Warning The links and scenarios have disturbing imagery.
The consent argument is so strong in our culture that its truth is almost self-evident. It says as long as two people consent in an act, that act is therefore moral. Or, if not moral, then it’s none of your business. The consent argument is often amended by changing “two people” to “two adults”, but this swap is becoming less frequent. The acts in question are usually sexual, but not always.
The consent argument, however, is an abysmal failure, which in no way can be used to justify the morality of any act. Consider first these scenarios. All are drawn from actual sources; which is to say, none are fictional and represent acts that occur and in which consent is used, by some, to justify them. If you are current with the state of the culture, each will be recognized.
Man One wants to masturbate into the rectum of Man Two.
Man Two says, “I consent.”
Man Three then says, “Do what you want, but leave me out of it.”
Men One and Two then say to Man Three, “Your response is insufficient. We appreciate your allowance, but you must also acknowledge the goodness of our act.”
Man Three replies, “No, I cannot: it’s disgusting.”
Men One and Two react, “Then you are a homophobe.”
Man Four says, “I am sorry to die, but after I go, please feel free to use my corpse for your sexual pleasure.”
A grateful Man Five says, “Thank you. I will.”
Man Six says, “Come here, Fido. I have a new game to teach you.”
Man Seven says, “That’s animal abuse, for Fido did not give his consent.”
Man Six replies, “I dispute the claim of abuse, for I did not ask the chicken for its consent before slitting its throat and roasting it. But, if it bothers you that much, I will slit Fido’s throat and then teach him the new game.”
Man Nine asks Man Eight, “Why are you putting your pertinents into the knot of that tree?
Man Eight answers, “I am an ecosexually oriented. I also enjoy peaty bogs where the soil is soft.”
Man Nine says, “What you say saddens me intolerably. Please point this at my temple and push that button. This will end my life, which I no longer want.”
Man Eight answers, “I will be happy to help. But I fear the authorities will punish me, even if you provide written consent.”
Man Nine replies, “Then put on this white lab coat and drape this stethoscope around your neck, and all will be well.”
Man Ten says, “As you know, I am a professor with many credentials. I have determined that children as young as four can understand the acts which occur to them.”
Man Eleven says, “Hummanahummanahummana!”
Man Twelve says, “You are my daughter, but I want to have sex with you, with the hope of reproducing.”
Girl One says, “I consent.”
None of these scenarios, which can be multiplied without end, will be recognized as conclusive arguments against consent. They might be appalling to you, which is to say, I hope they are. But consider these scenarios:
Man Thirteen, “I would like to place this wrapper on my apparatus and so prevent your pregnancy.”
Women One, “I consent.”
Man Fourteen: “I will ingest these substances, recreate via fantasy the act of Onan, and lie quietly for several hours.”
These almost certainly will not horrify most of you, but they would have frightened your ancestors, who incidentally are your ancestors because they did frighten them.
The problem with the scenarios is culture creep. Because consent is recognized as the sole or commanding moral test, as soon as a sufficient number or vocal minority of people engage in a practice, that practice will longer be called immoral.
The Consent Fallacy thus is associated with the Current Year a.k.a. Wrong Side Of History Fallacy, though of course they are not identical. It is much closer to the Voting Fallacy, which says acts become moral once a majority agrees on them.
The Consent Fallacy is not that consent is required between parties for some acts. If requiring consent were fallacious, then there would be no such things as contracts or handshake agreements.
Instead, the Consent Fallacy says that because people consent to an act that therefore the act is moral, ethical, or good. It is not that consent is required, necessary or preferred in an act, because consent is often sensible, like again with contracts. But it’s that consent confers upon an act a sort of blessing. It transforms an act from bad or neutral to good. That is the fallacy.
This may be better illustrated with these two scenarios.
Man Fifteen, “I am a woman and you must agree I am.”
Men Sixteen and Seventeen, “We are married and you must agree we are.”
The act of Fifteen was to pretend or to believe falsely that he is a woman. The consequence of that act was that you must agree with his false conclusion, because he has self-consented and because certain agencies have officially consented to his delusion.
The act of Sixteen and Seventeen was to pretend or to believe falsely that they are married to each other. The consequence was the same: you must agree with their false conclusion because not only did they consent to the act, but the government consented, too. You must Bake The Cake.
These scenarios make clear that acts have consequences beyond the individuals directly consenting to an act. What people do in “private” plays out in public; even if the effects are minor, they are never absent. A man killing himself, even if by the hand of a white-coated executioner, consents to the act, but surely all can see that his action has profound reverberations.
A boy told masturbation is healthy and being fed a diet of free porn will not be the same in public as the boy raised without these devices. (Why free?) Consent does not lessen the weakening effects. A boy told he is a girl has as many cultural sequela as a building-sized meteor crashing to the earth.
A diabetic consents in eating a six-pack of donuts, and then consents in the lie, to herself alone, that the donuts won’t do harm. This kind of harm is frowned upon, whereas if the lady eats herself into a diabetic coma with instructions to pull the plug, society smiles. In either case, her actions have reverberations.
Every act in which you partake not under duress or obligation is consented to, at least tacitly. This includes everything from sitting still to smashing an ax into your neighbor’s skull. Every acts affects and changes you in some way, even if the change is minuscule; therefore, if you ever again interact with any other, each of your acts thus affects these others, and they in turn are changed and affect still more people. And so on. It is also impossible to gain consent from everybody else for every act in which you wish to engage. Standards of behavior, including knowledge of good and evil, thus must rely on something besides consent.
Now this is not an essay on why the acts in each scenario above are themselves immoral. I only demonstrate that consent by itself is not what makes an act moral or immoral. To judge any act, we have to look outside consent. Naturally (a nice pun), I advocate natural law, which says simply that acts in accordance with human nature can be moral, and those which are not are not. Even if you (wrongly) reject natural law, you still have to justify each act without regard to consent as its basis (though, of course, consent may be required in any act, even in natural law).
Sin, acts contrary to natural law, Christians say, can be repented of. That is not only a repudiation of genuinely immoral acts, but the creation of a new person cleansed of a corrupted soul. This too has public consequences.
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