But in fact, things are darker than that. We have another maxim, which crept into Western souls via “worldly philosophers” such as Machiavelli and Hobbes – the principle of the “consenting adult.” Any time someone uses this phrase, he is saying (under his breath) that none of us is the least bit responsible for each other. If folks make stupid choices, that’s not our problem. Even if we are the ones who tempted them to make such a choice – if we have exploited them personally, economically, or sexually – we are still scot-free: “She was a consenting adult;” “That schmuck should have known better,” we tell ourselves, and smirk.This is so true. We look at the world as an individual. We want to avoid evil but we are mostly willing to use people to get what we want. If we can manipulate them into giving consent then anything goes. That is just not the way God calls us to approach relationships. Loving your neighbor does not just mean not using force to impose your will on them. It means willing their good. Just getting them say Yes allows you to take advantage of people.
Instead of an ethic that rests on reciprocity, on admitting the unique value of every person because he’s a fellow human, we treasure a heartless, pragmatic ethos that shrugs at suffering and confusion, a Darwinian willingness to pounce on our neighbor’s mistakes. So “consenting adults” work in sweatshops overseas making our iPads, or sweat before cameras enacting our porn, or wake up alone in the bed where we’ve left them when we were finished with our desires. No individual rights were violated, no crime was committed or contract broken – so the modern secular conscience has nothing meaningful to say.
It essentially puts a limit on the dignity of people. If they are needy then anything goes. If someone needs a job or needs a boyfriend then they can't say No even if the terms and conditions violate their dignity. Liberals object when unsafe working conditions are involved. Conservatives object when impure sexual relations are involved. Yet only the most extreme examples of this are labeled immoral. A lot of times there is a superficial recognition of the other person's dignity. It just does not go very deep. We take our cues from what others are doing. What are other companies doing? What are other couples doing? The trouble is the worst example becomes the standard and things degrade over time.
We need to grasp that if people use each other and don't love each other they both lose even if they both get what they want. When you reduce human relations to mere transactions and ignore the chance to move your brother or sister forward on the road to sanctity then we all lose. We gain in the world but lose in our soul.
I think the notion of consent when it comes to sex has more problems than this because of the nature of sex and the difficulty we have being honest with ourselves and our potential partner in matters of intimacy. Still right out of the box consent is just not good enough. It assumes people have the required knowledge and freedom to say No. Often they don't. When they don't we are morally obligated not to violate their dignity as persons.