An academic colleague of mine recommended Justice by Michael Sandel, and it's a great read. On page 20 he explains two major schools of thought regarding justice:
“Leading the laissez-faire camp are the free-market libertarians who believe that justice consists of respecting and upholding the voluntary choices of consenting adults.”
In theory this laissez-faire notion sounds good. Mature, responsible, upstanding, honorable. But in practice it’s a fatally-flawed perspective. The defects are found in two key phrases:
I'll address the concept of "voluntary choices" in a separate post, so first one first: the notion of "consenting adults" lacks a critical qualification: there’s a vast difference between making decisions when you’re an adult and making them as an adult. The first merely declares adulthood by the length of time spent breathing. The second implies adulthood by achieving a certain amount of competence, comprehension, and an acknowledgement of cause and effect.
Imagine you’re in a car accident, and your leg is badly hurt. You’re wheeled into emergency surgery. The nurse gestures to a nearby man and asks you, “Do you consent for this adult to operate on you?”
“Is he a good doctor?” you ask.
The nurse shrugs and says, “We found an adult who consented to be your doctor.”
“But is he any good?”
“Look, he wanted to be a doctor here and we agreed. Now we’re asking if you agree. And as you can see, everyone is an adult, so you don’t have to worry.”
Being an adult doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing. Being an adult doesn’t mean you are acting in your own interest. It doesn’t mean you’re educated about a complicated subject. It doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about. It doesn’t grant you automatic wisdom or foresight. It doesn’t mean you are responsible, or compassionate. In short, adulthood by itself indicates neither competence nor decency.
It’s tempting to look at a full-grown person and think they’re an adult on the inside; they look that way on the outside, after all. But the world is simply too big and complex for us all to have an adult understanding about everything. Enormous decisions are routinely made by people who are indistinguishable from children, at least in how much they understand the subject.
For example, I’ve been writing computer software since I was a boy. I understand how to write programs both ideally and practically. I know the pitfalls and what leads to them. I can predict what will happen when certain conditions are satisfied, both in the code as well as the team writing it. On the subject of software, I’m a full-grown adult.
But ask me to pilot a jumbo jet, design a skyscraper, or reform monetary policy? Suddenly my performance will be just like a kid’s. Because I don’t know what I’m doing. When it comes to those complicated subjects, and a hundred others, I’m an infant. The fact that I have an adult’s body is unimportant.
Agreement between “consenting adults” is simply that: agreement. It is no guarantee that the outcome will be fair, smart, good, just, wise - or any other virtue - for anyone. Put another way, the “consenting adults” standard is too far low to provide any moral - or pragmatic - guidance.
A just society doesn’t settle for “consenting adults” as the measure of sane and responsible decision-making. Consent isn’t the answer- competence is. Competent adults are capable of making well-considered decisions about complicated things. We should all be far less concerned with consent and more with capability. Consent is meaningless. Comprehension is the only standard that makes sense.