Consent and Authority
Consent theory takes states to have political authority if and only if they have the consent of the governed. It has a great history in Western philosophy: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau all argued that the state is founded in an original contract among the governed and in that sense based on people's consent. The roots of this view go as far back as Plato's Crito .
It is clear that consent matters morally. It can turn something morally impermissible into something morally permissible. For example, it is morally impermissible for me to bring some scissors to my next ride in a crowded subway and cut other people's hair when they do not notice. But if I am a hairdresser, then of course people can come to my barbershop and give me permission to do exactly that, when they consent to let me cut their hair. Their consent to have their hair cut by me turns a morally impermissible action into a morally permissible action. Similarly, one can consent to surgery, sex, and many other things, and thereby turn something impermissible into something permissible.
Consent can do this because it is the exercise of a Hohfeldian power (see p. 9 ). It can create new liberty-rights. When a customer comes to my barbershop and consents to have her hair cut, she thereby gives me the moral liberty-right to cut her hair. But consent can also give rise to new duties, claim-rights, and powers. When a customer comes to my barbershop and consents to have her hair cut, she thereby also incurs a duty to pay me afterwards, and I get a claim-right to be paid. I also get the power to waive my claim-right to be paid.
In general, then, consent can explain how new rights can come into existence. That consent has this power is a widely accepted and commonsensical moral idea. Since explaining political authority means explaining how and why the state could have the right to rule, consent certainly is a highly promising candidate for explaining political authority. It can explain how the powers and liberty-rights that form the state's right to rule can come into being and thus meets the explanation condition (see p. 15 ).
In the first chapter, I said that political authority is particularly puzzling because it constitutes an inequality in rights. Consent theory could nicely explain and justify that inequality. Since consent can create new rights, it can obviously result in an unequal distribution of rights. If political authority is grounded in consent, then the inequality that comes with political authority no longer looks problematic.
In a way, consent theory tries to assimilate the authority of the state to the authority of bosses in the economic sphere. The authority of bosses initially looks less problematic than political authority because people voluntarily accept jobs and are free to leave their jobs. Their contract usually specifies that the boss has the rights to give (certain kinds of) orders. This does not mean that there are no moral requirements for the exercise of authority in firms (see McMahon 1994; Anderson 2017), but still the authority of bosses is consensual in an important sense. The authority of religious leaders and the authority of teachers who teach adult persons can arguably be explained as consensual as well. Consent theory tries to show that the authority of the state is based on consent, too.
It is clear that theoretical authorities - for example the authority of physicians - need not be based on consent, since their authority does not constitute any inequality of rights. So consent theory does not account for all kinds of authority, but it has a good explanation for that: It wants to explain the rise of new rights, and so it does not apply to theoretical authorities. But why should the authority of parents not be based on consent as well?