I asked hundreds of research participants to evaluate hypothetical situations in which a person is tricked into agreeing to something he would otherwise refuse. In one situation, a patient agrees to a medical procedure as a result of a doctor’s false representations. In another, a civilian allows police officers into his home because they lie about what they are searching for. In another, a research participant agrees to enroll in a study after the researcher lies about its purpose.
Surprisingly, I found that most people say that the victims in all these cases have “consented.” I also found that most people agree with the moral and legal implications of that view: For instance, they say that a doctor who performs a surgery after obtaining consent by lying deserves less punishment for medical battery than a doctor who simply performs the surgery without asking permission.
These findings fly in the face of the standard scholarly understanding of consent, which is that it is an expression of an individual’s autonomous will — controlling one’s life as one would like. Interestingly, my participants agreed with this standard legal understanding when presented with situations in which coercion or threats were used to achieve the same ends, such as when someone agreed to sex as a result of blackmail. It was only when the situations involved deception that respondents thought the victim’s “yes” counted as consent.