Thursday, 15 September 2011

Parfit, Humanity and Consent

The second part of the first volume of  On What Matters is derived from the earliest core of the project since the discussions here invoke the Tanner Lectures Parfit gave in 2002. As a consequence, I think it is useful to open a discussion of the specific ways in which Parfit mobilises arguments at different stages of the composition of On What Matters. In this posting I'm going to begin looking at the first of the original Tanner Lectures which is headlined "Rational Consent" and whose purpose is mirrored in Chapters 8-11 of On What Matters.

A central reason why this discussion is of particular interest to readers of this blog is that Parfit opens the first Tanner Lecture with a statement of Kant's formula of humanity and the subsequent discussion concerns different types of interpretation of it. However, what is picked out by Parfit's discussion is not something specifically stated by Kant in the formula but an implication that is drawn from it. This implication concerns an important sense in which we could be said to treat people as ends-in-themselves.This is that we should act towards them in such a way that our conduct is one that could meet their possible consent.

The immediate rationale for Parfit's passing from the formula of humanity to this question of possible consent concerns the way the formula of humanity is applied to the four examples Kant considers in the second part of the Groundwork. In ruling out lying promises Kant refers to the fact that if I make a lying promise I am treating someone merely as a means and not also as ends in themselves because "the one I want to use for my purposes by such a promise cannot possibly agree to my way of proceeding with him and thus himself contain the end of this action" (Ak. 4: 429-30). It is due to the fact that the one to whom the lying promise would be made could not consent to this promise as it would conflict with ends they had themselves that it is clearly wrong to make such a promise.

After using this example to make the transition from the formula of humanity to a question about possible consent Parfit subsequently cites some contemporary Kantian views about the rationale for Kant making the kind of claim he does about the lying promise case. The first cited is Christine Korsgaard. Korsgaard, in her paper on lying, included in Creating the Kingdom of Ends points to the strength of Kant's argument in the lying promises case since he stresses that there is something "impossible" about the one affected being able to consent with the purposes I would have in view in making the lying promise. Korsgaard turns to an evaluation of what it is in the situation that makes it "impossible" for the one affected to consent and she stresses in doing so that the one affected has "no chance" to consent. What she appears to mean by this is that the affected party has no way of consenting as they do not know what it is that they are being asked to consent to. This leads her to say: "knowledge of what is going on and some power over the proceedings are the conditions of possible assent; without these, the concept of assent does not apply".

Parfit also cites Onora O'Neill as adopting a view of a similar sort since she also says that deception rules out genuine consent though, in the citation from her Parfit gives, less is here indicated as to why this would be. Finally, Parfit derives from Korsgaard a comparison of deception with coercion as fundamental moral evils, clearly due to the suggestion she has made that deception is, in a sense, a form of coercion as it manipulates the other for one's own ends.

When the full argument is drawn out in this way, however, then it certainly appears, as Parfit indicates, as if something must have gone wrong somewhere since the mere actual absence of consent is not evidently sufficient to make an action wrong. So operating on someone without their consent (as they are too ill to give it) is not obviously wrong and, similarly, I can make a decision for someone who I am unable to contact that may well not be wrong simply because they have failed to consent to my making it. So the argument concerns not such actual consent but only some form of conceivable or possible consent.

Now, once the ground has moved to possible consent we seem to be getting to the rationale of Kant's argument but Parfit introduces now a complication by means of the thought experiment he calls "deadly knowledge". In this thought experiment I know someone is a murderer but, if I don't lie to you about this, your knowledge that they are the murderer will leave you vulnerable to also being murdered since you know this person and would not be able to conceal your knowledge of their status. Parfit suggests that this case is importantly analogous to the ones already considered where we did not take actual consent to be the key to characterising the moral quality of the action.

Not only does Parfit make this case but he indicates that the situation is importantly similar with regard to coercion as I can agree to be coerced to do something that I regard as good for me. So, for example, I might have to be tied down in order for some painful operation to be carried out as otherwise the pain would lead me to try to prevent the operation being carried out although consciously I am aware that it is better it is carried out. So, in a sense, I can adopt the end of being coerced here (can consent to it). In fact, although Parfit does not note this, arguments of similar form are important for Kant's philosophy of right.

So if the case of lying promises indicates a commitment on Kant's part to a view about possible consent it has to be understood in a way distinct from how Korsgaard and O'Neill have presented it. On their view the importance of consent turns on a possibility of being able to give it. This commits them to an act-affecting conception of consent which Parfit terms the "Choice-giving principle" and which he formulates as stating: "it is wrong to deny people the opportunity to choose how we treat them". Since this principle does not give us any way of dealing with cases where we are unable to communicate with others, however, Parfit refines it further so it becomes the "Veto principle" and refers then not merely to whether they could consent but whether they would if they had the opportunity.

When they are fully stated, however, as Parfit, points out, these principles in fact cover more ground than Korsgaard's statements might have led us to expect. This is so because they rule out more than just deception and coercion since when we don't tell people what it is we are going to do, simply don't tell them, we are not, at least not directly, deceiving them. Similarly, when we act without their consent, we need not be coercing them.

After making these points Parfit turns to his real target, which is to suggest the basis for viewing the interpretation of Korsgaard and O'Neill as faulty. With regard to the "Choice-giving principle" Parfit has an easier task since, if a publisher sends a book proposal to me for consideration and I recommend rejecting it, I act in a way to which you would not consent but this is insufficient to make the act I have performed wrong. This shows the weakness of the "choice-giving principle", however, since Kant was surely speaking of rational conceivability in quite a different way to such a case and that the "Choice-giving principle" can be undermined by it indicates well that it does not capture Kant's thought.

However the statement of the principles that arises from Korsgaard and O'Neill has another difficulty which is that it applies only to cases where there is a situation between two parties and not many. In the latter case I often cannot relate to the consent of all the parties in question and yet this is surely not sufficient to mark out any action performed as therefore wrong? 

It is at this point that Parfit indicates an alternative way of viewing Kant's argument to that which appears to arise from the construal of it given by Korsgaard and O'Neill. The point about the argument they have given is it points to the wrong kinds of reason why someone cannot be said to be involved in consent. It is not, as Korsgaard puts it, a question about having the opportunity to consent (which produces the "Choice-giving principle"). It is, rather, whether there are "decisive reasons" for refusing possible consent. That is why Parfit views Kant's claim as concerning a "rational consent principle" and indicating what is wrong is action to which there could be no rational consent. The lying promise case does appear to support the reference to opportunity to consent but it is only part of Kant's consideration in the Groundwork as, immediately after mentioning it, he refers also to attacks on the freedom and property of others. Such cases do not involve denial of opportunity to consent though they are cases of coercion.

Parfit also stresses the point that even the lying promise case refers to the one affected being able to contain in themselves the end of my action. This reference is assumed by him to indicate a need to discuss not merely conceivable consent but also rationally conceivable assent. However, whilst this rational consent view is certainly an improvement on the "Choice-giving" view it remains problematic since the question of how to understand rational consent has yet to be specified and one common way of viewing it would be that we could not rationally consent to anything that would be "bad" for us. However, again, when faced with multiple persons, it can be right to act in favour of one over another without having done anything wrong and even the one adversely affected by this cannot say that the simple application of this rule has wronged them. So they could give rational consent in principle to operating by a rule that had adversely affected them in application.

At this point, however, Parfit's discussion falls back upon the intentional view of reasons that was elaborated in the first part of On What Matters since he refers now to "facts that give us reasons". Not only is this true, however, but he also indicates that even were we to share this view that we still have difficulties since there are many kinds of "facts" in a situation and the relative weighting to give them is often difficult to determine. 

Parfit subsequently goes on to refine the rational consent proposal further to build in what he terms "unconditional" consent which would be something not subject to revision later. This is partly intended to rule out rape on the grounds that the rapist could state that the one raped could rationally consent to the act even if they don't "actually" consent to it! Parfit is indicating with the unconditionality clause that the absence of actual consent here is not something that can be hypothetically substituted for in the example in question.The overall effect of Parfit's argument is to suggest that the examination of the rightness of an action turns on its rationality not on its presumptive possibility of being vetoed.

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