Is there a morally crucial sense of ‘consent’, and if so what is it?

In this essay I am going to analyse the concept of ‘consent’ in the paper called ‘Between Consenting Adults’ by Onora O’Neill. Consent, in moral terms, appears much more complex than it seems at first glance.

 

Consenting presupposes a choice, which in turn presupposes freedom. Freedom is an intrinsic property of human beings. Behaving morally means to respect people and to respect their ‘being human’. So, giving the possibility to choose means to respect the ‘humanity’ of the person -which can choose- and therefore behaving morally.

 

So, consent is essential in terms of morality. However, it is not always clear whether the consent is given with fully awareness and spontaneity. O’Neill goes through many different tricky cases of consent in order to give a broader framework of the concept of ‘consent’.

 

It seems pretty straightforward that consent means ‘the permission for something to happen or agreement to do something’ (New Oxford American Dictionary) however it is not clear what constitutes consent.

 

Consent usually occurs in legal and institutional contexts which seems the easiest way to explain it. However, ‘Even the clearest formulae of consent, such as signatures and formal oaths, may not indicate consent where there is ignorance, duress, misrepresentation, pressure or the like’. Ignorance, duress, misrepresentation, pressure or the like are all constraints.

 

Usually we think of coercion, which is the most evident constraint. However it is not the only form of constraint, because there are also other external factors, which limit the possibility of choice. For example, it often happens that a person is forced to opt for the least bad option, which does not necessarily correspond to the best one i.e. the one he would choose in a situation without constraints.

Actually, constraints can be of many different kinds. Constraints, which limit consent, are not only external but also internal. For example, if we consider ignorance, it is very hard to say whether it is an external constraint or an internal one. Even if a person is not facilitated in his education by his environment this person is still able to compensate his lack through independent studies etc. Therefore, in the end ignorance is an internal constraint because the person himself is responsible for it.

 

Actually, ignorance is not only lack of information in general, but it can be lack of knowledge of your own intentions/desires/needs. O’ Neill says that ‘by the standards of full rationality we are all impaired’. This leads to the extreme conclusion that sometimes we are not even fully aware of our own choices because we are not even aware of our own deep needs and desires. We do not have the right objectiveness.

A person close to you should rationally interpret your desires in order to fully rationally decide for you. This should happen if this person treats you as a person. ‘Treat humanity whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simple as means, but always at the same time as an end’. (Formula of the End in Itself). So, this formula is not only restrictive –because it says what not to do- but also prescriptive- because it also says what to do-. Not using a person is not sufficient to treat this person as such. O’ Neill says that Kant says that treating a person as such is not only respecting his/her ends but also helping him/her in pursuing them.

 

The key is the right balance between respect and love (beneficence). ‘The principle of mutual love admonishes men constantly to come nearer to each other; that of the respect which they owe each other, to keep themselves at a distance from one another’. This means that it is good to act positively toward another person and helping him/her in pursuing his/her ends, but always in the respect of his/her spaces and independence in order not to override him/her. This should be applied to intimate relationships- to avoid manipulation and paternalism- but also at work. In fact, the love Kant talks about is more a form of solidarity than the love of a couple. Since we are all human being, we are all the same and all unique at the same time.

 

To conclude, the morally crucial sense of consent is that the person who consents to share someone else’s ends should be in the full possession of his/her human faculties and in the full freedom of exercising them.

 

Reference: Onora O’Neill, ‘Between Consenting Adults’, from Constructions of Reason, Cambridge: 1989, pp. 105-25.

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