We cannot see or feel consent. Why is it important when its existence cannot be proven?

The importance of consent seems to rely on the principle of respect for autonomy or self-determination; for one to make their own decisions? Why should autonomy be respected?

What if there is no ability to give consent? A child or unconscious patient, for example, would not be mentally developed or conscious enough to make their own decisions. Why should their non-existent autonomy be respected?

The child would be fed, bathed and vaccinated without their consent. And the unconscious patient would undergo surgeries or treatments without their consent. The consent would be "implied" and not explicitly granted by the child or unconscious patient

But if consent can be implied and inferred from silence, why is it immoral to engage in sexual activities with a child or unconscious person?

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    You seem to be equating care for a child with abuse of a child. Are you aware of this? We frequently ignore consent of those unable to give it in order to ensure their wellbeing. Nothing about this practice suggests consent should therefore be ignored for the purposes of abuse. Feb 10, 2023 at 9:18
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    Part 1 of the problem: consent is not physical (you cannot feel or see it), it's conceptual, ideal, rational, like circles. Physically, spheres don't exist (no solid has a perfectly flat surface), only polyhedrons exist physically. That doesn´t imply that circles or spheres don't exist. They exist as metaphysical objects. Part 2: see plato.stanford.edu/entries/informed-consent.
    – RodolfoAP
    Feb 10, 2023 at 10:39
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    If you do not respect others, they might as well not respect yours. So consent reflects a social contract, an unspoken rule by which individuals abide in interacting with each other. Children and unconscious patients are not autonomous, so there is usually a person appointed to make decisions for them - often their parent in case of children, the closest of kin or a spouse in case of patients.
    – Roger V.
    Feb 10, 2023 at 10:40
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    @ActualCry. Your question to Roger seems to have such an obvious answer that it risks coming across as insincere; as a troll. 'What's there to respect?'. Wellbeing. When we find ourselves in a position of power of those unable to consent or refuse, those moral approaches most widely adopted by society would suggest we have an obligation to ensure wellbeing, as opposed to exploit an opportunity at the cost of wellbeing. Ask yourself what you would prefer for any child you might have, and why. Feb 10, 2023 at 11:49
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    Are you sure we cannot 'feel consent'? I would contest we feel it in the same way that we feel motivation, ambition, fear, love or reluctance. None of these emotions are as concrete, perhaps, as something like pain, but consent is a feeling of yielding power to another or others. It is sometimes frightening and sometimes very empowering. Feb 10, 2023 at 12:57

6 Answers 6


Generally in modern societies it is accepted that you should treat people with respect for their individual rights, preferences and wellbeing unless there is an overriding reason to do otherwise.

The best way to establish a person's preferences is to ask the person. Hence it is routine to ask a person to give consent before you do anything that could go against their rights, preferences and wellbeing.

There are conventional presumptions about what people would prefer which can be fallen-back upon if a person is unable to give consent. For example, most people would presume that an unconscious person would rather be given medical attention than sexually abused, to use your examples. You seem to consider that it is possible to infer any form of consent from silence, which is clearly nonsense- you must have reasonable grounds for assuming that the unconscious person, for example, would prefer one option to another.

There is no absolute reason why it is considered right to seek consent- it is a standard of behaviour that has developed in civilised societies, presumably on the grounds that the majority of people can readily imagine the kinds of appalling consequences that might arise if personal rights and preferences were not respected. I don't think you need to read a book to appreciate that point.

  • Children and unconscious people cannot express their preferences. Could you explain why their non-existent preferences should be respected? And why their silence doesn't imply consent?
    – ActualCry
    Feb 10, 2023 at 11:43
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    @ActualCry that is like asking why their silence does not imply that Beijing is the capital of Canada. Their silence means that they are not able to express their preferences- it does not me that you can decide at random what their preferences are. Feb 10, 2023 at 12:35
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    @ActualCry suppose I were to gag you so that you could not speak- would you be happy for me to suppose your silence meant I could do what I liked to you? Feb 10, 2023 at 12:36
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    @ActualCry your first comment mentions 'non-existent' preferences. They are not 'non-existent'- they are unexpressed. Feb 10, 2023 at 12:40

TL;DR Harm reduction?

People care about their autonomy and self-determination, taking that away from them is a direct attack upon them. An attack that is likely causing harm, doing damage and might result in an extended conflict (people usually don't like it if you attack themselves, friends, family or random strangers).

So consent isn't a property that you prove to a 3rd party entity, in the sense of "See, I checked all the requirements!!", it's the fact that the other party genuinely agrees and doesn't consider it a violation of their autonomy or an act of deliberate harm on your end (neither now, nor in the future).

So in practical terms how likely does the other person (subjectively) perceive your action as "being wrong" and suffer or cause harm because of that.

Now as said in the last consequence that is subjective, a person might consent to something and refuse consent the minute after or despite your best efforts they might still genuinely believe that you caused deliberate harm to them. So the best you or any legal system, can do is approximating.

That being said it's not like it's completely erratic either. There are heuristics like the categorical imperative or "golden rule". humans are sufficiently similar for us to know that if something causes discomfort to you, you should definitely better ask the other person if they are ok with it. While visible comfort or discomfort can serve as approximations for consent, if in any shred of doubt you should ask the other person. If there is an environment of coercion you should account for that as well. Like if you hold a position of power over that person where they can't speak freely you might want to bring in a neutral 3rd party. You should also play with open cards in terms of the risks and benefits associated with a decision so that the other person can make an informed decision.

Like none of that let's you precisely tell whether the other person actually consents with something or is idk making false assumptions and later on angry about things turning out differently than expected for example, but you can at least reduce that risk quite significantly compared to just doing something.

Now there are situations where you can't ask for consent but inaction is as harmful or more harmful and where you have to make a decision regardless of the consent of the other person. So in that case you'd need to estimate what's best for them or what they would do in that situation. So an unconsciously wounded person likely would be fine if brought to a doctor even if you can't ask them. While sexually taking advantage of an unconscious person is with utmost certainty not in their interest.

Also consent isn't just about sex and children can consent or voice their objection to many things. The problem is just that children aren't fully developed or well informed. So while they can clearly state their preference for eating tons of sugary things that's still not a good idea. So while you might see yourself in a position where you do harm (ignore consent) to prevent bigger harm, you should still at least try to explain your action and value consent where it is meaningfully given or refused.

So TL;DR The assumptions of consent in the absence of an ability to consent is an ASSUMPTION and not consent and you should be very careful what you assume another person to want, because they might disagree quite violently with you.

  • My surgeon had to take a course of action during surgery that he already knew I wouldn't prefer, but I had given consent for him to do what turned out to be best. He explained afterward, but I said it was fine.
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 10, 2023 at 23:09
  • "consent isn't a property that you prove to a 3rd party entity, in the sense of "See, I checked all the requirements!!", it's the fact that the other party genuinely agrees" -- the negation of this realization explains a lot about certain ideologies permeating society, so well done Feb 11, 2023 at 9:09

In less developed (tribal or hunter-gatherer societies) consent is important because doing things to others without consent invites violent retribution. If A steals B's chickens (takes them without consent) then B might murder A's entire family, all depending on how valuable or necessary for survival chickens are in that society. People in such societies develop a certain circumspect attitude towards others be cause retribution is rarely measured to be equal: take without consent and risk having something much more valuable taken in vengeance.

As societies became more structured and organized — and particularly as Liberal era dawned — centralized governments took over the task of maintaining order. In other words, governments created laws and institutions meant to restore the damage caused by acts of taking-without-consent, suppressing acts of personal retribution and invoking collective systems of reparation. The idea here is that society and its institutions have an emotional detachment that prevents escalations of retributive taking-without-consent, thus preventing ongoing feuds, clan-wars, etc, that damage society as a whole. But the basic principle remains: society tries to ensure the person(s) guilty of taking-without-consent suffer proportional loss to what they took, as opposed to the disproportional loss of emotional retribution.

People who lack the ability to give consent — children, unconscious people, the mentally infirm — still lie within the fabric of society. They have kith and kin who will take retribution on their behalf unless the government prevents it, and if the government prevents it that government will make efforts to restore what was taken. But the basic (primitive) social relation remains: you take-without-consent from us, and we will take-without-consent from you. And of course that becomes a universal moral imperative (ala Kant) where one must accept being-taken-from if one accepts taking-from-others as valid. We ask for consent from others, or we accept and tolerate that others do not ask for consent from us.

Of course, in any class-based society there are myriad loopholes to such universality. As a rule, lower classes can be taken-from without consent, and have little recourse under law to redress the issue. Sexual consent has only become an issue in the last 50-100 years because prior to that time some, children, and the mentally infirm were considered as a class to be incompetent to give consent, and were placed under the protection of fathers, husbands or (in extremes) religious leaders. The state did not intervene in their protection because the state only mediates between those in the citizen-class. As women, children, and the mentally infirm have slowly gained independence from paternal authority, they became citizens capable of taking retribution into their own hands, and thus the state needed to include some form of reparative law to prevent escalating retribution.

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    I understand the importance of consent now. And I appreciate your well-written comment, as always. But doesn't this sound more like an opinion piece against retribution?
    – ActualCry
    Feb 10, 2023 at 18:57
  • @ActualCry: Well, granted that I'm not a fan of retribution, which I see as immature action. But that's not my point here. Retribution is a social fact: people who feel wronged are inclined to set matters right. Sometimes they seek fair recompense for the wrong, sometimes they merely want to wrong the other more than they were wronged themselves. Communities and societies acknowledge the urge but generally try to discourage the latter kind of escalation, for the good of the community. That's why they intercede with law and justice systems. Feb 10, 2023 at 20:41
  • @ActualCry: If you'd like me to create an opinion-piece against retribution, I'd happily sermonize. I could line up something with fire and brimstone, and maybe a few lepers... But I'm just talking about facts, here. People want to get back at people over wrongs; societies try to temper that urge in their citizens so it doesn't damage the social fabric; when new people work their way into citizenship, societies have to adapt their rules to fit (and the Old Guard usually isn't happy about it). C'est la vie... Feb 10, 2023 at 20:47
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    I have nothing against retribution, so I will have to turn down the offer. I just thought you directed your attention away from the topic of consent. But I was mistaken. Cheers :)
    – ActualCry
    Feb 10, 2023 at 21:36
  • I found this insight in your Answer valuable: "the state only mediates between those in the citizen-class" Thanks!
    – Scott Rowe
    Feb 10, 2023 at 23:03

Consent is not "important" in itself, it is a convenient tool in deciding ethicality (or legality) of actions in certain contexts without further effort.

In simple words, when we know that a person agrees to or refuses some treatment because they said so, we can usually (but not always) easily tell whether that treatment is ethical (or legal) or not.

But if consent can be implied and inferred from silence...

When a treatment is given to a person against their expressed will or without their explicit consent, that does not mean that consent was implied or inferred. It was just discarded, because there are other (usually harder) ways to ensure ethicality or legality of a treatment.

So this statement did not make any sense.

In the same way, ethicality or legality both cannot always be inferred from explicit consent or refusal. When a rightfully condemned person refuses to be imprisoned, then the imprisonment could still be ethical and could still be legal.

Are there philosophical articles and books on the importance of consent that I can read?

Many. Obvious examples include Sokrates who accepted a death penalty based on his prior consent to the application of the laws of his nation, regardless of his own opinion that he was innocent.


Let's start from the basics: property rights, aka the exclusive authority to determine how something you own is used.

A human owns himself, his life, his time, his productivity, the rest of his property, etc. He can decide what to do with his property, but others cannot without his consent.

And... that's all there is to it really: like most human rights, consent comes from property rights.

  • You can break your own toys, but not mine unless I agree.
  • You can stick things into your own bodily orifices, but doing so to someone else without their consent would be rape.
  • You can do what you want with your life, but forcing someone to do what you want with their life would be slavery.
  • Etc.

In all these cases, the fundamental part is who owns the thing.

Note there are so-called "human rights" which do not come from property rights, quite the opposite in fact... most noticeably, the generic "right to free stuff", which is a right to the work of slaves who will produce said free stuff. These are not human rights at all, but I'm digressing.

Anyway. Next we have reciprocity. A formulation could be "don't do to others what you wouldn't want done to yourself" or "The rules you wish to impose upon others must also apply to you." This is easily hackable when using detailed examples (for example a masochist could argue that a mandatory daily spanking for everyone would be totally fine since they'd like it a lot) so it's better to stick to general principles:

Reciprocity implies that: if you think property rights should not exist for other people, then they shouldn't exist for you either. This means you don't own yourself, which means you have no rights at all, and no way to argue why anyone shouldn't do anything they want to you.

Basically, the only alternative to the system of rights built upon property and reciprocity is might makes right.

After this... theoretical introduction...

We cannot see or feel consent.

Lack of consent can sometimes be physically measurable, usually by the amount of violence retribution that follows.

Why is it important when its existence cannot be proven? Why should autonomy be respected?

Reciprocity: if you don't acknowledge the existence of other people's consent and autonomy, then yours does not exist either. This is why commies don't have rights, btw.

The importance of consent seems to rely on the principle of respect for autonomy or self-determination; for one to make their own decisions?

Yes, that's another way to say "property rights".

What if there is no ability to give consent? A child or unconscious patient

In this case the traditional approach is to assume the unconscious patient would express the same wishes as pretty much everyone else would if they could communicate. If a patient arrives in the ER bleeding and unconscious, it's pretty safe to assume they would agree with an attempt to save their life.

However, this is not as clear-cut as it seems: for example the patient may have beliefs that would lead them to prefer death to certain forms of treatment, or perhaps they actually wanted to kill themselves. Likewise the patient may be under the influence of drugs or other conditions that prevent the brain from working properly, thus unable to consent. In this case the solution is to leave clear directives beforehand like the "do not ressuscitate" directive so the patient's rights can be respected. However this is not foolproof and requires logistics.

Likewise, we can opt (or not) for an organ donor card, because... property rights over your organs.

Thus there is an important difference between a child and an unconscious patient: the latter can leave directives beforehand, and if they didn't, we can assume they were okay with the default way things are done.

But if consent can be implied and inferred from silence, why is it immoral to engage in sexual activities with a child or unconscious person?

Dude, come on.

First, "consent can be implied and inferred from silence" is not true, the person could remain silent because they're too afraid to talk, or other factors. "Silence is consent" would only be valid if the person was free and willing to speak without any consequences.

Second, it is not necessarily immoral to have sex with someone unconscious if that was agreed upon beforehand, although one must take extra precautions because they won't be able to communicate if they're hurt. And what if they're also tied up and gagged, or their mouth otherwise occupied with something? Sometimes it's complicated. For example I had this girlfriend who would pass out when coming too hard, but she had told me to keep going anyway because, quote "it got her off". I'm not the kind of man to say no to a lady's wishes, so I did exactly that, but I did keep a wet towel in an ice bucket to wake her up.

So yes, prior consent is a thing, how else would you wake up your GF with a kiss? Even worse, if she wakes you up with a cuddle, are you going to sue for inappropriate groping because the sleeping can't consent?


There are a lot of answers, and I'm sure there's some good stuff there. Proving consent exists is actually something many people accept as possible. Of course, disagreement over what constitutes 'consent' may be an essentially contested concept. Just remember that consent is a very important building block of meaning in the following philosophy-of's:

  • Philosophy-of-mind - Is consent possible if there is no free will, and if there is no free will, why is consent an important psychological reality?
  • Philosophy-of-psychology - According to reactance theory, people will choose the opposite of what they are not allowed to give consent to; is oppositional defiant disorder just an extreme case of reactance?
  • Philosophy of law - What exactly is consent, and how can violating be inferred to be a crime, such as in sexual assault as determined by ages of consent in sexuality?
  • Political philosophy - What does it mean to have the consent of the governed (dictionary.com), and to what extent is such necessary or practical?

As for consent, there are some posts here on PhilSE, although it looks like you might be responsible for a number of them:


Among the results:

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