DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-S011-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 22, 2021, from

1. Meaning and importance

Consent is an act by which one freely changes the existing structure of rights and obligations, typically by undertaking new obligations and authorizing others to act in ways which would otherwise have been impermissible for them. In standard cases, one consents to an act or arrangement in response to a request by others; but consenting is so strongly linked with such acts as promising, contracting, taking oaths and entrusting, that it is best to regard all of these sources of self-assumed obligations as kinds of consent (as in Locke’s political philosophy; see Locke, J. §10). In the most general terms, then, consent is any act by which an agent deliberately and suitably communicates to another the intention to undertake by that act new obligations and to convey by that act new rights to others. Given the satisfaction of various conditions, consent then authorizes, permits, justifies or legitimates actions by others or arrangements on which they may rely.

It is important to distinguish consent thus understood as a positive act from the weaker notions of consent – an attitude of approval, acceptance or agreement or as mere passivity, acquiescence or submission. These weaker forms of consent are far less important than and quite different from consent properly so-called. A ‘pro-attitude’ is neither necessary nor sufficient for true (morally binding) consent. Cases of grudging, off-hand or insincere consent show that a positive attitude is not necessary, while commonplace cases in which we approve of an arrangement without having in any way altered (or attempted to alter) the existing structure of rights and duties show that such an attitude is not sufficient. Similarly, one may passively submit to or even acquiesce in the control of a bully without thereby incurring new obligations of future compliance. Binding consent must be a positive act with the explicit, conventional, or otherwise clear meaning of a voluntary undertaking.

Justification by appeal to consent is especially important within the philosophical structure of liberal thought. Liberalism conceives of persons as self-conscious sources of value, whose choices of plans and actions are morally important and who have rights to govern themselves (within the bounds set by the rights of others) (see Liberalism). Consent is seen as the means by which this individual moral liberty may be limited in a fashion consistent with respect for liberty. For the consensual undertaking of obligation is one kind of use of personal liberty, a use which makes morally possible new and beneficial forms of social interaction. Justification by consent also has the advantage of being a relatively uncontroversial style of justification, since nearly everyone allows that what one has freely agreed to do ought to be done.

Citing this article:
Simmons, A. John. Meaning and importance. Consent, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-S011-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

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