Consent is a bedrock principle in democratic society and a primary means through which our law expresses its commitment to individual liberty. While there seems to be broad consensus that consent is important, little is known about what people think consent is. This article undertakes an empirical investigation of people’s ordinary intuitions about when consent has been granted. Using techniques from moral psychology and experimental philosophy, it advances the core claim that most laypeople think consent is compatible with fraud, contradicting prevailing normative theories of consent. This empirical phenomenon is observed across over two dozen scenarios spanning numerous contexts in which consent is legally salient, including sex, surgery, participation in medical research, warrantless searches by police, and contracts. Armed with this empirical finding, this Article revisits a longstanding legal puzzle about why the law refuses to treat fraudulently procured consent to sexual intercourse as rape. It exposes how prevailing explanations for this puzzle have focused too narrowly on sex. It suggests instead that the law may be influenced by the commonsense understanding of consent in all sorts of domains, including and beyond sexual consent. Meanwhile, the discovery of “commonsense consent” allows us to see that the problem is much deeper and more pervasive than previous commentators have realized. The findings expose a large—and largely unrecognized—disconnect between commonsense intuition and the dominant philosophical conception of consent. The Article thus grapples with the relationship between folk morality, normative theory, and the law.
Comment (from this Blueprint): Content warning: details of rape. This article presents a series of experimental studies that have an important result for understanding a legal puzzle that has plagued many feminist theorists. Sommers argues that the dominant explanation of the puzzle has been wrongly diagnosed by feminist theorists, and that attention to folk intuitions about the nature of consent can explain the law's inconsistent treatment of consent that is procured by deception.