No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.
-Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt
Let’s talk about consent. And when we talk about consent, that means talking about coercion. And when I talk about coercion, that means talking about the Book of Job. In particular, my favorite translation. (Granted it’s not the most literal translation, but it’s the one you should start with.)
Here’s an article objecting to that aphorism attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, for pretty good reasons (h/t Kate Donovan, who also kindly helped me make some parts of this a bit clearer – Thanks!). The gist is that rejecting insults and verbal abuse isn’t a default behavior but a learned skill, and that even if you have that skill, it takes energy you might not have, or might want to spend on something else.
Implicitly, this objection makes an important assumption about consent: that consent is an act of free will. A person can be said to consent to something when, with the right to say yes or no, when they are not being coerced to say “yes,” they say “yes” anyway. And once someone has consented to something, it’s okay and if you think it’s bad for them, it’s none of your business.
And Jacob sod pottage: and Esau came from the field, and he was faint: And Esau said to Jacob, Feed me, I pray thee, with that same red pottage; for I am faint: therefore was his name called Edom. And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright. And Esau said, Behold, I am at the point to die: and what profit shall this birthright do to me? And Jacob said, Swear to me this day; and he sware unto him: and he sold his birthright unto Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentiles; and he did eat and drink, and rose up, and went his way: thus Esau despised his birthright.
-Genesis, King James Version, 25:29-34
As a society, we seem to have agreed that under certain circumstances, involving prior “consent,” it is okay to forcibly eject someone from their home. I’m talking about foreclosure, of course. Someone moves into a house. Possibly with their family. They gain access to the house by sitting in a room with some other people – usually at least one of them has lived in the house previously – and making some marks on a few pieces of paper. (To be fair, these pieced of paper have words of power inscribed on them – but mostly words the person making marks on them hasn’t really read and wouldn’t fully understand if they did, unless they are a real estate lawyer, and maybe not even then.) The new “homeowner” now has some relation to the bank – but a purely formal one. The bank doesn’t maintain the home, it doesn’t protect the property, it doesn’t have any physical contact with the borrower – but some numbers are moved around on a ledger or database somewhere, and if the numbers stop moving in the right way, eventually the bank can get the police to come and force the occupants out of their home. Plenty of people think this is heartless. And of course when the bank makes a mistake about which numbers didn’t get moved around on the ledger, we all agree that kicking someone out of their home is unjust, evil, and wrong. But aside from that kind of edge case, very few people believe that the bank doesn’t have the right to do this, in some sense. Because the borrower “consented” to the terms of the mortgage contract when they bought their home.
Another way you can get kicked out of your home is by being the other party in the room when marks are made on some sheets of pulped tree – by being the “seller.” Once you consent to that contract, you can’t go back home – it belongs to someone else now, and you have to ask their permission to go there. No matter how long you lived there. No matter how many good memories you have of that house. You agreed to sell it it, it’s not yours anymore.
Another context in which we think it’s okay for people to do things that might appear harmful is in the bedroom. If they’ve negotiated what’s going to happen in advance, or affirm that they’re okay with it in the moment, then it’s none of our business whether it looks like it’s helping or hurting. One person, in an act of free will, uncoerced, gave another permission to do something to them. Once you know that’s the case, what happens between “consenting adults” is none of your business.
There are disagreements within this definition, of course, because coercion is a tricky concept – what kind of threats and promises constitute coercion? Contractarians and other libertarians will often resolve this by formally limiting the definition of “coercion” to the initiation of force – if the arrangement of people doing what they like with their property means that one of your choices isn’t very good, that’s not coercion – it’s just a choice where you have a strong preference. Other people, often on the left, will resolve the tension the other way, and say that a choice isn’t really “free” unless you can have access to some basic decent life either way.
Under either version of this definition, though, the claim attributed to Roosevelt is just plain false. You have imperfect control over your feelings. People can say and do things that will cause you to feel inferior, whether you want them to or not. They may do it even if you’re actively trying to prevent them. You can say, “please do not say that to me,” and they might still say things that make you hurt.
“Consent” is one of those words that is often wrong, in the sense that it stops me from asking what’s really going on and gets me arguing about definitions. I’m going to propose another, older definition of “consent” that I find helps me think about these things more clearly, and as a beneficial side makes it really easy to distinguish between arguments about consent that are tautologies, and arguments that are nonsensical. But first, another famous quote that you will be able to read very differently by the end of this argument:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
-Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence
To most people this sounds nice and high-minded, but if you’re being honest, a little questionable. “All men are created equal”? “Unalienable rights”? “Consent of the governed”? What do these things mean?
All Men are Created Equal
Everyone is supposed to be deserving of basic respect because we’re all equal. But in what way are we equal? Some of us are smarter, stronger, more beautiful, or in other ways superior to others. If you assume we’re equal in these ways, you will make wrong predictions, and do things that don’t help. You’ll rely on people to do things outside their abilities, and get mad at them when they’re not up to your standard. You’ll assume that when other people are outperforming you, it’s because you’re not trying hard enough, and you’ll try harder, and fail anyway, and the effort will be wasted.
I like to joke that one of the managers I’ve worked with got his MBA at the John Calvin School of Management. He doesn’t do much to transform or teach the people who work for him – his strategy is to hire good people, and shuffle them around until he figures out what task someone’s predestined to be good at. This works really well, and it wouldn’t if people had equal ability.
Accommodations for disabilities are an especially paradoxical case. In one sense they depend on a sense of equality – everyone ought to be able to participate in society equally (but why?). In another they only make sense if some people need different things than others. I’m not going to talk about intellectual disabilities, because that’s a tricky subject I don’t know a lot about, but there are certainly things I can’t do with my brain that other people can. I know people who seem wiser than me, kinder than me, better at mathematical reasoning than me, or are just plain morally better. I know people who are better at planning and following through on that plan.
Some people have imagined that natural inequality of this type qualifies some people to dominate others. Does inequality of ability mean that some of us are natural masters, and some of us are destined by nature to serve? Do the people I know who are better planners inherently have the right to tell me what to do, whether I like it or not? No, because:
Nature hath made men so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind; as that though there bee found one man sometimes manifestly stronger in body, or of quicker mind then another; yet when all is reckoned together, the difference between man, and man, is not so considerable, as that one man can thereupon claim to himselfe any benefit, to which another may not pretend, as well as he. For as to the strength of body, the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest, either by secret machination, or by confederacy with others, that are in the same danger with himselfe.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
In other words: All men are created equal, because anyone can be murdered in their sleep.
There’s no natural ruler outside of politics, because as long as people are acting alone, anyone sufficiently motivated can upset the balance. Anyone.
If you don’t have lots of allies, then anyone you piss off could harm you. And if you do, then you’re protected by orders of magnitude more strength, cunning, and skill than you have access to as an individual. The important parts of your power, then, are almost always the ones determined by the way the society you live in values you, not your natural abilities. You have power if you can organize enough people that you can sleep safely at night, because someone’s keeping the night watch. Power is about social control. Making people do what you want just by telling them to. Making people believe in the legitimacy of your claims over them. Think about that before you say “words can never hurt me.” Words can take away the only thing that protects you. They are the most dangerous weapon yet invented. If I were going to try to harm someone, and could use nukes, or words, but not both – I’d give up the nukes.
Consent of the Governed
Under the free will definition of consent, you have consent of the governed if each person who is governed, in an act of free will, gives the government permission to rule. This leads to the familiar paradox where if you think that consent has to be total for a government to be legitimate, then anything more than a libertarian minimal state – or maybe anarchy – is oppression, because even if only 0.1% of the population is libertarian, they don’t consent to all those extra programs.
So, people try to save the idea by arguing that the important thing is consent of most of the governed (but are 51% allowed to enslave 49%?), or that libertarianism is incoherent and libertarians consent to public roads when they use them.
But these minor absurdities are pretty tractable compared to the real problem with the free-will definition of consent: the assumption that there exists some possible arrangement in which coercion is not practiced.
The State, of course (and any other method of enforcing social norms) is inherently coercive – it prevents people from committing acts of violence, by making threats of its own. So any action you perform inside the structure of laws, with the security of government or communal norms, relies on coercion.
Maybe we could go outside the state then?
Fortunately, Leviathan isn’t just the world’s best Halloween costume, but one of the least stupid, least wrong books on politics ever written, and explains this point quite well:
Out Of Civil States, There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE.
The Incommodites Of Such A War
Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
It may peradventure be thought, there was never such a time, nor condition of warre as this; and I believe it was never generally so, over all the world: […] Howsoever, it may be perceived what manner of life there would be, where there were no common Power to feare; by the manner of life, which men that have formerly lived under a peacefull government, use to degenerate into, in a civill Warre.
But though there had never been any time, wherein particular men were in a condition of warre one against another; yet in all times, Kings, and persons of Soveraigne authority, because of their Independency, are in continuall jealousies, and in the state and posture of Gladiators; having their weapons pointing, and their eyes fixed on one another; that is, their Forts, Garrisons, and Guns upon the Frontiers of their Kingdomes; and continuall Spyes upon their neighbours; which is a posture of War. But because they uphold thereby, the Industry of their Subjects; there does not follow from it, that misery, which accompanies the Liberty of particular men.
In Such A Warre, Nothing Is Unjust
To this warre of every man against every man, this also is consequent; that nothing can be Unjust. The notions of Right and Wrong, Justice and Injustice have there no place. Where there is no common Power, there is no Law: where no Law, no Injustice. Force, and Fraud, are in warre the two Cardinall vertues. Justice, and Injustice are none of the Faculties neither of the Body, nor Mind. If they were, they might be in a man that were alone in the world, as well as his Senses, and Passions. They are Qualities, that relate to men in Society, not in Solitude. It is consequent also to the same condition, that there be no Propriety, no Dominion, no Mine and Thine distinct; but onely that to be every mans that he can get; and for so long, as he can keep it.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
There’s a common misconception I want to set aside before I move on. Like many origin myths, it doesn’t need to actually have unfolded sequentially over time to be true or useful. The point isn’t that there actually was a time prior to collective enforcement of norms, when people got tired of the war of all against all, deliberated about the problem, and explicitly consented to some kind of sovereign. The point is that the state of nature is the counterfactual arrangement government protects us from, and the background against which we should judge all other social arrangements, including “anarchism” of various kinds (which in practice do rely on forcing people to either obey local norms, or leave).
Essentially, the very notion of a difference between a consensual and nonconsensual arrangement – between having the right to do something, and not – between wronging someone else and defending what is yours – depends on a jointly understood and enforced set of laws or norms. Until you set that up, with an apparatus of coercion to ensure compliance, consent means nothing.
The first – meaning foundational – act of consent is the one by which, in fear of the war of all against all, people come together and empower a sovereign – whether it is a single person, or the rule of the majority, or the abstract authority of a constitution, or something else – to compel them to respect one another’s lives and property. Can this consent be withdrawn? Sure, you’re not morally obliged to consent to being governed, but if you don’t, be prepared to live with the consequences:
No Man Can Without Injustice Protest Against The Institution Of The Soveraigne Declared By The Major Part. Thirdly, because the major part hath by consenting voices declared a Soveraigne; he that dissented must now consent with the rest; that is, be contented to avow all the actions he shall do, or else justly be destroyed by the rest. For if he voluntarily entered into the Congregation of them that were assembled, he sufficiently declared thereby his will (and therefore tacitely covenanted) to stand to what the major part should ordayne: and therefore if he refuse to stand thereto, or make Protestation against any of their Decrees, he does contrary to his Covenant, and therfore unjustly. And whether he be of the Congregation, or not; and whether his consent be asked, or not, he must either submit to their decrees, or be left in the condition of warre he was in before; wherein he might without injustice be destroyed by any man whatsoever.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
It’s not unjust to stand outside the system of justice – that wouldn’t even mean anything. But it’s equally not unjust for the state to use violence toward people who don’t accept its legitimacy. After all, they said they preferred the state of nature – and in the state of nature there are no claims of justice.
So, what is the consent of the governed, if not an act of free will? It’s the commitment by the governed to accept their government in practice, because they prefer it to the actually available alternatives. Even if the alternative is an explicit threat of punishment:
Dominion acquired by Conquest, or Victory in war, is that which some Writers call DESPOTICALL, from Despotes, which signifieth a Lord, or Master; and is the Dominion of the Master over his Servant. And this Dominion is then acquired to the Victor, when the Vanquished, to avoyd the present stroke of death, covenanteth either in expresse words, or by other sufficient signes of the Will, that so long as his life, and the liberty of his body is allowed him, the Victor shall have the use thereof, at his pleasure. And after such Covenant made, the Vanquished is a SERVANT, and not before: for by the word Servant (whether it be derived from Servire, to Serve, or from Servare, to Save, which I leave to Grammarians to dispute) is not meant a Captive, which is kept in prison, or bonds, till the owner of him that took him, or bought him of one that did, shall consider what to do with him: (for such men, (commonly called Slaves,) have no obligation at all; but may break their bonds, or the prison; and kill, or carry away captive their Master, justly:) but one, that being taken, hath corporall liberty allowed him; and upon promise not to run away, nor to do violence to his Master, is trusted by him.
Not By The Victory, But By The Consent Of The Vanquished
It is not therefore the Victory, that giveth the right of Dominion over the Vanquished, but his own Covenant. Nor is he obliged because he is Conquered; that is to say, beaten, and taken, or put to flight; but because he commeth in, and submitteth to the Victor; Nor is the Victor obliged by an enemies rendring himselfe, (without promise of life,) to spare him for this his yeelding to discretion; which obliges not the Victor longer, than in his own discretion hee shall think fit.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
The consent of the governed consists in this: that they are not actively rebelling. It doesn’t matter if the sovereign keeps the governed in line with threats, arguments, or promises. It doesn’t matter if they proudly believe that their system is the best one possible, or merely despair of ever escaping it. If the sovereign has done something short of direct physical compulsion to cause people to obey – if someone will dig a ditch because the sovereign said “Dig”! and not because the sovereign pushed a shovel into the subject’s hands and moved the subject’s arms in a shoveling motion – if the police and the army will enforce the laws out of commitment to the sovereign, and people are sufficiently moved by these threats to obey, then the sovereign has consent of the governed. It’s not always love, and it’s not always fear. Sometime’s it’s engineered by the party who benefits, not a spontaneous expression of freedom. There are many kinds of consent.
In short: Government exists by the consent of the governed, and if you terrify people enough they’ll consent to almost anything.
So does that mean that you have to let the sovereign do anything it wants to you? No. Where’s “have to” come from, anyway?
Consent is a promise of future compliance – so it’s meaningless to consent to something if that doesn’t imply some future act of compliance on your part:
A Mans Covenant Not To Defend Himselfe, Is Voyd
A Covenant not to defend my selfe from force, by force, is alwayes voyd. For (as I have shewed before) no man can transferre, or lay down his Right to save himselfe from Death, Wounds, and Imprisonment, (the avoyding whereof is the onely End of laying down any Right,) and therefore the promise of not resisting force, in no Covenant transferreth any right; nor is obliging. For though a man may Covenant thus, “Unlesse I do so, or so, kill me;” he cannot Covenant thus “Unless I do so, or so, I will not resist you, when you come to kill me.” For man by nature chooseth the lesser evill, which is danger of death in resisting; rather than the greater, which is certain and present death in not resisting. And this is granted to be true by all men, in that they lead Criminals to Execution, and Prison, with armed men, notwithstanding that such Criminals have consented to the Law, by which they are condemned.
-Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
In short: It’s not immoral to take away someone’s basic right to self-defense; it’s just impossible.
Seeing Past the Flim-Flam
Let’s rewrite that part of the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that you can’t push other people around on your own without consequences because anyone can be murdered in their sleep, that there are things no one can credibly promise they won’t try to get, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That because we don’t know how to get these things in any other way, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the lack of open rebellion.
-Thomas “Hobbes” Jefferson
Sounds a little more hard-headed and fact-based, right? Less like a statement of ideals and more like a description of the world how it actually is.
There are lots of things you might ask about an arrangement between two people, or groups of people, or a communal norm, or a system of government. How nice it is, whether it’s better than the alternative, whether it harms some people disproportionately or unnecessarily. Consent doesn’t give you a free pass – consent is just what it looks like when power is exerted successfully. If you want to make sure you are helping and not hurting someone, you might start by checking for consent – but you shouldn’t end there.
Ask these questions too:
Is this something they’ve affirmatively expressed interest in?
Do they seem happy?
If they weren’t happy, would they tell me?
Do they have access to – and have I offered – nice alternatives?
Do they feel like they’re in control?
Am I leaving this person better off than when I found them?
Could I be doing more to make this a mutually beneficial interaction?
Am I imposing big costs on them or asking them to do something unpleasant?
Now let’s rewrite that Eleanor Roosevelt aphorism:
No one can make you feel inferior unless you don’t stop them.
The same truth in a different context: Nobody can defeat you in battle unless you are weaker.
Real inspiring, huh?