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Old 07-18-2014, 12:39 AM
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Default Ethical Inquiry: Is Consent Enough?

I've been ruminating on a question about what it is that puts the ethical in ethical non-monogamy. I haven't really settled the question to my own satisfaction, so I thought I'd introduce it here for some discussion.

What I'm hoping for is a really frank and serious discussion, but one that is aimed at greater understanding rather than at defending or supporting one particular agenda or another.

The question starts with an observation based on several years of reading on this and other forums.

Many people speak as though any kind of personal or intimate relationship is acceptable or justifiable so long as all parties to that relationship are adults and consent to its terms. To put it the other way around, so long as all parties consent, there is no basis whatsoever for anyone else to criticize that relationship, let alone try to limit it by any legal or institutional means.

In other words, consent is a sufficient condition for ethical justification; consent is enough.

So here's the question: Is consent really enough?

My hunch is that consent is a necessary condition for ethical justification of forms of relationships - no relationship between adults can pass ethical muster without consent - but I'm not really convinced that, once consent is secured, anything goes.

I have two reasons to doubt that consent is enough:

First, it seems to me many people have something of a thin notion of consent, mistaking really wanting something for consenting to it. As many threads about NRE reveal, really strong desire can cloud the kind of reasoned choice that is the basis of genuine consent.

If consent collapses into simple hedonism, it seems to me it can't even be a necessary condition for an ethical relationship, let alone a sufficient condition.

Second, while consent is certainly a central notion in ethics, it is not the only notion that makes claims upon us. There is also the principle that we should prevent harm to others and to ourselves, and that we should cultivate a moderate and disciplined character.

These don't always line up. So, suppose three people consent to a relationship the terms of which increase the risks of certain kinds of harms to others, or in some way erode or twist the development of character on the part of those involved.

In such a case, even if they all consent, perhaps they shouldn't continue that relationship on those terms.

Or suppose two people are at the beginning of a relationship and one or both of them has had their capacity to give free consent compromised in some way - because of addiction, or because of past abuse or oppression, for example - perhaps the fact that both now say "yes" should be viewed with some caution and some care.

I know I'm skating on thin ice, here, but I do it for the sake of learning.

I may even go so far to suggest that "yes" does not always mean "yes" and that, even if it does mean "yes", it doesn't mean that those involved should just dive in.
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Old 07-18-2014, 12:55 AM
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Okay, reading back over what I just posted, it seems to me I raised not one but three - at least - separate questions:

What is consent?

Under what conditions can someone be said to give consent? (and, May their capacity to give consent be impaired in some way?)

If all parties to a given relationship give their consent to it, is that either a necessary or a sufficient condition for that particular relationship to be ethically acceptable? (Do other ethical values and ideas have any bearing and, if so, what is their importance relative to consent?)

I would also note that this third question might function across several levels, from whether it's really advisable, ethically or practically, for the individuals to establish or continue in the relationship to whether the wider society should prohibit, permit or even support relationships of that type, as a matter of general policy.
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Edit: P.S. I know I'm skating on thin ice with that last point. I think most people talk about all kind of ethical values and ideals when digging into the nitty-gritty of actual relationships, but fall back on consent between adults in response to monogamo-normativity in the wider society and its institutions. Since many on this site are directly interested in not being messed with by the wider society and its institutions, raising the question of whether consent is enough might be tantamount to breaking a taboo. But then, advocacy for same-sex marriage, for example, has sometimes emphasized its benefits, not simply an appeal to a laissez-faire attitude toward consent.
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Old 07-18-2014, 03:09 AM
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I'm not Wiccan. But it seems to me that the concept you're looking for, and one I also try to live by, is "an it harm none,do as ye will" -which is a far, FAR stricter Rule than many people acknowledge.
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Old 07-18-2014, 11:25 AM
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I'm not Wiccan. But it seems to me that the concept you're looking for, and one I also try to live by, is "an it harm none,do as ye will" -which is a far, FAR stricter Rule than many people acknowledge.
I misread the principle, at first, so I thought it was a call for disproportionate retaliation. Now that my eyes are focused - it's early, and the tea is just kicking in - I can see it's sort of a laissez-faire idea: Do as you will, so long as it doesn't harm anyone.

(Though, according to Wikipedia - I know, terrible source, but I don't have any books about Wicca on hand - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wiccan_Rede - there's actually some debate among Wiccans about how to interpret this: does "harm none" extend only to you and those close to you, or does it extend to everyone affected by an act?)

Read one way, it's an interesting mix of the idea of reciprocity - which is closely allied to consent and autonomy - and the principle of preventing harm to others . . . though there's nothing that requires it be read that way.

In any case, I'm not looking for just one principle. My own view of ethics is that it's complicated: our moral experience is really rich and complex and sometimes ambiguous, and no one rule or theory can account for everything important or relevant to choosing and living responsibly.

My own understanding of consent, rooted in the idea of autonomy and reciprocity among those capable of thinking in terms of general rules, is really quite stringent itself, and I take it to be central to a lot of what's interesting about ethical thinking. The principle that we ought to prevent harm to others, to reduce the total amount of pain and suffering in the world, is a separate principle, and quite stringent in its own right.

At the theoretical level, the emphasis on autonomy and the emphasis on preventing harm are totally incompatible, involving radically different conceptions of what it is to be human, what it is to think, and what is to count as a value in ethical decision making. You can see this at a practical level when you come across cases in which something that could reduce harm or increase benefit in the long run requires deception that undermines informed consent: many experimental set-ups in psychology fall into that particular gap, and it's up to Institutional Review Boards to strike the balance between incompatible principles.

This is all by way of clarifying what led me to introduce this thread: intimate relationships are complicated and sometimes really fraught with ethical peril and, as much as I think consent is really at the heart of the matter, it seems to me that consent cannot be the only measure we use, either in giving form to relationships themselves or in defending/advocating for unconventional relationships to the wider society.

As to that last point, as I noted in a postscript, above, I'm supposing people are likely to get kind of defensive about this, and so put up a defensive kind of argument: "I'm not hurting anyone! Leave me alone!" ("Laissez-moi faire!") That's an understandable ploy but probably not adequate, ethically speaking.
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Old 07-18-2014, 02:21 PM
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My standard would be informed consent. That is, the person consenting does so based on adequate disclosure, knowledge, understanding and a perspective of society and culture.

As an example of uninformed (unacceptable) consent, in my view, fundamentalist Mormon polygamist wives are incapable of informed consent, because they've been indoctrinated and manipulated into a limited worldview that precludes being properly informed.
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Old 07-18-2014, 02:25 PM
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I'll try to answer your three questions as best I can. This is a good topic to chew on.

1) To me, consent is the choice made when there is freedom to make an informed choice. It seems simple on the surface, but it can be a complicated idea, especially since some people are not very aware of the reasons they make certain decisions or they think they don't have a choice when they do (cases of emotional abuse being the easiest to draw on here). Ultimately, I use my own reasoned consent to avoid people I feel are shirking the responsibility for their own decisions or are somehow incapable of taking responsibility for their own decisions. I avoid engaging in relationships with people who show signs of thinking they "need" me or who try to cultivate a need for them in me. I avoid people who appear to be dishonest with themselves or with others.

2) At its purest level, I believe that physical force (or the threat of it against the self or loved ones) and deception (including actions like drugging someone without their knowledge) are the only two ways to truly violate consent, although I am willing to hear more. When someone is inebriated, I am torn. People who are new to a particular altered state of consciousness or who are unaware of the impacts those altered states can have on moods or decision making probably have more claim to having their consent violated than those who regularly engage in high-risk behaviors where they are making bad decisions and continuing to pursue altered states even when they make decisions that end up harming themselves. For me, I take responsibility for all decisions I make when I am in an altered state of consciousness, when I have willingly ingested the drug or taken the action to get myself to that state, and especially when I have enough experience in that state to know what I'm getting myself into. I don't consider it the responsibility of anyone else to know better or to take care of me or to interpret my actions any differently than if I were sober. Knowing that not everyone takes this kind of responsibility for themselves, though, I tend to avoid getting physically involved with people for the first time while they are altered (either first time of us interacting physically or first time they are altered with a particular substance). After the first sober encounter and after knowing they know what they are getting themselves into with a particular substance, I try to have a sober discussion about how they'd like to be treated when they are altered.

I guess most of that response has to do with possible impairment of consent. I would like to see a society where people are raised to be responsible for the choices they make, although I can only start with myself and I can only work with the information I have. I try to be aware of where others are not taking responsibility for their decisions and I try to avoid interacting with those people, because at some point they are likely to try to make me responsible for their decisions.

3) I think consent is a necessary condition for an ethical relationship, and only a sufficient one if followed strictly. So a couple might open up their relationship and partner A may suddenly feel as if they want partner B to spend 12 hours a week of alone time with them and have sex with them at least twice a week. Partner B can consent to this request or not. If partner B does not want to consent to this request, then B must convey this truth to A so that A is free to make a fully informed decision. If B does not consent, A must then decide whether A still consents to be in a relationship with B. If so, A accepts that B has denied this request and can start the process over again with a different negotiation. B is not responsible for making A happy. Neither party is ever required to stay in the relationship (and emotional dependency for me is a reason to stop consenting to be in a relationship with someone). Now if B isn't being honest with themselves, and agrees to A's request without really wanting to do it, B is then responsible for acting in accordance or retracting the agreement in an up front way. B should not feel resentment toward A for "making" B do something B doesn't want to do, because B agreed to this.


Ultimately, I don't think it is the responsibility of society to police these kinds of interpersonal interactions. It doesn't need to condone it, necessarily, but I think it is unnecessary and even harmful for society to take action against consenting adults that are willfully engaging in something. THAT is a violation of the consent of those adults, to be controlled by an exterior force when they aren't willfully harming another through violation of the other's consent.
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Old 07-18-2014, 03:00 PM
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Ultimately, I don't think it is the responsibility of society to police these kinds of interpersonal interactions. It doesn't need to condone it, necessarily, but I think it is unnecessary and even harmful for society to take action against consenting adults that are willfully engaging in something. THAT is a violation of the consent of those adults, to be controlled by an exterior force when they aren't willfully harming another through violation of the other's consent.
This is one point regarding which I am still on the fence. It's easy to cast this as "you and me against the world, you and me against them", but that treats society as a monolithic other attempting arbitrarily to impose limits on our freedom.

But, then, even our freedom can be seen as based on a social contract as embodied in particular institutions, a social contract to which you and I are parties. "They" is "us" . . . to coin a phrase.

Take property rights, for example. All else being equal, I can do what I want with my property . . . but that's based on a social system to which we have (tacitly) consented, one that defines property, establishes a market for exchanging property, and enforces protection of property against individuals who might seek to acquire it by force, fraud or simple taking.

(Here in Georgia, the most straightforward kind of property crime goes by the quaint name, "theft by taking".)

That said, there is a limit to the license I have to use my property. Under the current order of things, I may not use my residential property to open a dry cleaning business, or a tallow rendering works, or a sex-toy shop - too close to a school for that! - or any number of other uses. I cannot build things on the banks of the stream that runs at the back of my house, as it might cause erosion that will harm the stream itself, the life dependent on it, and people downstream.

If I do any of those things, I will be sanctioned, and I think rightly so, because there is a compelling public interest in limiting my freedom to use my property in any number of ways.

So, where freedom to use property is concerned, I really cannot reasonably fall back on the cry of "I can do what I want! Leave me alone!"

There may be significant differences between use of property and the forms of intimate relationships, but it's not hard to imagine a reasoned argument along these same lines. You and I may not be convinced, in the end, but it is not a trivial argument or one to be dismissed lightly.

Marriage, for example, is a social institution that could be said to play a vital role in our political order; like all institutions, it limits behavior in some directions, encourages behavior in other directions, and aims to secure particular social goods. The argument would be that we are all better off with this institution, with all its restrictions, all the ways it defines the limits of freedom, than we are without it.

Now, there are (at least) two possible responses to this:

1. "I can do what I want! Leave me alone!" (or, We should be free to renegotiate the meaning of marriage or of intimate relationships in any way we want, as individuals, with or without approval or permission from them.)

or, 2. We are not all better off with enforcement of the current model of marriage; we would be better off with institutions that are more flexible and permissive, allowing a range of possible configurations of binding commitments between people. So, we ought to revise the social contract in specific ways . . . as we seem to be doing even now, with same-sex marriage.

Note that response 2. appeals to values other than or in addition to consent, and certainly more than leave-me-alone relativism. It appeals to benefits and harms to society as a whole, a society of which we ourselves are part, whether we're happy to acknowledge that or not.
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Old 07-18-2014, 04:10 PM
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For any and all issues where it can be proved that an individual's behavior is harmful to the greater good, then I believe they are violating the consent of everyone they share the planet with. Polluting, especially on massive industrial scales, assumes that all the air that everyone shares is yours to do with as you please, even if you are aware of and capable of ways to prevent that.

Not selling sex toys because it is near a school is a stupid law, and I don't agree with its implementation nor do I see any clear and demonstrable benefit to society for creating or enforcing it.

Similarly, I would like to see rigorous, peer-reviewed science explaining why marriage is an institution that we should be all that concerned with and clearly enumerated benefits. People do make that argument, but I don't see any logical reason to believe it. As a matter of fact, I think marriage as it stands has been more harmful to society than good, in the form of making society mono-centric to the point of restricting the religious freedom of those who practice plural marriage, in the form of putting all the focus and importance of society into a capitalist structure where families are only made to further the economy and not to be human beings in their own right, and in promoting an idea of spousal ownership (it's been far too recent where it's actually legally considered rape if a spouse has sex with you against your will), among other things.

So I guess I'd lean more toward #2. Things that benefit society as a whole definitely can still fall under discussions of consent, although they are more complicated. Personal property is one thing, and corporate property and allocation and use of resources is another. How do we decide what belongs to who and why wouldn't we all be born with equal access to the planet's resources? Probably a discussion much bigger than poly, but it gives you a glimpse into my philosophy on the matter.
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Old 07-18-2014, 05:31 PM
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Similarly, I would like to see rigorous, peer-reviewed science explaining why marriage is an institution that we should be all that concerned with and clearly enumerated benefits. People do make that argument, but I don't see any logical reason to believe it. As a matter of fact, I think marriage as it stands has been more harmful to society than good, in the form of making society mono-centric to the point of restricting the religious freedom of those who practice plural marriage, in the form of putting all the focus and importance of society into a capitalist structure where families are only made to further the economy and not to be human beings in their own right, and in promoting an idea of spousal ownership (it's been far too recent where it's actually legally considered rape if a spouse has sex with you against your will), among other things.

So I guess I'd lean more toward #2. Things that benefit society as a whole definitely can still fall under discussions of consent, although they are more complicated. Personal property is one thing, and corporate property and allocation and use of resources is another. How do we decide what belongs to who and why wouldn't we all be born with equal access to the planet's resources? Probably a discussion much bigger than poly, but it gives you a glimpse into my philosophy on the matter.
I'll have to keep thinking about this - as always! - but a couple of points in response:

First, it seems the burden of proof may be on us to show that our particular kind of deviance is not harmful . . . since we are the deviants.

As an aside, I wonder if we should think of ourselves as engaging in a kind of civil disobedience. But that would mean we should have the courage to accept whatever social sanctions fall on us for our deviance from the norm. It points up the hypocrisy of closeted married types, like me.

Second, for the sake of argument, it might be worth putting the best possible face on the institution of marriage. Yes, traditionally, long ago, marriage was a property arrangement involving an exchange of goods (i.e., a fertile womb) between one man (the father) and another (the husband). Yes, vestiges of that persist in the wedding ceremony and in some of the language we use to describe the institution . . . such as "husband". But I think it's fair to say the institution has been changing and, I hope, will continue to change toward greater equality and more secure protections for both parties to a marriage agreement. At it's very best, marriage can be a pretty good gig.

Third, it might be worth considering a more general case that might be made for having some kind of institution that sets boundaries for intimate relationships, allowing some kinds, restricting other kinds, and backing up socially and/or legally binding obligations for those involved in them. Configure that institution any way you will - short-term marriage leases with flexible provisions, perhaps even a "menu" approach to those provisions, or line marriages or anything else you can imagine - but it would still be an institution, one that includes enforceable limits on individual freedom.

What would be the good of such an institution?

Well, as people on this forum seem to realize early on, negotiating unconventional relationships from the ground up takes a lot of time and effort that could be spent doing other things; it can easily go wrong, leading to all manner of harm and distress and suffering and even abuse; to do it well seems to require an extraordinary degree of self-knowledge and self-control, and is certainly helped along by having extraordinary - in world-historical terms - affluence and leisure.

In short, being unconventional - and perhaps especially trying to be a relationship anarchist - really isn't going to be for everyone.

In fact, even conventional relationships can be fraught with peril. Doing them really well requires some degree of self-knowledge and self-control and, when done wrong, can lead to all manner of harm and distress and suffering and abuse.

So, it might be reasonable to have a social structure in place to guide people into relationships that are more likely to work out, and to provide social and legal structures to 1) foster a degree of self-control, if not self-knowledge, 2) protect each party against possible harm and abuse, and 3) reduce the amount of bandwidth taken up by thinking about and negotiating every aspect of every relationship, so we can get on with other important things in our lives.

In short, it provides a path of least resistance that, if it's well chosen, helps to prevent harm and abuse and can contribute to the good order of society . . . whatever that may be.

Now, if we want to argue that heterosexual monogamous marriage is not the best social structure, or that it should not be the only option available, that's all well and good.

But, playing along with the premise of the argument just set out, it may be on us then to offer alternative institutions, new paths of least resistance for intimate relationships in our societies - and not just models, but enforceable rules.

Tying it back to the original post, two points on consent:

1. It is not just the consent of those involved in a particular relationship configuration that is relevant, and not only their consent to the terms of that relationship; there is also our (tacit) consent to the wider social contract that is the basis of a social and political order. (As I understand consent from ethical theory, it's actually really demanding, as I can only really consent to principles that can apply universally: I am not allowed to make exceptions for myself.)

2. Part of the argument for a change in institutions seems to hinge on questions of overall social benefit and harm, and on questions of developing good character, not just consent freely given.
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Old 07-18-2014, 06:16 PM
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I'll need you to give a good argument for why something that deviates from the norm has the burden of proof to prove it ISN'T harmful. The burden of proof is always on the party making a positive claim.

I don't see a good reason to put a good face on the institution of marriage for the sake of argument. What purpose does this serve? Why not treat the institution as it is, not as we'd like it to be?

The only institution I'd support for helping others in relationships is an educational one. Science is a wonderful tool, and if pitfalls and benefits and information about different lifestyles becomes freely and widely available in an easy-to-understand and digestible format.

I'm uncomfortable with this idea it seems you are putting forth that an individual owes society to contribute meaningfully to it rather than just not harming it. This should also be an axis of consent. Society does not own an individual.
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