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Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Autonomy and the Folk Concept of Valid Consent

Demaree-Cotton, J., & Sommers, R. 
(2021, August 17). 


Consent governs innumerable everyday social interactions, including sex, medical exams, the use of property, and economic transactions. Yet little is known about how ordinary people reason about the validity of consent. Across the domains of sex, medicine, and police entry, Study 1 showed that when agents lack autonomous decision-making capacities, participants are less likely to view their consent as valid; however, failing to exercise this capacity and deciding in a nonautonomous way did not reduce consent judgments. Study 2 found that specific and concrete incapacities reduced judgments of valid consent, but failing to exercise these specific capacities did not, even when the consenter makes an irrational and inauthentic decision. Finally, Study 3 showed that the effect of autonomy on judgments of valid consent carries important downstream consequences for moral reasoning about the rights and obligations of third parties, even when the consented-to action is morally wrong. Overall, these findings suggest that laypeople embrace a normative, domain-general concept of valid consent that depends consistently on the possession of autonomous capacities, but not on the exercise of these capacities. Autonomous decisions and autonomous capacities thus play divergent roles in moral reasoning about consent interactions: while the former appears relevant for assessing the wrongfulness of consented-to acts, the latter plays a role in whether consent is regarded as authoritative and therefore as transforming moral rights.


Before these studies, it remained an open possibility that “valid consent” as a rich and normatively complex force existed only as a technical concept used in philosophical, legal and academic domains. We found, however, that the folk concept of consent involves normative distinctions between valid and invalid consent that are sensitive to the consenter’s autonomy, even if the linguistic utterance of “yes” is held constant, and that this concept plays an important role in moral reasoning. 

Specifically, the studies presented here examined the relationship between autonomy and intuitive judgments of valid consent in several domains: medical procedures, sexual relations, police searches, and agreements between buyers and sellers.  Across scenarios, we found that judgments of valid consent carried a specific relationship to autonomy: whether an agent possesses the mental capacity to make decisions in an autonomous way has a consistent impact on whether their consent is regarded as valid, and thus whether it was regarded as morally transformative of the rights and obligations of the consenter and of third parties.  Yet, whether the agent in fact makes their decision in an autonomous, rational way—based on their own authentic values and what is right for them—has little impact on perceptions of consent or associated rights, although it has relevance for whether the consent-obtainer is acting wrongly.  Autonomy thus has a subtle role in the ordinary reasoning about morally transformative consent, where consent given by an agent with autonomous capacities has a distinctive role in downstream moral reasoning.