In most on-campus conversations concerning morality today, “consent” is the sole barometer. If, for example, two people agree to an act, no matter what the act is, it is deemed permissible, and if they do not agree, then the act is impermissible. That “moral standard” is most familiar in the context of sexual intimacy and sexual assault, when affirmations and reaffirmations of consent are deemed by many sex educators to be the sole criterion of permissibility.
Similarly, same-sex intimacy, gender reassignment surgery, assisted suicide, pornography, masturbation, sex work and a swath of other acts and issues are, in many circles, arbitrated only by a “morality of contract.” If the individual(s) involved choose(s) to proceed, then the act is permissible.
But is “consent” alone a moral standard? Can we not identify a ground for morality that is more reflective of reality and more becoming of our dignity as human persons?
To be sure, consent is a crucial element of every moral act, for our moral responsibility lies in our capacity to choose and to will each act. Indeed, the abilities to deliberate, choose and will set us apart from all other beings and render us “free” and “moral agents” and supply us with human dignity.
To identify “consent” as an element of moral activity, however, only begins the conversation. The critical next question is, “By what criteria do I consent”?
Too often, just as the moral dialogue becomes really interesting, we hear the peremptory and dismissive replies: “You do you, and I’ll do me” and “don’t be judgmental!” Or the succinct: “To each his own.” Those familiar responses deny that our acts are subject to an external moral standard. Moreover, they assert that every actor defines for oneself the morality of one’s acts as an expression of self-sovereignty and “self-identity." “Morality” thus becomes the relativistic specification of personal preferences that is manifested in consent: “I can,” if the desire is present, becomes “I will.”
But the “I’ll do me” reply presumes two specious “truth” claims that deprive consent of its very capacity to validate moral action. The first “truth” claim is that no objective moral truth exists, or, if one exists, it cannot be known. The second is that “permissibility” is a function only of one’s personal preferences.
An internal contradiction destroys both claims. First, the assertion that no objective, universal moral standard exists or can be known is itself a universal claim. The “objective” statement that “no objective truth exists or can be known” oxymoronically negates itself. Second, if moral truth is extinguished, personal preferences—“consent”—have no moral significance. Nothing normative (literally, no norm) exists; only our preferences remain. Consent can mean only “I will,” not “I ought,” and can express only a personal preference and not a moral imprimatur. “I’ll do me” thus constitutes an arbitrary relativism, which is no morality at all and is properly called moral nihilism.
Some believe that such an abolition of morality is “liberating” because it eliminates all “constraints” on the self: my life, my rules; and my rules, my happiness. The reality, though, is quite the opposite. That false conception of freedom isolates and imprisons.
It isolates because we have only ourselves to consult when asked whether we “consent.” In the absence of a moral standard, even others’ preferences cannot guide, as only our own preferences can determine what is “good” for us. Our preferences also imprison us because they provide no reliable compass—what may be a desire today can become a regret tomorrow. And although a past choice may have been purportedly “justified” by consent, it cannot be viewed as having been “right” or “wrong” by any intelligible moral grammar.
Moral nihilism strips consent of its actual moral significance and de-humanizes the person. Consent rightly understood should reflect our moral responsibility as rational agents. When we act non-deliberatively and choose according to instinctive preferences, we betray our own dignity and the dignity of others. Personhood requires more.
So, we ask again: by which criteria should we choose to consent? The answer: we should consent according to the truth that is reflected in the order of reality. And what gives the order of reality its objective, normative dimension? The classical and scholastic philosophers rightly inferred ends or purposes from the structures and functions of existence. They then defined excellence as that which promotes those ends. So, the end of the eye is to see (inferred from its structure and function), and the excellence of the eye is to see well. Thus, harming the eye is a vice, but improving vision is virtuous. Virtue is that which promotes reality, while vice is that which violates it.
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To give other examples, murder is objectively wrong because it ends a life that would have continued absent the act. Sexual assault is objectively wrong because it violates the physical integrity and the interior life of the human person as well as the meaning and dignity of the sexual act. Polluting a stream is objectively wrong because it harms what would have been home to a thriving ecosystem. Adultery is objectively wrong because it violates a covenant. Lying is objectively wrong because it misrepresents the reality that it purports to report. Charity is objectively right because it promotes the fundamental relational dimension of the human person.
The theistic tradition, within which this column lives, sees the natural order of reality as “sacramental” or reflecting the mind of God, the non-contingent source of being that actively creates and sustains all of contingent reality. To take a life, sexually assault, pollute a stream, violate a marital covenant or tell a lie is to act contrarily to the mind of God—to sin (a word not often heard but indeed appropriate in this season of Lent). To embrace the order of reality is to find one’s fulfillment as the imago Dei, the image of God who sustains creation.
When we act according to truth, to reality, we fulfill our human nature and become our deepest selves. Joy and fulfillment follow. When we deny truth and use preference-based consent as an illusory “moral standard,” we destroy our dignity and invite sadness and alienation. Embrace truth, find joy and affirm that human flourishing requires more than consent.
Wills Rooney is a Trinity senior. His column runs on alternate Thursdays.