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Aside from these and many other cases where consent quickly gets superseded by some higher moral imperative, it turns out that even if we ignored all of them, consent can only address questions of whether we can do something morally.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.

A Simple Argument for Good Government

The founders, probably not thinking about adding a “right to free alcohol and tobacco” to the bill of rights.

1. Small government is less likely to do evil to you than big government, so small government is better.

2. People who struggle through life encourage the growth of government.

3. Therefore, given (1) and (2), it is better to help people not struggle through life.

4. Two of the primary causes of people struggling through life are coming from broken homes and living life irresponsibly.

5. Therefore, given (3) and (4), it is better to discourage both of those things.

6. Government can choose to do things that limit broken homes and living life irresponsibly.

7. Therefore, given (5) and (6), government ought to actively seek strong families and moral, responsible living.

While most conservatives likely agree with everything, many libertarians accept premise (1) but reject the conclusion (7), despite agreeing with many of the items along the way.

This line of reasoning is one of the reasons I am a conservative myself, and not a libertarian. Large government is directly tied to the needs people have and for which they then petition the government to address.

A village in a valley that floods might petition the government for something they can’t build by themselves (a dam, for instance). A child who is practically abandoned by his parents due to divorce and subsequent demands on the parents needs help in many areas of life, and so the government steps in in the name of benevolence. An adult who engages in behavior which result in disease and a broken life needs government assistance. Big government thrives on human need.

What is better is not having policies which encourage the situation in the first place. Unfortunately, a large government wants to increase in size, and so doesn’t discourage the situation. A government can’t stop a valley from flooding by changing the laws of nature, but a government can certainly prevent divorces by making them hard to get instead of more simple and convenient than filling out warranty paperwork for a refrigerator.

Misconception Monday – Awareness

Not only a new post – the first in a month – but a Misconception Monday! Excuses abound, but I’ll spare you those.

Back in the olden days before indoor plumbing and antibiotics, “awareness” wasn’t a virtue. It became a virtue in all but name during the information age. And why should we expect things to have gone any differently? We must be made aware of information, and information is king. Or so we are told.

I’m not convinced that awareness in the modern sense is of much benefit. We talk of breast cancer awareness (we even have a month dedicated to it). Is there any literate person in the Western world who does not know about breast cancer? I know very few who know that the highest cause of death for women is heart disease.

But this trades on the difference between knowledge and awareness. The former is the sum total of what information and experience we have with a particular thing, while the latter is our conscience thinking of (and often cautiously watching for) it.

We could know about the army our enemy’s have in the field, but we want to be aware of it. On the other hand, we are often aware that we are thirsty or hungry and would prefer to know that we are not after addressing the problem.

These are old fashioned ways of looking at both terms. In our enlightened era, awareness is a virtue. The more we are aware of, the better, right? Isn’t that part of the reason people voluntarily bombard themselves every waking moment with 160-character strings of text?

We’re probably best avoiding all of the “awareness” nonsense. We should avoid being aware of particular facts as we are manipulated into hearing them.