Cup of Tea thought experiment on consent: An analysis

Abstract, Beverage, Coffee, Cup, Drink, Hot, Tea

There was a YouTube video from Blue Seat Studios that designed a thought experiment using a ‘Cup of Tea’ (see here): Tea Consent (Clean) – YouTube

This is a rather ingenious analogy. It demonstrates the obviousness of how sexual intercourse whilst someone has fallen unconscious. In the thought experiment, we are asked to imagine making someone a cup of tea. Whilst drinking the tea, the person falls unconscious. The question we are asked is if we would continue pouring the tea down their throat whilst they are unconscious? The answer anticipated that we obviously wouldn’t because even though they wanted tea before, they don’t want it now. And they cannot tell us whether they still want tea. The analogy is that if you are having sex with someone, continuing to have sex with someone after they have fallen unconscious is just as non-consensual as making them continue to drink tea.

There is a possible objection that such a conceptual analysis is unnecessary. That it is already obvious that continuing to have sex with someone after they have fallen asleep, or unconscious, is non-consensual sex. But the need for a change in understanding the nature of consent has been a common focus in addressing sexual assault. The language from ‘no means no’ to ‘yes means yes’ is an example of transitioning to a ‘affirmative’ understanding of consent. Furthermore, contemporary research seems to such a need for continued education and communciation on what counts as affirmative consent (see here): Full article: Explicit, Voluntary, and Conscious: Assessment of the Importance of Adopting an Affirmative Consent Definition for Sexual Assault Prevention Programming on College Campuses (une.edu.au).

There has been a particular objection put forward by Dr Adrian Blau. Blau (2016) argues that the cup of tea thought experiment contains a morally relevant disanalogy, where he says:

“To desperately want to give someone tea is odd; to do so against their will is ludicrous. But many people do desperately want to have sex with someone; to do so against their will is abhorrent and appalling, but it is not ludicrous in the same way as the tea example. Most people watching the video will agree that we should not force someone to drink tea against their will, and that we should not
have sex with someone against their will, so the judgment of the thought experiment is right: rape is wrong”

This objection applies only if the conclusion we are trying to draw from the thought experiment is that ‘rape is wrong’. But this is not the conclusion we are trying to draw. The conclusion we are trying to draw is what counts and does not count as consent. Hence, this thought experiment does not need to do any work arguing how bad sexual assault is. All the work that needs to be done is clarify what counts as affirmative consent.

To be fair to Blau, he acknowledges that the target of the thought experiment is the concept of consent, not how horrible rape is. However, he does worry that the difference between the sillyness of making someone drink tea and the detestableness of making someone have sex may distract from the intention of the original thought experiment. Although this is possible, I argue that taking the discussion away from the horror of rape can be helpful. Adrian Walsh (2012) has called this approach ‘re-imaginings’. A reimagining can help us reflect on situations that we are well accustomed to. Walsh gives Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist thought experiment as an example of ‘re-imagining’ abortion from sexual assault.

An example I would like to use regarding re-imaginings also concerns abortion from Rosalind Hursthouse. Hursthouse challenges the argument that early stage embryos should be treated like human beings because they are ‘potential’ human beings. She asks us to imagine collecting acorns and cutting down oak trees. Collecting acorns is far different from cutting down oak trees, even though they stopped an oak tree from developing. An objection similar to Blau’s could be that there is a huge difference between a potential human and a potential oak tree (and I would agree). However, the point of the thought experiment is to show that just because something can potentially become something different, it does not mean that it already is something different.

Overall, the cup of tea thought experiment is a great example of conceptual analysis and communication.

References

Blue Seat Studios. Cup of Tea. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fGoWLWS4-kU

A. Blau (2016). The logical inference of political thought experiments: 48060477-263b-453d-8ea7-5e76a43f6fb2.pdf (ecpr.eu)

Published by

Andrew Tulloch

I have a Bachelor of Arts majoring in Philosophy and Sociology, with a Political Science minor. I also have an honours degree in Philosophy. I am currently studying for my PhD in Philosophy.

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