Consent is Weak

How do you tell if an act is moral? If you ask a typical college student or any of their professors, they’ll have the answer for you right away: If everyone involved in the act consents, it is moral. If anyone does not consent, it is immoral. We’ll call people like this Consent Theorists. It sounds more elaborate than it really deserves.

Consent is a pretty basic concept. As part of one’s moral framework, it has a number of uses, from dealing with contracts and promises to preventing people from forcing people to do things against their will or conscience. However, as basis for moral acts – as it is often presented in the academic and pop culture worlds – it is a miserable failure.

Consent Theory breaks down immediately when you consider criminal law. Criminals don’t consent to being imprisoned or fined for their actions. A Consent Theorist may squirm enough to find a crack and suggest that by committing a crime, a person forfeits their right to demand for consent. This isn’t so much an escape from the problem as an admission that things are even weaker than we thought. Now, consent must obey a higher law. It fails outright at being the basis for morality.

There are other problems with consent as a basis for one’s ethical views. Consent is easily manipulated. You can get someone to consent to anything with the right threats or lies. A Consent Theorist may suggest that such things are wrong; that consent proper requires that someone makes it free of threats and with all of the relevant facts presented to them. This, like criminal law, leads to the problem of a higher law being in place. If consent determines whether acts are moral or immoral, what standard do we have to determine whether one form of consent is better than another?

Aside from these and many other cases where consent quickly gets superseded by some higher moral imperative, it turns out that even if we ignored all of them, consent can only address questions of whether we can do something morally. It fails utterly at compelling us to do things we ought to do. If you see someone drowning, should you throw them a life preserver? Consent says nothing. Sure, both you and the drowning victim could consent to the arrangement, but if you don’t consent yourself, the guy in the water is out of luck. Now, we’re left with the fact that consent is too weak to deal with the real world and too amoral to deal with acts we know are morally required of us in the same axiomatic sense that we know the real world exists.

Why should we even obey the rule of consent in the first place, though? Consent Theory has nothing to say about this. If we ought to seek consent before an act is made moral, why? A Consent Theorist could say that if we consent to Consent Theory, we are compelled to follow it, but this does nothing to those who refuse to do so. It’s a moral outlook that can’t compel anyone to follow it in the first place.

Moral duties and values, however, are strong enough to ground a moral framework, and the fact that Consent Theory must appeal to them proves they precede it. We are compelled to act morally and to abstain from acting immorally. Consent is merely a part of this process; when we engage in acts with others which are morally neutral on their face, consent makes sure we don’t force people to do things they don’t want to do. On the other hand, consent doesn’t make immoral acts moral; it can say nothing of whether engaging in same-sex relations, engaging in pre-marital sexual relations, or assisted suicide are moral or immoral. If those acts are immoral, consent can’t justify them.

Consent isn’t in the business of making immoral acts into moral acts. In its rightful place, it is a servant of moral values and duties. When university professors and media personalities skip over moral values and duties – and their origin – and focus instead of consent, all they do is hide the really interesting and important things. I suppose you’d want to do this if you had a sense what you were doing was wrong. Best not to shine a light on darkness if you love the dark.

American Vices

They say you can tell a lot about a person by seeing what he loves. I think you can tell a lot by what a person hates, too. And not the sort of obvious denunciation-laden hatred that you see at Westboro Baptist “Church” protests. The hatred I’m speaking of is a silent contempt so ingrained in the people who hold it that they don’t consciously think about it.

For instance, American Christians often hold contempt for ritual and tradition. Sometimes this is expressed outwardly, but often it can be seen more clearly in other ways. For example, churches often consider it “progress” to substitute hymns for more modern forms of music, regardless of the quality of content or form that the music takes. While you might overhear people whisper their contempt for those curmudgeons who stand in the way of progress, you’ll often just see it in the shallow theology of the members. Hymns are a very efficient way of sowing theological truths into congregants, and this is lost when they are replaced.

One particular example comes to mind above all others though: wearing formal clothing to church. Putting aside the obviously contemptible reasons to wear a suit and tie when going to church (to appear better than others, to show off, to imagine oneself as more spiritual for doing so), there aren’t too many good reasons to avoid dressing one’s best when attending church.

It is good to dress and look one’s best when attending a funeral, a wedding, or a job interview. You want to give a good impression, but you also have some reverence of the event (at least in the first two scenarios). You know in the back of your mind that these are important things, and you should act importantly, no matter what you feel. But Americans love what the deem authenticity – that situation where you do or say whatever you like without reservation. So when it comes to church, many American Christians think it is actually wrong to dress well. They won’t often say this verbatim (although I’ve heard it). Instead, they’ll treat it as a spiritual accomplishment to no longer be concerned with their own appearance.

For instance, you might hear something like: “I learned it didn’t matter if I was wearing a t-shirt and jeans or a suit. It’s not about the outward appearance, but about the heart.”

On the face of it, who could argue? Of course the clothing we wear doesn’t have a salutary effect on us. Of course the health of our souls is not dictated by our clothing selection. But there is a silent contempt here veiled in spiritual language. For instance, consider this: “I learned it didn’t matter if I told my children that I loved them or not. It’s not about the outward appearance, but about the heart”.

“Aha”, I hear you say. “That’s different. If you love your children, you’ll tell them. The inward has an effect on the outward.” To which I can only agree, and by agreeing, prove my own point. The clothing we wear reflects the seriousness of organized worship.

Someone told me – and I think he was serious – that it was impossible to really know what was meant by “dressing one’s best”. What qualified as “best”? The Sun King of France had something very different in mind than Charles Spurgeon, for instance. But the fact of the matter is that everyone has an idea of what is best in their particular context, else we couldn’t even talk about it. What is “best” might have some subjective variability, but what is “best” is still a superlative, and we can’t make any comparisons without it. If it is better to wear a suit and tie (if you have the means) than to wear underwear alone, the existence of the superlative is already implied.

At the end of the day, it is wiser to dress your best than to argue that it doesn’t matter what you wear. And it is wiser to know what you secretly despise than to find out by having it challenged by someone who doesn’t make the same assumptions about the world as you.

This could easily dovetail into the objective nature of beauty, but I think I’ll save that for another post.

The Four Causes

A Little History

Despite attending multiple colleges and universities and obtaining two degrees, I did not encounter Aristotle’s “four causes” until several years after I had graduated. The few philosophy courses I took spent brief moments discussing Plato before moving 2400 years into the future to spend the rest of the time talking about modernism and postmodernism (one class in particular focused on the professor’s own written material).

I’ve since learned how much of a waste those classes were. The real meat of philosophy is in the ancient, medieval, and early modern world. There have been few philosophers since who have contributed anything of the magnitude that their ancestors did, and often their contributions led to errors repeated for generations. If you want to study good philosophy – and to paraphrase CS Lewis, you should want to study good philosophy if only to answer bad philosophy – you should start at the beginning. Not everything Plato or Aristotle or their successors said was correct, but you can learn a lot even in disagreement.

What Are the Four Causes?

Aristotle in particular had a conception of how to explain the nature of anything and everything, called traditionally the “four causes”: material cause, formal cause, efficient cause, and final cause.

Consider the human eye for a moment. The material cause of something is the matter of which it is composed, so the material cause of an eye is the various molecular components which make it up. The formal cause of something is the shape or form it has. For the human eye, this includes the overall eye itself as well as the parts which make it up, from the iris, pupil, and lens to the retina.

An efficient cause is like the history of how a thing came to be. A human eye begins to grow early during pregnancy. The whole story of how the eye came to be where it is at the moment you consider it is part of this efficient cause. Finally and fittingly, there is the final cause. This is the telos or “end” of an object; it’s purpose. The purpose of the human eye is to see.

These four causes constitute a comprehensive explanation for anything you can think of, and virtually anything you can know about an object will fall into one of the categories. While this might seem esoteric, consider a very practical use of this information for a human eye.

In medicine (at least medicine traditionally understood and not the postmodern “choose your own adventure” style we increasingly see in mental health and now even in physical health), the goal is to first “do no harm”, but ultimately to mend things that are not working. A human eye can have any number of defects. To know what constitutes a defect, you first need to consider what the final cause of an object is; in our case, sight. So an eye that cannot see well or is blind to color or blind to everything is unhealthy, for it is not capable of realizing its end. Medicine which corrects these problems and enhances vision (be it surgery or contact lenses; even sunglasses depending on the situation) may be “unnatural” in the sense that it is developed by human beings – being artificial (from Latin artificium; a thing people make) – but it is not “unnatural” in the more important sense of going against the nature of the object in question. Medicine which restores sight to a blind person or which corrects nearsightedness restores natural function, because it enables the final cause of the object to be realized. In this sense, good medicine is eminently natural. Obviously, a good knowledge of the formal, material, and efficient causation of an eye is required to develop medicine as well.

An Interesting Discovery

In his book “Summa Philosophica”, Peter Kreeft answers the question “Whether there are four causes?” in his section on cosmology. He answers in the affirmative, but one of the notes he made helped me realize that even if today we don’t discuss the four causes in the language I used above, we still talk about them in language very similar to it. He proposes this objection to the idea that the four causes exist:

We no longer use the word “cause” to refer to the two internal elements or dimensions that Aristotle called “formal” and “material” causes.

He responds, in part:

We still use the word “because” for all four causes, even though we no longer use the word “cause” for the first two. E.g. we say that an enclosed plane figure is a triangle “because” it has three angles (formal causality), or that paper towels mop up liquid “because” of their capillary structure (material causality).

My entire life, and likely yours as well, you’ve used the language of the four Aristotelian causes and have never even noticed.

A triangle is a triangle because it has three sides. (formal causality)

A bullet pierces because it is made of metal. (material causality

A car is in your garage because you drove it there. (efficient causality)

An eye is healthy because it sees. (final causality)