Monday, 17 October 2011

Parfit, Humanity and Consent (IV)

After perusing the various drafts that went into the making of Parfit's account of consent in On What Matters, most recently in the pre-publication version, I want, in this posting, to simply lay out the structure and general content of Chapter 8 of volume 1, ostensibly concerned with the topic of "possible consent". When you look at the chapter as a whole and break down the movement of its argument there are some straightforwardly surprising characteristics of it.

So, for example, the Chapter opens, as the earlier drafts did, with a description of Kant's formula of humanity and, in particular, with the way that this formula is related to the discussion of false promising. It is by means of this connection that Parfit is enabled to focus less on the sense of Kant's formula itself as on the apparent reference to treating people in ways to which they could not possibly consent though the latter reference appears only in connection with this example of false promising and not when the three other  examples to which the formula is related are discussed. 

It is by means of this account of consent in the treatment of false promising that Parfit describes and criticises views of Christine Korsgaard and Onora O'Neill who, in being treated in such a concise manner, certainly have cause for complaint of Parfit's compressed conception of their readings. The point of Parfit's first section in this chapter is, however, not primarily one that arises from exegetical concerns. It is rather to stress problems with viewing the wrongness of coercion to lie mainly in the claim that it makes consent impossible since, as he correctly points out, certain types of coercion are precisely not generally regarded as wrong despite clearly being seen as examples of coercion. Hence when we object to coercion, it would seem, there is a ground for this objection that does not rest simply on its being coercion that is being exercised.

The second section of the chapter moves to clarify this point by focusing on what it is about consent that matters to moral claims on its behalf. Here Parfit repeats the claim of his earlier drafts that the wrong-making character of appeals to consent cannot reside, as some remarks of Korsgaard and O'Neill might lead us to think, on appeal to the "Choice-giving principle" that states simply that it is wrong not to give other people the power to choose how we shall treat them. Such a naive principle is, indeed, one that it would be hoped should not arise from any kind of careful Kantian thought since it would appear that, on its ground, we should simply, for example, buy anything that someone wants to sell to us. By contrast to this principle Parfit instead emphasises what he terms the "Consent principle" which states that it is wrong to treat people in ways to which they could not "rationally consent". This emphasis on "rational consent" does have the potential problem that it appears to build quite a bit of normativity into the general notion of reason but Parfit does not appear to follow Kant in understanding this to be a reference to the "end of acts". 

Parfit presents Kant's point in the following way: "Kant must mean that, when we are choosing how we shall treat other people, we ought always to act with some aim that these people would be able to share" (181). But this "being able to share" that Parfit refers to here is not simply a way of stating the conceivability of a shared end as it rather requires the rationality of this end to be acceptable to others. However, this rationality is not understood here by reference simply to the "end of acts" because this would not in itself include discussion of the means by which ends can be achieved. That Kant's account does, however, include some constraint on this is clear enough when we remember that the Formula of Humanity involves reference to treating others as ends in themselves but this part of the Formula is not included in the chapter in question as Parfit has, for the purposes of the argument of this chapter, deliberately foreshortened the formula.

The third section of the chapter concerns reasons to give consent and here Parfit dismisses Rawls' attempt to view the "Consent Principle" in terms derived from Kant's Formula of Universal Law. Oddly enough, however, one of Parfit's reasons for dismissing this view of Rawls appears to consist in the simple assertion that Kant was inconsistent! It is usual, in interpreting philosophers, not to adopt this view unless it is absolutely necessary to make the best of their positions but here Parfit seems to assume it rather breathtakingly easily. More importantly, in this section, Parfit fills out his understanding of consent by suggesting that it is consent in the act-affecting sense that Kant means and, further, this consent has to be understood as "informed". These additions lead Parfit to refine the "Consent Principle" and he then adds some conditions on its acceptability as he takes it to be the case that it should not require us to act in ways we normally condemn and nor should it rule out too many acts we usually assume to be required.

The fourth section of the chapter then proceeds to defend the "Consent Principle" from the charge that it is superfluous. In replying to this objection Parfit argues that there are two general aims a moral principle can have, firstly, that they provide a reliable criterion of wrongness by showing that acts of a certain kind are wrong and, secondly, they can be explanatory, describing one of the reasons why wrong acts can be said to be wrong. After enumerating these points Parfit goes on to claim that the Consent Principle, if correct, offers more than a reliable criterion of wrongness (and is thus explanatory). 

The fifth section of the chapter moves on to discussing "actual" consent pointing out, by using the example of rape, that reference to it is often crucial for us in determining the wrongness of acts. This section is surprisingly long and after agreeing with the need to include reference, in some sense, to "actual" consent, Parfit moves on to look at the objection that it is possible that the Consent Principle concedes too much to actual consent. In considering this objection Parfit is, in a sense, reprising the objections to Korsgaard and O'Neill with which he began his argument in the chapter except that now he saddles them with what he terms a "Veto Principle" as opposed to the absolute objection to coercion and deception he opened by presenting them as having. Just as the "Choice-giving" principle that led to such absolute positions was earlier exposed as false so now is this "veto principle" similarly rejected and it is argued that the Consent Principle need not imply the Veto principle which would give others the automatic right to object to anything to which they either do not or would in fact refuse consent. 

It is useful, despite the repetition it involves, that Parfit does discuss the "Veto Principle". It is useful because, until this point, he has not clarified sufficiently his earlier statement to the effect that coercion is not, despite appearances to the contrary, necessarily wrong. In amplifying now Parfit discusses the notion of "irreversible" consent. It is frequently not possible to give irreversible consent but we can give such consent to things that we might later regret having consented to without it being irrational that we have nonetheless given this "irreversible" consent. So, for example, the inevitable pain that might come from certain kinds of operation might well, during the experience of its being undergone, lead us to regret having consented to the operation without this making it irrational that we in fact gave "irreversible" consent earlier.

Parfit's next move is to replace the "Veto Principle" with appeal to what he terms the "Rights Principle" which instead claims that everyone has rights not to be treated in certain ways without their actual consent. So there are certain kinds of act that would be veto-covered as the earlier principle intended but which kinds of act might well be difficult to determine given the rebuttability of many claims. However Parfit does argue that the opportunity to refuse consent does arise from the Rights Principle.  But there is a restriction on the application of this Rights Principle since the opportunity to refuse consent "must be given by people who have sufficient understanding of the relevant facts". So it does not apply to infants, the mentally ill or those under the influence of seriously distorting drugs (including being drunk, a rather problematic exclusion I think). Further Parfit also attenuates the application of the principle by stating that influences distort judgments in various degrees with the result that decisions made under some types of influence may not be entirely over-ruled but can be given less weight (a provision that would require much care).

These points also lead to Parfit bringing in temporal considerations for the first time since he argues that present consent matters more than past consent which, in its turn, matter more than retroactive endorsement. The basis of this present bias is, however, simply grounded on the reference of present beliefs to acceptance of truth since we act on the assumption at present that the beliefs we have now are true. 

The penultimate section of the chapter concerns deontic beliefs which are introduced in order to discuss the sense that wrong-making characteristics do not only arise from reference to consent. Some acts, in principle, could be wrong even though there was general rational consent to them suggests Parfit (which partly defuses the earlier sense that quite a bit of normativity was built in to his sense of "reason"). Included here, for Parfit, would be voluntary euthanasia, cruelty to animals, and, potentially, suicide (interestingly, the last of these is the first example Kant gives of application of the Formula of Humanity). So we have beliefs about wrong-making characteristics being involved with certain types of act regardless of reference to consent in relation to them. The beliefs that are so held are described by Parfit as 'deontic' reasons. Having said this, it is less than obvious that this section provides a way of dealing with such claims seriously.

The final section of the chapter looks at extreme demands that might be thought to arise from the Consent Principle which repeats the problem about the intuitive acceptability of principles that Parfit made earlier in the chapter. Here Parfit considers a revision to the Consent Principle that might be thought to be needed to prevent it from demanding too much of us which brings in reference to not requiring that we bear too great a burden (though Parfit does not specify clearly enough how to understand what "too great" would be). Finally, Parfit is aware of the fact that the Formula of Humanity has only been partially treated in this chapter and indicates the need to treat, in the following chapter, the reference to not treating others merely as a means. However, whilst this recognition is good, it is odd to have Kant named again at the end of the chapter when he has been missing from it for a considerable number of sections and when the focus on consent in general has not been systematically justified as a correct response to his general argument in terms of the discussion of humanity. It is, after all, only with regard to one example out of four when discussing the formula of humanity that Kant even refers to consent. So the suggestion that "half" the sense of the formula has been caught in the chapter is certainly peculiar.

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