Consent is a slippery eel to get ahold of, in matters of right and wrong. This is true whether it is the consent of a single individual, or of more than one individual. Consent is regarded as approval of a course of action, or of its omission.
In the case of an individual’s consent to something, for instance, to accompany someone to a ballgame, a person can honestly wonder, later on, whether one really agreed to do this, or not, or was merely suggesting a possibility of doing so. In a more formal setting, of course, like selling one’s house to another, the issue of consent on the part of either party, whether it’s making an offer to sell, or an agreement to purchase, a document is usually at hand to verify, by signature, whether both parties consented to this transaction. But in less formal arrangements, one or the other party can later on honestly put the question: did I really agree to do this?
Consent is always important in determining how seriously one embedded him or herself in a remark that was made. It can be a matter of personal integrity when one’s word is “on the line”, whether interpersonally before another, or more formally, in an arrangement where others were present to substantiate an agreement. For one who is sensitive about the standing he or she enjoys in society, the status of “one’s word” in another’s estimation is important, whether there’s a document to substantiate it or not. At times a firm handshake or a straightforward “looking another in the eye” is all that is needed to support consent to a transaction.
But, it is one thing to give one’s consent to another in a setting where people are more or less known to one another, but it is a different matter in situations where the people involved are virtually strangers to one another. In a nation whose population has now moved beyond 300,000,000 persons, it is more difficult to establish one’s trustworthiness in consenting to an arrangement than to do so in a nation whose population was considerably smaller, decades ago. It is comparable to a transaction among a group of virtual strangers, as compared to one made among several familiar associates.
As a consequence, consent is becoming more of an issue in contemporary society, with more and more reliance being placed on proper documentation establishing the veracity of consent to a transaction. The legality of an agreement between people is assuming ever more prominent status in certifying that a transaction is trustworthy or not.
But what about the moral status of behavior involving several persons? The issues presented above are being addressed more in terms of their legality than in terms of their goodness or evil. Of course, legality and morality don’t have to be opposed to one another. One would like to think that concern about the legality of an action is tantamount to its moral status as well, but such is not always the case.
An instance of this is the growing concern about incidents of rape on college campuses, or, for that matter, in any comparable settings. These incidents are coming to center more and more around the presence or absence of consent on the part of the one designated the “victim” in such situations. If it can be established that there was an absence of consent on the part of one involved in the incident, then the crime of rape was committed. And it can be punished.
From the legal point of view, this is quite appropriate, based on the lack of consent of one party to the incident. Lack of consent establishes one as a victim of an assault and of injury, which should be legally punished. But the frequency with which this is occurring based on its illegality from the viewpoint of lack of consent emphasizes the presence or absence of consent as the defining issue in addressing these rape incidents. The clear implication is that establishing the presence or absence of consent on the part of the “victim” is sufficient or not to validate the legality of the incident. This means that “consent” is the defining factor in the acceptance or rejection of such sexual behavior.
But reflection leads many of us to deny that consent is the deciding issue in judging the fuller status of sexual action between consenting adults, and to worry that the issue of consent to sexual activity is the primary determining factor in evaluating its appropriateness or acceptability. For when the legality of human behavior becomes so important that it tends to spill over into the entire moral code of conduct, as in the consent issue, it can undermine the entire moral code, as if consenting to engage in an activity suffices to establish its morality. It’s not what we can find acceptable but what God has spelled out for us that constitutes the moral status of our behavior.