Over the past few weeks, I’ve been thinking about consent. Feminists love to talk about it. And with good reason! It’s important, and it needs to be talked about. But at times, I have found the discussion rather narrow. Most often, consent is discussed in the context of sex.1 And there’s nothing wrong with that—certainly sex is a big area where consent matters. I don’t wish to downplay or belittle the important efforts made to talk about consent in the sexual realm. But to me, consent is much more than about sex—it reveals a meaningful way to think about how to treat people ethically. Consent really forms the backbone of my broader ethical framework, and I want to unpack that a bit.
Consent, as is typically discussed, has to do with some verbal acknowledgment of permission to engage in some particular activity. Again, it is often considered in the context of sexual activity: No means no, yes means yes, and so on. But while this is a good start, and provides us with some basic rules for interacting with others, quite frankly, I just don’t think it’s good enough. To me, seeking consent involves respect for others: Respecting their needs, desires, and preferences. And respect for others goes far beyond sex.
The Context of Consent
We do sometimes talk about consent in different contexts, of course. In politics, people talk about the “consent of the governed”; in medicine, doctors seek the consent of their patients before performing medical procedures. And so with these in mind, we can begin to explore a more complete definition of what consent is: It is an acknowledgement of whether or not a given act is in accordance with one’s own desires. Or from the perspective of the consent-seeker, seeking consent is a way to take consideration of the desires of other people with regard to the decisions that affect their lives. That might mean asking what someone would like for dinner. It might involve managers soliciting feedback from their employees about the direction their business or department should take. Seeking consent means a deep understanding and incorporation of others’ desires when I make decisions about what I do. This focus travels with us no matter where we are, whenever our decisions affect others’ lives.2
I think probably consent is so often discussed in the context of sex because that’s an area where people often have very strong preferences, or an area where neglecting another person’s desires can lead to a strong feeling of violation. But people often have strong desires in other areas of life as well. I am sure many parents have strong desires to keep their children safe, healthy, and happy. People often have strong desires for social connection, for professional achievements, or for feeling competent and efficacious. Were those desires continually thwarted, such people might reasonably feel very much violated, disrespected, or neglected. Think of the abusive partner who continually makes their partner feel incompetent, or restricts their ability to spend time with friends or pursue their career. We often care about when and how people act toward us sexually, but most people have other domains in life they care about strongly, and having our consent ignored can be painful in each of these contexts.
Of course, often the clearest way to gain consent is when people verbalize their preferences. We can ask people what they want or don’t want and they can answer us. The times when this can get particularly tricky is that sometimes, people have strong desires without even necessarily being conscious of having them. We are complex creatures, and sometimes we don’t have access to all the motivations that drive us, even sometimes when they drive us strongly. Such situations can be difficult to manage, because that sense of neglect or resentment can arise without the individuals really having the language to discuss it and deal with it openly. But seeking consent means trying to find those ways to manage. In these situations, open and honest communication is important, and perhaps sometimes it can be helpful to figure out what someone doesn’t want while they engage in the introspection necessary to determine what they do want.
The Ethics of Consent
Prominent ethicist Peter Singer has labelled the ethical framework he subscribes to as “preference utilitarianism”. In his book Practical Ethics, he describes this as an approach to ethics that involves choosing to take actions that, on balance, further the preferences (i.e., the wants, needs, and desires) of those affected. In other words, if we could sum up the number and strength of the preferences of all the people involved in the decision, we should do what maximizes the fulfillment of those preferences. For many decisions, of course, there will be competing preferences, but in general we should try to maximize the extent to which we fulfill everyone’s needs and desires, giving more weight to strong preferences over weak ones. This is a framework that resonates quite well with me, and in particular I think it accords well with an emphasis on consent.
When it comes down to it, consent is important because people want things. Or in some cases, they don’t want things. People are motivated toward and away from some states of affairs, and motivation is pretty much the reason people do or don’t do everything in life.3 So while people don’t always get what they want, being able to fulfill our goals and motivations is something people value. And that makes it especially useful when dealing with moral principles. It is practically a tautology to say that people don’t care about things for which they have no preference (or desire). When people have a preference about something, they care about that state of affairs existing or not existing. This is what makes consent so important: Because when people don’t consider your preferences about something, that means they aren’t considering something you care about. ((As with Singer, I use words like “preferences”, “needs”, “desires”, “wants”, etc. interchangeably. To me, these are essentially matters of degree: Needs are extremely strong preferences, desires and wants may be stronger or weaker. By using the word “preference”, I mean to include all of these, from caring extremely strongly to some very slight concern.))
When we consider consent in terms of fulfilling preferences or desires, we make no distinction about whose preferences they are. The preferences of anyone affected by the decision are relevant for including in our moral calculus. Certainly, in some cases we are better able to access or understand the desires of others, because we can ask them, and they can (usually) tell us. But even when we can’t easily determine another person’s desires, that doesn’t make them irrelevant. No one interested in determining the ethics of a situation would seriously argue that if we don’t speak the same language as another person, or if that person is mute, or sleeping, that therefore their desires don’t matter, and we can do whatever we want to them. The same thing would hold if that person is an infant; babies still fall under the domain of moral concern, even if they can’t clearly communicate their preferences to us. It’s just that in these cases, we need to be more creative about determining their desires. There are several ways we could do this: We can examine their own actions to see how they act or what decisions they make that might indicate their preferences; or we can (carefully) try to infer their preferences based on our own (like the Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”); or if nothing else, we could try to infer at least some very basic preferences based on general principles of physiology. We know that humans need to eat and drink water, and need sleep. We also know some basic things like that humans can feel pain from electrical shock, fire, freezing, and so on. Thus, even when dealing with nonverbal people, like infants, there are some things we can generally infer about people’s desires based on what we know about how humans work.4 The bottom line is that we have an obligation to seek out the preferences of anyone who has a stake in the decision, even if those preferences are not immediately apparent to us. In some cases, we can simply ask. But if we can’t, we still have that moral duty to make our best inference. If they have a preference in the matter, then who that person is or what state they are in is irrelevant.
Expanding the Boundaries
Because the source of preferences is irrelevant to their moral inclusion, we need to ensure that we include all the relevant preferences. But while people have desires, so do non-human animals. We know that animals undoubtedly have desires and motivations. We see them engage in goal-directed activities, whether for survival (the lion chasing the gazelle for food) or for social bonding (chimpanzees grooming each other) or for recreation (a dog playing with a ball). The same principles that we can use to figure out humans’ desires in the absence of speech can be used for non-human animals as well. We have at least some understanding of the physiological characteristics of various animals: the need for food, water and sleep, and so on. In the case of feeling pain, most non-human animals have a nervous system in their bodies that is physiologically similar to ours, and we can also observe animals’ behaviours when they experience what would be painful for us. If someone steps on my fingers, I react to the pain, and we could see similar reactions if you stepped on a dog’s paw. (Please don’t do this on purpose.)
We can also make some inferences, at least for some animals, regarding their mental states. Brains are complex things, and we are still trying to come to grips with how our own human brains work, but many animals also have complex brains that we can infer are able to support similar mental constructs. We know, for example, that humans have complex mental states that support our ability to live in social groups. We are able to keep track of and use names, notions of status, designate different types of relationships, and so on. Our status as social animals also likely necessitates a robust self-concept, in order to be able to recognize our own position within the social structure. So for other social animals, we can make reasonable inferences that such animals should also have mental states about social status, relationships, and self-concepts, and in many cases we have been able to design experiments to provide evidence that these mental states do indeed exist. This means that if we feel pain when excluded from the group, we can make reasonable inferences that other social animals may also feel similar social pain from exclusion.
All this allows us, to some degree, to understand the desires of non-human animals. These inferences we make may not be perfect, and that’s okay. But it is vitally important that we try to make them all the same. As mentioned, the source of preferences is irrelevant to their inclusion in our moral decisions. Just as it would be unethical to ignore the desires of a person who doesn’t speak the same language as you, it would be unethical to ignore the desires of animals who can’t verbalize their desires. Seeking consent means making an active effort to understand and take into account the needs, desires, and preferences of all those who are affected by the decision in question. And certainly in the case of decisions about what we eat and what we wear, animals are greatly affected. Even more broadly, when we make decisions that affect the environment, we affect all the living beings who share this planet. This gives us a clear mandate to behave in ways that respect the preferences of animals.
I know the jump from talking about consent with people to consent with animals can be a difficult one. Sometimes it feels like to take such a thing seriously, we would need to be able to speak to animals like Dr. Dolittle. But it really isn’t so challenging to understand that animals might not want to be subjected to a life in a cage not even big enough for them to turn around in, or might have a desire against forced pregnancies followed by being separated (over and over again) from their offspring, or a desire not to be killed at an age far younger than their normal lifespan. We have evidence that cows mourn their separation from their calves, and of behaviours of many farm animals indicative of severe stress. Such a state of affairs is typical for many of the animals that are involved in our food industry. We are not talking about complex desires here: Would this cow feel more fulfilled if she were allowed to follow her dream of being an artist? The basic desires to not be killed, to not feel pain, to not be starved are not complex or difficult to understand. They are some of the most fundamental desires that one can even contemplate. If we take animals’ desires at all seriously, we are confronted quite starkly with the fact that humans have created an industry that involves the suffering and death of animals on a mass scale. And that should bother you.
I don’t wish to belabour the point here. This article is not intended to be just about animal rights, and further information on this point is a quick Google search away. But my broad point is that I believe a comprehensive view of consent is important, and it requires a much greater perspective than simply talking about sexual activity. It means respecting the desires of beings who care about things. If you believe in the importance of consent, then you should care not only about the desires of people, but the desires of non-human animals as well. If you don’t agree with this conclusion, then the onus is on you to provide an argument about why animal preferences are different than the non-vocalized preferences of humans.
To me, consent in this regard is fundamental to an understanding of ethics: Take into account all those who are affected by a decision, and what they care about. Yes, that is clearly important in the sexual realm, because people care about that. But it is important as a general approach to dealing with other people and non-human animals, in every domain of life. Seeking consent is necessary to be a kind, compassionate, ethical person. I care about it strongly, and I hope you do too.
- Not always. I’m particularly pleased by the articles I’ve seen about how to teach consent to children, which tend to suggest teaching it in other domains, like hugging or touching in general. That being said, it is still typically generally related to physical and bodily autonomy. [↩]
- The point about decisions affecting others is important. Someone may have some strong preference for what I should or should not do with my own body, but I’m under no obligation to take that into account if it does not affect them. If my body is coming into contact with their body, of course, the situation changes. Now my actions affect them as well as myself. [↩]
- Or at least that’s the position of most psychologists of motivation, although perhaps they’re biased by their research interests. But even when people don’t have an explicit reason for doing something, the idea is that there are unconscious goals driving their behaviour. Such an account is fairly parsimonious, given that it ascribes all behaviour to one source, goals, rather than multiple sources. [↩]
- This is in the absence of other information to the contrary, of course. Buddhist monks, or people interested in BDSM, or escape artists might state desires for not receiving food, or wanting to receive pain, or wanting to be thrown to the bottom of the lake. But don’t do those things to people unless they ask! [↩]