Dennis Hackethal’s Blog

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Is Sanctioned Force Still Force?

Say you want to get rid of your couch – but before you do, burglars break into your home. You’re present and witness them carrying out your couch. You might even tell them, ‘Oh good, I was going to get rid of that old thing anyway, thanks for taking it’. Is what they’re doing still theft? After all, it’s not like you’re pleading with them not to take it – in a way, they’re doing you a favor.

I think it’s still theft. In layman’s terms, theft is usually defined as taking someone’s property without their consent, where ‘consent’ means something like ‘explicit affirmation’. But the above case is different. You may have sanctioned the theft – after all, you are explicitly approving. But, whether you realize it in the moment or not, it cannot be said that you have consented. That’s because theft means taking someone’s property without regard for their consent. The burglars take your couch regardless of whether you want them to.

That isn’t a legal definition, and I’m not a lawyer. We could call them different ‘types’ of theft and consent or use other terms for them altogether – it doesn’t matter all that much what we call things as long as we know what we’re talking about. But the distinction between sanction and consent is crucial for moral considerations because, without consent, the victim is robbed of his agency. He’s treated not as a person but as an object; his autonomy is violated.

Consider taxes. Some people don’t think taxation is theft because they want to pay taxes. Or they think that they benefit from paying taxes by receiving certain services in exchange, or that society couldn’t work without taxes (it could). But whatever the case, taxes are taken from them without regard for their consent. Again, even if the theft is sanctioned by the victim, it’s still theft; the collection of taxes is still involuntary and forceful, even if there is no physical evidence of force.

Conversely, some people argue that payments for essential goods and services such as rental properties and food should be considered stolen since they feel ‘forced’ to purchase them to sustain themselves. But that misses the mark spectacularly – it’s just a matter of biology. In reality, such payments are not stolen since landlords and sellers of food operate with regard for their customers’ consent.

Regard for consent goes beyond taxes and property and is, again, a broader issue about agency. Consider those who were forced to get vaccinated during the covid pandemic. Maybe some of them were going to get vaccinated anyway. They may even have been in favor of vaccine mandates. But their agency was taken from them regardless, so they were coerced – and moral evaluations of the enforcers and brutes should account for that.

When a man sleeps with a woman without regard for her consent, that is rape – even if she wants to sleep with him, and even (or especially) if she is unaware of his disregard. (However, I don’t believe the latest craze that sexual consent has to be constantly and explicitly reaffirmed during the act. Enthusiastic participation is enough.)

The sanctioning of force can manifest in strange ways. Consider adults who, looking back, are ‘glad’ their parents coerced them when they were children. For example, they may claim to be glad their parents forced them to learn to play the piano – I’ve heard this surprisingly often. They argue they would have never learned otherwise, or the skill later translated into other useful areas in life, or whatever. In such cases, it is implicitly argued that it ‘wasn’t really’ force because it was later deemed beneficial. The victim retroactively sanctions the force. But of course it was still force because there was no regard for the child’s consent at the time the force was exerted.

This last instance is a particular case of force having a sort of ‘cloaking’ effect. Virtually all adults suffer from this effect in response to the abuse they endured as children from parents, teachers, and other adults. It’s an understandable coping mechanism. Crucially, sanctioned force has an easier time propagating itself than blunt force, thus transforming the victim into a perpetrator of the same moral crimes against the next generation. (For more on this curious phenomenon, read The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, chapters 15 and 16.)

To be clear, I’m not saying that sanctioned force is always worse than blunt force. It stands to reason that someone experiencing blunt force as such, in the moment, causing him pain and suffering, may be even worse in some ways than when sanction leads to an absence of pain and suffering (though it doesn’t always). There’s a difference between the subjective experience of force and the objective presence thereof. But I am saying that the sanctioning of force doesn’t solve all moral problems with it. On the contrary, victims can be tricked into feeling like they’re consenting when they’re really only sanctioning. Actual consent is always morally superior to the mere sanctioning of force, and the concept of regard for consent provides an effective defense against manipulators who claim that, as long as something benefited you, it cannot have been immoral.

It is usually thought that consent can be determined by looking at the state of mind of the affirming party alone. If someone gave explicit affirmation, so it is said, he consented. But now that we have established the need for the regard for consent by the other party, we can see that that is not necessarily the case: to distinguish between actual consent and the mere sanctioning of force, one must consider the mental states and intentions of everyone involved. It is the offenders who turn their victims’ consent on its head, not the victims themselves – so at most, the affirming party can invite the other party to make the interaction consensual. Accordingly, people can be mistaken about whether they are consenting or being coerced. That’s because they have strictly limited visibility into other people’s minds and even their own. They can also be mistaken in thinking they have regard for consent when it comes to others.

Whether someone does have regard for consent at present can be tested by asking them to stop. If they comply, they do. Whether someone had regard for consent in the past can be harder to determine and may require retroactive ‘mind reading’.

In conclusion, a disregard for consent turns what otherwise would have been consent, even in the form of explicit affirmations, into a mere sanctioning of force. Such sanctioning doesn’t make the force morally unproblematic. A disregard for consent violates the agency and autonomy of the other party. Sometimes, victims of force may feel as though they are consenting when they are actually merely sanctioning it.


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