted at its root.” (6:29-30) The evidence that we have made the choice to subordinate moral to nonmoral maxims is empirical. Kant lists several disagreeable facts about us in support of the claim. He then explains that “even though the existence of this propensity to evil can be established through experiential demonstrations” those do not show its real nature. That has to be considered to be a free noumenal choice. Otherwise we would not be blameworthy for our condition. (6.32-37)

Confronted with Skorupski’s “green button/red button” question, the radically evil agent might well say: “What’s that to me? I don’t care.” The only will that has a reliable standing disposition to impartiality, for Kant, is the noumenal will. Rule it out, and Kant would say that Skorupski’s kind of epistemic basis for impartiality doesn’t have a chance. Kant thinks people are in fact just not very nice. The disposition to evil is resilient and irreducible. It comes from a free choice, so I suppose Kant thinks it is spontaneous. On the empirical evidence, egoism, not impartiality, emerges from a Skorupski-style argument.

I have raised a question about the argument Skorupski gives here for the plurality of basic principles. And I have argued that one of the historical figures whom he tries here to enroll on the side of naturalism is simply not available. Despite my cavils, I am sympathetic to both of Skorupski’s larger goals. In discussing this rich presentation we should keep its systematic aims in mind.

J. B. Schneewind

Philosophy Dept., NYU


11. English-Language Philosophy 1750 to 1945, p. vii

22. “I think a fundamental - i.e. underived - principle of impartiality is indispensable in our ethical thought.” John Skorupski, “Green and the Idealist Conception of a Person’s Good” in Maria Dimova-Cooks on and W. J. Mander, eds., T. H Green Ethics, Metaphysics, and Political Philosophy, Oxford University Press 2006, p. 51.

33. Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics 7th ed., pp 416-17. References hereafter to ME in text.

44. Skorupski’s own view is built around such ideas. See his “Reasons and Reason” in his Ethical Explorations, Oxford University Press , 1999 He describes his view as “cognitivism without realism.”

55. All references to Kant’s works are to the Akademie Ausgabe by volume and page number.

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