Most law students begin realize that consent is a powerful legal and moral concept early in the first year of law school. A physical blow to the person is a battery—unless the blow was landed in a boxing match, in which case consent turns the battery into something that is legally permissible and not actionable, even if it results in serious harm. Intercourse without consent is the very serious crime of rape; intercourse with consent is quite something else.
The basic legal structure is easy to grasp. But what is consent? Why does it have the legal and moral force that it does? When is it valid and when is it invalid?
This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon is about the idea of consent in legal contexts involving interpersonal (but not political) relationships. The entry will explore what consent is and why consent is important, both legally and morally. Our investigation will also explore the conditions under which consent might be said to be “invalid,” e.g. in cases where consent was obtained through deception, coercion, or in which the consenting person lacked capacity to give consent. As always, the Legal Theory Lexicon is aimed at law students, especially first-year law students, with an interest in legal theory.
The Ontology of Consent
What is consent? We all know about paradigm cases of consent and its absence. Consent is clearly present (ceteris paribus) when someone says “I consent” and really means it. Consent is absent when someone says, “I object” and really means it. But the ability to distinguish clear cases of consent and its absence is not sufficient for a theory of consent.
In general, there are two families of theories about the nature of consent. One theory is that consent is a mental state—either an affective state such as desire or a volitional state such as choice. The second theory is that consent is a performative—a speech act in which one person agrees to something by communicating with another person (or persons). Each of these two approaches to consent requires some additional explanation.
Consent as a Mental State
The first possibility is that consent is a mental state. But what kind of mental state? Is a consent a willing, a wish, a desire, a choice, a preference, or something else? We can investigate two possibilities:
Consent as an Affective Mental State. One possibility is that when Alice consents to be kissed by Ben, her consent consists in a certain attitude towards the kiss. For example, if Alice wants (or desires) Ben to Kiss her, then we might be tempted to say that Alice has consented to the Kiss. Another candidate for the relevant affective mental state might be preference. We might say that Alice consents to Ben’s kiss if Alice prefers Ben’s kissing her to the alternative.
Consent as a Volitional Mental State. There is another possibility. It might be that consent is not attitude but a decision, choice, or willing. Thus, we might say that Alice consents to Ben’s kiss if Alice has willed that Ben kiss her.
Affective mental states like desires or preferences are not identical to volitional mental states like choosings or decisions. To want something is different than to having chosen to do it. Of course, there may be a close relationship between affective and volitional states. For example, you might believe that when you have an all-things-considered desire to be kissed, then the choice—the choosing to be kissed—follows more or less automatically. These are deep waters that we can elide for the purposes of this bare-boned introduction to the idea of consent.
Consent as a Performative
It is not clear that our ordinary language conception of consent can be reduced to a mental state. Consent is both a noun and an intransitive verb. Thus, we say things like, “I consent” or “He consented to having his name put forward in nomination.” When used in this way consent seems to be some kind of action, accomplished through communication. Consent could be a performative--a communicative act in which the speaker communicates permission for or agreement to a course of action.
So which is it? Is consent a mental state or a communicative action? This is not the sort of question that can be resolved by a Legal Theory Lexicon entry. My opinion is that the performative theory best captures the ordinary language conception of consent. One reason I think so is that the idea of secret consent—which would be a perfectly alright if consent is a mental state—doesn’t seem to comport with our usual way of talking about consent. “I consented to the operation, but I didn’t tell anyone”—sounds quite odd to my ear.
The law goes both ways, however, and the legal notion of consent may vary with context. Thus, in the criminal law, "legal consent" may be a mental state, whereas in torts or contracts "legal consent" may be a performative.
The Moral and Legal Force of Consent
Assuming we knew what consent is, we can ask the further question, “What legal and moral effect does consent have and why?
The Normative Significance of Consent
Sometimes it is said that consent works "moral magic." What does that mean? The idea is that consent has a transformative moral power: consent can transform a wrongful action into a rightful action. Batteries are both morally wrong and and subject to legal sanctions (both criminal and civil), but consent somehow drains the punch of its moral and legal offense. Taking my property with the intent of permanently depriving me of use and enjoyment is theft, but taking my property with consent is simply accepting a gift.
Why Does Consent Have Moral and Legal Force
Once we recognize that consent does have some kind of transformative moral and legal force, the next question we might ask is why? There are lots of way to approach the question why consent has moral force. For example, we might approach the question from the perspectives of the major families of moral theories. Let’s give that a whirl.
Autonomy and Consent--Some moral theories make “autonomy” a central moral idea. Of course, autonomy isn’t easy to describe—especially in a sentence or so. We might say that the core idea of autonomy is self-direction or self control. An autonomous person is one who directs her own life, and not someone whose life is controlled by others. Of course, we can’t all do whatever we would like without running the risk of interfering with each other. Hence, from the idea of autonomy, we might derive the idea of moral rights and duties that create for each individual a sphere of autonomous action, in which each individual can direct her own life without interfering with the like freedom of others to do the same. The moral force of consent comes naturally if one accepts autonomy as a central moral value. Consent allows others to enter one’s sphere of autonomy. So long a consent is freely given, consented-to rights violations seem perfectly consistent with the idea that rights protect a sphere of individual choice.
Utility and Consent--Can utilitarians account for the moral force of consent? Of course, for a utilitarian, consent really can’t be said to be “moral magic.” For utilitarians, the bottom line question is whether a particular state of affairs involves greater utility than the alternatives. So, on the surface, it might seem like consent is not, per se, morally relevant. Consent is just a fact; only good and bad consequences are morally significant.
But it is more complicated than that. There are many possible forms of utilitarianism, and one dimension of variation concerns the various conceptions of utility. One important form of utilitarianism holds that there utility consists in the satisfaction of preferences. Suppose that one also believed that consent was the mental state of preferring the consented-to action to the alternatives. If no third parties were affected (and assuming that consent was freely given on the basis of adequate information), then the consented-to activity would maximize utility. So for at least some utilitarians, consent would be presumptive evidence that the consented-to action would maximize utility and hence be the morally best action.
Virtue and Consent--Consent will also be relevant to aretaic (or virtue-based) moral theories. One of the virtues is justice, and humans with this virtue will not violate the rights of others without their consent. Virtue ethics differs from deontological and utilitarian theories in part because virtue ethics denies that there is any decision procedure for ethics. That is, a virtue ethicist is unlikely to believe that consent can work “moral magic,” but instead is likely to believe that the moral salience of consent is contextual—depending on the particular circumstances of the case. Virtue ethics is also likely to ask the question whether the person given the consent is a virtuous agent. Humans without the virtues are likely to give consent when they shouldn’t—when, for examploe, the consented-to action might actually cause unjustified harm to the fortunes or capacities of the consenting agent. In such circumstances, virtue ethics might deny that consent works moral magic. A virtuous agent might regard herself as obligated not to take advantage of consent—despite the fact that the consent was freely given by an agent who meets the legal standard of competence in circumstances without coercion or deception.
Valid and Invalid Consent
We have one more important topic to consider. Consent may be invalid. Let’s explore three kinds of reasons for concluding that consent is invalid, and hence that consent does not transform the legal or moral situation: (1) deception, (2) coercion, and (3) incapacity.
Deception--Consent obtained by deception may be invalid, either morally or legally or both. For example, if Alice consents to Ben’s kiss, because Ben tells Alice that he likes her very much, but Ben in fact does not like Alice at all, then Alice’s consent may not be morally valid. Because Ben obtained Alice’s consent by deception, Ben is not morally authorized to kiss Alice. In this case, however, the law would not consider Alice’s consent to be legally invalid. Although Ben may be morally wrong if he kisses Alice, he will not have committeed the crime of sexual assault or the tort of battery. Legally, this kind of deception is not sufficient to invalidate Alice’s consent.
Outright fraud—intentionally making false statements about something materially relevant to the decision at hand—is the most obvious form of deception. But deception may involve nondisclosue as well as lying. If Ben fails to disclose to Alice that Ben is married, then Alice’s consent may not be morally transformative—although once again, the law will still treat Alice’s consent as legally valid.
Coercion--Consent may also be invalid because it is coerced. For example, if Alice consents to Ben’s kiss because Ben has threatened to harm her if she does, then her consent is invalid. And this is true, both morally and legally. Because consent was coerced, Ben should not kiss Alice and if he does, he will have acted tortiously and perhaps criminally as well.
One problem with coercion is distinguishing threats from offers and warnings. Consent is not invalidated because it is induced by an offer or warning, but it will be invalidated if induced by a threat. How do we differentiate threats from offers and warnings. One strategy is to specify a baseline of legal and/or moral entitlement. We call a communication promising an action in exhange for consent a threat, if the action would move the party below the baseline of entitlements. We call a communication promising an action in exchange for consent, if the action would move the consenting party above the baseline of moral and/or legal entitlements. So if Ben promises Alice that he will let her choose the movie in exchange for a kiss, that is an offer. If he promises to force Alice to watch a movie she doesn’t like if she doesn’t consent to a kiss, that is a threat.
Warnings are neither offers nor threats. One kind of warning arises when the warning party predicts consequences outside its control. If Ben predicts to Alice that she will feel silly if she doesn’t consent to a kiss, then he has warned her of a consequence, but he has neither made a threat nor an offer. Another kind of warning involves situations in which the warning party does have control. For example, "If you continue to smoke, I will leave the room," may be a warning rather than a threat if the warning party does not intend to change the behavior of the party being warned.
Incapacity--Consent requires capacity. For example, children cannot consent to sexual relations as a matter of law—hence, consent is no defence to a charge of statutory rape. On the other hand, children can consent to lots of things, including rough play such as wrestling. Other examples of incapacity include mental illness, profound developmental disability, or severe intoxication. If Ben consents to Alice’s taking Ben’s new Mini Cooper on a two-week road trip while Ben is completely blotto (and Alice knows this), then his consent may be invalid and hence Ben may be legally entitled to demand that Alice return his car.
Consent is one of those ideas that cuts across courses and theoretical approaches. We’ve barely scratched the surface of consent, but I hope that this post has provided a very basic introduction to some of the key concepts.
Related Lexicon Entries
- Legal Theory Lexicon 021: Speech Acts
- Legal Theory Lexicon 048: Libertarian Theories of Law
- Legal Theory Lexicon 058: Contractarianism, Contractualism, and the Social Contract
- Scott Anderson, Coercion, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Louis Charland, Decision-Making Capacity, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Alan Wertheimer, Consent to Sexual Relations (Cambridge Studies in Philosophy and Law) . (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2005).
- Peter Westen, The Logic of Consent: The Diversity and Deceptiveness of Consent As a Defense to Criminal Conduct (Ashgate Publishing 2004).
(This entry was last updated on April 22, 2018. I owe thanks to the late Alan Wertheimer for a very helpful clarification re warnings and to Tom Bell for comments on the state of the law.)