sábado, 26 de septiembre de 2015

The Purpose of Freedom: when consent goes wrong

The Limits of Consent

by Timothy Hsiao

Consent only has value when it is used to make decisions based on knowledge of what is truly good for us as human beings.
Earlier this year, an article in New York Magazine featured a story involving an eighteen-year-old woman who plans to marry and have children with her father. When the interviewer asked her to respond to those who might question her relationship, she offered the following reply:

I just don’t understand why I’m judged for being happy. We are two adults who brought each other out of dark places ... When you are 18 you know what you want. You’re an adult under the law and you’re able to consent.

Her reasoning is typical of contemporary liberal approaches to sexual morality, which are usually justified by appealing to mutual consent. So long as an activity is performed in private between consenting adults, it is argued, there can be nothing inherently objectionable about what they do. Why? Because they have given their consent, and consent is what matters most when it comes to one’s decision to engage in sexual activity.

The implications of this position are far-reaching. Many have invoked the consent principle to argue for the permissibility of polyamory and consensual incest. Once we view the morality of sex as being determined only by mutual agreement, then it becomes very hard to make any principled distinctions about the shape of sexual relationships.

When Consent Goes Wrong

There are a number of problems with this way of understanding sex. The most obvious problem with basing sexual morality on consent is that we can consent to things that are bad for us. Here we need only to think of those who deliberately cut themselves, desire the amputation of a healthy limb, or intentionally neglect their own health. These persons may have consented to engage in these activities, but their exercise of autonomy is nevertheless bad and self-destructive. So the mere fact that we may agree to do something does not show that what we are doing is morally permissible.

The defender of liberal sexual morality might respond by making a distinction between consent and informed consent. The self-harmer may choose to engage in these activities, but he does so without the full knowledge and understanding of the self-destructive effects that accompany them. If he really knew what he were about to do, then things might have turned out differently.


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