Wednesday, July 11, 2012


I am in the middle of a series on the subject of "excuses" - explaining how desirism accounts for the different types of excuse.

I am on the excuse of "consent" - where a person claims not to have done something wrong because their alleged victim gave consent.

However, the excuse of consent needs to be built on a more general theory of consent. I will present this general account of consent - according to desirism - over the course of the next two blog posts.


Many actions are impermissible unless the agent obtains the consent of other parties affected by the action. In desirism terms, people have many and strong reasons to promote an aversion to certain act types -such as sex and other act-types violating the body of another and the use of their property - when performed without the consent of the other.

Desirism and Consent

We are building on the proposition that desires are the only reason for action that exist. People have reason to act so as to objectively satisfy the most and strongest of their desires. This is accomplished in part by using social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote in others those desires that tend to objectively satisfy the desires of the agent, or to inhibit desires that tend to prevent the objective satisfaction of the desires of the agent.

Each of us has many and strong reasons to have others obtain our consent when acting in ways that affect our interests. We have reason to make them averse to performing those act-types when they do not have our consent.

At the same time, they have reason to promote in us an aversion to those act types when we do not have their consent. It is not that these act-types are to be prohibited at all times. It is that we have reason to regulate them so that those consistent with our interests are more common, and those inconsistent with our interests are less common.

The most effective way to do that is through an aversion to performing those act types without the consent of those affected. It is not that the agent wants to perform the act but, through force of will, restrains himself when he does not have consent. It is that the agent does not want to perform the act unless he has consent. He hates performing the act-type except under conditions where others have given consent.

People generally have many and string reasons to use social tools such as condemnation to promote such an aversion. This is a part of our moral training.

The Most Knowledgable and Least Corruptible Agent

By definition, each of us can promote the objective satisfaction of more and stronger of our desires by giving the task of deciding what to do to the most knowledgable and least corruptible agent available. This decision maker would be the person who has the most information and the fewest distractions that would otherwise move them to ends that would not objectively satisfy the most and the strongest of our own desires.

For the majority of us, the most knowledgable and least corruptible agent to task with directing our own lives is ourselves. Corruptibility is not even possible - we always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of our own desires (given our beliefs). An agent's own actions comes from that agent's own desires as a matter of necessity - actions that did not spring from her own desires are not hers.

If an agent's actions go awry, it is because of false or incomplete beliefs. Yet, even here, the agent has spent a lifetime doing research on the facts relevant to the objective satisfaction of that agent's desires. In general, an agent knows more about things that matter to that agent than any other person.

Where actions go wrong, it is generally a result of false beliefs. The act selected is one that would fulfill the most and strongest desires in a universe where the agent's beliefs are true. But the agent's beliefs are not always true, so the agent's actions do not always objectively satisfy the most and strongest of an agent's desires in fact.

Even when agents are clearly wrong on some matters - if, for example, some cult leader has filled their heads with false beliefs about an afterlife and what they must do in this life to get it (usually, serve and obey the cult leader) - it is still safer to trust each person to direct their own life then to eliminate this aversion to consent - and risk giving the cult leader dictatorial control over the lives of others.

In general, each of us has a reason to plant in others an aversion to actions not approved of by the most knowledgable and least corruptible authority on our interests. For each of us, that authority is ourselves. At the same time that each if us has reason to promote an aversion to act -types without consent, others have reason to promote the same aversion in us. Our interests - those things that give us a reason to act - to praise and condemn - comes to include this aversion to act-types performed without consent.

The Consent of the Governed

We do not have a reason to promote universal consent to every single act. In fact, this is an incoherent option, given that we would then need to obtain permission to ask for permission. Thus, the moral role of consent is not universal and absolute. It applies to the most personal and intimate acts to those directly affected. There is a reason to put limits on how far out to go with this aversion.

In some cases, in order to make a decision efficiently and yet to obtain as much consent as possible, we use a proxy for consent. "Let's see if we can efficiently get above a certain minimum threshold of consent - let's say, more than half the people." We take a vote. Governments get their legitimacy from the consent of the governed, but not the unanimous consent of every single citizen.

Guardians and Wards

Of course, some agents are not the most knowledgeable when it comes to their own interests. This is not true of children and some adults who are mentally impaired. They lack the opportunity or ability to form the relevant true beliefs. In these cases, assigning their decisions to the most knowledgeable and least corruptible agent means assigning those decisions to somebody else - usually a parent (unless the parent proves to lack knowledge or corruptibility - sacrificing the interests of the ward either through ignorance, a lack of interest in the ward's concerns, or too much interest in things incompatible with the interests of the child).

The guardian's duty is to act as a proxy for the ward in making decisions - to make the decision the ward would make if the ward were more knowledgable and better appreciated possible future desires.

Every situation where one agent controls the life of another is exploitive to some extent. The guardian will always act to fulfill the most and strongest of the guardian's own desires (given his beliefs). We can seek a guardian whose own desires include strong desires compatible with the interests of the ward, and few desires incompatible with the interests of the ward. However, even in the best of circumstances, that will be a subset of the guardian's own interests. Perhaps a large subset, but a subset nonetheless. He will have other interests, and there will be times when those interests will win out over the interests of the ward. We can rule out behaviors that are often and most obviously exploitive, but it is beyond our capacity to eliminate it.


A discussion of consent requires that some attention be given to the topic of duress. However, this post is long enough already. Therefore, I will add some comments on duress tomorrow.

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