Seeking consent is not an ethical principle

NOTE HXA7241 2020-08-15T09:14Z

Moral/ethical problems are about where individual wants, ie consents, conflict, so consent alone can never solve moral problems.

Imagine that there is one almond – which only one person can have – and I want it. If you consent to me having it (maybe you have another almond), then there is no ethical problem. Your consent did not solve, or in fact do, anything. And if you do not consent to me having it (maybe you have no alternative), then we do have a problem. But what does consent do there? It is no use ‘seeking consent’: the problem is that we do not consent. To say we should seek consent is merely to re-emphasise the problem. It adds nothing.

Consent only makes sense when there is something else we could do: we could do this, but if we do not agree, we can do something else. But then what/where was the problem? Consent signals that there was no problem. We had a choice and took one, according to our inclinations. What was the puzzle that was resolved by ‘seeking consent’? What is consent doing here? How does it solve anything? We did not make our choices because we sought agreement, we agreed because we had already made those choices. Consent is presented as a kind of general moral proposition, ie as a solution to how we should act, yet in that role it seems to do nothing at all. Agreement is the resultant fact, not an algorithm for it.

So consent does not make much sense, in the kind of fuzzy way normally taken for granted. It is not that it is not good, or that you should not seek it, but that you cannot seek it. Consent/agreement is not the outcome of your interactions with the world, but their precondition. If two people agree on something, it is effectively just chance, luck. It does not make sense to seek it. To say ‘we should seek consent’ is a rather meaningless and pointless suggestion. If we do not agree, then what does the suggestion to ‘seek consent’ do? The fact is that we do not agree.


Making consent a principle is meaningless, unless it is part of at least one level of hierarchy. Consent only makes sense as being about overall rules encompassing individual events, not about individual events. Consent makes sense in being consent to a global rule, that yields local constraints that you do not consent to. Consent then is really about structure.