Ethic of Consent

The Ethic of Consent is a principle asserting the belief that justice demands prioritizing the experience of consenting in any interaction within society. It is a foundational component of rolequeer theory, which argues that contemporary society’s structural institutions (like nation States, legal systems, and so on) actually adhere to an Ethic of Domination rather than one based in consent.

[W]hen not arbitrarily limited to the confines of sexual interaction, consent-as-felt-sense radically undermines the ethical legitimacy of our society’s core social institutions, because those institutions sustain themselves by knowingly coercing their participants (us), forcing us to do many life-altering things that we rarely consent to.

maymay, "Radical Ethicism 101, Part 2: Ethic of Consent, applied"

Ethic of Consent versus Ethic of Domination

A consensual society is one that utilizes “collaborative sensing” to inform responses to the course of human events.

Etymologically, “consent” (com – with, sentire – to feel) suggests “collaborative sensing.” But that’s not how we’ve been taught to understand our own experiences of consent.

—R. Foxtale (source)

In contrast, a domineering society is one that uses violence to enforce so-called “civility.”

Construing “consent” (and, by extension, “coercion”) [narrowly] is not only obscenely dangerous, it’s also an intentionally crafted and effective shield against a self-image of [oneself] as “a person who commits unethical coercion.” It’s this egotistical self-defense at the root of the cognitive dissonance [many people] display.

Do you drive, or ever ride in a car? How many people are you responsible for murdering as a result of your use of the gas that provided energy to move you from place to place?

Do you pay taxes? How many people are you responsible for incarcerating unjustly through your tacit support of the prison-industrial complex in the country in which you live?

Are you raising a child? Do you send them to school even when they don’t want to go? Do you enforce a dress code? Have you ever grounded them?

Are you someone’s superior at work? Does that give you permission to control what actions they take at work? Have you ever wondered if you’d lose your job if you got a tattoo or a piercing?

Shall I go on?

Narrow conceptions of what a “consent violation” can entail is a major contributing factor both to ignorance on the topic and an inability to recognize myriad abuses committed on a daily basis. This tunnel vision about consent coupled with the hyper-sexualization and hyper-objectification of bodies is the root of rape culture. […]

The fact that abuses are common does not make them not-abuse. The fact that many other people are committing acts of coercion on a daily basis does not make those acts not-coercive. The fact that people you admire are heavily invested in adamantly denying their own complicity in such abusive systems does not absolve you (or them) of said complicity.

maymay, "Radical Ethicism 101, Part 2: Ethic of Consent, applied"

Perhaps the most paradigmatic shift here is the shift away from the concept of ownership and towards a more basic concept of relationship. In a society based in the Ethic of Domination, “ownership” is variously construed as a form of “property” or a kind of “right.” For example, the “right” of bodily autonomy is crafted in such a way as to appeal to statutory property law, casting one’s own body as a form of property that one owns; bodily autonomy is literally encoded as a form of self-ownership. This paradoxically casts oneself as both one’s master and one’s slave. David Graeber explains:1

It’s not only our freedoms that we own; the same logic has come to be applied even to our own bodies, which are treated, in such formulations, as really no different than houses, cars, or furniture. We own ourselves, therefore outsiders have no right to trespass on us.122 Again, this might seem an innocuous, even a positive notion, but it looks rath­er different when we take into consideration the Roman tradition of property on which it is based. To say that we own ourselves is, oddly enough, to cast ourselves as both master and slave simultaneously. “We” are both owners (exerting absolute power over our property), and yet somehow, at the same time, the things being owned (being the object of absolute power). The ancient Roman household, far from having been forgotten in the mists of history, is preserved in our most basic conception of ourselves—and, once again, just as in property law, the result is so strangely incoherent that it spins off into endless paradoxes the moment one tries to figure out what it would actually mean in practice. Just as lawyers have spent a thousand years trying to make sense of Roman property concepts, so have philosophers spent centuries trying to understand how it could be possible for us to have a relation of domination over ourselves. The most popular solution—to say that each of us has something called a “mind” and that this is com­ pletely separate from something else, which we can call “the body,” and that the first thing holds natural dominion over the second—flies in the face of just about everything we now know about cognitive science. It’s obviously untrue, but we continue to hold onto it anyway, for the simple reason that none of our everyday assumptions about property, law, and freedom would make any sense without it.123

Maymay provides a concise description of the effect of this legacy in practical, contemporary terms:2

Slavery is a relation of dominion; domination draws cultural legitimacy from the notion of property. That is, ownership exists because “property rights” are a privilege certain people have over certain things that other people do not. No matter how well-intentioned this may have once been or still is (see copyright, ala “intellectual property”), I argue that ownership—in all and every aspect of existence—is a fundamentally corrupt and corrupting idea. In fact, “ownership” is not a “right” people have at all. Rather, ownership is a way of (often but not always violently) enforcing a certain relationship that a given person or people has or have to something else, either another person or group of people or a literal object. In other words, “ownership” is actually a sociocultural technology that manages resource scarcity; in a theoretical universe of unlimited resources, ownership becomes meaningless except as a mechanism of social control.

Where “ownership” exists, some variation of “slavery” is the inevitable outcome. The variation may not be what we’re used to thinking about when we hear the word “slavery,” but there is no fundamental difference between a “human resource” and a “slave” except the various referential euphemisms and the overtness of enslavement. A “wage slave” is not a “slave” in the same way that a minor is not a pet, yet the self-determination of both wage slaves and minors is obviously harshly constrained in some strikingly similar ways. In the same way that Dominants Are Rapists, this means that Governments (and Corporations) Are Slavers, and that Bosses (and Teachers and Parents) Are Taskmasters.

External references

1 The History of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, Chapter 8: Honor and Degradation, or, On The Foundations of Contemporary Civilization, pg. 207 ¶1, by David Graeber

2 On The Evolution of Slavery: Owning Property is a Relation, Not a Right, by maymay