The absence of possibility of consent.

I have previously discussed how to debunk the Non-Identity Problem, hoping to put it to rest. It doesn’t seem that this is happening, however. The natalists have a new corner to retreat to, and it’s based on the fact that potential people cannot consent. Instead of coming to the natural conclusion that absence of consent means that you shouldn’t hurt someone (as we conclude naturally in any other situation), they come to the opposite conclusion: that in the absence of possibility of consent, we can do whatever we want (such as bringing a potential person to existence, and the multiplicity of risks of harm inherent to this, without their consent).

This is a bizarre argument, to say the least. Let’s look at some real life scenarios. A person is in a coma, and therefore is incapable of consenting, at least for the moment. Does that mean we can do anything we want with em? Can we saw eir legs off? Can we infect em with HIV? I don’t think anyone would concur with such nonsense.

What about the typical example of a person who needs to be saved from immediate harm? Surely asking for consent in such a case is just as silly. So does that mean we can do anything we want to such a person? Can we save em, but also infect em with HIV or saw eir legs off? Nope, I don’t think so.

In all cases except that of a potential person, we come to the natural conclusion that consent is a necessary condition before one brings harm, or the risk of harm, to a person.

One may reply that the case of the potential person is an exception. But why make it an exception? Because the person in a coma or the person in danger were once able to consent? But what relevance does that have to the fact that they are unable to consent at the moment of decision? Or is it that we know the person in a coma or the person in danger have rights, while the potential person does not? But, as I’ve pointed out before, the potential person does have rights, insofar as they will become an actual person. We would not, for instance, inject a fetus with HIV and pass it off as ethical.

Another possible objection is that injecting HIV or sawing someone’s legs off is a direct harm, while starting a new life “only” entails the risk of harm. But exposing someone to a risk of harm is as unethical as harming them directly. Forcing someone to play Russian Roulette means exposing them to the threat of death, and is as unethical as killing em. Starting a new life which could potentially suffer from an HIV infection or from having its legs sawed off is as unethical as injecting a fetus with HIV or sawing its legs off. The aggressors (i.e. the parents) do not know whether these things will happen or not, and therefore are consciously and willfully exposing a new life to those risks. They simply do not care for the new life’s potential suffering.

Let me make this clear. This is not a rational disagreement where both sides can be assumed to speak in good faith. Breeders are doing or advocating doing “whatever they want” to a potential life in the name of their own selfish interests, consciously and willfully bringing life in a world without any guarantee that it won’t be exposed to a myriad of possible critical or fatal harms.

Now I want you to look again at this argument through the lens of “might makes right” rhetoric. Is something becoming clearer? To restate the obvious, the potential life (either through the form of a fetus, a sperm and ovum, a disembodied mind considering the Original Position argument, or some hypothetical “space fetus” suffering somewhere in the rings of Saturn) is completely, utterly defenseless. People are claiming that it’s okay to do anything to it because it’s defenseless.

Now that’s a “might makes right” argument if I’ve seen one. And this is quite a slippery slope, as well. If you believe that you are justified in inflicting a risk of harm on someone before they are born, then it’s only a hop and a skip to the belief that you are justified in inflicting a risk of harm on people who were born. And indeed, people use all sorts of bizarre intellectual contortions to justify inflicting a risk of harm on other people, such as prostitution, death squads and the horrible deaths of coal miners.

But there are people who stand ready to justify any risk of harm, with, for example, the stupid aphorism is “what does not kill you makes you stronger.” We know this is absolute bullshit, but it’s still used to prop up people’s justifications. It is certainly used by anti-vaxers to justify exposing their children to the risk of fatal diseases, and in general, anyone who tries to turn diseases (especially breast cancer) into a positive thing. No doubt it’s nice to be stronger, but it would be rather better to become stronger without having to be endangered by fatal diseases; at any rate, the positive does not magically cancel out the negative.

Another argument is that the risk is justified by the benefit that society gets from it. But this is utilitarian bullshit. A crime is not mitigated by the fact that it brings benefit to society. No doubt there are many people whom one could kill and bring benefit to society, but doing so is still murder. Likewise, knowing that some workers will die from unsafe practices is not justified by the future benefits (again, see the coal miners example). Again, a positive doesn’t magically cancel out the negative.

Yet another rationalization is that “we can’t help it,” which I think is also the rationalization used to justify the might makes right attitude I am discussing here. Well, we can’t help it that new lives will be subject to a multitude of risks, therefore just do it. But this again does not stand up to simple logic. Forcibly subjecting someone to Russian Roulette means the victim will necessarily be subject to the risk of death, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to prevent people from forcing each other to participate in Russian Roulette games. Surely the capitalist swine that hired immigrant lives, which they considered expendable, to perform dangerous work in unsafe conditions could equally argue that once they were hired, deaths just “couldn’t be helped.”

The bare fact is that we can help it. We can consciously decide to be compassionate and not put people’s lives at risk. It’s really not that complicated: take as much risk as you want, but don’t force other people to be exposed to risks too. This is really just basic fairness, not hard to understand at all.

I have discussed the nonsense concept of “hypothetical consent,” which is basically the belief that it is acceptable to harm people in the present if we expect that they will be grateful for it in the future (as if anyone could possibly be grateful for being harmed without their consent!). This rhetoric is used to justify neo-liberalist wars and economic destruction inflicted on third world countries.

Furthermore, this “hypothetical consent” is necessarily imagined, not real. Breeders imagine that their children will be fortunate and will not regret their existence. And this at least speaks well of them; if breeders seriously started new lives which they believed would be unfortunate and sad, then we should think that such people are unbelievably evil and cruel. However stupid breeders are, they are not, on the whole, evil or cruel (although I would say most of them are uncaring to a strange degree).

Most importantly, it’s important to remember that it’s based on an imagined fiction. It is a fiction to believe that brown people will hail you as liberator after you’ve killed reams of their family and friends. It is a fiction to believe that your children will end up loving their life just because you have the best of intentions. These are stories we tell ourselves to rationalize our actions, not honest attempts at finding the truth.

11 thoughts on “The absence of possibility of consent.

  1. Irina August 11, 2012 at 16:55

    I think you’ve done great job on this non-identity / assumed consent arguments, Francois. Was a pleasure to read.
    Its only in the debates on the net that breeders even try to come up with any arguments for procreation. In everyday life though, the act of creating a new human is smth that goes without saying, so not many people even feel the need to give it some extra thought. Its just smth humans do: they breed. Its like the basis for everything else, so nobody really questions it as such. Only in the cases where the possibility of harm is more evident, like with genetic diseases. Sort of if a Russian Roulette gun has only 1 bullet – thats all right, but if its loaded with 4 – only now does it become unacceptable to force another person to play with it.

    • Francois Tremblay August 11, 2012 at 18:42

      Yes, it’s very true that it’s just “the way things are”… unless someone dares to question the way things are. Then, they have to come up with some rationalization… much like Christians when faced with opposition (although they are used to it).

  2. bob jones September 21, 2012 at 13:29

    awesome post! I am ‘debating’ some idiots right now who keep laughably comparing me to Hitler b/c I merely suggested that forcing an unwanted child to be born would NOT be healthy for the child.

    they keep saying ‘youre a bully’ and ‘one can rise above ones problems’

    how the fuck is an unwanted and potentially abused baby gonna rise above its problems when the damage has already been done?

    • Francois Tremblay September 21, 2012 at 14:21

      Ah, the good ol’ “if they’re strong, they’ll get through it” mentality. Same reason people give not to vaccinate, and not to help people in general…

  3. bob jones September 21, 2012 at 18:51

    it comes down to selfishness and greed in the end

    make others feel ashamed of possible enjoyment they get out of life

    in fact, suffering is to be commended

    and if you do not suffer, be it through poverty, or forced pregnancy, or an unhappy childhood, then you are of weak character and not worthy of God

    the church had a good thing going with that lie for a thousand years

    now we have Mitt Romney and the ‘meritocracy’ telling people that if they are not rich, they are not deserving, even of food

    its just a manipulative trick used by the greedy and selfish amongst us to shame us into giving them more of the pie. my dad was incredibly selfish – he had everything handed to him. yet when he talked to me about my future, it was all ‘toil and trouble’. he implied that suffering would be *good* for me, and that I was a bad person to ever think otherwise. meanwhile he always lived it up

    there are other reasons, but imo this is one of the main ones. death denial is also pretty big in the pro-life/natalist movement. they cannot stand the thought of not existing, even if it means a life of torture – so they want to force that life on everyone else. this is why they love to ask all pro-choicers ‘BET YOURE HAPPY YOU WERE NOT ABORTED!!!11111!!’ – assuming its a ‘gotcha’. they are left speechless when we say ‘yeah so ?”

  4. […] viable due to pre-existing conditions is as invalid as one given without actual alternatives. 4. In a situation where there is no possibility of consent, one should never infer consent (this may seem painfully obvious, but a lot of people believe the exact opposite). 5. If consent […]

  5. […] of this argument include Benatar’s Asymmetry, the consent argument, anti-frustrationism, ecological arguments (e.g. VHEMT), and so […]

  6. […] number of risks, including fatal risks? * If you do, can you justify it? Note that arguing that inability to give consent is the same thing as giving consent will be […]

  7. […] under a threat of force is the product of duress, not approval, and is therefore not consent. 5. In a situation where one of the parties cannot communicate, there can be no consent. 6. If the signal of agreement cannot be given prospectively (i.e. to the action itself), then there […]

  8. […] coming awake just in time to see the pilot bailing out. Consent has never entered the equation (the impossibility of consent implies non-consent), and therefore cannot be used to justify child […]

  9. […] on to Wasserman’s reply to the consent argument, what does he have to say to this very simple, direct and powerful argument? He spends the entire […]

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