Friday, November 30, 2012

The Philosophical Foundations of Consensus

My next few blog entries will address the philosophical foundations of the concept of consensus. Given that libertarians reject the use of coercive force in cooperative endeavours, the concept of consensus is important, but often ignored by libertarian scholars. So I'll try to clear up a few conceptual puzzles.

First of all, for libertarians consensus is only relevant to a limited sphere of human action; namely, what J.S. Mill described as other-regarding actions. When I sat down to write this blog I did not ask anyone else if it's OK. Why? Because it's purely a self-regarding action! It's my time, effort, and resources. The act of me writing this blog will not invade the interests of anyone else. Hence, the first concept we need to explore is the idea of an "interest."

As a libertarian in the utilitarian tradition, I associate interests with pleasure and/or happiness. Thus, as individuals we all have greater and lesser interests which correspond to degrees of pleasure and pain. I obviously have an interest in writing this blog, even though it prevents me from pursuing other interests, such as grading 38 essay exams.  Interests are basically ends (or ) goals, which implies that they are realized via means. Thus we pursue knowledge of not only our interests, but also the means of achieving those interests. Rational agents often willingly sacrifice lesser interests in order to realize greater interests, and sacrifice short-term interests for long-term interests. Fortunately, grading those exams advances long-term interests, and therefore I can put it off until this weekend. It looks like a painful weekend for me! Knowledge of the magnitude (greater/lesser) and temporal scale (long-term/short/term) of our individual interests is imperfect. I hope I'll be able to finish this blog in the next 30 minutes, but I might not. I also hope I'll experience a degree of pleasure when I finish it. If it turns out lousy, I won't publish it. Then I'll regret that I spent time writing instead of grading. For individuals, knowledge of very long-term interests and knowledge of how to realize those long-term interests is highly fallible. I'm hoping to retire in 9 years, but a lot can happen before then. I might die, I might win the lottery (probably not...I never buy lottery tickets), I might decide that teaching is more fun than retirement. Short-term interests are much easier. I'll be in class today at 11:00 AM, barring some unforseen invasion of my interests. I know (with relative certainty) what room to go to and what we're going to do (discuss Walmart bribery in Mexico).

The inverse of an interest is a harm, or more precisely a harm is an invasion of an interest.Thus, there are greater and lesser harms depending on the magnitude of the invaded interest. Thanks to the structure of the human brain and spinalcord, we pursue what we believe to be our interests and avoid what we perceive to be harms. Hence, I'd prefer retirement over pre-mature death. Of course, death might be really great...even better than retirement. I might get to play guitar with Les Paul! But given what I know right now, I prefer retirement. On the other hand, retirement will invade my interest in teaching, but advance my interests in playing guitar and traveling. So self-regarding actions involve trading off interests and harms and adopting various means (or plans) for realizing conflicting interests.

However, my retirement is not a purely self-regarding action. There are other stakeholders involved, namely my college and my wife. That's where consensus becomes relevant. I know with a fairly high degree of certainty, that the my college has an interest in me retiring. I can easily be replaced by a young, good-looking, intelligent recent graduate that would work for much less than I'm getting. In fact, my college might prefer that I retire sooner rather than later. In that case, hopefully we'd reach a consensus...unless the college unilaterally decides to coerce me into retirement. In that case, subsequent deliberations will be based less on my interests and the interests of the college than determining who holds legal coercive power over the other. For libertarians the forging of consensus based on the interests of stakeholders is always preferable to legal coercion. As for my wife...we've already reached a consensus. The best time for me to retire will be in 9 years, unless our interests change between now and then. Then again, by then my college's interests might also change.

In sum,knowledge of one's own interests and knowledge of how to realize those interests is difficult to ascertain, and therefore highly fallible...but ultimately doable. I've done OK so far. However, knowledge of the interests of other individuals interests and the collective interests of communities is much more problematic. My next blog will explore knowledge of collective interests and knowledge of how to achieve those interests....and of course, how that knowledge relates to forging consensus among stakeholders.                    


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