Age of Consent (Part One)

2년 전

The more an issue makes people angry or otherwise emotional, the more difficult it can be to have a calm, objective, intellectual discussion about it. That is just as true of me as anyone else. Nonetheless, righteous indignation that is not backed by principled moral concepts tends to cause more problems than it solves, so it’s important to be able to philosophically discuss even those issues which are the most uncomfortable, or downright infuriating.

Every now and then some libertarian expresses some opinion about “age of consent” laws, or related issues, and all hell breaks loose, because others perceive that opinion (whether accurately or not) to be some sort of justification for child molestation or pedophilia. It’s not surprising that decent human beings are quick to get angry and emotional at the thought of the most innocent among us being the victims of the most heinous crimes. I know I do. But righteous anger at evil doesn’t have to rule out rational discussion. In fact, making sure we’re very clear about what others are saying, and about what we advocate ourselves, is especially important when emotional issues are involved.

It is for that reason that I decided to post some of my own thoughts here regarding the whole concept of “age of consent.”

First of all, no, there is not some magic day in a person’s life when they instantly transform from being an utterly irresponsible imbecile to being someone who is fully capable, wise and responsible. To think that some human being one moment cannot possibly be trusted to decide for themselves when to enter a contract, or drink alcohol, or have sex, but the very next moment are completely capable of making such choices, because now it’s 12:01 a.m. on the 6,570th day of their life (or any other day), is obviously ridiculous.

While politician scribbles (“laws”) often deal in arbitrary distinctions, definitions and delineations—e.g., the exact age when some is “allowed” to drink, or “allowed” to smoke, the exact length a shotgun barrel is “allowed” to be, the exact speed someone is “allowed” to drive—actual morality rarely works that way. Some people may not like to hear this, but there are many situations in which the difference between right and wrong has to be determined, not by a line, but by a debatable gradient.

No, this doesn’t mean that morality is random and completely subjective, or that everyone’s opinion is equally valid, or that there are no real principles. It does mean that sometimes principles have to be applied to real-world scenarios in which there are “gray areas.” For example, while I agree with the principle that physical force should only be used to defend against aggression, there are times when it can be hard to say exactly what counts as aggression, and exactly what counts as defense. No, that doesn’t mean that anyone’s opinion on the matter is as good as anyone else’s. But it does mean that as individuals, sometimes we have to make judgment calls.

But if there is not an easily definable line, like an exact age, what is the general principle to be determined?

Every human being owns himself, but not every human being is competent enough to make his own choices about everything. I would not, for example, hand a loaded firearm to a small child, or to someone heavily inebriated, or to someone severely mentally retarded. And I wouldn’t do it even if they asked me to. In fact, if they had their own loaded firearm, I may very well take it from them without their permission (if I had the ability). This is not because those people don’t own themselves. It is because sometimes people are incompetent to a degree that leaving them in control of all of their own choices poses a serious threat to their own well-being and the well-being of those around them.

I can already hear the angry cries of some militant libertarians: “Oh, so you think you get to make those decisions for other people?!?!” Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. And I think you do, too. And so does everyone else. In fact, we must make such decisions on occasion, in order to protect the innocent, from their own cluelessness and from the cluelessness of others. Can that be a “slippery slope”? Of course it can. What a lot of people don’t seem to understand is that there is a big difference between saying, “Sometimes a person has to make a judgment call,” and saying, “Whatever judgment call someone makes is good.” A fine example of someone not grasping the difference is if I say that I would disarm some sloshed drunkard who is swinging a loaded shotgun around in a crowded room, and someone else replies, “Well what if you decide that everyone, including all the sober people, should be disarmed for their own good?!?

Obviously freedom-loving people should be very cautious and reluctant when it comes to imposing their will on someone else for that person’s “own good.” But to say that you should never do that is not principled; it’s insane. For example, if your three-year-old toddler is wandering into traffic, and instead of physically stopping him, you try to use reason to persuade him to turn around, you’re a crappy parent. In that case, you should absolutely ignore what the child wants, and force your will on him by picking him up and carrying him to safety. But what if he saw a shiny penny in the road, and really wanted to go get it? Too bad. I’m still going to overrule his judgment and impose my own judgment on him instead, without his consent. And I will do that even if he is someone else’s child.

No, that doesn’t make me “authority,” nor does it make me an oppressor. “Authority” means the right to rule other people. For parents to be “authority,” for example, would mean they have the right to coercively control their children, however they want, and whenever they want. And they don’t. They are, however, stewards or caretakers of incompetent human beings, whom they either gave birth to or chose to take responsibility for, and that requires them to make certain decisions for the children. And yes, that sometimes means over-ruling the desires and decisions of the child, in order to serve the child’s best interests.

As a parent, one thought experiment I like to use is this: of the restrictions and choices that I am imposing on my own child, is it what they will later want me to have done, when they have a full understanding of the situation? For example, I’m pretty sure my adult daughter today would not be indignant and outraged at having been “oppressed” if I had stopped her from wandering into traffic when she was a toddler. And that’s about the best test I can think of: if this child had all the information, understanding and mental capacity to make her own choices for everything, what would she choose?

Another way to look at it is this: imagine, while you’re being a parent, that the future, adult version of that child is next to you the whole time, observing and commenting. Are they saying, “Good job, dad!”? Or are they saying, “What a controlling asshole you are!”? If the adult version would say the latter, you’re probably doing it wrong. Of course, since you don’t have a time machine, and since you’re only mortal, you might not always get it right. But if that’s what you’re aiming for, that’s a hell of a lot better than those parents who have the attitude of, “As long as you’re dependent on me, I own you, and can do whatever the hell I want, and it’s no one else’s business, and no one has any right to stop me.” And yes, there are parents like that. (I even talked to one a couple days ago who imagined himself to be a libertarian, which was creepy.)

So now that we’ve laid down some basic concepts and principles, using somewhat less emotional and controversial issues and contexts, PART TWO will apply these principles to the concept of “consensual sex.” That article can be found here:

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