Why is it so hard for us to have consistent views of consent? It is perhaps not accidental that consent and consensus are all related words, and unanimity has always been a very difficult standard to meet when it comes to making decisions. If we think of political decisions of being made by majority rule, we sometimes forget that for a realm or institution to have peace there must be unanimous consent as to what is to be governed by majority rule and what is to be left to the freedom of the individuals involved. Sometimes we mistake the operational rule by majorities and recognized authorities and fail to recognize the agreement that is required before such decisions can be made with a high degree of support. Yet while most of us care very much that our consent is received when decisions are made, we do not do a good job always at making sure that we respect the consent of others.
Why is reciprocity about consent so difficult to attain? If we can all agree that we want our own consent to be recognized, why is it that we are so often not as scrupulous in gaining the consent of others? There are at least a few reasons. One of the reasons is that if we are people in positions of some kind of authority, we grossly overestimate the amount of consent that we actually get. We may get grudging assent and confuse it for heartfelt consent, and find ourselves unable to determine what someone else really feels because our power is getting in the way of the honest information that we seek. Likewise, we may value efficiency so much that we feel that it would waste too much time to build consensus for a given decision and not realize that without that consensus we have a deeply divided population or institution that we are leading, and which respects us and trusts us less because we did not trust them enough to ensure that we had received their consent for our goals.
One of the most difficult examples of consent that was faced in the history of the American republic was in the period before the Civil War when it became obvious that consensus had broken down about the validity of universal rights of human beings as the basis for civil society. Similarly in the period after the 1950’s, it was thought that the desire for justice for some people outweighed the need for consent on the part of those who were not moving very far towards justice, something that has understandably caused a great deal of bitterness on all sides. The issue becomes that if we seek to use coercion in order to push through a standard of behavior that we consider to be proper but which does not have the consent of others, we will be viewed as tyrants by others and we will lose the chance to earn the goodwill of others through having persuaded them to do something instead of trying to force them.
Perhaps sometimes we think of efficiency too much and do not realize that when we are dealing with others that we might have to deal with the repercussions of having taken advantage of power or a temporary advantage for years and decades, or perhaps all of eternity. To the extent that we are aware that our interactions with others involving consent and as close to unanimity as possible are something that can be part of a long chain of interactions that will extend far into the future, then perhaps it will be seen by us as worthwhile to ensure the greatest amount of unanimity and consensus possible, because it is possible that we may pay dearly for having tried to short-circuit the right to consent of other people. After all, those who do the same with us are likely to be held accountable for such a mistake for a very long time indeed.