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The Nonsense of Consent as Moral Axiom

The Nonsense of Consent as Moral Axiom

A recent conversation exhumed a video that went viral a few years back. Given the prevalence of the concept expressed in the video, I think it’s worth diving back into, and explaining why the puerile content is not merely offensively condescending, but wrong. I will go so far as to call it moral and philosophical garbage (though as rhetoric, it is quite powerful; funny how these things so often diverge…).

For those who have not seen the three-minute video, here it is:

This oversimplified, repetitive style of communication is something that annoys many people about Sam “the worst possible universe is bad” Harris. It’s a manner of communication that is annoying to people who are in the habit of thinking for themselves because it is how one talks to children, and it always implies that any perspective or opinion other than this obviously clear and basic view — one that even a child can understand (as if children are the pinnacles of wisdom and moral virtue) — is simply absurd.

“Don’t make them drink tea.”

How profound.

The offensive part — for men — is the insinuation that we must be “confused” about what consent is, and how it works. We would be decent people, but the problem is that no one bothered to educate us about what rape is, and so we just go around raping people out of ignorance. Our collective apologies!

This is either self-delusion or gas-lighting, because there is no confusion or debate about the nature of rape. The alternative position to “consent-culture” is not “rape-culture,” and no one is advocating for “rape-culture.” This is a straw-man.

I will explain the real alternative perspective here, but let me first outline the philosophical problem with the video, rather than just complain about the communication style and the degrading presumption of its implied context.

The foundational moral premise of the video is never stated, but is most clearly implied in the following quote, from around the middle of the video, describing a scenario in which someone has changed their mind after giving an answer:

…Sure, that’s kind of annoying as you’ve gone to all the effort of making the tea, but they remain under no obligation to drink the tea. They did want tea, now they don’t.

This premise is essentially the following: actions undertaken with consent are moral; those undertaken without consent are immoral.

What the quote I have chosen above highlights is the foundational nature of consent to this moral paradigm. Consent is not merely one standard among many, but is the standard of moral legitimacy that lies beneath all other possible standards. The fact that in this video consent can be legitimately given or retracted on a whim is the demonstration of this absolute elevation of consent.

When it comes to tea or sex, consent is everything.

Here is the catch, however: sex is not the only action for which this tea-by-consent analogy can be applied.

For example, did you consent to being born?

And if they’re unconscious, don’t make them tea. Unconscious people don’t want tea, and they can’t answer the question ‘do you want tea?’ because they’re unconscious.

Interestingly enough, there are philosophers out there who parrot Silenus’ “wisdom,” that it is better to have never been born, but barring that, to die quickly… perhaps because of the suffering inherent in life. How does our carefully consent-conscious tea-aficionado justify bringing unconscious, unconsenting new people into existence?

The fact is that life itself is not the product of consent. Consent culture is built upon a libertarian conception of “self-ownership,” but you are not your own. You were bought with a price, and there is no justification for the absoluteness with which consent-culture advocates proclaim the foundational moral legitimacy of consent, in sex or in anything else.

Does this mean that we should just completely ignore consent, running around pouring tea down throats?

Of course not! Though that is what consent-culture advocates would love you to believe is the necessary and only antithesis of their position. Small minds love false dichotomies.

Because consent-culture worships personal choice, the opposite of “consent-culture” is “duty-culture.”

In a duty-culture, consent matters (it may, in fact, be a duty to execute rapists), but it is not all that matters. For example, if I am hired by Starbucks, it may be a part of my job description to taste different teas. Suppose that after agreeing to this arrangement, I suddenly decide half-way through a shift that I’m actually not interested in drinking the tea. My disinterest in drinking the tea is superseded by my duty to perform the requirements of my job, even if I don’t enjoy it.

I don’t understand how anyone who has ever worked a job in their life doesn’t understand this idea of submitting momentary whim to long-term aim (sometimes referred to as “deferral of gratification”). Most of us have worked hard for some long-term goal, pushing through the boring and uncomfortable, even painful, steps necessary to achieving that goal (for instance, the hours of repetitive practice necessary to master a skill), but then enjoyed the fruits of its achievement. Sometimes, only upon achieving some sought-for goal does the suffering of doing something that you didn’t want to do seem worthwhile. But for some reason, this understanding doesn’t transfer to relationships. I suspect it is because people have been convinced that relationships are supposed to not be work; they’re supposed to be relaxing. Something we don’t have to think about.

Of course, that’s not how life works. Everything has its price.

As someone who has been married for three years (and spent a fair bit of time with couples who have been married for decades), long-term relationships are work. They require sacrifices, and doing things that you don’t want to do. For men, this is usually looking after the kids, or doing the dishes, or all kinds of other mundane housework when you’re “not in the mood,” or “don’t have the energy.” For wives, this often means having sex with your husband, even if you’re “not in the mood,” or “don’t have the energy.”

And of course, there are many times when wives are not particularly in the mood for doing housework, or even times when husbands aren’t in the mood for sex. The duties still apply.

The fruits of fulfilling these duties are successful and fulfilling long-term relationships, including deeper understanding and enjoyment of each other’s company, deeper levels of trust and empathy, greater capacity for responsibility, pride in one’s own fulfillment of duty (we once called this “honor”), and — more than likely — many children who will challenge you, love you, carry on your legacy after you die, and perhaps even take care of you in your old age.

And of course, fulfilling your sexual duty as a spouse, even if you are not in the mood, is not (and does not feel like) rape. More often than not, the mood arrives a few minutes — or even seconds — after the sex begins.

This, in my opinion, is a marked improvement over duties such as mowing the lawn or vacuuming.

What is particularly interesting about the juxtaposition of “duty” and “consent” is that given the emotive, whim-based foundation of consent culture, we might even find “consent-culture” at the core of actual rape incidents. Treating others with respect, after all, is not a whim but a duty… as is taking the precautions necessary to minimize the chances of getting raped (to oneself and one’s future partner). Is the whim-following or duty-following person more likely to wind up unconscious at a house-party? Is the whim-following or duty-following person more likely to take advantage? Within a consent-culture, what argument could be made against consenting “adults” getting together late at night for secluded dancing and drugs? And given the environmental effects on our decision-making, what are the likely effects of this culture going to be on the incidents of rape? Can anyone argue — with a straight face — that they won’t shoot up like a boozed-out boner behind a bikini-clad babe?

If our goal is to reduce incidents of rape, then I am genuinely curious why we don’t just skip the condescending bullshit about tea and embrace the more effective and more meaningful duty-culture from the get-go.

And if reducing incidents of rape is not the goal, then what is?

I am sure that the defenders of this video would love to say that it isn’t really about marital duties, that it’s about strangers hooking up — what a whimsical thing that is! — or perhaps boyfriends and girlfriends, and it’s really about violent rape (because remember, violent rapists just don’t know that what they’re doing is wrong). I would encourage these defenders who think I am misinterpreting the subject or intent of this video to go back and watch it again, listening more carefully to what is said. Personally, I am done with the standard motte-and-bailey arguments that progressives consistently use. As someone who reads Nietzsche and Augustine for fun, I trust my own comprehension more than the average person who tells me I’ve misunderstood the case. More often, they are the ones who have misunderstood, and don’t see the implications of deceptively obvious and benign assertions, like “don’t make people drink tea.”

Well, of course I’m on board with that!

What a good person…

But some of these people are genuinely bad actors. Is it a coincidence, after all, that so many of the worst rapists are, themselves, feminists and advocates of consent culture?

I don’t think it is. I think the overly simplistic moralizing shifts attention away from the real factors responsible for rape. This hiding of the real causes allows for the creation of target-rich environments for men who otherwise can’t get laid. Then when things go badly, the responsibility is shifted away from the people actually responsible. Instead of the supremely un-masculine and low-testosterone men who actually harass and abuse women, it is masculinity itself that gets blamed.

How convenient.

But remember kids, it’s all just like tea. That’s how to think clearly and precisely: dumb things down with bad and simplistic analogies, and dismiss anyone who disagrees as morally deficient.

For the rest of you, if your spouse offers you a cup of tea, go ahead and drink it, even if you don’t really feel like it. The benefit to your relationship will far outweigh your dislike of Earl Grey.

And if a creepy stranger offers you a cup of tea, just don’t take it. Don’t expect him to know the difference between consent and non-consent.

Just don’t drink the tea.

And with that, I’m going to go enjoy some tea.

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