This marks the 3rd 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 5 of the latest version of the manuscript–the June 7th version–which can be found here.
Recall that, according to Parfit, one of the most practically significant questions in ethics is (1).
(1) Can we often have most, or decisive, reason to act wrongly?
For if it turns out that we often have decisive reason to act wrongly, morality would, according to Parfit, lose much of its practical significance. Answering (1), however, requires answering (2) and (3) for any given decision.
(2) What ought we to do?
(3) What have we most reason to do?
At this point in the manuscript, Parfit has made what he thinks is sufficient progress into answering (3). The remainder of the manuscript is devoted to answering (2). Chapter 4, "Possible Consent," offers and defends one criterion of wrongness. Since, for Parfit, an act is right iff it is not wrong, the criterion doubles as a criterion of rightness.
Parfit’s calls his criterion the "Principle of Possible Rational Consent," or the "Consent Principle" for short. Fully stated, the principle is the following:
Consent Principle: It is wrong to treat people in any way to which they could not rationally consent in the act-affecting sense, if these people knew the relevant facts, and we gave them the power to choose how we treat them (p. 82).
People can "consent in the act-affecting sense," only if they know that those to whom they are giving consent will treat them in some way only if they consent (p. 79). If people know all the relevant facts, they can rationally give such consent to some act if they would have sufficient reason to act that way, i.e., if they would have reasons to act that way which are no weaker than any reasons that they may have to act in any other possible way (p. 83). Parfit thinks that the Consent Principle is the accurate gloss on one part of Kant’s Formula of Humanity: treat all rational beings, or persons, never merely as a means, but always as ends (pp. 77-81).
The Consent Principle is an acceptable criterion of rightness if it is in itself plausible and has plausible implications. (I take it that Parfit thinks the criterion must also not have many implausible implications.) One might think that the Consent Principle is implausible on the grounds that it conflicts with two other plausible theses:
(4) Some desire-based theory of reasons is true;
(5) Our intuitive reaction to the Earthquake thought experiment (p. 83) informs us that we are morally required to save Blue’s life even at the expense of failing to save Grey’s leg.
For, if we assume (4), Grey could not rationally consent to our failing to save her leg, and thus the Consent Principle must be false. However, Parfit has a strong defense from this objection, because he has already rejected (4) (and hence, does not need to reject the Principle) and provided a plausible argument in favor of a wide value-based theory (Chapters 1-3). Moreover, if we adopt a wide value-based theory, and if we accept the plausible "unanimity condition" (6), which implies (7), we have a good argument (pp. 85-86) in favor of the Consent Principle.
(6) There is always at least one possible act to which everyone would have sufficient reasons to consent
(7) Whenever someone could not rationally consent to one act, there must be some facts that give this person decisive reasons to refuse to consent to it. These facts provide moral objections to this act.
(8) These objections must be stronger than the objections to any possible act, or acts, to which everyone could rationally consent.
(9) Whenever there are stronger moral objections to one of two acts, this act is wrong
Consent Principle (abridged): It is wrong to act in any way to which anyone could not rationally consent
Thus, the Consent Principle is in itself plausible. The Principle also has plausible implications, since it accurately predicts our intuitive reactions to some Earthquake and Lifeboat thought experiments (pp. 83-85), and since it prohibits many acts that are most clearly wrong, e.g. "killing, injuring, coercing, deceiving, stealing, and promise-breaking," acts many of which "treat people in ways to which they would not have sufficient reasons to consent" (p. 86).
Parfit spends the remainder of the chapter defending the Consent Principle from four possible objections.
Objection 1: Though the Consent Principle may be a reliable criterion of wrongness (and, hence, rightness), it fails to explain what makes acts wrong and is, therefore, superfluous. According to this objection, what is morally important is not the fact that people could not rationally consent to some act, but the facts that give people decisive reasons for failing to consent. Thus, although the Consent Principle may be a reliable criterion of wrongness, it fails to describe a fact that explains the wrongness of acts. The Principle is therefore superfluous. Parfit concedes that the Consent Principle may not always explain what makes an act wrong, but it often can, especially when a choice must be made between many acts that would affect many people. In such cases, there may often be only one possible act to which everyone could rationally consent, and this fact might give us decisive reason to act this way. If so, this fact would help to explain why the other possible acts would be wrong. Thus, the Consent Principle is not always superfluous.
Objection 2: The Consent Principle, together with plausible principle (10), implies the obviously false Veto Principle; therefore, the Consent Principle is itself false.
Consent Principle: It is wrong to treat people in any way to which they could not rationally consent.
(10) No one could rationally consent to being treated in any way to which they either do or would refuse consent.
Veto Principle: It is wrong to treat people in any way to which they either do or would refuse consent.
Parfit provides a variation of the Earthquake thought experiment (p. 90) to show that (10) is actually false. What is significant in this variation of the thought experiment is that Grey (i) has some reason to give irreversible consent, thereby restricting her future freedom, and (ii) Grey does not later learn facts that might have given her decisive reasons to regret that she gave her irreversible consent. According to Parfit, similar conditions are often met, and so (10) is false: it is possible to give one’s rational consent to being treated in a way to which one either does or would refuse consent. Thus, we have no reason as of yet to reject the Consent Principle.
I don’t think I completely understand the third possible objection. I think it’s something like the following.
Objection 3: There is no adequate explanation of why the Consent Principle does not sometimes require that people perform wrong acts; therefore the Principle ought to be rejected. The Consent Principle supplies only a sufficient condition for an act’s being wrong. Thus, some acts may be wrong for reasons other than that someone could not rationally consent to them. And Parfit argues that the Consent Principle could never require such acts:
(11) The Consent Principle requires some act only when one or more people would not have sufficient reasons to consent to our failing to act in this way.
(12) If some act would be wrong for other reasons, this act’s wrongness would give everyone a sufficient reason to consent to our failing to act in this way
(13) Therefore, the Consent Principle could never require acts that are wrong for other reasons.
Notice, however, that in trying to argue for/explain (13), i.e., in trying to explain why the Consent Principle does not sometimes require that people perform wrong acts, (12) appeals to the wrongness of acts. The explanation is therefore circular. Hence, we do not have an adequate explanation of why the Consent Principle does not sometimes mistakenly require wrong acts, and the Principle should therefore be rejected. Another way to see this point is to imagine the following conversation:
A: Everyone has a sufficient reason to consent to our failing to φ, so φ-ing is wrong.
B: What is this sufficient reason that everyone has?
A: The sufficient reason is that φ-ing is wrong.
B: You have just "explained" that φ-ing is wrong by saying that φ-ing is wrong. This is circular. So, you haven’t really provided an adequate explanation.
Assuming I’ve got the objection right, I think Parfit responds as follows: in saying that the fact that φ-ing is wrong gives everyone a sufficient reason to consent to our failing to φ, I am not saying that the fact that φ-ing is wrong is the reason that φ-ing is wrong—it is wrong for other reasons; the fact that it is wrong is what gives everyone sufficient reason to consent to our failing to φ, though this is not, in this case, what makes φ-ing wrong. Again, I’m not sure I fully get this, so please feel free to help me understand better the material in this passage (section 14).
Objection 4: The Consent Principle is too demanding and, therefore, should be rejected. Parfit replies that the Principle may indeed be very demanding. He’s not sure that it is too demanding, but if it is, he thinks we can just revise it as follows:
Consent Principle 3: It is wrong for us to treat people in any way to which they would not have sufficient reason to consent, except when, to avoid such an act, we would have to bear too great a burden.
It may be difficult at times determining what is "too great a burden." Parfit suggests, I think, that at such times we will have to rely on good judgment (p. 97).
So, to wrap up: Parfit comes into Chapter 4 having made some progress in determining what we have most reason to do for any given decision, and begins, in this chapter, to determine what we ought to do for any given decision. He proposes a sufficient condition for an act’s being wrong, which he calls the Consent Principle. The Consent Principle, Parfit thinks, is a reliable criterion of, and sometimes an explanation of, wrongness. The Principle is plausible in itself, has plausible implications, and can be defended from a number of objections.
Like last week, I’ll let the précis serve as the means of opening up the discussion, rather than providing a long list of questions. Obviously, though, the main question I need answered is whether I’ve accurately understood what is going on in Section 14. I’m looking forward to reading your comments and questions. I’ll be traveling to
over the next couple of days, but I’ll make sure I check in and contribute when I have the opportunity.