The Generalist

The idea of ‘Consent’

This is a just pet-peeve of mine. I sometimes hear arguments regarding the ‘consent’ clause of the Declaration of Independence that seem to imply that one must consent to a just government and from that follows the idea that anything goes as long as one consents.

I have to weigh in on this.

In a truly just system there is no such thing as ‘consent’. Consent is implied by the fact that the system is just. I need no signatures, I need no approval. Justice is justice – period.

Now I understand that this might be confusing to some people. Especially those who believe in the concept of relativism, i.e., the idea that there is no independent or objective truth upon which ethics or politics is based. Proof of an objective reality is a bit outside my scope at the moment (although my recent post on Descartes’ Proof of the Existence of God might interest you if you are looking for this). I imagine, though, that the vast majority of my readers take the existence of an objective reality for granted except when normative sciences are involved. In other words, most people’s epistemologies are hopelessly split. Nevertheless, I’m going to make an attempt to show that true justice does not require consent by creating an example from a law that practically no one would find unjust – the law that requires men to abstain from murdering one another. Let’s suppose that for the sake of argument a group of individuals develop a society and all consent in writing to abide by this rule.

Shortly thereafter a stranger comes into town. He murders a citizen in town and is brought to trial for the murder. His defense? Well, he never consented to such a law!

Absurd? Of course it is. This notion follows for ALL just laws. Just is of course an important distinction. If you have a wily relativist view of things, justice will have utterly no meaning and you will not be able to create anything remotely like a just society. You will be busy trying to uphold all kinds of crazy and unjust laws. (If you’re interested in discovering just what justice is and how we know it, I recommend reading some of Ayn Rand’s work. As I mentioned in a previous post Rand is one of the very few philosophers who have a full and consistent understanding in this area.)

Some time ago a friend of mine attempted to counter the above argument with precisely the opposite approach; that anything goes as long as one consents. (This is really a very good thing to do when you are trying to understand a new concept. Take whatever it is you are trying to understand to its logical extreme.) He was imagining that there could exist a society of people who together agreed that to be a part of their society one must consent to never defend himself. Could such a society even exist without breaking it’s own rules? Of course not. The first time someone DID defend himself the society would either need to take action (i.e. defend itself thereby breaking it’s own rule) or else ignore the law, at which point, it ceases to have any meaning.

The point here is, don’t get hung up on the idea of ‘consent.’

The Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution are by no means perfect – even as originally written. Nevertheless, when you are reading something that was written at some point long in the past, I think it’s important to remember that languages change and evolve. Words that had one meaning then have a different meaning now, and if you read those works understanding only the current meaning, you are going to be confused. (This problem is compounded when a work has been translated from a foreign language written centuries ago! Remember that when you are studying ancient religious texts that weren’t even written down until centuries after they were conceived!)

Here is the original passage from the Declaration of Independence that includes the ‘consent’ portion:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

I recommend that when you read such terms as self-evident, creator, created, unalienable, just powers, and consent, you immediately try to define them and put them into a coherent whole. No small feat, admittedly, but if you are arguing about the use of the word ‘consent’ you are clearly at this level. The trick is not to get stuck there!

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