A longstanding debate regarding the nature of consent has marked a tri-fold division among philosophical and legal theorists according to whether they take consent to be a type of mental state, a form of behaviour, or some hybrid of the two. Theorists on all sides acknowledge that ordinary language cannot serve as a guide to resolving this ontological question, given the polysemy of the word “consent” in ordinary language. Similar observations have been noted about the function of consent in the law and use of the word “consent” in legal contexts. This paper makes a parallel argument regarding consent’s characteristic normative role: roughly, to transform moral prohibitions into permissions. This role is neither unique nor essential to any one particular kind of thing, be it a mental state, form of behaviour, or hybrid of the two—rather, it is played by mental states and behaviour in independent and context-sensitive ways. The upshot is that insofar as we are interested in its normative implications, we ought to adopt a pluralistic approach to consent which gives independent weight to the moral contributions of facts about mental states and facts about behaviour relative to a context.
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