Consent has emerged as a powerful buzzword in recent years. With movements like the #MeToo social media campaign against sexual harassment and assault in full swing, the push for a culture of consent is growing. Although the need for explicit consent is often associated with sexual relationships and interactions, consent is important in all aspects of life. The rise of “big data” and social media, for example, have exasperated the hazards of ignoring privacy rights, thus the subjects of social media content and the users of social media platforms need to be ask for consent on a continual basis and regularly provide consent. Unfortunately, consent can be a tricky proposition. Consent is only meaningful when those consenting fully understand the implications of giving their consent and the consequences of not consenting are not so problematic that they lead to coerced consent.
When embraced as a superficial practice, the act of requesting consent can become little more than an attempt to avoid potential legal issues or negative public perception. It is easily to believe: if consent is given, those who give consent are responsible for what is done to them, not those who do them harm. When consent becomes nothing more than a technicality or trendy social convention, it fosters a dystopian culture of consent. That is, people are asked for their consent and people give their consent, but the act of giving consent is meaningless, at best. In extreme cases, the act of giving consent becomes a rationale for violating a person’s rights and/or a means to absolve those who request consent of their ethical and moral trespasses. Asking people for their consent to murder them under the duress of torture, for example, does not absolve a murderer, whether man or machine, of the ethical and moral responsibility of their acts, even if it somehow negates the legal consequences. In a dystopian culture of consent, consent would.
While most cases involving the abuse of consent are not likely to involve murder, superficial consent can easily become a rationale for wrongdoing. The entire purpose of giving consent is to help keep people safe from unknown hazards by informing them of potential hazards and giving them opportunities to accept or reject the risk. The entire purpose of seeking consent, in contrast, is to force those who would thoughtlessly or maliciously expose others to hazards to reflect on their decisions before they endanger others. A culture of consent is supposed to foster thoughtfulness on behalf of those who are requesting the consent of others and those who are giving their consent. Without thoughtful reflection, consent is merely a means by which people are able to deflect responsibility for their actions. When consent giving becomes a thoughtless, automatic practice, it leads to wholesale consent. Wholesale consent, in turn, simply removes the moral, ethical, social, and, potentially, legal barriers that prevent people from doing whatever they please to others, e.g. it fosters a dystopian culture of consent.
To that end, there is a need for “informed” consent, but informed consent is not enough. No matter the age or education level of an individual, informed consent requires an individual to exhibit enough foresight and thoughtfulness to understand what consequences a particular decisions will entail and whether or not those consequences are acceptable. When it comes to potentially life-altering decisions with long term-consequences, it is difficult for even the most intelligent, most educated, and the most insightful people to fully understand the implications of their decisions. Average people make decisions on a regular basis that they either immediately try to “undo” or eventually come to regret once they reflect on the consequences they experience. Only by living the consequences of a decision can someone truly give informed consent. Informed consent can, therefore, be a poor indicator of a person’s actual willingness and ability to accept the consequences of a decision.
With that in mind, seeking informed consent and cultivating a culture of consent is important. In life, people have to make decisions without fully understanding or avoiding the consequences of their choices. Conversely, it is not always possible to understand the impact of one’s choices on others, even after careful reflection. It is, however, important to recognize consent is not a free pass. Asking for consent is not something done to avoid culpability. Even with informed consent, those who harm others, whether unintentionally or intentionally, will always share responsibility for the harmed caused by their actions. Giving consent is, in turn, not something done lightly. When considering consent, consent givers need to seriously reflect on the implications of their choices. It is important to recognize fostering a culture of consent means compelling people to be more thoughtful. A dystopian culture of consent, in contrast, fosters hazardous thoughtlessness .
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