Friday, September 1, 2017

Mental Autonomy

Consent-Based Ethics and Sexual Thoughtcrime

In a recent discussion on voyeurism among nudists (who are notoriously opposed to the concept, when I feel they should be natural allies), I wrote the following:

"Consent is important. But we should also consider what it is that's being consented to, and whether it's really something that needs to be consented to. You don't have a right, for example, to police the image of you that exists inside my head."

This was in response to the mounting notion (which I kind of feel is a regrettable conservative reaction to an otherwise positive progressive social engineering strategy) that consent-based sexual ethics can be extended to people's thoughts and fantasies. That if you experience any kind of sexual stimulation (physical or psychological) at the "expense" of a non-consenting other, you are in effect committing a form of rape (the violation of another's consent for purposes of sexual gratification). Frankly, I think it's insulting to even refer to this as rape, but without using the term, that's how people are describing it (a violation of sexual consent), and I believe we should be straightforward about the ridiculousness of what these people are suggesting.

This is why I think we should balance the importance of consent with a rational analysis of the harm principle. Person A may not have consented to be featured in the sexual fantasies of Person B, but how much harm does this really do? And what about a person's mental autonomy? You can't tell me I'm not allowed to think sexual thoughts about another person. How is that any different from telling me I can't think bad thoughts about another person? That's a gross violation of my mental space. And as somebody with anxiety who constantly worries that other people are thinking bad thoughts about me, you'd think I'd want to be able to police other people's minds. But as much agony as it causes me, I know the problem is in my own head, and I can recognize that controlling other people's minds as a solution would be beyond the pale, and is something that can never be seriously considered in a free society.

So all these people saying, "I didn't consent for you to masturbate to me", need to make a distinction. In the context of exhibitionism, it's true that current public standards dictate that you can't just whip your genitals out and start masturbating in public because you saw something that turned you on. That's a crime of exposure. It has nothing to do with who or what caused that person to decide to behave indecently. But in the context of voyeurism, if you see something that you like, and want to pleasure yourself to the sight of it (right then, provided you're somewhere private) or the thought of it (later) - so long as you are not exposed in public, then you are doing nothing wrong. Nobody in this society has the right to violate another person's mental autonomy by dictating that their image, or the thought of their person in somebody else's head, cannot be used as a masturbatory aid.

This is one of those stances that doesn't sound very politically correct - hence why it is so unpopular - yet is paramount to maintaining the integrity of our sense of justice and civil liberty. A lot of people are content to campaign for whatever easy notion is popular ("ew, I don't want nasty perverts thinking about me when they jerk off" as opposed to "mental autonomy is critical, even if it may result in some minorly uncomfortable implications"). I prefer to campaign for what is right. After all, sex has always been the fulcrum around which tyrants and dictators have tried to restrict human rights. Establish a system of controlling people's sexual thoughts - which few would oppose - and it's a simple matter to tweak the system to be able to control people's other thoughts as well. Before you know it, an authoritarian dystopia has snuck in through the back door.

Just ask yourself this question to find out where you stand: do you (and should you) have the right to think about whatever you want when you stimulate yourself sexually? I bet a surprising number of people would say no. And that bothers me, because we're living in an age where mental autonomy is becoming increasingly unpopular. This is the critical importance behind discussions of censorship and free speech - they police the saying of certain things, but what they really want is to stop you from even thinking them. And language has the power to shape people's thoughts. If you've ever studied a foreign language, you've experienced this. And if you've never read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, it might be a good time to do so.

In conclusion, the doctrine of bodily autonomy is good, but it isn't enough. And it doesn't extend to other people's minds. I support full autonomy - of the body and mind. Nobody can do or make you do anything to or with your physical body without your consent. But nobody can dictate the limits of your thoughts and beliefs, either. This is a direct consequence of the fundamental strategy - that I already advocate - of separating people's thoughts from their actions. But it's worth stating explicitly. The notion of "consent" protects people's bodily autonomy, but it may not be used as an excuse to violate anyone's mental autonomy.

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