The Consent Fallacy

The Consent Fallacy

Warning The links and scenarios have disturbing imagery.

The consent argument is so strong in our culture that its truth is almost self-evident. It says as long as two people consent in an act, that act is therefore moral. Or, if not moral, then it’s none of your business. The consent argument is often amended by changing “two people” to “two adults”, but this swap is becoming less frequent. The acts in question are usually sexual, but not always.

The consent argument, however, is an abysmal failure, which in no way can be used to justify the morality of any act. Consider first these scenarios. All are drawn from actual sources; which is to say, none are fictional and represent acts that occur and in which consent is used, by some, to justify them. If you are current with the state of the culture, each will be recognized.

Scenario 1

Man One wants to masturbate into the rectum of Man Two.

Man Two says, “I consent.”

Man Three then says, “Do what you want, but leave me out of it.”

Men One and Two then say to Man Three, “Your response is insufficient. We appreciate your allowance, but you must also acknowledge the goodness of our act.”

Man Three replies, “No, I cannot: it’s disgusting.”

Men One and Two react, “Then you are a homophobe.”

Scenario 2

Man Four says, “I am sorry to die, but after I go, please feel free to use my corpse for your sexual pleasure.”

A grateful Man Five says, “Thank you. I will.”

Scenario 3

Man Six says, “Come here, Fido. I have a new game to teach you.”

Man Seven says, “That’s animal abuse, for Fido did not give his consent.”

Man Six replies, “I dispute the claim of abuse, for I did not ask the chicken for its consent before slitting its throat and roasting it. But, if it bothers you that much, I will slit Fido’s throat and then teach him the new game.”

Scenario 4

Man Nine asks Man Eight, “Why are you putting your pertinents into the knot of that tree?

Man Eight answers, “I am an ecosexually oriented. I also enjoy peaty bogs where the soil is soft.”

Scenario 5 (Or Scenario 4 continued)

Man Nine says, “What you say saddens me intolerably. Please point this at my temple and push that button. This will end my life, which I no longer want.”

Man Eight answers, “I will be happy to help. But I fear the authorities will punish me, even if you provide written consent.”

Man Nine replies, “Then put on this white lab coat and drape this stethoscope around your neck, and all will be well.”

Scenario 6

Man Ten says, “As you know, I am a professor with many credentials. I have determined that children as young as four can understand the acts which occur to them.”

Man Eleven says, “Hummanahummanahummana!”

Scenario 7

Man Twelve says, “You are my daughter, but I want to have sex with you, with the hope of reproducing.”

Girl One says, “I consent.”

Scenarios Endless

None of these scenarios, which can be multiplied without end, will be recognized as conclusive arguments against consent. They might be appalling to you, which is to say, I hope they are. But consider these scenarios:

Man Thirteen, “I would like to place this wrapper on my apparatus and so prevent your pregnancy.”

Women One, “I consent.”

Man Fourteen: “I will ingest these substances, recreate via fantasy the act of Onan, and lie quietly for several hours.”

These almost certainly will not horrify most of you, but they would have frightened your ancestors, who incidentally are your ancestors because they did frighten them.

The problem with the scenarios is culture creep. Because consent is recognized as the sole or commanding moral test, as soon as a sufficient number or vocal minority of people engage in a practice, that practice will longer be called immoral.

The Consent Fallacy thus is associated with the Current Year a.k.a. Wrong Side Of History Fallacy, though of course they are not identical. It is much closer to the Voting Fallacy, which says acts become moral once a majority agrees on them.

The Consent Fallacy is not that consent is required between parties for some acts. If requiring consent were fallacious, then there would be no such things as contracts or handshake agreements.

Instead, the Consent Fallacy says that because people consent to an act that therefore the act is moral, ethical, or good. It is not that consent is required, necessary or preferred in an act, because consent is often sensible, like again with contracts. But it’s that consent confers upon an act a sort of blessing. It transforms an act from bad or neutral to good. That is the fallacy.

This may be better illustrated with these two scenarios.

Man Fifteen, “I am a woman and you must agree I am.”

Men Sixteen and Seventeen, “We are married and you must agree we are.”

The act of Fifteen was to pretend or to believe falsely that he is a woman. The consequence of that act was that you must agree with his false conclusion, because he has self-consented and because certain agencies have officially consented to his delusion.

The act of Sixteen and Seventeen was to pretend or to believe falsely that they are married to each other. The consequence was the same: you must agree with their false conclusion because not only did they consent to the act, but the government consented, too. You must Bake The Cake.

These scenarios make clear that acts have consequences beyond the individuals directly consenting to an act. What people do in “private” plays out in public; even if the effects are minor, they are never absent. A man killing himself, even if by the hand of a white-coated executioner, consents to the act, but surely all can see that his action has profound reverberations.

A boy told masturbation is healthy and being fed a diet of free porn will not be the same in public as the boy raised without these devices. (Why free?) Consent does not lessen the weakening effects. A boy told he is a girl has as many cultural sequela as a building-sized meteor crashing to the earth.

A diabetic consents in eating a six-pack of donuts, and then consents in the lie, to herself alone, that the donuts won’t do harm. This kind of harm is frowned upon, whereas if the lady eats herself into a diabetic coma with instructions to pull the plug, society smiles. In either case, her actions have reverberations.

Every act in which you partake not under duress or obligation is consented to, at least tacitly. This includes everything from sitting still to smashing an ax into your neighbor’s skull. Every acts affects and changes you in some way, even if the change is minuscule; therefore, if you ever again interact with any other, each of your acts thus affects these others, and they in turn are changed and affect still more people. And so on. It is also impossible to gain consent from everybody else for every act in which you wish to engage. Standards of behavior, including knowledge of good and evil, thus must rely on something besides consent.

Now this is not an essay on why the acts in each scenario above are themselves immoral. I only demonstrate that consent by itself is not what makes an act moral or immoral. To judge any act, we have to look outside consent. Naturally (a nice pun), I advocate natural law, which says simply that acts in accordance with human nature can be moral, and those which are not are not. Even if you (wrongly) reject natural law, you still have to justify each act without regard to consent as its basis (though, of course, consent may be required in any act, even in natural law).

Sin, acts contrary to natural law, Christians say, can be repented of. That is not only a repudiation of genuinely immoral acts, but the creation of a new person cleansed of a corrupted soul. This too has public consequences.

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  1. James

    “These almost certainly will not horrify most of you, but they would have frightened your ancestors, who incidentally are your ancestors because they did frighten them.”

    I’m pretty sure that not all, or even the vast majority of, my ancestors produced me as a consequence of being frightened of condoms and masturbation. For my ancestors could have calmly brooked and even sometimes used condoms and masturbated and yet still have produced me.

    But perhaps you mean that I am the result of their not using a condom or of masturbating. Even then, though, I could be the result of a failed condom or of one of my male ancestors masturbating and soon thereafter penetrating a vagina.

    But perhaps you mean that I could not be the result of sexual congress performed with a working condom, or of a man masturbating alone. Yet this is nothing more than the stating of two trivialities. Of course when a condom works it prevents the creation of a baby, and of course a man who masturbates alone will not produce a baby.

  2. Briggs


    No. It’s that what you obviously do not see as horrifying some did see as horrifying before. Therefore, that a predominant number of people see a thing as horrifying, or not, is not absolute proof of the morality or immorality of an act. You mustn’t extrapolate from the small joke to the general principle.

  3. James


    I was focusing on and taking seriously what you say was a joke (and since it was a joke, I was mistaken to do so).

    “[T]hat a predominant number of people see a thing as horrifying, or not, is not absolute proof of the morality or immorality of an act.”

    I agree with this. Indeed, to believe that x is morally wrong or right just because a majority of humans feel or deem x wrong is simply a crude fallacy—an argument ad populum.

    Still, in the absence of an explicit religion’s dictate (which is compelling usually only to those of that religion), it’s hard to provide strong evidence for why a moral proposition is true. Unfortunately, the mere difficulty or even impossibility of a non-religious person being able to provide evidence for such propositions is not itself strong or even weak evidence that moral propositions do have truth values. For, even though the Holocaust horrifies me and makes me feel as if it was wrong, possibly it is just the case that the proposition encoded in the sentence “The Holocaust was wrong” lacks a truth value.

    One of the pleasures of religion is its gift of moral surety.

  4. Informal fallacies of argument are nearly always valid in some situations. A free election in a state with a universal franchise could be criticized as an argumentum ad populum, but such elections are conducted on the understanding that the feelings of the majority of voters are to be respected–even when they are “wrong.” In the case of morality, there are additional participants beyond the current majority: If I may stretch Edmund Burke a little, morality “is a pact between the dead, the living, and the yet unborn.”

  5. Sheri

    The Consent Fallacy only works in a black hole (no pun intended). Once moved outside that vacuum, ALL acts start to involve those who DID NOT CONSENT. Thus, those who argue consent makes something moral are actually committing IMMORAL acts against those who did not consent to be party to the act.

    Note: I like man 6 but he’s kind of scary…..

  6. Ken

    Two people (or more) consent to do some act doesn’t mean that makes it “moral” — more like “none of your business.”

    As Milton Friedman pointed out, a free society’s freedoms include the right to sin.

    A related concept in economics is ‘externalities’ — one’s personal freedoms are not extended such that they impact another’s freedoms.

    Thus, whatever consensual sordid activities individuals choose to do in private is not necessarily “moral” but an allowable exercise of freedom as nobody else is affected. However, if that induces harm, such are freely available porn to immature children, resulting damages can be assessed. Where the lines between various freedoms reside is determined by courts and precedent (common law in the US). Precedents, often established before some modern technologies existed (e.g., free speech before internet) lead to some quirky legal allowances & prohibitions. By & large though, these are objective.

    Civil law, such as in Italy, strives to define criteria for very situation and apply that objectively. Basically, this is Briggs’ gripe about certain moral themes in the US — a desire to apply a civil law style set of regulations using a particular set of religiously-based criteria to matters that are largely private in nature. And that in a common law style system.

    This cannot succeed without changing the fundamental nature of the judicial system, from common to civil law. And, by applying a particular set of religious criteria, “Christian” in this case. That cannot work, which “Christian” doctrine to apply? Catholic won’t do—anathema to too many Protestants. Episcopal? Nope, too tolerant to gays… And so it goes. To impose a truly moral standard as advocated would require the shattering of basic freedoms as doing so guarantees that most would be subjected to “moral” criteria dictated by a doctrine with elements disagreed with.

    All of which makes the recurring morality topics groused about puzzling—why continuously invoke a religious basis for a requirement or prohibition rather than a workable objective analysis that achieves the same ends within the existing judicial apparatus?

    After all, if one truly believes the source then one should expect the effect of the moral criteria manifests in superior social & personal outcomes. God may have said so, but the evidence is he said so for a broader reason. Skip the religious moralizing and sell the values based on the objective benefits. Sell the desired behavior on the benefit — why God said so, not just that he did.

    One can say Briggs-like (and this is a generalization to all so inclined) that because one’s body is the temple to god that weight-watching, dieting/nutrition and alcohol abstinence should be the order of the day. Or, sell it like weight watchers and other advocates, like alcohol anonymous, who stress the benefits to oneself and family & more. That they don’t put sole, or priority (or any) emphasis on the religious reason for a course of action — because that’s ineffective. Just so much whining.

    The principle behind religion, Christian anyway, is self improvement (review the parable of the talents & three servants, among others). Instead of whining that hedonistic behavior is an affront to mere obedience, show how that diminishes the individual, or at least stagnates their development, further from their potential in so many ways.

    Morality is not about obedience to certain values and compliance with various do’s and don’ts, it’s really a sort of anti-toxin to character rot that helps one develop to their full potential.

  7. Dave

    The modern fixation on “consent” is highly selective — for example, if I offer a woman money to perform a sex act with me, and she freely consents, we are nevertheless committing a crime. Unless there’s a camera recording the act, in which case we’re making a porno, which is perfectly legal.

    A more accurate description of the Consent Fallacy would be, “Anything goes as long as all participants consent to it, and no woman anywhere feels bad about it.” So if your wife “consents” to being your Biblical helpmeet, that’s wrong because it makes feminists feel bad.

  8. Greg

    I would like to challenge your assertion that the fanatical religious beliefs you hold coincides so exactly with “natural law”.

    You talk about the “sin” of masturbation… a practice that I believe to be intrinsically natural. I am confident that it’s a healthy manifestation of sexuality for people to become curious about their own genitals and develop an interest in feeling sexual pleasure. This is where your puritanical bent resists natural law: picture the puckered nun lecturing a room full of young people what they aren’t supposed to do with their own bodies! This is an insult to the natural law, a rotten, puritan will repressing the natural course of being.

    In our natural state, unrestrained by the rules some men write to oppress their fellows, we are much more free, and unashamed, of our sexual expression. Pleasure, when it’s shared freely, is a moral good: sexual union is a form of connection, a sacred universal bond. I’m not ashamed to have sex for the sake of pleasure, outside of marriage, with many different people. I’m not ashamed to do as Onan did, and if some God resents the spilling of my seed, let him come down and take it up with me himself!

    Before your priests, and crusaders, and all the other awful servants of your servile will arrived to corrupt my people’s values, my ancestors were great and free. They danced, and sung, and sailed under painted sails. They made love under the stars: living in accord with the true will of nature.

    You can hold yourself up as a moral arbiter all you like, but truly wise men know how wrong you are. They know what you are: a figurehead of repression, shame, and degradation. Dare I say it? A CHRIST-CUCK.

  9. Briggs


    1. I take it, then, that you agree that, as proved, consent does not make an act moral. This is good, since that’s the point of this post. We agree.

    2. I see you agree with the point about certain acts not now being horrifying. That’s two points of agreement.

    3. Calling natural law “fanatical religious belief” does not mean that this “fanatical religious belief” is false. Of course. This article is, as I said in the post, not about natural law. You appear to be echoing Rousseau. We disagree.

    4. No moral arbiter, I. I am a great sinner, and I am showing you what saved me. It is the law that is the arbiter.

    5. You say “repression” and “shame” like these are bad things. On this we disagree.

  10. John Watkins

    Some things are forbidden because they are evil. Others are evil because they are forbidden. Now, if one can imagine a Creator who is kind enough to point out the truth of the first statement (like, say, thou shalt not murder), why should we not also see the kindness in the second sentence? After all, this second statement is actually another way of saying He is testing us. Why? To see if we have learned anything from His initial creative kindness, as represented by His care for us in forbidding the embracing of evil things. Do we appreciate His initial kindness?

    And if we do recognize that He is totally beyond us in knowledge and wisdom, then we need to be willing to acknowledge His right to train us to obey His commands, as they are all meant for our benefit, regardless of whether we can see it clearly or not. And apparently, we cannot. Why? Because we are the children. He is the parent.

  11. Oldavid

    I have almost never not been able to read an article on a presumably Catholic ‘site but I admit that I didn’t get much into this one before I was about to “throw up”.

    To this time I’ve not even read all the comments. Good on you, Mr Briggs, if you can salvage someone out of this cesspit.

  12. DG

    Old Dave, that was about the same feeling I had when I started reading this article! I didn’t even finish it and besides it was easy enough to get the general idea within it. Nonetheless, Briggs did give a warning to his credit.

  13. swordfishtrombone

    @ Ken,

    Very well put.

    @ Briggs,

    “Because consent is recognized as the sole or commanding moral test, as soon as a sufficient number or vocal minority of people engage in a practice, that practice will longer be called immoral.”

    You’re just being childish. Consent isn’t the ‘sole’ moral test. There is such a thing as human nature, and it’s derived from our evolution as social animals.

    “But it’s that consent confers upon an act a sort of blessing. It transforms an act from bad or neutral to good. That is the fallacy.”

    Consent is the difference between sex and rape. How is the fact of consent making consensual sex NOT rape a fallacy?

    “These scenarios make clear that acts have consequences beyond the individuals directly consenting to an act. What people do in “private” plays out in public; even if the effects are minor, they are never absent.”

    So what? The only way to prevent this would be for us all to stop doing everything, just in case.

  14. Hmmm, regarding natural law… I don’t see any rational reason to be so strict. I even see obsession with topics, which doesn’t seem relevant.

    The most important (and natural) reason for sex: reproduce. Possible.
    Chastity? Probably a good option for many.
    Porn? Seems bad.
    Sexuality? Good. Tits are nice. Naked beautiful body of woman is God’s gift. Some artists have found it remarkable too.

    When you eat with your wife the natural law reason is to get nutrients to your body. There aren’t any other reasons for dinner.

    The natural law reason to chat or write is to pass communication. No fun involved.

    The reason for combat sports is to find the best fighter. The intention is to beat the opponent. Pads are on natural law’s way.

    Loosen up. I suggest you to read St. Augustine.

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