The Catholic Thing
Mere Consent and the Abolition of Human Dignity Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 23 May 2014

What makes chattel slavery morally wrong? That’s a question that I have asked my ethics students for the past two decades or so.

I am not asking them whether chattel slavery is morally wrong. We already agree on that point. I am asking what it is about chattel slavery that justifies our judgment that it is morally wrong.  It is like the difference between asking, “Is Michelangelo's Pietà beautiful?” and “Why is Michelangelos Pietà beautiful?” The latter question presupposes that the answer to the first question is “yes,” which means that the second question is asking why the “yes” is justified.

“The slaves didn’t consent” is the answer I get from virtually all my students. But as they quickly learn, that answer is not capable of truly capturing their deeper intuitions about chattel slavery’s wrongness. After all, as I often respond, what if historians discovered a group of former American slaves a few years after the Civil War pining for their former life on the plantation? How we would react to such a revelation?

Would we say that this state of affairs could have developed into a case of morally permissible chattel slavery, if the former slaves had subsequently consented to return to their prior state, to become yet again under the law nothing more than another man's property?

If you answer “yes,” then you believe chattel slavery is only conditionally wrong, that there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the practice. So, even though you may continue to condemn the institution, the grounds on which that condemnation rests – consent – implies that there is nothing essential about human beings that entails that we are not by nature property.

So, under this analysis, the wrong of chattel slavery depends not on who the victims are, but rather, on what the victims want. It suggests that the absence of volition, and not the presence of dignity, is doing the moral work in our condemnation of chattel slavery.

Yet many today are suggesting that when it comes to some of the great moral questions of our time, individual autonomy (or “consent”) is the only principle we need in order to secure all the goods for which more ancient understandings, such as human dignity, have been employed.

For example, the eminent Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, in a provocatively titled New Republic essay, “The Stupidity of Dignity, ” writes:

The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. . . .[Ruth Macklin has] argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy – the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudo-experiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

 In Dr. Mengele’s case consent would not have made evil permissible

 Although much can be said in response to Pinker’s claim, as I point out in a 2010 article published in the journal Ethics & Medicine, it will suffice for our purposes here to draw on the sort of reasoning I employ with my students when I ask the question about chattel slavery.

What if, for example, we discovered the diaries of certain German citizens who volunteered to undergo the Nazi experiments in exchange for large sums of money that would be given to their survivors? Would the consent of these voluntary victims change Mengele’s pseudo-experiments from evil to good?

If not, it must be because these activities are intrinsically evil, and that agreeing to participate in them, whether as victim or assailant, cannot in principle change their nature. Thus, contra Pinker, dignity not only does not add nothing, mere consent subtracts everything.

I am, of course, not suggesting that consent does not matter for ethics. It is, for example, a necessary condition for the licitness of a marriage. There is, after all, such a thing as unjust coercion. Rather, what I am arguing is that the moral life cannot be reduced to mere consent, as many of our contemporaries, like Pinker, believe should be done.

For, as we have seen, when that reduction is applied to actual atrocities, our attention subtly shifts from what seems true at first sight – the intrinsic dignity of the human person – to  the deflated alternative which the modern mind thinks it can substitute without remainder: the conditional will of the individual chooser.

The implication of the latter is clear: there is no human good to which we are ordered and to which our wills should conform. Good is merely what we prefer, and to which we direct our wills. But in that case, we possess no intrinsic dignity, since such a property would be a good independent of what we will and under which our preferences should be ruled.

In effect, mere consent is the abolition of human dignity.

The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (12)Add Comment
written by Paul Rodden, May 23, 2014
If any former American slaves were found to have been pining for their former life on the plantation, 'the narrative' of 'the experts' today would probably put it down to Stockholm Syndrome. It wouldn't fit the view of 'human nature' and the past they want people to believe about the historical 'facts'.

They would argue that 'loving your enemies' must be a product of the survival instinct of our evolution and genes rather than a matter of the will, because it's 'not normal' to love enemies within their materialist, 'dog-eat-dog', worldview (when it suits).

It seems to me choice (consent), in most people's minds, is a matter of biology - genes and neurons firing in the brain - when they want to excuse or justify their own wanton behaviour, and a matter of will - deliberate and culpable - when they want to vilify other people's wanton behaviour.

People want it both ways as it allows them to make reality in their own image, and according to their own desires.

Dr Beckwith has taught me that Relativism is the name for this convenient act of self-deception by which one can live as if one can have one's cake and eat it, all day, every day. This 'Ethic of Convenience' - or consent being in the eye of the beholder - is no different from the fundamentalist they ridicule for projecting his own ridiculous eisegesis onto bible verses, whilst they want to do exactly the same with ethical situations.

The galling thing about it, like seeing the Emperor with no clothes, is to make it illegal for us to laugh at them doing so.
written by Dennis Larkin, May 23, 2014
I would like you to give your answer to the question.
written by schm0e, May 23, 2014
I'm grateful to people who fight this fight so well, and delighted to see the Harvard Hotshot's "thesis" easily dispatched with an argument that a student can follow.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when merely employing the device of raising a provocative introductory question can incite the mob to yell, "BIGOT!" Notwithstanding that an argument that a student can grasp will be lost on most of that mob, it is not lost on all, and is as refreshing as water today is to a flower that was watered yesterday.
written by Athanasius, May 23, 2014
To summarize, mere consent seems to be a form of pride, where I am the determiner of right and wrong, and so as long as I agree with an action, it is right. There is no eternal law to which I must submit to. Isn't this the whole foundation to the sexual revolution?
written by Ted Seeber, May 23, 2014
Wow! I've been trying to get a handle on this for some time in the sexual culture wars, and this does it without my clumsy redefinition of rape to "extra heteromarital sex", because it includes the possibility of rape in marriage being wrong.
written by Marie Therese, May 23, 2014
If we agree that volition makes any act acceptable, do we necessarily have to agree, ipso facto, that non-agreement makes any act wrong?
written by RCsndelaria, May 23, 2014
Under the current regime in academia, "consent" is the only criterion for allowing almost any form of contact between persons with the exceptions of (1) contact that brings immediate death to one of the persons and (2) a few forbidden verbal expressions which cannot be uttered orally except by those whose sensibilities are the rationale for the prohibition.
written by Tony, May 23, 2014
Pinker is a philistine, a guy who writes with some facility but who actually does not engage arguments with any attention or any awareness that people have engaged them long before. He is an idiot in the old Greek sense -- somebody so self-absorbed that he does not acknowledge the wisdom of anyone else.

People engage in mutual consent to evil all the time. Duelists did so, right? People who divorce ... sexual threesomes ... states at war ... and then, of course, we would not be able to discuss moral evil that involves only the individual. He's an idiot.
written by Blake Helgoth , May 23, 2014
This is why paying anything less than a living wage is unjust. The mere consent of the worker does not justify the a low wage. Nor does the treatment of work performed solely as a commodity to be exchanged at a mutually agreeable price.
written by Gus, May 23, 2014
The comment by Blake Helgoth that this is why paying anything less than a 'living wage' or 'just wage' is unjust raises the question 'What is a just or living wage?' Such a wage will vary from individual to individual, and from region to region, country to country. Who gets to decide what a just wage is?
written by John II, May 23, 2014
The only thing "eminent" about Professor Pinker is his stand-out narcissism. He's the perfect spokesman for an academic culture in precipitate decline. His "principle of personal autonomy" whereby "no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another" is nothing more than ad hoc cover for the aggressively invasive Left political arrangements he favors.
written by Myshkin, May 23, 2014
Consent must come from a deeper source than Pinker's and Macklin's notion of personal autonomy, "the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another." Why? Because this notion is simply not adequate to reality. Not all human persons have the same minimum capacity to perform all these acts. As Aquinas noted, humans can have lesser capabilities arising in three different ways: (1) from " ignorance, a proneness towards evil, and a difficulty in well-doing", (2) "caused in some men by certain particular causes, as leprosy, epilepsy, and the like" and (3) due to "the sin of our first parent, as death, hunger, thirst, and the like …." (ST 3.14.4). Personal autonomy can be compromised in any of these ways, which would render informed consent less and less possible as one's capabilities are more and more impaired.

Unless there is something which undergirds the assertion that "all humans have the same minimum capacity", namely human dignity, this is either blatantly false, or a not-so-subtle way of redefining who gets to be called a human. I.e., ONLY IF a creature has "the minimum capacity to XYZ" does it count as human. Which leads us back to Mengele doesn't it? If Catholics, Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, Blacks, etcetera, don't share a "minimum capacity to XYZ" -- and XYZ is always defined by the politically powerful elites -- they can be counted as subhuman.

St Thomas, in contrast to this crude "principle of personal autonomy", sees all human beings as created in the image of God. So it doesn't matter whether a human person has one set of capabilities or not. All humans have the dignity of the nature which God created them with, the dignity of the imago Dei. As Josef Pieper’s might have put it: for Aquinas the essence of a thing is its existence as a creative act of God (The Silence of St. Thomas: Three Essays, 45-51). What this means is that the human being is principally a creature created in the image and likeness of God. Any "personal autonomy" is consequent on the God-given dignity of the human person.

IMHO, this shift away from human dignity by some bioethicists is driven by legal worries. Since the time when Oliver Wendell Holmes poured scorn on it, it has been difficult to base legal arguments on the FACT of human dignity. Such is the out-of-touch-with-reality state of jurisprudence in the U.S. And hospitals and medical researchers want a robust way of defending themselves in court. Hence the shift to signed "informed consent" forms which can brandished in a courtroom. And so our civilization continues to substitute law for reason, political might for prudential justice. No wonder the U.S. is in such a state of moral decrepitude.

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters