I am struggling to understand the embolden phrase below:

In English, “consent” has several meanings. In the relevant sense, consent transactions have a distinct structure: agent A consents to B’s φ­-ing on A, under a certain description of φ­-ing, whether or not the offer was initiated by B. For example, a man may consent to a physician’s touching the man’s testicles as part of a testicular cancer exam upon the physician’s suggestion (compare Kleinig 2010, 6–7). Source: Informed Consent (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

Does that mean B explaining what φ is to A? I suppose this is more than that. According to Acting under a description - Wikipedia:

Anscombe wrote that a human action is intentional if the question "Why?", taken in a certain sense (and evidently conceived as addressed to him), has application (Intention, par. 5-8).[1] An agent can answer the "Why?" question by giving a reason or purpose for her action. "To do Y" or "because I want to do Y" would be typical answers to this sort of "Why?"; though they are not the only ones, they are crucial to the constitution of the phenomenon as a typical phenomenon of human life (sections 18-21). The agent's answer helps supply the descriptions under which the action is intentional. Moreover, the act is known without observation (Intention, section. 28). For example, a person knows without observation that their hands are pushing upwards and when asked what they are doing, they say they are opening the window. Hence, in their hands pushing upwards, they are opening the window; opening a window being a description of the intentional act.

Anscombe was the first to clearly spell out that actions are intentional under some descriptions and not others. In her famous example, a man's action (which we might observe as consisting in moving an arm up and down while holding a handle) may be intentional under the description "pumping water" but not under other descriptions such as "contracting these muscles", "tapping out this rhythm", etc.

So I guess the description of φ here is the answer to the question "Why does A consent?", rather than the question "What is φ/what does φ do?". If φ is touching the man’s testicles, then the description of φ is "to examine testicular cancer". Am I correct? And what are the advantages of describing it as a description rather than just a goal of the action?

Related: What is a description?

1 Answer 1


Elizabeth Anscombe uses the expression "under a description" in her book, "Intention". The basic point is that one and the same action may be intentional or unintentional depending on how one describes it.

As an example, suppose a man is due to attend a conference, so his wife is not expecting him home, but the conference is cancelled and he returns home late at night, after he expects she has gone to sleep. He lets himself in the house quietly, so as not to disturb her and does not switch on the light. However, she is awake, believes someone is burgling the house, pulls out a gun and shoots him. Consider the following two statements:

  1. The woman shot her husband.
  2. The woman shot a man she believed was a burglar.

Both statements are true, but we would say that the woman's action is intentional under the second description, but not intentional under the first. If we asked the woman why she fired the gun, she would agree that her purpose was to shoot a burglar, not to shoot her husband. This distinction is important in law, because intention is relevant to culpability.

In the example you quote, we might say there is a distinction between:

  1. A man consented to allowing a stranger to touch his testicles.
  2. A man consented to allowing a physician to examine him for testicular cancer.

The man's consent is definitely intentional under the second description. Arguably, it may be intentional under the first as well, provided the man understood that the examination would involve touching. If the man were asked why he consented to having his testicles touched, the answer would be: because he agreed to the examination. The distinction may be important in cases where there is a dispute about what exactly a person consented to.

  • I see. The advantage of describing it as a description rather than a goal of the action is to link with the concept of intentionality. I am translating that article into my language. May I have your consent to translate your answer as the footnote of it?
    – Ooker
    Mar 20, 2021 at 19:16
  • @Ooker That's fine.
    – Bumble
    Mar 20, 2021 at 21:15
  • The different descriptions can be said to be different interpretations, different viewpoints. Why do we use the word "description" but not the others?
    – Ooker
    Mar 21, 2021 at 19:21
  • 1
    I suppose you could call them viewpoints, but they are still descriptions of what happened. The woman shot her husband. If you asked her whether she shot her husband, she would say yes. If you asked her whether she shot a man she believed to be a burglar, she would say yes. So would any observer. Both are straightforwardly true descriptions of what happened. They are not opinions, nor are they observer dependent.
    – Bumble
    Mar 21, 2021 at 21:24

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