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Aside from these and many other cases where consent quickly gets superseded by some higher moral imperative, it turns out that even if we ignored all of them, consent can only address questions of whether we can do something morally.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