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Power and Consent - PHI00018C

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  • Department: Philosophy
  • Module co-ordinator: Dr. Hannah Carnegy-Arbuthnott
  • Credit value: 20 credits
  • Credit level: C
  • Academic year of delivery: 2023-24

Module summary

Who has power over you, and have you consented to that? A state has great power over its citizens. It can enforce its laws and punish those who disobey. Many political philosophers have thought that people’s consent is required to make this political power legitimate. But does consent make power legitimate, and if so, what kind of consent can do that? Have we actually consented to the state in the right way? Beyond the state’s power, what are the limits to what we can consent to between individuals? And how do existing power relations between people complicate the validity of consent in various contexts? We will investigate these questions over the course of the module, in order to shed light on the complicated relationship between power and consent.

Module will run

Occurrence Teaching cycle
A Semester 1 2023-24

Module aims

To introduce students to some key arguments in political philosophy about the legitimacy of political power and the role of consent in legitimating political power.

To analyse and interrogate the relationship between power and consent.

To develop confidence reading a range of historical and contemporary texts in social and political philosophy.

To develop skills of close reading, critical analysis, and discussion of philosophical arguments.

To develop skills to respond to and construct written arguments in social and political philosophy.

Module learning outcomes

By the end of this module students should be able to:

Understand and explain social contract approaches to political legitimacy.

Understand and explain the significance of different forms of consent, such as hypothetical and tacit consent, and how they have been used in different approaches to social contract theory.

Identify and articulate objections to the arguments encountered on the module.

Critically evaluate the ways in which forms of power complicate consent in different contexts.

Construct a detailed and sustained written argument about the relationship between power and consent, in response to an essay question.

Module content

Who has power over you, and have you consented to that? A state has great power over its citizens. It can enforce its laws and punish those who disobey. Many political philosophers have thought that people’s consent is required to make this political power legitimate. We will read about and critically discuss historical and contemporary approaches within this tradition, often referred to as social contract theory. Some of the questions we will consider include whether or not citizens actually consent to the state’s power, and what kind of consent can make political power legitimate. We will learn about the concepts of actual, tacit and hypothetical consent as possible answers to those questions, and discuss the limitations of such approaches.

We will also think more broadly about the role that consent can play in mediating our relationships with others in the context of different kinds of power dynamics. How do existing power relations constrain our choices or impact the validity of consent? What are the limits of the kinds of agreements individuals can consent to? For example, should individuals be able to voluntarily enter into slavery contracts? Should individuals be able to consent to acts that are harmful to them? And how should institutions regulate rules around consent between their members? For example, do universities have an obligation to enforce stricter rules than the law imposes for consent to romantic relationships on campus?


Task Length % of module mark
Summative Assessment
N/A 100

Special assessment rules



Task Length % of module mark
Summative Assessment
N/A 100

Module feedback

Formative: Students will receive written feedback within 2 weeks of submitting their formative assessment.

Summative: students will receive marks and written feedback four weeks after the submission date.

Students can also get verbal feedback on their formative and summative assessments by visiting the module convenor’s office hour.

Indicative reading

Archard, David, 2008. Informed Consent: Autonomy and Self-Ownership. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 25(1): 19–34.

Cudd Ann E.. 2006, Analyzing Oppression, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006

Dahl, Robert, 1957. “The Concept of Power,” Behavioral Science, 2: 201–15.

Dougherty, T., 2018. Affirmative consent and due diligence. Philosophy & Public Affairs, 46(1), pp.90-112.

Enoch, D., 2017. Hypothetical Consent and the Value (s) of Autonomy. Ethics, 128(1), pp.6-36.

Enoch, D., 2020. False consciousness for liberals, part I: consent, autonomy, and adaptive preferences. Philosophical Review, 129(2), pp.159-210.

Fraser, Nancy, 1989. Unruly Practices: Power, Discourse and Gender in Contemporary Social Theory, Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Feinberg, Joel, 1989. The moral limits of the criminal law volume 3: Harm to self.

Greene, Amanda, 2016. “Consent and Political Legitimacy,” in David Sobel, Peter Vallentyne, and Steven Wall (eds.), Oxford Studies in Political Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 71–97.

Horton, John, 2012. “Political Legitimacy, Justice and Consent,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 15(2): 129–148.

Hurd, Heidi M., 1996. The moral magic of consent. Legal Theory, 2: 121–146.

Lamb, S., Gable, S. and de Ruyter, D., 2021. Mutuality in Sexual Relationships: a Standard of Ethical Sex?. Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, 24(1), pp.271-284.

Liberto, Hallie, 2018. Two Ways to Transfer a Bodily Right. Journal of Moral Philosophy, 15(1), pp.46-63.

Locke, John, 1960 [1689]. The Second Treatise of Government, in Two Treatises of Government, Peter Laslett (ed.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 283–446.

Mill, John. Stuart, 1998. On Liberty and Other Essays, edited by John Gray, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miller, Jean Baker, 1992. “Women and Power” in Thomas Wartenberg (ed.), Rethinking Power, Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Okin, Susan Moller, 1989. Justice, Gender and the Family, New York: Basic Books.

Pettit, Philip, 1997. Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Pallikkathayil, J., 2020. Consent to sexual interactions. Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 19(2), pp.107-127.

Pateman, Carole, 1988. The Sexual Contract, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Pateman, Carole, and Charles Mills, 2007. Contract and Domination, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Phillips, Anne, 2000. “Feminism and Republicanism: Is this a Plausible Alliance?” Journal of political philosophy, 8: 279–93.

Pitkin, Hannah, 1965. Obligation and consent—I. American Political Science Review, 59(4), pp.990-999.

Rawls, John, 1999. A Theory of Justice, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

The information on this page is indicative of the module that is currently on offer. The University is constantly exploring ways to enhance and improve its degree programmes and therefore reserves the right to make variations to the content and method of delivery of modules, and to discontinue modules, if such action is reasonably considered to be necessary by the University. Where appropriate, the University will notify and consult with affected students in advance about any changes that are required in line with the University's policy on the Approval of Modifications to Existing Taught Programmes of Study.