Monday, March 11, 2024

Consent, desire and promises

I have long argued that desire is not the same as consent: the fact that I want you to do something does not constitute consent to your doing it.

Here is a neat little case that has occurred to me that seems to show this conclusively. Alice borrowed a small sum of money from me, and the return is due today. However, I know that I have failed Alice on a number of occasions, and I have an unpleasant feeling of moral envy as to how she has always kept to her moral commitments. I find myself fantasizing about how nice it would feel to have Alice fail me on this occasion! It would be well worth the loss of the loan not to “have to” feel guilt about the times I failed Alice.

But now suppose that Alice knows my psychology really well. Her knowing that I want her to fail to return the money is no excuse to renege on her promise.

There are milder and nastier versions of this. A particularly nasty version is when the promisee wants you to break a promise so that you get severely punished: one thinks here of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. A mildish (I hope) version is where I am glad when people come late to meetings with me because it makes me feel better about my record of unpunctuality.

Or for a very mild version, suppose that I typically come about a minute late to appointments with you. You inductively form the belief that I will do so this time, too. And it is a pleasure to have one’s predictions verified, so you want me to be late.

The above examples also support the claim that we cannot account for the wrong of promise-breaking in terms of overall harm to the promisee. For we can tweak some of these cases to result in an overall benefit to the promisee. Let’s say that I feel pathologically and excessively guilty about all the times I’ve been late to appointments, and your breaking your promise to show up at noon will make me feel a lot better. It might be that overall there is a benefit from your breaking the promise. But surely that does not justify your breaking the promise.

Or suppose that in the inductive case, the value of your pleasure in having your predictions verified exceeds the inconvenience of waiting a minute.

Objection: Promises get canceled in the light of a sufficiently large benefit to the promisee.

Response: The above cases are not like that. For the benefit of relief of my guilt requires that you break the promise, not that the promise be canceled in light of a good to me. And the pleasure of verification of predictions surely is insufficient to cancel a promise.

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