Christian Michel joined us at the Rose and Crown on August 7th to deal with an important issue. As advertised, the premise of the talk was that consent is considered to be the foundation of proper human interactions, but yet it is not frequenty discussed as a concept in it’s own right. How is consent given? Are there limits to what can be consented to?
The words that follow are Simon’s summary including ‘explanatory restatements’ in single quotes, except for “direct quotes” from Christian in double quotation marks:
Christian opened the talk with an extreme example in which, for reasons of their own, one man consented to be killed by another. The death was video taped and there was various evidence that the death was not only consented to but planned for in advance (with the deceased putting his affairs in order), and consent was maintained throughout the event itself. The German court eventually ruled that the case was an assisted suicide and therefore was illegal in German law. At one point however, the jury condemned the perpetrator without giving grounds and Christian did not dispute the propriety of that verdict. He accepted that death is not something that can be properly consented to.
Christian discussed a couple of dictionary definitions of Consent:
“a non-coerced agreement to what another proposes”
“to freely concede to or acquiesce in what is being done”
He also gives details of some broadly accepted legal principles, and eludidated various examples from medicine and everyday life:
- Must be given prior to the action
- Has to be specific
- Must be informed
- Freely given
Point 4 is a key one. Christian gives the example of a sweatshop where starving people have no good alternative options but to work there, however unpleasant that option is. The applicable test, for Christian is whether the sweatshop “created the circumstances” that caused the starving person to agree to the work.
By contrast a mugger, armed with a weapon, offers his victim only one choice (to restate it:) ‘your money or your life’ which is logically similar to (restated) ‘your labour or your life’ (the choice a sweatshop worker might have) but in this case the robber is clearly the person that created the circumstances that lead to the contrained choices of the victim. In the sweatshop example the proprietor is offering a positive choice, and there may be other alternatives (such as a more uncertain rural lifestyle).
Christian states his assumption that denying the autonomy of a person is an undesireable action, that tends only to harm the person, but went on to deal with the case of persons who a temporarily incapacitated. The usual procedure he says, is that we proceed to do the things that the incapacited person would have wanted. This is prone to error, for example, when people have unusual and uncommon beliefs. In contrast in the special case of children we tend instead to decide something more about means by which the child might acheive a happy life becuase they are the ends in themselves. Another view, he said, is that we view children as – for instance – the future of a country, that is, as the means to the acheivement of the common good, which is highly problematic.
Christian then goes onto to give several examples of where the choice we make, be it for a lack of moral courage, moral decency or will power, is different from the choice we believe we ought to make. This set’s him up nicely to consider an important political question:
It is one thing to understand why a minority rebel’s, but why is it that the majority do not rebel?
Christian speculates that there may be a degree of brainwashing,or some natual perogative that leads us to obey leaders. Christian asserts that schools are the mechanism by which many regimes acheive the continued acceptence of their own rule.
In a representative democracy however, it is not even clear what it is that a voter has consented to, regardless of their reasons. For instance, we do not know the bills a representative will vote on, how he will vote and or what will happen and so there is no valid consent in such a process.
Christian repeats that the 4 legal principles he gave will tell us whether someone has consented, and that due to the various problems with democratic decision making, only a libertarian society based on individual and specific consent is a proper model for a humane social structure.