Can we consent to lies? A political theory of democratic consent

Ana Tanasoca

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Consent has a central place in law and philosophy. Health care providers and researchers rely on consent in their everyday operations. Doctors must have the consent of their patients, and researchers of their research subjects, for their interventions to be ethical (or even legal). There are well worked out protocols there, and at contract and tort law, regarding what exactly constitutes binding consent.
“What about political consent?” we might ask. Democratic representative institutions rely on the consent of the governed. Both elections and referenda results are legitimate in virtue of their being manifestations of the consent of the body politic. But what is required for that ‘consent’ to count as legitimate in the life our democracies? The 2016 US presidential elections as well as the Brexit referendum made us wonder to what extent we can speak of meaningfully given democratic consent in a climate of misinformation. In this paper I first map out definitions of consent found in law, philosophy, and medical and research ethics. I then examine how such standards can apply to political consent. I will argue that misinformation and political lying vitiates the collective consent given through elections or referenda.
I draw an analogy to cases of deliberatively incompletely informed consent in some medical or research setting. In such cases, doctors or researchers would at the very least have violated medical or research ethics. Depending on the circumstances, may even be guilty of a tort or even criminal assault in treating others without consent in that way.
These cases bring into focus the ways in which deception, unknown by the consenter, can undermine her voluntarily given consent. I will argue that in the political realm, where citizens agree to a decision on the basis of deliberately incomplete or false information, this vitiates consent similarly to how it does in medical or research settings. If the information used to procure their consent was deliberately incomplete or fabricated—if consent was obtained under false pretences and on the basis of lying—the given consent is morally and politically questionable.
Some might object to my analogy on the ground that we cannot apply the same standard used for private individual consent to medical or research procedures, to public collective consent in the case of referenda and elections. Majority rule and collective agency do complicate the issue of determining whether consent is truly undercut by deception there—that is, whether a politician’s deception actually influenced the collective agent’s decision to give consent. There are however ways to get around this question and assess whether a collective agent’s consent was procured with the help of deception or not.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2020
EventAmerican Political Science Association Annual Meeting (116th : 2020) - San Francisco, United States
Duration: 10 Sep 202013 Sep 2020


ConferenceAmerican Political Science Association Annual Meeting (116th : 2020)
Abbreviated titleAPSA 2020
CountryUnited States
CitySan Francisco

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