Book: Green Light Ethics

The following is a description and table of contents for my recently finished book manuscript. If you are interested in reading any of it, be in touch. It is currently under review.

Green Light Ethics: A theory of consent and its moral metaphysics

This book is about permissive consent – the moral tool we use to give another person permission to do what would otherwise be forbidden. For instance, consent to enter my home gives you permission to do what would otherwise be trespass. This transformation is the very thing that philosophers count as consent – which is why we call it a normative power. It is something individuals can do, by choice, to change the moral or legal world. But what human acts or attitudes render consent? When do threats, offers, or lies undermine the transformative power of consent? To answer these questions, theorists of consent often pick out something of value in human life – like autonomy or accountability – and argue that whatever features of consent best promote those values are its true features. I critique this approach. But how else can we theorize a power so magical that it turns thefts into gifts, murder into euthanasia, and rape into lovemaking?

I think consent is not magical – but metaphysical. In this book, I ask a series of questions that treat consent – the specific type I am theorizing – as a moral mechanism with exactly the set of features that, when triggered, prevent another person’s behavior from constituting a particular type of wrongdoing. (i) The Question of Normative Power: Is there more than one change to the moral world that we call permissive consent? Which one do we seek to investigate? (ii) The Question of Dynamics: What are the metaphysical options for explaining that change to the moral world and its enabling conditions? Which option is descriptively most accurate? (iii) The Question of Wronging: What is the best description of the wrong/s that lie in the balance (that depend for their existence on the absence of this specific type of permissive consent)? Only after answering these first three questions are we poised to answer the two most popular in the philosophy of consent: (iv) The Ontological Question: What events in the world actually render consent by triggering the changes uncovered in steps i, ii, and iii? (v) The Questions of Vitiation: In what circumstances are those consent-triggering features undermined or absent from an act that otherwise would count as consent?

In answering these questions, I develop a novel theory that explains the moral features of consent in some of the most central domains of human life – but that also serves as a study in how to theorize normative power. I take my theoretical approach to be – at once – a practice of very traditional, analytic philosophy and, also – because of my mechanistic questions, combined with a set of critical feminist perspectives that I employ in the second and third steps – an approach that gives us very different answers than we have seen before.

Table of Contents:

  • Introduction: “Giving the Green Light”

PART I. The Moral Mechanism

  1. Chapter 1. Theorizing Permissive Consent: Methods and Problems

In Chapter 1 I describe the traditional methods of theorizing permissive consent: the appeal to intuitions; the appeal to conditions for moral responsibility; and the appeal to human values. I explain the attractions of each approach and argue that all three methods are unreliable for deriving conclusions about the features of permissive consent. I propose a new, “mechanistic” approach through which we identify and fully describe the difference between the moral world before and after consent, characterize the wrongdoing prevented by consent, and then determine what moral processes enable and render the relevant changes.

  • Chapter 2. The Question of Normative Power

In Chapter 2 I begin employing the mechanistic approach described in Chapter 1. First, I distinguish between three kinds of moral powers that are all called, “permissive consent.” I limit the scope of my discussion to just one of these – the moral power through which an individual retains authority over the behavior of the person receiving their consent, and so can withdraw consent. I go on to distinguish between three different types of moral grounding for the authority that gives rise to consent sensitive duties. I again narrow the subject of my investigation to that authority grounded in domains of entitlement – domains wherein the relationship between an individual and the features of the domain give rise to the individual’s entitlement. This narrowly described moral power of consent is the type involved in sexual ethics, medical ethics, and research ethics involving human subjects. This is also the type of consent relevant when we invite people into our homes or allow them to read our private manuscripts and accounts. I call this moral power: mere permissive consent. I then present three different ways that an entitlement can be grounded – in a domain of human life, in a commitment made by another person, or by some unbounded feature of the moral world. I narrow the scope of my book to mere permissive consent that operates on enititlements grounded in domains, such that the wrongings that mere permissive consent prevents, in my cases of inquiry, are invasive wrongings. I go on to present a very limited theory of rights to employ throughout the book, one so limited that any moral realist can endorse it – even those who do not take rights to exist at the most basic moral level, and those who think that – in general – rights are even instrumentally unhelpful for recognizing our duties and entitlements. I call these “domain rights.” I also introduce the rights-related terminology that I use throughout the book.

  • Chapter 3. The Question of Dynamics

In Chapter 3, I describe the existing answer to the question: What happens at the metaphysical level to a moral right when we exercise the moral power of mere permissive consent? I call this the question of dynamics. The widespread answer in the literature is: we consent by waiving our rights. I explain why this answer is descriptively inaccurate and has led to some conceptual problems that have plagued the philosophy of consent. I argue that these inaccuracies are responsible for a problem that Susan Brison and other feminists have identified, wherein philosophers tend to describe rape as “sex-minus-consent.” I offer an alternative answer to the question of dynamics that is both descriptively accurate and also avoids the theoretical concerns of the feminists. I also describe the varieties of authority to which one might be entitled over the behavior of another person in one’s own domain. I discuss the way that the scope of an individual’s consent determines what type of authority the right-holder retains after consent is rendered.

PART II: The Trigger and the Transformation

  • Chapter 4. The Question of Wronging

In Chapter 4, I characterize the two central wrongings involved in all violations of domain rights. One wronging is called the, “Divergence Strike,” and is characterized by a deprivation suffered by the domain-right holder – a deprivation consisting in the set-backs to her interests that are attributable to the divergence between the violator’s behavior in her domain and the scope of the right-holder’s consent regarding the violator’s behavior. I discuss the various metrics by which we can measure the divergence and argue that the extent of the violation and its severity hinges on these measurements. The second, central wronging is called the, “Standing Strike” because it is characterized by the way a rights violation creates a mismatch between a right-holder’s actual, moral standing and her effective moral standing. In describing this mismatch, I appeal to the varieties of effective authority that I described in Chapter 3. I compare my account of the wrongings involved in a domain-rights violations to other accounts in the literature and explain the advantages of my own. I defend its broad applicability by using it to analyze a series of cases in high stakes and low stakes bodily domains. I describe the morally interesting differences between wrongings that do and do not involve experiential harms, unacceptable epistemic risks, and incitement of third parties into violating behavior.

  • Chapter 5. The Ontological Question

In Chapter 5, I present a critique of existing theories of what human behavior counts as permissive consent. I answer the ontological question by explaining what an individual can do block another person’s domain activity from constituting a Divergence Strike and a Standing Strike. I propose two methods in this chapter (which do not exhaust the possible methods – indeed, I propose a third method in chapter 8). I argue that a domain-right holder can render consent through a process that called “effective signaling.” This rendering process requires a right-holder to launch a signal that they believe enables the other person to enter or act within the domain respectfully. This form of consent-rendering usually requires successful communication, though I present some exceptions. Next, I argue that a domain-right holder can render consent through a process called “procurement.” This rendering process requires a right-holder to steer another person into their own domain – not through forthright signals aimed at affecting the other’s practical deliberations, but through physical force or through manipulation that bypasses the other’s rational deliberation. This consent-rendering process does not require a domain-right holder to engage in successful communication. However, neither consent rendering process happens in entirely in the private mind of the consenter – as some theorists hold.

  •  Chapter 6. Red Light Ethics: Sex and Signals

In Chapter 6, I explore a variety of ways that social conventions pertaining to the scope of consent and to the boundaries of our moral domains play a role in fixing the scope of our actual consent. I describe the challenges facing people who wish to consent to more limited sets of another person’s domain behavior than is understood by a conventional signal. In this way, Chapter 6 serves both as a supplement to the Ontological Question, answered in Chapter 5, as well as a segue into the examination of conditions that vitiate consent, handled in the remainder of the book. I defend laws that seek to alter problematic consent conventions. I argue that enforcing these laws – even before the new convention has been adopted in the practices of a community – faces no more problems than the enforcement of new traffic lights in towns and cities that have seen an increase in road accidents. Note that this is my only chapter that addresses a law or policy proposal. I go on to consider some further features of permissive consent affected by the limits of mutual understanding in high stakes and low stakes cases.

PART III: Vitiation

  • Chapter 7. Consent under Volitional Coercion

In Chapter 7, I investigate a variety of theories of the relationship between coercion and consent. For instance, when a mugger puts a gun to the head of his victim, the victim will probably agree to hand over his money. This agreement does not constitute permissive consent to the mugger taking the money. The money is not a gift, it is stolen. What explains the difference between this case and one where the same person – the mugging victim – takes out his wallet and hands over money to his son, as a gift? The difference has to do with the effects of the coercive act on the conditions that enable an act like – handing over money – to constitute permissive consent. A popular type of explanation is one I call, “moral debilitation,” by which the coercer’s act restricts the victim’s options in a way that renders him unable to exercise his moral authority – and so he cannot imbue an act like “handing over his wallet” with permissive consent. The gun to his head actually debilitates him from being able to wield his moral power. I argue that this approach faces a variety of problems and consider what a theory of coercion needs to accomplish. I go to develop my own theory of the relationship between coercion and consent that starts with the question: how does compliance to coercion ever constitute consent? I explain the process by which this feat is possible, and then pick out the threats that stymy the process.

  • Chapter 8. Consent under Duress

In Chapter 8, I apply the theory of coercion and consent developed in chapter 8 to cases of consent motivated by non-volitional coercion and exploitation. I argue that there are a variety of cases wherein duress – duress that is not caused by coercion – undermines permissive consent. This depends on how the nature of an agreement changes the relationship of its participants. I then explore the related concepts of “seduction using negative sanctions” and Tom Dougherty’s recent proposal of “ameliorative consent.” These theories offer competing explanations of the same kinds of case. I handle these cases – ones where potential consent-givers are subject to emotional pressure that constitutes mistreatment but – when it is successful – seems morally dissimilar to coercive pressure that fully vitiates consent.

  • Chapter 9. Misinformation, Deception, and other conditions of Epistemic Weak Agency

In Chapter 9, I describe a variety of existing views about the potential ability for indiviuals to render permissive consent under conditions of misinformation and deception. Most of these explanations appeal to the mismatch generated between one person’s actions – which are only permissible if undertaken with a right-holder’s consent – and the intended scope of the right-holder’s consent. I explain that much of the disagreement in this literature has to do with what intentions and beliefs actually play a role in shaping the scope of consent. I propose my own view which is tied directly to the processes required to prevent a Divergence Strike and a Standing Strike, as they are described in Chapter 4. I go on to consider cases of “epistemic weak agency” where an individual attempting to give consent is bereft of education and informational resources that make them, in general, unable to understand their options or negotiate the scope of consent. I discuss the contexts in which another person’s epistemic weak agency imposes restrictions on how we may benefit from their agreements.

%d bloggers like this: