In 1974, Patty Hearst, grand-daughter of William Randolph Hearst, a publishing magnate on the west coast, heading up the largest newspaper establishment in the country at the time, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) in San Francisco, and held captive. Her captivity lasted for 17 months, and eventually the question arose as to whether all this occurred against her will, or did she, perhaps through a brain-washing technique, gradually consent to the activities and rationale of this radical criminal organization?
If her consent could be proven and established, would that implicate her in the activities of the SLA, which, in large part, were criminal in nature. That is to say, in agreeing to join its membership, she was in agreement with its agenda. Her eventual consent would have stood out as the primary issue, regardless of what eventuated subsequently from her membership. One incriminating action that spelled out the criminal agenda of the SLA and her obvious role in it involved the hold-up of a bank that was at least partially photographed, showing her holding a machine gun in the course of the robbery. Was her consent to join the SLA, if it occurred, the dominant factor controlling whatever else occurred subsequently, such as her role in some of the criminal activity the SLA performed, such as this bank robbery, so that the focus of our attention and concern should be on her consent to join, rather than any of the other subsequent activities engaged in by the SLA? Or was she a victim of some type of brain-washing during her captivity which would have exonerated her from any voluntary membership of the organization and any subsequent law-breaking, whatever that might have been? In this scenario, it would have been the presence and quality of her consent to membership in the SLA more than any subsequent wrongful activity that would be the dominant consideration.
As a matter of fact, following her capture and separation from the SLA, she was found guilty of bank robbery, and sentenced to seven years in prison, though after two years President Carter commuted the remainder of her sentence. So even the aftermath of this episode shows the mixed reaction to the role of her initial consent in ascertaining the morality of her actions, more than any specific activities in which she and the SLA subsequently engaged. Does its presence or its absence make all the difference in making such a judgment?
Comparable questions arise around other types of behavior. E.g., is a sexual act between an unmarried (or married) man and a woman good if both agree to it, or is it evil regardless of the presence or absence of consent on the part of either party? In the current legal debate on rape, it is the presence or absence of consent that determines a judgment about the goodness or evil of such an action, in the eyes of the law. But in another context (ethics, religious belief) the presence or absence of consent may not be the sole determinant of the goodness or evil of the action.
Or, in a professional prize fight, where one boxer is being mercilessly beaten to a pulp by the other boxer, does the willingness of the winning opponent to continue the fight, and the losing boxer’s agreement with this (e.g., for the sake of the money), justify the referee in extending the fight, regardless of the injury being inflicted or sustained by the boxers?
Or in a casino, does a player’s willingness to continue gambling regardless of the losses he/she is sustaining justify “the house” in accommodating the losing player’s willing consent or is something else needed to make an adequate moral assessment of the action underway?
In each of these cases, is the crucial issue the consent of a participant to an action or situation sufficient to reduce or eliminate assignment of any significant evil to an action agreed to, whether the context be one of captivity or sexual conduct or bodily injury or loss of property? And does the presence of two or more participants in the kind of actions just described make any difference in assessing the presence or absence of goodness in the situations described? Or does the agreement of two parties to any loss or injury underway constitute the central issue in establishing the morality of an action? The issue is one of CONSENT to an injury one sustains, and whether its presence or absence is sufficient to legitimate or not the action, or is something more needed to render it legitimate and justifiable.
In the Catholic tradition, of course, something more than consent is called for to legitimate any action (or omission) fully engaging any person. While consent is necessary, it alone is insufficient to make an action good or evil. We also need some content to what consent applies, such as, for instance, the ten commandments provide. But In a society where the rule of civil law is important, the presence or absence of consent to a situation seems to be paramount, so that litigation often proves to be the last and best determinant of the acceptability or unacceptability of an action, or its omission.
At the last judgment, Jesus teaches us that it’s not just the issue of willing consent to be of help when situations call for it, but it is also the ability to recognize needy situations presenting themselves to us (“when did we see you hungry, or naked, or imprisoned?”, Mt. 25.31, ff.). It is not “consent to whatever…” but consent to certain specific issues that determine one’s entrance into the kingdom.
Consent is important, but it needs content.