Thursday, January 17, 2008

Threats and Offers: Shaping Meaning

Scanlon argues that one's intentions typically don't affect the permissibility of an action. In 'Permissibility and Intent II: The Significance of Intent', he explores some possible exceptions to this rule. One particularly interesting case, I think, is that of threats, or (more broadly) intentionally influencing another's choices. What's interesting here is the way in which this can affect the very nature of the other's choice, by changing the meaning or significance of the options available to them. Scanlon writes:
In the sexual harassment case, for example, in the absence of the threat, the recipient could choose between having sex with the intervener or not. But once the threat has been made what he or she can decide to have or not is coerced sex with the intervener, which is something quite different. In addition, the alternative of taking the job now involves working for someone who has treated one (or tried to treat one) in this way, and declining it can be seen as an assertion of one's dignity. More generally, whatever A may be, the threat to attach a penalty to the recipient's doing A changes the alternative of doing A into the alternative of doing A in defiance of this threat, and adds to B the character of giving in to the intervener and being "pushed around" by him or her. (p.39)

He adds on p.40, "Recipients may have good reason to object to changes of these kinds in the meaning of the actions available to them, and therefore good reason to object to others intervening in their lives in these ways."

This strikes me as an important point, but I don't think that the potential moral objections here depend upon the actual motives or intentions of the intervener. Rather, it seems that what matters is their apparent intention, or what the recipient could reasonably interpret their intention to be. For example, it may be that I have no intention to threaten you at all, but if I carelessly make a remark that is naturally interpreted as a threat, then that seems sufficient to problematically impact the way you perceive the meaning of your subsequent choice. Presumably, the im/permissibility of my causing this is unaffected by whether I did so intentionally or negligently. If I should have known better, then that suffices to settle the question of permissibility; my actual motives don't matter.


  1. Excuse me if permissibility means something different to Scanlon than the sum of it's parts, but, does it matter if you should have known better?

    I would have thought that "permissibility" is all about the setting of a rule and the theoretical "not permitting" of a breach of that rule. (standard dictionary stuff here)

    I see two obvious gatekeepers of permissibility:

    1) one is the actor
    in that case negligence is impermissible if the rule is 'thou shalt not intentionally allow yourself to be negligent' - but then the breach is not the act but in the failing to go to womans studies classes etc.

    2) or the gatekeeper is an idealized third party - in which case the issue is probably the harm caused - a ideal third party would not permit you to harm another party even if you had no possible way of knowing it would harm them.

    I don't see a defendable middle ground where 'should have known' is valid unless your starting to throw in punishment, sending a message, deterrents etc.

    For example is it permissible for someone to kill you by accident without negligence. Or would you expect any reasonable agent to fail to permit that action?

  2. Yeah, accidents are permissible, on Scanlon's view. It essentially comes down to what could reasonably be expected of the actor (and they can't reasonably be expected to avoid causing unforeseeable harms).


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