Friday, May 15, 2009

Is consent enough?

Seven years ago Matthew Johns, a rugby star, and several other players had group sex with a 19-year-old woman. According to a work colleague, the woman boasted at first about what happened. Five days later, though, she told police she had been assaulted. The police investigated but found no evidence that there had been lack of consent.

The case has only now erupted into public view in Australia. Matthew Johns has been sacked from his media and coaching positions and has has been subjected to intense media criticism for his actions. It is being said that his career is over.

There's an important point to be made here. My concern isn't to defend Matthew Johns or other sports players. It's to highlight just how unworkable a liberal morality is.

In doing so, I'm going to draw on an excellent column by Andrew Bolt. I've criticised Bolt recently for his liberal attitude to ethnicity. His latest piece, though, is one of the best criticisms of liberal morality you're likely to read in the mainstream media.

First, I'll briefly summarise what I see as the problem. Liberal moderns have rejected the idea that certain actions are inherently moral or immoral. One reason for this is that they believe that individual autonomy is the highest good.

If we view certain actions as inherently immoral, and therefore not permissible, there is a restriction on our autonomy, on our power to act as we will (our "agency"). It is this restriction that liberals hold to be immoral.

Therefore, liberals tend to argue that actions are not inherently good or bad, and that we should "liberate" ourselves from old-fashioned "repressive" moral conventions.

Does this mean that anything goes? Not quite. Because "agency" is what matters, it is important to liberals that everyone consents to an action. So everything is permissible as long as there is consent.

But this hasn't worked out so well in practice. In the case of Matthew Johns, for example, the woman initially consented to what was likely to be an exploitative and degrading act - and unsurprisingly felt abused afterward.

So liberals have begun to emphasise not only consent but also respect. There is nothing that is inherently right or wrong, but we must show respect to others in our behaviour.

But this too has its problems. This is judging an action according to a subjective mental state. Let's say a man visits a prostitute. According to the liberal theory I've described, prostitution itself would not be considered inherently immoral. What would matter was whether the prostitute and client freely consented and whether they respected each other.

How do we know if they respected each other? If the man is courteous toward the prostitute is that enough? Perhaps on one visit the prostitute and client were in a fine mood and did feel a positive regard toward each other. But maybe on the next visit they were both grumpy and felt contempt toward each other. Is the first visit moral and the second one immoral?

And if it's argued that a prostitute and a client can't truly ever respect each other because of the nature of the act itself, then this is really a hidden way of asserting that prostitution is inherently (i.e. in its nature) wrong - something that would then contradict the liberal insistence that autonomy is the highest good.

Which brings me to Andrew Bolt's impressive criticism of Professor Catherine Lumby, an academic ethicist who was hired by the rugby league in 2004 to advise players on moral issues.

Professor Lumby took the fashionable liberal view that nothing is inherently wrong and that all that is required is consent:

ABC reporter: There have been stories of a culture of group sex in rugby league. What do you think of group sex? Do you think it's OK if it's consensual?

Lumby: Speaking as an academic, I think that there's no problem with any behaviour which is consensual in sexual terms.

Again, in 2004, when six rugby players were investigated for having had group sex with a young woman, Professor Lumby insisted that there was nothing inherently right or wrong in what had happened:

The idea that group sex is abhorrent is a very particular view. What matters is that we avoid asserting moral beliefs as moral truths.

Professor Lumby developed a policy for the rugby league which stated that what players really needed was:

ongoing education about how to negotiate sexual encounters in a way which ensures informed consent is always obtained.

Some players took this message to heart, even filming girls on their phones giving consent before the group sex sessions began.

Andrew Bolt does a good job of explaining why consent alone doesn't make an action moral:

The problem is that trusting to consent alone means - for a start - trusting that people are smart enough and strong enough to work out all by their uncertain selves what's good for them.

... even though she consented to the sex - or didn't object - the woman was still left feeling so "useless", so "worthless" and so "really small" that her life collapsed ... She can't forgive Johns and the other men: "If I had a gun I'd shoot them right now. I hate them, they're disgusting ..." she said.

...But bad judgment is not the only problem with insisting only on “consent”, not morality.

Consent also means it’s every man for himself. That you can do whatever you can force some silly or intimidated woman to agree to, however much it will hurt them.

If this teenager consented to group sex, there was nothing more for Johns and his mates to know. Indeed, none seemed to think they had a duty to protect this young woman from what degraded them all.

She agreed. End of questions. But it hasn’t been the end of the regretting.

That’s what Lumby’s fashionable morality never factored in - the weakness and stupidity of people. Their impulsiveness. Inexperience. The way their judgment gets washed away by booze, or lost in the crowd.

For a Lumby, even a young NRL buck in a bedroom with a naked girl and his mates is a perfectly rational moral agent. And the girl, too.

For a Lumby, the idea that such flighty people be handed moral rules worked out over centuries of collective mistakes and regrets is almost an insult - a crime against freedom.

“Morality is a blueprint for living that someone hands to you,” she’s tut-tutted. But “ethics is a zone we all enter when we find ourselves, by choice or necessity, negotiating those rules”.

Negotiating, in this case, until someone says “yes” to group sex.

Well, a girl in Christchurch did say “yes” when morality would have shouted that she say “no”.

See her crying now. See Johns weeping, too, on A Current Affair, having heard the “yes” that a Lumby once swore was all he’d need to keep him safe.

I think Bolt is spot on in the entire column. It's a genuinely conservative line of thought on morality presented to millions of readers. However, I would make one criticism of Bolt's position.

Andrew Bolt doesn't consider why Professor Lumby (and most of the commentators at his own blog) believe what they do.

If he did, he would be forced to confront an unpalatable truth: that Professor Lumby has applied principles that Bolt himself believes in to the sphere of morality.

Professor Lumby believes that autonomy is the highest good: that what matters is that we aren't constrained by things we can't choose for ourselves as individuals. She applies this principle quite logically to morality. For instance, she once declared French writer Catherine Millet's promiscuity to be admirable because it demonstrated "a sense of self which is quite independent of social norms".

Andrew Bolt likewise is a liberal in his first principles. He once criticised the Australian Football League for being over-regulated; he described his ideal society in comparison as,

a field in which anyone can play anything they like, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.

This is not a call to follow the good, or even to recognise that an objective good exists; instead, the good is doing as you will without impediment. It's not that far removed, in principle, from Professor Lumby's assumption that there is no objective good to follow, but that what matters is what we will as autonomous agents.

Similarly, Andrew Bolt once wrote that the great thing, the thing to celebrate about immigration, was that ethnicity could be made not to matter, so that,

a Zambian can captain the wallabies [the national rugby team]

The source of such an idea is once again autonomy theory. Just as autonomy theory insists that we should not be impeded in our self-determination by an objective morality, so too does it claim that we should not be constrained in creating who we are by an unchosen ethnicity. Transcending ethnicity becomes a moral good rather than an alienating loss.

That's why Andrew Bolt has repeatedly criticised Aborigines for holding to a distinct ethnic identity. Bolt has told them they should instead follow,

The humanist idea that we are all individuals, free to make our own identities as equal members of the human race

Free to make our own identities. Autonomy (determining our own self) is held here by Bolt to be the highest good when it comes to ethnicity, just as it is for Professor Lumby when it comes to morality.

So Bolt is conservative only in the sense that he doesn't follow a liberal principle all the way down the line. He draws back at the idea that morality is determined by consent alone.

The job of attacking consistently at the root of the problem - at liberal first principles - will have to be done by others.


  1. Mark, in your post you make the claim that 'Clare' "boasted about what happened to friends".

    Since this information was not included in the Four Corners report I assume that you have another reliable source?

  2. Grendel, Tania Boyd, a work colleague of "Clare", was interviewed on Channel 9 and stated that:

    "She was absolutely excited about the fact. She was bragging about it to the staff and quite willing, openly saying how she had sex with several players,'' said Ms Boyd.

    "We were quite disgusted about it. There was no trauma whatsoever.

    "I'm disgusted that a woman can all of a sudden change her story from having a great time to then turning it into a terrible crime.

    "One minute she was absolutely bragging about it, she did not know names. These names only came to light to us in the last day.

    "We all just thought it was hilarious until five days later the police came to work and were horrified she had now changed her story to say she was now a victim of crime."

  3. Mark I think including hearsay in a post is a short track to the courtroom - not a legal opinion mind you, just a firm belief in not spreading potentially slanderous comments.

  4. Mark, a great post that well illustrates what happens when a moral system based solely on rational agency meets naturally irrational human beings. What is otherwise an internally consistent alternate moral system unfortunately breaks down immediately upon contact with imperfect human beings.

    Also such a system doesn't fare well when an act that is alleged to have been consented to--in this case group sex which may have seemed like a great idea at the time--runs smack into the Law that is written on each of our imperfect hearts.

    This Law caused said Clare to regret what she did. That is, if she indeed regrets it, which hasn't been established yet. It could be that Clare needs to salvage her self-respect and/or project responsibility for the dirty deed onto someone else. Her partners in this act make great whipping boys. Which happens to be a major cause of false rape accusations.

    Claiming the role of victim is very attractive for some women. Sure beats the morally neutral and less psychologically rewarding role of "accuser".

  5. “The problem is that trusting to consent alone means - for a start - trusting that people are smart enough and strong enough to work out all by their uncertain selves what's good for them.”

    I think you can also apply consent with business practices as well.

    “The problem is that trusting the contract alone means - for a start - trusting that people are smart enough and strong enough to work out all by their uncertain selves what's good for them.”

    I have seen it too many times, where ignorant people sign contracts and latter find out the negative consequences. But the author of the contract is found well, because of consent. We have recently seen the results of this in American when they allowed almost anyone and everyone to purchase a home. At what point do you need to force someone to buckle-up? At what point do you force someone to where a helmet? Where do you draw the line? I don’t know…….but it looks to me that the western world boasts of anti-totalitarianism, but at the same time needs to take away a good sum of individual autonomy to insure damage control.

    I think this quote sums up my point. Name the music artist?

    “If you think peace is a common goal that goes to show how little you know”

  6. Grendel,

    It's not hearsay. Tania Boyd is confidently asserting that she heard "Clare" bragging about what had happened not from some other person but directly from "Clare" herself.

    I think you're being picky, but nonetheless I've slightly amended the post to read "According to a work colleague of the woman ..."

    As for slander, I don't think I attacked the character of either "Clare" or Matthew Johns in my post. It wasn't the point of what I was writing.

    You seem to be asserting that unless I go along with Clare's claim that there was no consent that I am slandering her. But if I were to go along with what Clare says, then wouldn't I then be slandering Matthew Johns who claims that there was consent?

  7. No Mark not what I was saying at all - the situation is complex and we don't really know what the motivations of some of those involved are. I don't think you have to agree with Clare's morality - or Matthew Johns, but the risk is that by bringing a third party 'Tania' into this you colour your post from one that was supposed to discuss the morality and it becomes more accusative which I don't believe was your intent.

  8. Grendel, I understand your point now. It's true that it wasn't my intent to take sides in the post.

    Anonymous, I agree that consent has similar limitations when it comes to business ethics.

    EW, you raise an issue that I left out of the post. Another problem with a morality which says that everything is OK as long as there is respect is that it potentially hands an arbitrary kind of power to women over men.

    Because respect is a subjective mental state, how can a man know that a woman afterwards will judge the events to be respectful? What one woman accepts as respectful another may not and there's no way for the man to be sure.

    This leaves men extraordinarily vulnerable - their reputation or even careers may depend on what a woman subjectively feels in the days or weeks after an event.

    There are definitely woman who seek this power over men and who would abuse it.

    It's a strong argument for keeping with a more traditional morality based on the inherent morality of the act itself. This establishes more neutral and certain "rules of play" in which people know where they stand.

  9. I agree Andrew Bolt's article was excellent.With this issue it has exposed how far down the track society has descended Ironically it has probably done some good by being a wake up call for many people.

  10. Well said Mark. You've also nailed what it is about Bolt that has irked the back of my mind but I have been unable to express. Those last three quotes are quite an insight.

    This Johns 'scandal' for mine is a gross foray into mass hypocrisy on the part of the Tele, Channel Nine and the media in general which have been purveyors of soft porn for some time now. What is to differentiate the immorality of an NRL gang-bang and the eulogies 9 gives to the criminal world in Underbelly? One only need survey the online Terror and wonder exactly again what it is about the NRL gangbang that differentiates it from the adulatory articles given over to all sort of abomination.

    This story is another chronicle in the tragic dismantling of our society, as evidenced (not caused by) the behaviour of NRL players and their groupies.

    Her facts are:

    "She had been with two female friends, in their early 20s, for several hours at the Valley Fiesta. She had been drinking but felt in control.

    They first went to the Mustang Bar, where they spotted Thaiday and several other men talking to other patrons. "It was excitement for us to see a footballer, and I was a (Broncos) fan," she said.

    She said Thaiday soon left and told them they would have to find out where he was going to next.

    The women were the only females present when they walked into the Alhambra Lounge about 7pm.

    The woman said a staff member told her the nightclub had just opened after a private function involving Broncos players and other supporters. She said she had gone to the bar with one of her girlfriends to buy a drink and exchanged eye contact with Hunt, who was nearby.

    "I think he said something along the lines of: 'Hey, good looking' or 'Hey, sexy'. I went over to him . . . he took my hand," she said.

    The woman said she accompanied Hunt to a cubicle in the men's toilet.

    She said she felt safe. "Yeah, I was (star-struck) . . . I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I've got Karmichael Hunt in a toilet cubicle'," she said.

    The woman then said that "after a few kisses, things went drastically wrong". She said in a "blink of an eye", Thaiday and Boyd were also in the cubicle.

    "That was when the incident happened," she said."
    Short version: a woman who had been drinking for several hours chased an NRL player for intimate relations in a toilet in a public bar. This is 100% aok for her, in fact an OMG moment to have an NRL player with her " a toilet cubicle." We can assume she wasn't simply thrilled by the prospect of an extra pair of hands, and an NRL fullbacks expert hands at that, to help her with the toilet roll. She has obviously gone there for other things besides the use of the toilet.

    What a sad sad indictment this story is, and not just of the football players involved.

  11. Well here's the coda to this sordid little opera. A woman in the Bolt mode of "The humanist idea that we are all individuals, free to make our own identities as equal members of the human race", where we can be what we want to be "as long as [we] don't hurt anyone else."

    Enter the virtuoso Charmyne Palavi with some select lines from her solo:

    I'm no angel, but I've seen this game play out from both sides: First as the partner of a pro footballer for nine years, then as a single woman who can have sex whenever, with whomever, I choose.

    Huzzah for her, huzzah, huzzah!I am old enough and wise enough to know these encounters are nothing more than what they were at the time - mostly consensual, one-on-one sex, on my terms.

    Huzzah again thrice fold(Mostly consensual though? That's a tad discordant.)

    "Group sex happens." Like the rain or traffic jams, one minute your fine then the next your in it.

    As for sexual assault: "...ALL men know what's right and what's wrong and if a girl is obviously drunk and trying to push them off, then it's assault." Glad that's cleared up then, right back to business. Here's an example: In my instance I was passing in and out of consciousness and didn't have the strength to push him off me. See, that right there is assault, all else is normal and consensual, it's hard to see how this isn't clear to any anybody.

    Unfortunately, we live in a society where women will always be shut down for the very characteristics men are revered for - being strong, opinionated, fearless and open about their sexuality. I know we've read article after article by men in the daily Oz papers regaling us with all their sexploits unashamedly, haven't we.

    The big issue here though is "the disrespect for women inherent in the clubs." Come and see the disrespect, inherent in the clubs! I mean what's not to respect. This woman deserves respect, just like your mother.

    And the solution? Have a guess, that leftist catch all cure for every social malady.....


  12. Pat, great comments, thanks. I just read that last newspaper article you linked to. What struck me most is the last demand of the groupie woman: she wants the "freedom" to act as sluttily as she wants (getting drunk and having casual sex with rugby players) and still be respected as a woman.

  13. Here's another angle on the rugby groupie.

    She wants a situation in which men will recognise that it's wrong to keep having sex with a woman (herself) who is passing in and out of consciousness (which is, of course, wrong), but who doesn't want to recognise that it's wrong for a woman to get so drunk that she has casual sex with rugby players when she is half-conscious (since that is being fearless, strong and open in her sexuality).

    The attitude seems to be: "let's educate men to act in ways that will allow a woman to choose to do anything".

    In practice, this will mean women behaving in ways that invite poor male attitudes and poor male behaviour, but relying on "education" to prevent any negative consequences.

    It might work with sober, middle-aged, unaggressive men but I can't see drunken young footballers being reliably held in check this way.

  14. It's an absurd delusion she is requesting, that men be educated against their instincts in any and all circumstances so that her whim rules supreme.

    Her utopia is our dystopia. She desires barbarism, a hedonistic world of no restraint, yet one that is decked out with, patrolled and manned with, all the niceties of our civilised world.

    And at the base of it all is the ultimate leftist universe: her whim Über Alles!

  15. My father told my brothers they were to treat all women with respect regardless of whether that woman behaved in a way that merited respect.
    My mother taught us girls to never use our feminity as a power tool!
    If all young people were made aware of the responsibilites that come with their gender things might not end up in such a sordid confusing hurtful mess.
    One simple rule that has always proved effective build friendships first and keep sex for marriage to someone you know would make a wonderful parent to your children-until you encounter this person if ever remain happily single enjoying life and above all friendship!

  16. Prof. Lumby: "The idea that group sex is abhorrent is a very particular view. What matters is that we avoid asserting moral beliefs as moral truths."

    Translation: it is a moral truth that we are morally obligated to assert that there are no moral truths.