Friday, February 01, 2008

A Contract For Mutual Abuse

One of my favourite papers in moral philosophy is Onora O'Neill's 'Between Consenting Adults'. It should be required reading for anyone claiming that Kantian ethics are somehow necessarily distanced, alienated from, the phenomenology of lived moral experience. Its argument, as such, is an attempt to reorientate our understanding of what it is to not treat someone as a means around the thought that we must act towards in ways that they could, rather than do or would, consent to, but, although its argument is persuasive and penetrating, that's not really what's wonderful about it. What's wonderful about it is its humanity, appropriately enough for a paper written on Kant's Formula of Humanity; its sense of the way in which the subject matter of moral philosophy is human vulnerability, and how sensitively that needs to be explored, how, in a sense, moral philosophy must bind itself, be aware of the damage it itself can do, of how its demands for rigour and clarity can end up distorting what is not quite messy and awkward, but certainly subtle. Once you have a hammer, you must avoid the temptation to think that everything is a nail.

It ought to be tediously familiar that I think that too much contemporary analytical moral philosophy has taken its hammer to far too many things that aren't nails. Take Parfit's Non-Identity Problem. The Non-Identity Problem roughly runs that if you came into being through an injustice, some the effects of which are currently unpleasantly impacting on your life, it looks like you cannot sensibly complain of or even be wronged by that injustice, since absent its commission, you wouldn't exist at all. This, quite apart from the way that it would deny that children born with disabilities after the Bhopal disaster were wronged by anyone, for example would on what I take to be a sensible view about personal identity, make regret about features of one's own life nonsensical. If I now am in some way causally related to my past selves, then I can hardly regret their actions, since they produced me now and I would not be me now if they had not produced me. But that's bizarre: regret is surely a central part of human life. A world in which my acknowledgement of my own wrongdoing or foolishness was the same as my acknowledgement of the structure of formal logic is a world in which I relate to myself and my actions in a way which has gone radically wrong. I no longer have any sense of my life as a narrative I am shaping. I am alienated from myself.

That we must live after the reflection - more; that we live and reflect at the same time, so we must live during it - is, as I say, boringly familiar. Repeating it is only a roundabout way of praising O'Neill: she has all the virtues the kind of reasoning the Non-Identity Problem epitomises lacks. The point of bringing up O'Neill is that one of the things which makes the paper so humane, so illuminating of actual lived moral experience, is that she understands not just how you can go wrong, but how you can want to go wrong, perhaps even in knowledge that you are going wrong. Her discussions of the ways in which intimate relationships lend themselves to manipulation and paternalism make it clear that the reason this is so is that all the relevant parties have their lives and the projects which make up their lives to a greater or lesser degree intertwined; manipulation can take place because one party knows that another's happiness is directly dependent on theirs and so can use them as a tool to that end, whilst paternalism can because wanting another person to be happy is liable to make you want to take over, to capture and direct, their attempts to secure their own happiness.

It'd be a sad life in which you'd never been at least tempted to do either of those things, although that's maybe the only way of ever avoiding succumbing to that temptation. More than that, maybe seeing that it's a sad life which totally lacks any paternalism or manipulation is itself a reason for excusing at least some examples of them. That's not to say that anything goes: it is to recognise that human vulnerability, exactly the same vulnerability that makes paternalism and manipulation such a danger in intimate relationships, requires that some licence is given to temptation. That then implies that there are steps you must take against leaving yourself totally open to manipulation or paternalism: if we're going to permit some things which could be manipulative or paternalistic in other, similar, circumstances, then we have duties to ensure that others do not wrong us. The title of this post is taken from what I heard was Kant's description of marriage: a contract for the mutual abuse of each other's genitals. I'm not sure I'd go quite that far as a description of marriage, but we need to see that the acceptability of such agreements, implicit or otherwise, and so the acceptability of seeking them, means that certain steps need to be taken to protect ourselves from the kinds of misunderstandings and potential for exploitation which they can create. Sometimes, lies are too easy to tell. On that note, I am going to go away and think about whether or not I want to go on blind dates for charidee.


Ben said...

Did you go?

Rob Jubb said...

Isn't for a fortnight or so. Haven't made my mind up yet.

Miriam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Miriam said...

Wonderful post, Rob.

Rob Jubb said...

Thank you. Flattery will get you everywhere.