Autonomy and the Folk Concept of Valid Consent

Cognition, forthcoming

60 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2022

Date Written: February 10, 2022


Consent governs innumerable everyday social interactions, including sex, medical exams, the use of property, and economic transactions. Yet little is known about how ordinary people reason about the validity of consent. Across the domains of sex, medicine, and police entry, Study 1 showed that when agents lack autonomous decision-making capacities, participants are less likely to view their consent as valid; however, failing to exercise this capacity and deciding in a nonautonomous way did not reduce consent judgments. Study 2 found that specific and concrete incapacities reduced judgments of valid consent, but failing to exercise these specific capacities did not, even when the consenter makes an irrational and inauthentic decision. Finally, Study 3 showed that the effect of autonomy on judgments of valid consent carries important downstream consequences for moral reasoning about the rights and obligations of third parties, even when the consented-to action is morally wrong. Overall, these findings suggest that laypeople embrace a normative, domain-general concept of valid consent that depends consistently on the possession of autonomous capacities, but not on the exercise of these capacities. Autonomous decisions and autonomous capacities thus play divergent roles in moral reasoning about consent interactions: while the former appears relevant for assessing the wrongfulness of consented-to acts, the latter plays a role in whether consent is regarded as authoritative and therefore as transforming moral rights.

Keywords: consent, moral reasoning, autonomy, ownership, moral psychology, experimental philosophy

Suggested Citation

Demaree-Cotton, Joanna and Sommers, Roseanna, Autonomy and the Folk Concept of Valid Consent (February 10, 2022). Cognition, forthcoming, Available at SSRN: or

Joanna Demaree-Cotton (Contact Author)

Yale University ( email )

New Haven, CT 06520
United States

Roseanna Sommers

University of Michigan Law School ( email )

625 South State Street
Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1215
United States

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