Thanks to David (I’ll call him David L. lest readers get confused about the multiple Davids on the screen) for his excellent summary and questions. The first issue he raises is about my appeal to symmetry between consent and non-consent. I say that it’s interestingly asymmetrical if consent is sometimes null but non-consent never is. David L. is quite right that symmetry of this kind is not automatically an important thing, and so it’s no basis for thinking that non-consent must also be capable of being null. But Jonathan is also right, I think, to say that we might find the asymmetry morally puzzling. That’s all I had in mind. The asymmetry just opens up a question. After that, it does no argumentative work. I refer back to the question of symmetry once or twice as I argue for normative consent, but only to stay clear about what it was that was initially puzzling.
David L.’s main concern is focused around my airplane crash example. I should say that I don’t intend that example to elicit strong predictable intuitions. (It is not like the famous trolley problems in that way.) Rather, it is just a story I can use to illustrate what it is that I want to claim. It has also proven very useful to my critics in helping them make clear just where they think I go wrong. You’re welcome.
The main line of worry seems to be that I haven’t clearly or adequately answered what I call the direct authority objection, which holds that normative consent is superfluous. As David L. points out, the crucial distinction is between what conditions materially entail authority, and what conditions morally ground authority. So it’s important first to see that these are two separate things. I give as an example the fact that all present facts about masses, forces, etc., must materially entail all the moral facts. (This claim is available to lots of different metaethical views, though not all, I admit.) But those facts don’t morally ground or support the moral facts. For example, the micro-physical facts that entail that I consent to your using my pen do not morally ground your permission even though they do guarantee it by way of guaranteeing that I consent.
Now in the normative consent context it is moral facts, not just physical facts, that I claim make it wrong not to consent, and so it is more plausible for critics to claim that they could provide the whole moral account without any need to appeal to the stuff about the wrongness of not consenting. But that doesn’t change the form of the point. Just because those moral facts materially entail the authority (because they guaranteed the wrongness of non-consent), that doesn’t yet show that they morally ground the authority. Think of it this way: take any plausible account that says moral fact F is morally grounded in condition C. Now find some other conditions C’ that entail C but which are plainly no moral basis for F. A cheap way to do it is always to go to the underlying physical facts, but there would be other ways. Now ask whether you can find some other moral conditions MC that guarantee C. If so they are moral conditions that guarantee F, but that does not show that they morally ground F without any appeal to C. They might, unlike C, have no morally salient relation to F.
Now consider the garage cleaning example. I imagine a case where you would be morally required to consent to my authority over you if I proposed it. Why might you be required? I might have helped you a lot under your authority recently, and I might really need you to do as I say to help clean my garage. The direct authority objection against my account goes like this: Skip the stuff about the requirement to consent. The basis for the authority is, directly, the fact that I have helped you and you need my help. Those are the considerations I used to ground an obligation to consent to authority, but the direct objection says they will always be adequate direct grounds without the step about normative consent. What I have argued so far is only that the mere fact that those conditions are moral considerations and they guarantee the authority doesn’t show that they morally ground it directly. Let me say a little more about why we should think they don’t ground the authority directly.
When a direct theory says certain conditions are the basis for authority, suppose we ask, “how do those conditions ground authority?” The direct account says, in the garage case, that you’re under my authority because it’s my birthday. My account says you’re under my authority because, since it’s my birthday, you would consent to my authority (unless you act immorally). The advantage, I think, is that this connects the authority claim to the one really time-honored basis for authority: consent. The direct account simply asserts a connection between authority and birthdays.
You might say, the direct account just cites circumstances that give rise to certain obligations, with no mention of consent. And surely many obligations arise without any connection to consent. But I accept the traditional view that authority is special. The obligation to do as you’re told by another person requires an extra justificatory element. Authority is a loss of freedom in a way that simple moral requirement is not. Normative consent theory provides an extra element.
David L. raises a point about the relation between my view and the several direct views I mention, such as fair play and urgent task theories. Those and other theories have known difficulties. David asks, what good would it do if normative consent were, as I tentatively propose, an umbrella account that explained the moral force of the direct accounts (if any)? My thought was this: the familiar direct accounts are often troubled by counterexamples. They can be tweaked to try to avoid the counterexamples, but this looks ad hoc. But if normative consent is the overarching idea, then when, say, the fair play theory is adjusted in a way that avoids counterexamples, we can test how ad hoc the adjustments are by asking whether we can explain them in terms of which fairness contexts would make consent to the authority morally required. This won’t help with the direct authority objection, by the way, but that’s a separate issue. It won’t help because the direct objector will say that introducing the question about consent won’t generate anything that couldn’t already be generated by an appeal to the facts about fairness themselves as direct grounds for authority.
Notice, by the way, that the normative consent approach can appropriate whatever intuitive force is generated by any direct theory. The reason is that the direct authority objection grants for the sake of argument that where they say there is authority there does also happens to be normative consent. They just think it is morally superfluous. Where they say there is authority, I (can) agree and just add that what connects the “direct” considerations to authority is that consent to authority would be required in those cases. The only issue between the two approaches is the alleged superfluousness. Intuitively, both approaches can give the exact same answers to cases.
Let me finish this part by trying to put the impulse behind normative consent in a succinct way. Philosophical anarchists typically grant that there would be authority if it were consented to, but deny that political authority is consented to by most of the supposed subjects. They also argue that the familiar litany of non-consent approaches face damaging counterexamples, so they believe there is no political authority over most supposed subjects. People are free of authority if they have not consented. If we ask why someone should be off the hook if their denial of authority was morally wrong, the most compelling answer is the thought that in many contexts our refusal of consent retains its force even if the refusal is immoral. In the standard example, non-consent to sexual relations is decisive even if the non-consent is itself morally wrong. But then I reply that this case can be sharply distinguished from the one that concerns us. The decisiveness of sexual non-consent, which I grant, blocks the permissibility of doing something to someone. Our convictions about that don’t obviously bear on whether non-consent blocks authority, which does not involve anyone doing anything to anyone. So now why should we think that even immoral non-consent is decisive? If, as I recommend, we allow that it is null, we have a basis for political authority in which the attractive parts of many direct approaches are connected to the traditional concern with consent, without being led by the empirical absence of actual consent to the skeptical conclusions of philosophical anarchism. The direct authority objection is left with either philosophical anarchism or proposals that divorce authority completely from the one moral idea that has always been granted to have the potential to ground authority: consent.
I’ve limited myself mainly to questions about the direct authority objection, and I apologize for not being able to take up the several other interesting issues that have been discussed. I can say one quick thing about a question of Ben’s. A command can be said to have authority, and a person can be said to have authority. Which am I talking about? How are they related? I have been thinking of things this way: A person’s authority is nothing but a set of possible commands by them that would be authoritative over certain people. So that latter is the more basic notion. One person is an authority over another only with respect to certain issues and within certain limits. It is not a hierarchical relation between persons, since two people might have various kinds of authority over each other. (In fact, nothing in my account prevents two people from having authority over each other with respect to the exact same issues and to the exact same extent.) The primacy of command authority is useful when we are considering the authority of the state, since it is not a person. So long as it can issue commands, the question of authority can find application.