Really? Yes, really. Sex is all about metaphysics. Wait. No, metaphysics is all about sex. One of those two. Seriously, I just read a lovely essay comparing sexual consent to consent for tea. You ask them, “Do you want tea?” and they say “yes” or “no.” Having said yes does not obligate them to drink the tea. They may, in fact, change their mind. They are under no obligation to follow through with drinking the tea. They may want tea later, but not now, or now but not later. Under no circumstances is it proper to poor the tea into them. We know this at an intuitive level, but apparently it needs to be spelled out to sexual predators, philosophers, and the occasional neuroscientist.
This is a lovely example of applied metaphysics. When we talk about “free will,” “consciousness,” and “determinism,” we are not just talking about whether genes and neurons control our behavior. We’re talking about consent. We are talking about the ability of individuals to control their behavior. We are also talking about our ability to communicate with one another about our preferences. Ethics – Christian ethics, Buddhists ethics, atheist ethics, everybody’s ethics – rests on this foundation. We must recognize that we have preferences and power and that our choices should not be made without consulting others about their preferences and their power.
Does philosophical determinism lead to rape? No. I didn’t say that. What I said was that we need a language to discuss desire and consent and how they impact our actions. We need to respect our own agency, but also the agency of others in bringing about the future. When you use those words, you’re doing metaphysics.
Next time free will comes up in your philosophical discussions, ask yourself this question: How does consent operate when I think this way? It will, I suspect, bring the issue back from philosophical abstraction to concrete consequences.