a philosophy blog

Persons with bodies and opinions

Notes on Onora O’Neill, “Between Consenting Adults”

O’Neill addresses the Kantian moral concepts of not treating others as means (i.e., using them) and treating them positively as persons, how these are related, and finally how “an adequate understanding of what it is to treat others as persons must view them not abstractly as possibly consenting adults, but as particular men and women with limited and determinate capacities to understand or consent to proposals of action.” The Kantian moral ideal so far as it has practical application must take account of human limitations.

[Here is a strikingly feminine and sympathetic appropriation of that most male of moral thinkers, Kant.]

A second aim is to provide a reading of some central claims of Kant’s ethics which does not depend on an inflated view of human cognitive and volitional capacities, does not generate implications which are rigorously insensitive to variations of circumstances, and is not tied to a strongly individualistic conception of agency.

[The tug on Kant here is in the opposite direction from that in which Weininger pushed. The notion of a maxim, the subject of Kantian tests, for instance, will be interpreted more broadly than usual by O’Neill: it will include non-conscious and institutional principles governing morally relevant actions.]

Briefly, O’Neill entertains the idea of a “personal touch,” finding it inadequate to the Kantian requirements.

“Actual consent” is more significant but raises questions of what constitutes consent. Seduction, unlike rape, for example, causes us to ask how much the victim was conscious, at the time, of the implications of their actions, and how far into them, if fully known, the consent extends. O’Neill suggests that the seduced “lacks insight” even if not fully ignorant, and, as such, is to that extent victimized.

[But can there be fully lucid seduction? Is not the seduction itself an end for at least one of the parties? To make this clearer: suppose a man wants (to the best of his self-knowledge) nothing but sexual contact while consciously misrepresenting his case to a woman. She is seduced and is quite conscious of the fact that she is enjoying the process of seduction. From a Kantian perspective both parties are using each other, both are victims of their own deceptions before they are victims of the other’s. He thinks he is getting what he wants, at least knowingly, at her expense, playing on her ignorance of his motives. She thinks she is getting what she wants in imagining he wants it too. It is a little like two thieves each breaking into the home of the other to steal unknowingly what the other had previously stolen from him. (Naturally, we are not here discussing what would have to be true if she wanted more than an extended process of seduction—even one lasting a lifetime—but rather fancied in some sense possessing the man, nor are we addressing what would be the case if he was unclear as to his own vulnerability to being possessed. A complex dialectic could be pursued here as well. Wanting something more will lead us into the thickest part of the human swamp…) The real Kantian point is that all seduction is—even in the best of circumstances—always at least amoral and usually far worse: for the reason that the other is not being treated as a fully autonomous individual, that is, one whose mind is utterly vacant of the clutter of emotion or desire (except for that one extraordinary feeling: respect for the moral law). Seduction is not so much evil as it is pathetic. This rather harsh, but pristinely derived conclusion, was Weininger’s when he said, “Love is murder.”

But O’Neill would not come to this conclusion, given her more humanized interpretation of the amount of self-knowledge a moral maxim requires.

The act is usually suspect as much for the seducee as the seducer: the one for drawing some pleasure from the other without regard to the other as an end or through culpable ignorance of this fact (and when is it not culpable?) and the other for catering to naked desire. Desire—naked or decked out in finery and with the highest credentials—is neither here nor there as far as Kantian morality is concerned (but usually there…)

This is related to what we mean when we say that Weininger was more Kantian than Kant himself, for Kant himself did make concessions to the flesh as in his rather lame condemnation of suicide—or was it rather the emotional extravagance of it?! Kant thought that desire, the impulse to consume life, (to an admittedly ever precarious extent) was necessary to keep us alive for as long as it was seemly and to allow us time to achieve mastery over it in the ultimate service of honoring the spark of reason inhering in us. If we were so unfortunate as to live long enough for the self-mastery in the service of reason to become second nature or habitual, that, too (pace Aristotle), would be a mistake, for then, once again, rational autonomy would be compromised. In honor of the rational element in us, Kant’s injunction requires remaining in the struggle, pure and simple, always and forever—or at least until we blessedly keel over from natural causes. But within this scheme, is not suicide a plausible effect of a natural cause?… Life would have to be more heroic than it is for suicide to be less so.

So then we are left with the more realistic cases of less than lucid seduction that do not quite ascend to the level of rape nor yet descend to that of pure mammalian rut (absent reason)…*]

*Editor’s note: Because of Luno’s ever receding horizon of standards for lucidity he can claim “the world has been populated by rapists.” A claim he made long before his reading of Weininger. Steeped as he was in Kantian problems of “reflexive moral knowledge”—while finding all other moralities trivial by comparison—Luno was well primed for the “Weininger event” which by his own admission crystallized a vast array of disparate problems for him. He is perhaps only half-joking when he says he may be the philosopher Weininger might have become had Weininger survived his crisis: “a philosopher of cowardice and stupidity.”

…it is unclear where consent—even the most explicit consent—stops.

Structural consent: the Marxist complaint

that workers do not consent to their employment despite its outwardly contractual form. For workers, unlike capitalists, cannot (at least in ’ideal’ capitalism) choose to be without work, on pain of starvation.… Analogously, women in most societies hitherto have not really consented to their restricted life possibilities. A choice between marriage partners does not show that the married life has been chosen. The outward forms of market economies and of unarranged marriages mask how trivial the range of dissent and consent is.

Editor’s note: Luno addresses the triviality of the democratic voting process in his imagined lecture “Political Demur” where he essentially asks, “Is voting immoral?” His critique suggests that there is a sense in which it is difficult to conceive how it could not be. We, in those nations “lucky” enough to have such institutions, have been rather thoroughly seduced into imagining a meaning to the process that is simply not there. What is meaningful about a vote if none of the options even remotely reflect one’s preferences? And doesn’t morality itself require that we refine our discrimination? It is not moral to be content with or indeed lower one’s standards of discrimination to suit the available options. Thus, for Luno, the democratic process is inherently a case of structural consent. It is, in the end, about accommodation, not morality. But when would it ever be wrong to accommodate oneself to political reality? What moral atrocity is waiting in the wings?

Bourgeois ideologies offer a fiction of freedom. They structure a false consciousness which obscures the extent to which human beings are used and not treated as persons.

[True, so far as it goes. Of course, Marx had his own problems with false consciousness: believing that material and social evolution happens in historical time.]

Impaired abilities: a typical patient in medical ethics.

The possibility of spurious consent even when exacted from adults of average understanding and ability.

The effect of partial understandings.

The problems of defeasibility and indeterminacy of consent, of ideological distortions and self-deception, and of impaired capacities to consent, are all forms of one underlying problem. The deeper problem in this area is simply the corollary of the opacity of intentionality.

Editor’s note: “The deeper problem in this area is simply the corollary of the opacity of intentionality.” Luno’s philosophy is built upon this opacity. After a close reading of Kant, he concluded that Kant himself was keenly aware of it to the extent of repeating often that in the entire history of the species perhaps not a single moral act has occurred. Few commentators seemed to have noticed the enormity of that admission, perhaps thinking he was just being hyperbolic…

Even when further descriptions are inferable from the one consented to, the inference may not be made…

The problem of picking out exactly what is being consented to.

One response to these problems is to appeal not to actual but hypothetical consent, that is, what a fully rational being would consent to in the situation. One merit of this strategy is that it helps to rule out a kind of self-abuse: “…not everything done between consenting adults treats the other as a person.”

But: “By the standards of full rationality we are all impaired.”

And the real danger of this strategy is that we may override the actual dissent of others in asking what a perfectly rational person would want.

[Is not Kant, for example, begging this question in his argument against suicide? A perfectly rational being would not seek to end its life for the same reason it would not seek to preserve it. It is because people want to live that they may also desire death.]

What relevance is there (and how apply it, if there is) to the exigencies of the flesh-bound of the dictates of a pure reason?

What are the features of consent that make it significant and not spurious?

[1]…consent to the deeper or more fundamental aspects of another’s proposals.

[2] To treat others as persons we must allow them the possibility either to consent to or to dissent from what is proposed.

[3] Beyond the minimum conditions of eschewing “coercion and deception,” knowledge of the particular limitations of others would be required.

We are concerned not only to be treated as a person—any person—but to some extent as the particular persons we are.

And O’Neill suggests, the more “specific” our relations are with others the more demanding this requirement becomes.

[But at its extreme, viz., in our most meaningful and intimate relations with others, this particularization may have requirements unimaginable to any garden variety of rationalism, no matter how watered down. Take for example, the loving spouse who honors her suffering mate’s wish to be killed. But more disturbing—in theory if rarely in practice—is that there is a seldom discussed corollary to the purest deontology: the imperative to actively deepen all relationships. It is a fallout of the respect we must have for the sanctity of the other that we must come to know and understand them better and it cannot be, given the limitations of our moral solipsism, that this process ever has an end. And to whatever degree we meet with success in accomplishing that, what morality requires of us takes us further and further from what a commonly touted minimum social decency would recommend. The paradox of Kantian morality is that, in its unceasing progressivity, it requires the dissolution of both self and other even as their never ceasing separate development is enjoined. In the beginning, every being is a necessary stranger to me which I must come to know and respect to the end that no one remains a stranger, but I cannot stop when they have become a friend, an intimate. I cannot stop period… ‘I’ will dissolve in ‘them’. In the end, respect and the related notion of autonomy will become meaningless. In a Kingdom of Ends there shall cease to be recognizable markers of individuals.*]

*Editor’s note: Elsewhere Luno argues that the attempt even by Kant to restrict morally relevant beings to rational or potentially rational ones is a sham. It is a dishonest vestige of a provincial egoism: “Egoism, a requirement for beginning true deontological development, must nevertheless be elemental as opposed to rational: Not because the self-destruction entailed in egoism is incorrect, but because it may happen before it has been fully articulated, which can happen no less when it has been artificially and gracelessly restricted to the realm of reason than in a pique of passion. Self-destruction must proceed with grace above all. …it is why we still admire Socrates’ last days; it is why, notwithstanding its astounding speed, we are genuinely moved by Weininger’s demise in Beethoven’s apartment, having attained the consciousness of each breath as one more act compounding his criminality, of each trampling step on the sidewalk as one more robbed from the hapless insect, come to seem more deserving, in his path… The world, this world, is no longer fit for one who can no longer respect separateness.”

So it is clear that actual consent is not enough for a morality to be concerned with. We must extrapolate to possible consent. Addressing desires can become the kernel around which we may speculate on these. But, O’Neill asserts, this quickly shifts attention away from concern for persons as autonomous.

She draws out Kant:

In Kantian terms we might say that the notion of a person doesn’t matter in a heteronomous moral theory. If wants or rationalized preferences are morally fundamental, consent is of derivative concern. It is only within moral theories for beings who can sometimes act independently of desires—who are to that extent autonomous—that the notion of consent carries independent weight.

Parenthetically, she notes,

(Victims may want the same ends as their coercers; but that is not the same thing as sharing those ends, for one who is coerced, even if pointlessly, is not pursuing, nor therefore sharing, ends at all.) Those who are either deceived or coerced are then both used and not treated as persons.

Complicating matters:

… it is hard to tell just when the deceived party becomes a conniving party.

Treating others as ends in themselves entails seeing others as limits to our actions but also the more positive duty to promote the ends shared with all autonomous beings.

Whenever treating others as persons goes beyond not using them, we must take into account ‘humanity in their person’, i.e., their particular capacities for rational and autonomous action.

In a footnote to the above sentence, O’Neill makes clear her departure from a narrower interpretation of “humanity” in persons, that is, her reading of the “Formula of the End” (in Kant, see Groundwork, p. 429, translated by Paton as the Moral Law). Thomas Hill and many other (especially male) philosophers (not the least of whom, Weininger) have tended to stress “rationality and the ‘power to set ends’” (See Thomas Hill, “Humanity as End in Itself,” Ethics 91 (1980-81): 86).

[It is only by dilating what is significant about ‘humanity’ that Kant can be made to speak with any resonance for women. O’Neill’s attempt to salvage Kant places her, along with Christine Korsgaard and Marcia Baron, in a feminine school of his defenders. That Kant—who practically excluded women from participation in a kingdom of ends or the field of rational agents altogether—should be defended today, perhaps most effectively, by women is predictable from within a Weiningerian gender calculus. Women are in a peculiar position to see Kant’s ethics as outsiders and to that degree more perspicuously than men who are bound, often reluctantly, by it.]

It is also necessary to adopt maxims which ‘endeavour to further the ends of others’ (Groundwork, p. 430)

Because others, however autonomous (in theory), are

…far from self-sufficient in other ways, sharing even some of their ends may make varied demands. Kant claims that these demands can be grouped under the headings of respect and love (beneficence).

The dynamic of love (coming nearer) and respect (keeping a distance). (The Doctrine of Virtue, p. 447)

Anti-paternalistic duty: to promote the ends of others “without taking them over”. The tension between beneficence and treating others as persons. It is not my happiness that matters [to the extent any matters] but that of the other that I must take into account.

O’Neill reads Kant’s moral theory as applying not to “beings who are psychologically impervious to one another”, but to those to whom respect and love entail many more creature-specific duties.

Having already hinted at a response, O’Neill now asks explicitly the question of application: How can we go from the abstract principles of not using others and treating them as persons to addressing particular sexual and economic problems? In other words, the “minor premise” in moral reasoning, the premise that specifies the environment of application. She points out in a note that Kant did address this premise more often than is commonly supposed in works such as The Critique of Judgement.

[O’Neill’s focus is sexual and economic. Indeed, these are the realms where the concept of “consent” looms large, and they are fundamentally material realms, exactly where Weininger placed the focus of feminine concern. In Weininger’s world, quite consistently, there is to be no sex and no economics. The dead and dying—those otherworldly driven—have little use for them. The Shaker religious sect, for example, attributed little moral significance to them. O’Neill is teasing out the feminine (i.e., eminently practical) aspects of Kant, overlooked by both many feminine and anti-feminine perspectives. Her effort has the side effect of making clear how far—for better or worse—beyond Kant Weininger went.

We might be tempted to dismiss the appeal of such purities as Weininger’s as a negligible human aberration or as pathology. But we do so at our peril for at least two reasons:

First, underlying morality is an aesthetic in which an austere purity is a principle force. Recall Wittgenstein’s tendentious remark on the identity of ethics and aesthetics, often quoted but rarely explained. (Shaker furnishings, to use a quaint example again, have had an immense influence even in the other more palatable and far removed regions of the Arts and Crafts decorative movement that is inexplicable by any practical function even to Shakers themselves.) The mystery of the widespread appeal of Weininger’s thought to the cultural and intellectual leaders of the last century would otherwise remain such (see Weininger’s Wake). There is an aesthetic about ethics: that presses it into form as much for form’s sake as for any material advantage. Considerations like these disqualify utilitarianism from being a proper first level moral theory. It nowhere on its own terms explains why pleasure or utility carry weight as ends. If we must, in the end, appeal to self-evidence, it happens too early in the game.

Second, the structure and motivation of even remote moral theories is placed in sharp relief by the unforgivingly bright light of limiting cases like Weininger’s. There will be, of course, analogous things to say when we come to certain radical feminist moral theories. (Of which O’Neill’s is manifestly not one: she seeks accommodation in Kant’s authentically masculine one, illustrating one legitimate feminine reaction—but one among only a few others.)]

The difficulties of sexual coercion:

…rape differs from other forms of coercion in that, because of the implicit nature of sexual communication and social traditions which encourage forms of sexual duplicity, it is unusually hard to be sure when there has been coercion.

The example of a prostitute who is actually paid for her services but can still claim to have been raped. Using the social infrastructure to one’s advantage in coercing “consent” as in the blatant and subtle use of endearments. Even when endearments have been “decontextualized,” say in the context of casual sex or sex for hire, they can slip into deception for

…if such expressions are fully decontextualized, what part are they playing in an entirely casual or commercial or formalized encounter? …. Where too much is unexpressed, or misleadingly expressed, each risks duping the other and using him or her as means.

[This hints at the supreme place the nuances of material communication have in the feminine world. Except as in debates whose object is less about communicating than about assertion, male interest in the practice of language is secondary… Luno: “Nevertheless, it is not true that a man uses another in quite the same way as a woman may. Consciousness of sin is as colored by gender as dress. Its implications are different; atonement takes radically different form. The one wants resolution, the other reform. And this places an almost ludicrous distance between exchangers of moral judgments. The clods thrown at each other are thrown from such a distance that there is no hope of more than a gesture of depreciation attaining its mark. Even when there is agreement as to the demerit, there is rarely more than an inkling as to what the flaw means to the other.”]

But to treat another as a person in an intimate, and especially an intimate sexual, relationship requires far more. These further requirements reflect the intimacy rather than the specifically sexual character of a relationship.

[The intimate sexual is the stoop of the edifice of feminine moral community. The very male term ‘abstraction,’ perhaps inappropriate here, is the closest we may come to describing what is happening while staying within the discourse of analytical philosophy. Only it is not an abstraction from the material but one of particulate matter into its larger phenomenal forms and beyond (as in Lispector or Weil). The sexual, to male consciousness, can never rise to this level: it retains always the element of impurity or disgrace or nastiness or, even when embraced, a defiance (as in D. H. Lawrence or James Joyce or Henry Miller) that reveals that intimacy per se was never a candidate for desire.]

It is in intimate relationships that we are most able to treat or not treat others as persons.

[Sex, the paradigm of intimate relationships, is at the very heart of feminine morality, but in a way inconceivable to men. What remarkable service Kant is being put to… Weininger struggled with this thought more seriously than any male thinker had dared before and probably since.]

…when we are close to others we can undercut their pursuit of ends without coercion or deceit.

The dangers of paternalism:

The paternalist rather begins from a failure to acknowledge what the other’s ends are, or that they are the other’s ends. …Lack of respect is then compounded by lack of love. …Paternalism [and maternalism, though the mechanism is quite different (notice how the concept “maternalism” strains the intellectual ear: why is that?)] towards those who have their own ends is not a form of love.

[Thus children are abused best by those with the finest intentions to prepare them for adult life. In arbitrarily disqualifying children from roles as moral agents, of denying them aims, at any age, counter to those of parents, we perpetuate from one generation to another one essential technique of evil. This is why Weininger was right to excuse women from the realm of morality both as agents and as objects of judgment. What a mother is impelled to do must stand outside morality, for applying the same standards to her that we may insist upon in an adult—precisely, a male adult—she would appear the most privileged of sadists. This is why abortion or any form of infanticide is truly an act of God.*]

*Editor’s note: Luno elsewhere remarks on abortion as a Godlike action, i.e., in the same sense that insurance policies appeal to acts characterized as such in disclaiming legal responsibility, death at the hands of a mother is in almost all cases one outside conventional moral purview. For a related view, see also Hobbes and Kant.
Cf also Luno’s comment that there are two kinds of misogynists: “those who hate women and those who love them.” The depth of insight into her nature necessary for a man to not patronize her is an act of imagination so great few, if any, men can muster. See notes on Marguerite Duras. (But for Luno, of course, “cannot” never implies “ought not.”)

Failures of love imply positive moral requirements beyond a hands-off respect: we have the duty to encourage others in the pursuit of their ends. “…we must see and (to some extent) support their ends.”

The “footholds for deception” and manipulation are evident enough in “commercial or formalized” sexual encounters, but

even in sustained intimate relationships underlying attitudes and outlook can become, as it were, decoupled from the expression and gesture which convey them to the other, so that the language of intimacy is used deceptively.

Thus relationships, especially intimate ones, suggests O’Neill, provide one of the clearest forums for achieving Kantian ideals.

Shifting to economics:

…it is widely claimed that capitalist and (perhaps) other modern economic forms not merely do not treat workers as persons, but use them.

But the problem is locating the maxims of coercion and deception, which in a Kantian framework are expected to be found in an individual. The institutional abuse of others is “harder to grasp.”

The interpretation of maxims adopted here [O’Neil’s] is, however, too broad to entail individualism[;] it does not require that maxims be consciously entertained, nor therefore see only the fundamental intentions of individuals as maxims.

[This is a radical departure from the conventional primacy of individual lucidity in Kant. Much further and we shall have trouble seeing anything of Kant’s remaining. We are approaching the point where alternative moralities such as Hume’s, with their almost proprietary feminine focus, that is less hindered by preserving the integrity of individual consciousness (not necessarily individual bodies), would feel less strained. (Cf. Annette Baier.)]

Institutional maxims. Capitalism: a deception without an individual deceiver.

Might there not be a nondeceptive form of capitalism, in which the possibility of dissent is ensured by framing offers of employment in terms of the principles which really underlie capitalist employment relations?

[In other words: make clear to the worker that he or she will be used to serve the employer’s ends in return for which she or he will receive not so much compensation (for that implies more than can be truthfully promised) as material consolation, similar to what we imagine might be tendered in some eyes-wide-open deal with a prostitute or which some unlucky contestant in a television game show might experience.]

But even with the deception remedied, the meaningfulness of dissent is crippled when the worker “cannot choose to avoid [the deal] on pain of the coercion of starvation”.

Either they will be both deceived and coerced, if they do not see through this offer, or if they see through it, they will not be deceived, but only coerced.

[Retreating, momentarily, to a less watered down Kantianism: We shall be doing good to avoid deception even if we never succeed at avoiding coercion. But Luno, even less hopefully, asserts: “deception, especially self-deception, is a nutrient in our blood.”]

And, of course, the modern workplace, makes only the shabbiest gestures at treating workers as the individual persons they are. Work is “rationalized” in the sense compensation is tied to the nature of the work and not to the less patent qualities of the individual. There is “systematic disregard of all particular characteristics” not tied to the overarching goal of serving the ends of the employers. And when gestures in this direction are made they have all the signs of being paternalistic and manipulative.

Which raises the question: “Shouldn’t the working life be impersonal?” Isn’t this the way to avoid the evils of “nepotism, favoritism, and other types of personal bias and patronage?”

O’Neil concludes by saying that the lives of those we must live and work with cannot be governed by concerns for justice alone: “Our working relations … are relations with determinate others and not with abstractly rational economic men and women.”

[Thus, for O’Neill, fundamental are relations between persons: persons not as individual consciousnesses or rational entities; relations not to principles or projects that cannot be shared. The realms in which morality plays itself out are, not accidentally, those in which sexual and economic relations loom large: hallmarks of what is almost too obviously feminine as was centrally evident in Weininger’s characterization of the feminine nearly a century earlier. For the sexual and economic dimensions of human reality are the most urgent reminders of the cosmicity from which Weininger’s masculine principle recoils.]

Posted by luno in philosophy and sex, rape, prostitution, sex differences, Deontology, Kant (Friday September 14, 2007 at 1:41 pm)

No comments for Persons with bodies and opinions»

No comments yet.

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License