Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Consent "Plus"

In my last blog post I addressed the issue of harm.  Many people argue that an action should be considered moral if it does not harm anyone else.  I provided the example of two Peeping Toms to demonstrate that lack of harm, in and of itself, is insufficient to determine the morality of an action.  A similar concept that often arises hand in hand with the harm principle is that of consent.  Under this principle, an action is morally permissible if all parties affected by it give their knowing and voluntary consent.

The same question is properly asked of this alleged justification that was asked of the harm principle: “Is consent in and of itself sufficient to render an action morally permissible?”  As with harm, an example illustrates why this question clearly must be answered in the negative.

Assume an otherwise healthy individual approaches you, gives you a gun, and asks you to shoot him in the head.  This person has no life-threatening health conditions, therefore the usual issues surrounding medically assisted suicide do not enter into the evaluation, permitting us to boil down the ethical dilemma to solely the consent issue.  The person is of both sound mind and body.  He has simply decided for his own reasons that it is time for his life to end.  Not wanting to risk inflicting a non-fatal injury upon himself, he has requested your assistance.  Will you help?

Under the laws of every state in the United States, this would constitute an illegal killing, and I would venture to say that the vast majority of people would concede that it would be a moral violation as well.  The problem with consent as a justification is that it is almost universally attached to something else, at least implicitly.  It is always “consent plus ______.”  In assisted suicide cases, for example, it is consent plus inevitably fatal suffering.  The “plus” term is often overlooked and almost never explicitly stated.  But when challenged with the insufficiency of consent alone, proponents of a position will have to fall back on the “plus.”  At that time, though, it becomes clear that the real issue is not about consent at all.

Again, this does not mean that consent has no role to play in ethics.  For example, whereas it would be morally wrong to randomly stick people with needles, it is acceptable for a physician to give you an injection if that doctor has your consent.  However, it does demonstrate that while consent may be one factor, it alone is neither a necessary (some actions are permissible even without the consent of the person harmed, such as disciplining children or punishing felons) nor a sufficient criteria to render an action morally acceptable.

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