December 17, 2017

Damaris Zehner: What Makes It Right?

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What Makes It Right?
By Damaris Zehner

I’ve always had a problem with the concept of “two consenting adults” as the foundation for moral decisions.  Often the phrase is uttered as a means to reconcile a faint moral unease with cultural norms:   “Well, I’m not sure it’s right,” we’ll say, “but I guess if they were both consenting, who’s to judge?”

I respect consent and believe it is an element in moral decision-making.  I’m not convinced, though, that we always have the freedom or ability to consent that we think we do, nor that our consent affects the ultimate rightness or wrongness of certain acts.

Consent assumes a lot of things.

  • It assumes rationality, which is why the consent of adults is legally more binding than the consent of children.
  • It assumes sufficient knowledge of language to understand what is being consented to.  The plot of Mary Stewart’s novel My Brother Michael turns on the main character’s mistaking the Greek word “Ne” for no, when it actually means yes.  She seemed to consent when she was really refusing.
  • It assumes perfect or at least adequate knowledge of what the choice entails and what the consequences are likely to be.  Perhaps my friend invites me to a party and I consent, on the understanding that it will be a quiet gathering of people playing bridge.  If instead I find halfway through the party that it has turned into a sado-masochistic drug orgy, did I consent to that?
  • It assumes that I am not otherwise constrained, legally or morally, from making that choice.  A few years ago there was an incident of a cannibal obtaining consent to kill and eat a willing victim, but the legal and social consensus was that the unethical nature of cannibalism cancelled out the consent of the participants.

Consent is not just a single act by a private individual.  The ability to consent is the culmination of centuries of transmitted culture.  Through the transmission of culture we are taught rationality and decision-making; we learn language, its plain meanings and its suggestions and nuances; we develop the ability to make predictions of consequences, based on our own experiences and the accumulated experiences of our whole society; and we absorb a moral code that outlines what we are able to consent to and what is simply unacceptable.

What happens, though, to a culture in decline or chaos?  A culture that cannot or does not transmit all of the necessary skills and values to enable consent?  Can we say that the people of that culture are free to consent and that their consent is binding?

Focus-400Let’s imagine a dysfunctional culture and reconsider the four bullet points above in that light.

  • In my experience, people do not develop rationality if they are not taught it.  I don’t just mean Enlightenment-style scientific rationality; I mean common sense and wisdom.  A culture that neglects the education of its children, a nation that neglects the informing of its citizens, cannot assume that its adults are able to think clearly and hence truly consent.  A frenzied emotional response to a demagogue is not rational consent, is it?  Neither is the ovine trust of anything that seems authoritative by reason of its glossiness, richness, or sheer volume.
  • A common language, too, relates to education, but perhaps to a more informal kind.  In order to speak the same language as people we interact with, we don’t just need to have a shared vocabulary, we need to have shared experiences, understandings, and values.  We see the disastrous effects of the breakdown of language when a woman says no to sex and a man hears yes, or when one member of a couple understands the marriage vow to refer to an unbreakable contract and the other to a commitment to give it a good try as long as it’s satisfying.  How can they be said to consent or not when they aren’t consenting to the same thing?
  • It seems to me that an inability to anticipate and accept likely consequences is the most telling symptom of a dysfunctional culture.  People in a state of nature never want to anticipate negative outcomes to something they desire; it takes a concerted effort of a whole society to convince people that having unsanctioned sex can cause unhappiness; that greed and selfishness can lead to unrest, shortage, and social breakdown; that too much debt is dangerous and too much stuff is burdensome; that keeping promises, hard as it is, is important.  History indicates that very few people will deliberately restrain themselves in view of possible consequences if their culture does not encourage them to do so.  What does the concept of consent mean to people who have been told to follow their heart, that they can have it all and never have to pay?  (It seems to mean, at the least, an increased number of civil law suits when people find they do actually have to pay.)
  • A dysfunctional culture has lost a sense of what it considers right or wrong.  Consent balloons beyond its original place – the freedom to choose between two morally allowable alternatives – and becomes the only ground of morality.  If I have no sense of absolute right or wrong, then the thought of a cannibal and victim consenting may repel me, but I have no basis besides queasiness to object.  And then what do I do with the next step in the downward spiral, the Nietzschean conclusion that the consent of the more powerful will trumps the consent of the weaker one?  Culture must define what may or may not be consented to before consent has any meaning, but in a dysfunctional culture, anything goes.

I’m left asking myself if our culture is robust enough to fulfill all the necessary conditions for consent.  I’m not sure it is.  Daily I see people make the same mistake again and again and again – moving in with a new boyfriend and getting pregnant, say – and yet continue to expect positive consequences despite all evidence.  And our culture doesn’t tell them, by education or the arts or social pressure, that they are making a terrible decision.  On a larger scale I see banks and huge corporations, which have ignored consequences and what used to be called ethics, also avoiding the sorts of pressure – like bankruptcy – that a healthy culture would bring to bear on them.  I see countries refuse to consider the laws of ecology and thermodynamics and use up resources at a ruinous rate, full of confidence that “something will turn up” to bail them out.  I’m not sure that we are able to communicate meaningfully with one another even when we seem to speak the same language or that we mean the same things by important words like “freedom” or “rights” or “consent.”  I suspect that many people have felt spiritual discomfort with some action that involves consent – it might be an alternative lifestyle, or the pornography industry, or free market capitalism, or abortion, or the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill people – and yet felt they had no grounds on which to question the action, because consent was king.

So I can’t accept the concept of “two consenting adults” as a sufficient moral foundation for any decision.  I am not saying that consent isn’t valuable; it is, very, since it implies the freedom that God has given us.  He himself asks for our consent.  But I am saying that consent isn’t the foundation of morality; rather it is the capstone.  Our shared cultural values transmitted through the family, the church, and other formal and informal institutions are the foundation of morality.  For the Christian, that means an enculturated knowledge of our faith, the examples of godly people around us, the training of our minds and hearts and consciences, and – un-American though it seems – the social pressure to discomfit us when we stray.  Only when all that is in place as the foundation can freely given consent have any meaning.

Comments

  1. I’ve always had a problem with the concept of “two consenting adults” as the foundation for moral decisions.
    But I’m not sure it is the basis for moral decisions, so much as the basis for not using force to stop an action within the boundaries of Western democratic thought. It is an ethical question, but it is not about the deed itself so much as it is about the ethics of coercion. In such cases Thomas Jefferson’s words still ring true – it neither breaks my leg nor picks my pocket, and as such should not be opposed with force.

    • In Jefferson’s time, I would totally agree. Whatever a man chose, he, and only he (in most cases) was left to manage the consequences. Men were free to do as they wished, within the law, with a fairly clear expectation that one who made his bed should lie in it, comfortable or tortuous.

      In our world, this same individual looks to the state, a perceived grievance against a neighbor redressed through the legal system, or some other outside agent to compensate for any failure of his plan….hence picking many a pocket, directly or indirectly. This is where Jefferson’s humanism and libertarianism fails us….

      • In Jefferson’s time, chattel slavery existed, so a significant sized segment had none of the freedom of which you speak. The owners were constantly “picking the pockets” of their slaves, by coercing labor out of them. Only the state, after a painful and destructive war, had the power to establish a situation in which the former owners must have the former slaves’ consent before being able to profit from their labor, and only the state has the power to protect that need for consent to be given before anything can be taken. This is where our current situation allows for the realization of Jefferson’s humanism and libertarianism better than Jefferson’s era did.

        • Robert, I used “man” and “his” on purpose. I think we are all fairly aware of the role of women and non-whites at the time. This was specifically addressing the “live and let live” concepts and consequences then versus now.

    • David Cornwell says:

      Thomas Jefferson, while quite an erudite politician, is an example of why Damaris’ is correct in her argument. An examination of his possible relationship with one of his slaves is an excellent illustration of the issue. Even if this specific story is untrue, we know that many slave owners had sex with their slaves. To say that the slave was consenting is a stretch in any circumstance.

      • Unfortunately, David, like a few others here, you sort of missed the entire point of my argument. I guess next time I will quote a less polarizing figure. I would be interested to hear an interaction with my point, though.

    • This. The “consulting adults” meme can be deployed in two ways.

      If it is deployed to say, “as long as two people say, ‘yes,’ an arrangement is moral,” then the moral problem has just been oversimplified. My ability to fully and freely offer consent is dependent entirely on the circumstances of my offering a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’ Those conditions include what I know, what I could reasonably have learned from the resources available to me, what mental tools I have available to make decisions, and the power I have to make contrary choices. Do I understand the action, and its likely consequences? Is someone (intentionally or unintentionally) misleading me? Am I embedded in a community that routinely makes assumptions about this action that make it difficult for me to understand some implications of it? Am I embedded in a community, or connected to particular individuals, who effectively constrain my actions to such a degree that my consent (even if offered) is of little consequence? In some cases “yes” only means that I wish to avoid a beating.

      However, if the “consenting adults” argument is often summoned to summon the power that some adults have historically wielded over other adults. A person’s claim to be able to offer or withhold consent is very often an assertion that they deserve the power to make a choice and that another person does not possess the right to remove that power. Their neighbor’s agreement that this right exists helps retain the conditions under which free and informed choices are made. So, in the correct context, this is an important and wholesome claim, one that asserts the right of people to information, education, tools, and power. Since those are the preconditions of making morally responsible choices (as well as irresponsible ones), they are morally important claims.

      There are two serious errors a community can make. The first is to fail to educate and rear people to understand communal traditions and acquire the tools needed to participate in that society. The second is not granting people a reasonable amount of latitude to become full citizens and use what they have learned to make decisions, form opinions, and shape the future course of the culture and the shape its traditions take.

      • “However, if the “consenting adults” argument is often summoned to summon the power that some adults have historically wielded over other adults.”

        Correction – “”However, the “consenting adults” argument is often summoned to QUESTION the power that some adults have historically wielded over other adults.”

      • I appreciate you interacting with my point, Danielle. In my experience these conversations often break down into “who gets to say no”.

  2. When a society has no anchor to which its decisions are connected then consent is just a hollow standard. And in OUR society each individual is his/her own arbiter of rectitude. In other words, morality is relative, and NOT objective, and that path leads to anarchy. Jdg 17:6 In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.

    • Interesting verse, that one. Because it could be argued God never wanted Israel to have a king. So forcing a king upon Israel was his back up plan (lol, the original replacement theology).

      Idk, just an odd verse in light of other ones. There was never supposed to be a king, so of course everyone did that which was right in his own eyes…but they did that because there was no king?

      One of those instances in Scripture where the author seems to be putting his own ideas/agenda/observations into the text.

      • I don’t think so Stuart. I do not believe that God intended to have a man sit as king over Israel. Rather, I think that He wanted them to depend on HIM alone for their deliverance, IF they could keep their focus on Him. Unfortunately, they sank lower and lower into forgetfulness and continued to adopt the false gods of the people around them.

        Before having a king they depended on God to raise up a deliverer, judges, to rescue them. But as you read the accounts each succeeding judge became more and more flawed, which was really a mirror of the people themselves. At last they decided that they had had enough and demanded a king, just like the people around them. They got Saul.

        The point of the scripture was to point out that, absent a moral director, the people just resorted to their own flawed judgement apart from the God who delivered them. That is just like us today. We decide what is best for us INDIVIDUALLY as opposed to what God might direct. Relativism run amok.

  3. Gosh I liked that post. Expanded my worldview.

  4. Ok, so the wider American culture has lost it’s moral decision-making capacity. So what do we do about it? Tell them they are wrong – again? That’s never worked particularly well for us, even when there was a greater overlap between the morals of the church and those of society.

    I think the American church needs to surrender it’s assumed right to tell non-Christians how to live. If you read the evangelistic sermons of Paul in Acts, the standard evangelical pattern of “You are breaking God’s moral laws, repent and save yourself from the fires of hell!” isn’t really there. Paul also said in I Corinthians 5 that judging those outside the Church is God’s affair, and that we in the church ought to worry about getting our own house in order. And boy do we in America’s churches have some ordering needing done…

    • > Ok, so the wider American culture has lost it’s moral decision-making capacity.

      I am still puzzled by the concept of “American culture”. There seems to be an enormous about of disagreement within America. Pundits on all size pointing to the other culture(s) as being the overbearing American Culture.

      Have we lost our “moral decision-making capacity”? We still pass civil rights laws, still debate policy body cameras, there are still protests, still adjust environmental regulations. I witness a *tremendous* amount of moral debate, much of it very elevated. I believe this perception is a result of the channels one is tuned into – which is also a choice with a moral component.

      > So what do we do about it? Tell them they are wrong – again?

      Whoever they are, yes, of course. Whoever they are [maybe that includes me?] will not listen. If you come to tell me I am wrong my response will be the truly American response: “Get off my lawn!”. If you come with a suggestion as to how to do something better, make something better, then I’ll listen, I might sign your petition, I might even give you money. But you need to have a good coherent explanation and back it up with some research.

      > even when there was a greater overlap between the morals of the church and those of society.

      Is the overlap so scant? Fairness, honesty, equity, mercy, peace, civility… I see these virtues get a lot of praise all around. I suspect it is more the issue that a vocal minority in “the church” have become confused about what their values are. Are they peace-making, helping, comfort… or are they telling people what to do [or not to do]?

      > I think the American church needs to surrender it’s assumed right to tell non-Christians how to live

      Most of it has, that last bit is going to hang on until they are aged out.

      • Finn, you say, “I am still puzzled by the concept of “American culture”. There seems to be an enormous about of disagreement within America. Pundits on all size pointing to the other culture(s) as being the overbearing American Culture.” You’re thinking of too small a definition of culture. Culture as I’m speaking of it is more like the air we breathe — all around, invisible, and absorbed into our every cell. Americans of every stripe share assumptions about things like freedom, personal rights, and the way the universe works. Even when they’re disagreeing with each other, they still come at life from a similar perspective. There are/have been cultures, for example, that would be baffled by our concept of progress, and our arguments about whether progress consists in technology or morality would be meaningless to them.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Ok, so the wider American culture has lost it’s moral decision-making capacity. So what do we do about it? Tell them they are wrong – again?

      Wag our Church Lady fingers harder?
      Scream our Bible proof texts louder?
      More Hellfire? More Damnation? More Moral Superiority parade?

      That’s worked SO well up to now, hasn’t it?

    • “…so the wider American culture has lost it’s moral decision-making capacity.”

      I doubt there has been clear decline in “moral decision-making capacity.” There were many constraints on people in the past that limited or precluded informed and free decision-making; it is in part the memory of those constraints that informs the contemporary pendulum swing toward individual rights.

      I suspect that when people look backward into the past and see more freedom to chose or more power to live well, what they are seeing are social norms with which they may be more comfortable and the faces of leaders they trust. Those norms and those people sometimes flourished because “our tradition” had ready access to power. But insofar as they relied on power, they may not always have respected the right to education, individual rights, or consent. So we might like them, but that doesn’t mean more people were more free. People who have enjoyed power tend to remember such an arrangement more fondly than those who did not enjoy its benefits.

      “I think the American church needs to surrender it’s assumed right to tell non-Christians how to live.”

      Yeah, I think this is the approach we are to some degree stuck with, and to some degree ought to have. The need to speak to moral and social issues cannot be abandoned; every community in America that is not apathetic is doing just this. (If I occasionally sound like I am pushing against some moral stances, that is true; but I am articulating an alternative vision, not abandoning the need for one.) However, there is a world of difference between articulating a vision of life and living it out as a faith community and trying to pretend that we can and should hold political and legal power. It’s never clear exactly where the lines are, but some distinction has be allowed between common social and moral principles that can be expected to transcend communities in a diverse society, and those that are more sectarian.

      The equally critical issue may be tone. So long as we are nursing the wounds of a pretend or actual loss of power, and pitting ourselves against “American culture,” we sound like potential despots. It is especially easy to sound this way in a culture that has become hyper-sensitive to issues of power and oppression. If our message is peace, it needs to sound like that is what we are saying.

      • “So long as we are nursing the wounds of a pretend or actual loss of power, and pitting ourselves against “American culture,” we sound like potential despots. It is especially easy to sound this way in a culture that has become hyper-sensitive to issues of power and oppression. If our message is peace, it needs to sound like that is what we are saying”

        +1,000

  5. Demaris, this is both beautiful and insightful, and touches on a quandary that troubles my heart. I perceive so many Western citizens, especially Americans, as being on the emotional and moral level of a normal fourteen year old child. They look like adults, and can manage many adult chores and tasks, but lack foresight and accountability. I think we live in a world where SOOOO many folks want an adolescent utopia, where they are free to make any choice at any time, but expect others to pick up the pieces and provide support (financial, emotional, and physical) when reality and consequences are not to their liking or expectation.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      “Fourteen-year-old”?

      You give them that much credit?

      There’s a lot of six-year-olds out there walking around in sexually-active adult bodies.

    • I received as a Christmas gift a CD that includes Great Big Sea’s song “Consequence Free”. The chorus goes like this:
      “I wanna be consequence free
      I wanna be where nothing needs to matter
      I wanna be consequence free …”

      They are a Canadian band, and the song reached #7 in Canada back in 1999. So this song definitely spoke to many people. It expresses a desire not just to have others pick up the pieces, but to live where there are no pieces to be picked up.

      I like the music, but I hate the thought. The song imagines the elimination of negative consequences, but truly being consequence free would also eliminate all positive consequences.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It’s a very attractive thought when YOU are the one who ends up stuck with picking up all the pieces of the consequence-free spirits.

        Better a Moocher than always the Producer getting Mooched.
        Better a Parasite than always the Host getting Leeched.

  6. Damaris, you wrote “I am not saying that consent isn’t valuable; it is, very, since it implies the freedom that God has given us. He himself asks for our consent.”

    I’m curious…in what way does God ask for our consent?

    • Revelation 3:20, for one…Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Christ doesn’t barge in the door without our agreeing to open it…

      • What was St. Paul (Saul) doing when he made his “free-will” decision for Christ?

      • What does that look like, though?

        Does Christ knock at the door while slipping a contract through the mail slot, requiring that you read, understand, and initial by all the terms, conditions, and consequences of letting him in so you can give fully-informed consent before he will in fact come in?

        Or does he knock like an old, much-missed friend or relative, whose arrival is so wonderful and unexpected that you open the door without a second thought, as if doing otherwise were unthinkable?

      • Need to be careful in how to apply that verse since the context is that Christ is talking to a church body, not necessarily individuals.

    • Thank you, Lee. That’s a good verse for this. Laura, if God did not keep himself mostly hidden, he would run the risk of compelling us to believe in him whether we chose to or not. Instead God remains seemingly obscure and invites belief rather than compelling it. Steve, if Paul/Saul was not free to ignore or misinterpret God’s revelation, then either God was more of a bully than a bridegroom or Paul was an automaton. Many people throughout the Bible saw wonders as great as Paul’s and still refused to believe. I realize that you and I belong to different philosophical divisions of Christianity, and I look forward to the day when the seeming contradictions between God’s sovereignty and our free will are made clear.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        Why does God need to run that risk?

        There’s a lot of Christians ready & willing to “compel us to believe in Him whether we chose to or not.”

        And as the culture moves away from them even further, they get more desperate, more shrill, and LOUDER.

      • Steve, if Paul/Saul was not free to ignore or misinterpret God’s revelation, then either God was more of a bully than a bridegroom or Paul was an automaton.

        Well, weren’t women just property of men back then? Especially after marriage, can do what you want with what you own.

        “for you were bought with a price…”

        “your body is not your own…”

        Not shocking to assume that biblical authors read their culture into God’s relationship with us.

        • “Bridegroom” is an incredibly disturbing metaphor for Christ’s relationship to the church the more you think about it.

          Wonder if that’s part of the appeal of Bridal Theology.

          “Ravish me…”

  7. Damaris, I like that you don’t tie morality directly to the Bible or Christianity. I know many will solidly disagree with me, but at this point I don’t believe the Bible (by itself) provides sufficient information to provide an ethical/moral framework for our society. We need to broaden our search for ethics/morality beyond any one single religious tradition.

    • Allen, these were my exact thoughts. A lot of times we make our arguments based on what we define as “Biblical” or “Unbiblical”, and unfortunately, this context falls on deaf ears for people who don’t give a rip what the Bible says. I have to say “thanks” to Damaris for offering us a context for ethical/moral behavior that anyone, regardless of belief system, should be able to relate to.

  8. I don’t think “the wider American culture has lost it’s moral decision-making capacity”< however, I do think the wider American culture has lost its ability to think in reasoned terms. "Morality" is essentially group-think and always seems "right" to the group.

  9. Vega Magnus says:

    Here’s a question: has the human race EVER possessed a culture robust enough to fulfill all the necessary conditions for consent? Please point me to the place in history where this was the case. I doubt that you’ll be able to. I think you’re describing an unavoidable part of the human condition, not some sort of lack of moral decision making caused by culture.

  10. When people are talking about consent as a standard for what types of sex should be permitted. They are, if they think about it for more than 10 seconds, talking about the legal notion of consent, not some vague “whatever someone kinda wants to do right now”. The legal notion of consent is rather thicker, and it includes things like: “you can’t consent to be murdered”, so I’m not sure why conservative Christians love that cannibal case so much, no one thinks that should be legal.

    • And that a society has a legal notion of consent is evidence that it’s doing at least one thing right.

      Why should mutually agreed upon cannibalism not be legal? Why should someone not be allowed to consent to murder? I imagine you have moral, philosophical, and legal foundations for what you think. Thank the remnants of the culture that raised you that you do; relativism would not have given you those.

      • I’m not sure how relativism has anything to do with this.

        You can’t kill someone just because they consent to be killed, in general, for the same reason the law prohibits all sorts of grossly self destructive acts, I mean you can’t even drive a car without a wearing a seat-belt, or buy untested meat commercially, or whatever. I don’t see much reason to offer a principle, or philosophy upholding the law in toto, because I don’t think our laws are based in one. I certainly don’t think things are prohibited out of some “killing is wrong” principle, given American society doesn’t believe that at all.

  11. There’s a difference between legal guidelines and moral guidelines. When we decide what is legal, we draw the line at whatever is so bad that we can all agree it is wrong; when we make moral decisions, we are trying to discern what action is “most good.” When dealing with strangers, we can’t demand that they follow anything more than legal guidelines, but when we have a relationship with someone, we can advise them in how to make a choice that is moral.

    So, I think consent is actually not a bad rule in terms of what I would expect a total stranger to follow – i.e. I would step in to prevent someone from being raped, but not to prevent two strangers from sleeping together. But if those two people were friends and fellow Christians, I might at least ask them to question their decisions.

    The real problem comes about when Christians take the sort of moral guidelines we expect those close to us and those who share our faith to follow, and expect total strangers to follow them too. Instead, I think the best we can do with people we have no relationship with, is to live a life that shows people a better way.

  12. I think the thing you’re missing is that most people who use “consent” as a basis for an activity are not using it to prove a moral standing. They are using it to prove an “acceptable” standing.

    The argument is not normally framed, “sex between two consenting adults is by definition moral”, but instead, “sex between two consenting adults should not be legislated against”.

    And that kind of breaks your objection, I think. Look at your examples:

    “It assumes rationality”
    – Which is why there is no such thing as the consent of children or the mentally ill. It would be awkward to decide if a late stage Alzheimer patient could do something immoral, but fairly simple to defend them in court.

    “It assumes sufficient knowledge of language to understand what is being consented to.”
    – Same as the above. It is morally problematic to decide if, say, Ender is responsible for killing soldiers is the “simulations” in “Ender’s Game”. Its fairly easy to say legally though.

    “It assumes perfect or at least adequate knowledge of what the choice entails and what the consequences are likely to be.”
    – If your friend asks you to feed him a PBJ sandwich, but you don’t know he’s deathly allergic to peanut butter, are you responsible for killing him? Maybe in a utilitarian, global scale ethics sense, but legally, no.

    “It assumes that I am not otherwise constrained, legally or morally, from making that choice.”
    – Exactly, because you cannot legally consent to something that is not legal. You can consent all you want, but the legality is already decided.

    “So I can’t accept the concept of “two consenting adults” as a sufficient moral foundation for any decision.”
    – Which is rarely the purpose of saying that an event occurred between “two consenting adults”. It is a legal move. It is a plea not to be joined, but to be left alone.

    • Thanks, kero. Very clearly put. The question for Christians then becomes, is legality a sufficient ground for morality, or is morality above the law and in some ways irrelevant to it? I guess that I am less interested in law and more in the larger question of cultural morality/worldview/conscience. I believe abortion is wrong, for example, but I find it much more important that no one want to have an abortion than that it be made illegal. Legal or not, the cultural will is that personal choice outweighs most other concerns, and changing a law would have little effect on the cultural will.

      • > The question for Christians then becomes, is legality a sufficient ground for morality,

        No. I doubt any group feels that legality is sufficient for morality.

        > or is morality above the law and in some ways irrelevant to it?

        Yes. And ths is coded into both our laws [coscienious objector exemptions] and our culture [traditions of civil disobediance as well as the fairly common practice of local power simply ignoring laws they feel are onerous or difficult to enforce].

      • That’s my thought on this too Damaris. I don’t think many people see legality as above morality, but I think that most people recognize that morality isn’t agreed-upon (in some cases – I tend to think that the vast majority of things are agreed upon). And in that space, where we don’t yet agree on what is right, but we do agree on what is allowed, the law can help.

        I think it would be interesting, if not a little impolite, to ask people that even if what they are doing is legal, is it “a good thing”. I think most people appreciate that they are not their ideal, that they could be “better”. Abortion is a great example, because at least in my experience, no-one I have ever talked to called abortion a “moral thing”. Maybe its a necessity, or a tragedy, or worse of two evils, or what have you, but never a good thing in a ethical sense. They disagree on whether it should be legal or not.

        And yes, I agree with you, I am largely uninterested in whether things are strictly “legal” :). If I learned anything from the sermon on the mount, it is that even if I pass the muster of the law, I am called to something greater.

    • “I think the thing you’re missing is that most people who use “consent” as a basis for an activity are not using it to prove a moral standing.”

      There is a big issue hidden in here. I see that there are two vague categories of people who think Morally – is this Moral? is that immoral? what is the morally best option? The groups that think like this are Religious people and Civic people, these two groups may overlap, and in any case much of how they think overlaps. They ponder things morally.

      But there are many [I won’t speculate if it is majority or not, I don’t know] that just don’t think this way. They have a wide range of Normal, but what is in that range is just what is. Which is not to say they don’t believe in Evil or that some things are Immoral [murder, canibalism, pedophelia], but moral considerations are only applied to things outside this range of Normal. This is an important distinction from thinking – habitually and/or consistently – about things in a Moral light. For these people anything within the range of Normal is not a candidate for moral discussion; taking a topic in Moral direction will immediately turn them off, you can see it happen.

      If I see liter in the street I feel morally compelled to pick it up and put it in a trash can. Many people don’t; but if they see it they think that is “nice”. It is a subtle, and not so subtle, potent distinction in thinking.

      • Yeah, I know what you mean.

        In my experience though its not that they don’t appreciate or don’t believe in a difference, its just that they don’t… care? Care is the wrong word. I was a B/C student for most of High School, but in my Junior year I began to really care about my grades, not because it would impress my parents or whatever, but because I knew I could do better. Before then I knew, abstractly, that an A was “better” than a C, but it just didn’t matter to me. I felt bad about myself and my bad grades, but the feeling of guilt was not enough to cause me to improve.

        Not that grades are a moral issue, I just mean it took something else to make me flip that mental switch from, “I get ok grades but I could should do better” to “I am in some way cheapening myself for not trying”. I feel like the people I know who live in that area of “I do what I have to and nothing more” are just one spark away from “Its not enough to do what is allowed. I should do what is best.”

  13. Michael Redmond says:

    “I’m left asking myself if our culture is robust enough to fulfill all the necessary conditions for consent.” So what culture would be “robust enough”? Specific examples? I’m leery of this line of argument because religious folk, including those of my own tradition, are always harkening back to some “golden age” of moral order and moral probity, and I think this is largely fond illusion. For instance, I frequently hear people rhapsodizing about Eisenhower’s America. I’m old enough to remember that time. It simply wasn’t so. We had all the sins and problems we have today, but most were kept behind closed doors or within closed communities. I do not miss the lack of honesty and the hypocrisy of that era.

    • I’m old enough as well, and I have to admit that if I have to live with other people, I have a retrograde preference for hypocrites keeping their dirty laundry hidden rather than libertines parading it as formal wear.

    • A legitimate question, Michael, and Vega Magnus asks something similar. My answer is really no, there hasn’t ever been a culture healthy enough to enable true consent. Some cultures have more consensus about right and wrong (and have generally been repressive in our point of view); some, like Ancient Greece or Enlightenment Europe, have had better education (but educated only a small minority of their populations). My point then remains: consent, since it is so flawed, can’t be the foundation for choosing what is right or wrong.

  14. “The law made no one perfect”

    That statement, from Galatians I believe, kind of tells us all we need to know about morality and legality. The major problem I have with decaying Christendom is that no one, not even practicing Christians, are all that concerned about becoming perfect. We seem to be content with healthy, prosperous, secure, and sexually attractive. Particularly sexually attractive.

    • Comes back to sex again, doesn’t it. And those who abstain want to hurt those who don’t, even if hurt just means to hold them accountable to the full weight of their sins.

      What an anti-grace stance to have.

  15. The enlightenment taught that the inner-light would guide the majority to truth; therefore, much of our definition of truth is based upon this idea of consensus. The American system of checks-and-balances was based in part on the assumption that the majority can be wrong. Nevertheless, that doesn’t make consensus invalid. Certainly, the “Judeo-Christian” worldview believes in absolute truth based upon scripture; however, there, too consensus regarding interpretation in certain cases is a dependency.

    Certainly, two thieves agreeing to mug a victim does not make theft morally acceptable.

    Typically what two consenting adults agree upon concerning themselves and no one else is nobody else’s business.

    • The best (vigorous, thoughtful) ethical discussions, in my view, are those by rabbis, not Christians. Rabbis, as I read them, take moral principles and apply them humanely to the circumstances at hand. Christians, as I read them, tend to insist on finality in all things; if something is true here, it’s true there, and even wildly different circumstances don’t matter. Would that I could embrace both the Nicene Creed and, in substance, the Talmud.

      • Bass, are you familiar with the Orthodox idea of “economia?” When well done, it is a humane approach to the complexity of life and circumstances, more like rabbinic than fundamentalist practice.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

          Describe “economia” so we know what it is.

          Orthodox have their own set of technical jargon which is incomprehensible to those of us on the other side of the Adriatic.

          • “In the Orthodox Church, in Eastern and Latin Catholic churches,[1] and in the teaching of the Church Fathers which undergirds the theology of those communions, economy or oeconomy (Greek: ?????????, oikonomia) has several meanings.[2] The basic meaning of the word is “handling” or “disposition” or “management” or more literally “housekeeping” of a thing, usually assuming or implying good or prudent handling (as opposed to poor handling) of the matter at hand. In short, economia is discretionary deviation from the letter of the law in order to adhere to the spirit of the law and charity. This is in contrast to legalism, or akribia (Greek: ????????)—strict adherence to the letter of the law of the church.” Gotta love Wikipedia.

            Economia, for example, takes into account that it would be unreasonable to ask traditional Inuit to abstain from meat during Lent and allows some other form of discipline to be practiced.

          • Sorry, the Greek letters showed up fine when I was typing the comment.

          • Based on Damaris’ reply, this relates to the western concept of “economy” and “economics”, especially the older “household economics” meaning they had before the words changed in the late 1800s and early 1900s to mean “political economics”.

        • No, I’m not familiar with that term in Orthodoxy, but it sounds like a good practice..

  16. The quintessential recognition of unknowing, ill-informed consent is highlighted in Jesus’ prayer, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

  17. David Cornwell says:

    Damaris, thank you so much for this piece today. I woke up with the precursors of a migraine, so my thoughts are a little fuzzy. If they come through as such, I’m sure someone will unfuzz them (Robert F has served in this capacity for me before, but anyone should feel free!).

    I doubt that we can decide on ethical bases from which our current culture can make good decisions. We use legal definitions which always fall short. The idea of “consent” is mostly one of legality. When two people decide it’s ok, then, do it. When we tie this into the idea of “rights,” then we are on flimsy ground as a culture.

    However as followers of Jesus, we have something much better, and we do have guidelines. The early church lived out the righteousness of Jesus within the culture. It didn’t ask the principalities and powers for ethical direction. However they did attempt to live as good citizens — in fact better citizens, because they considered themselves to be subjects of a larger Kingdom and in service of another King.

    Jesus taught that which should be at the center of our moral lives, and it is to this that we should consent. He made clear the moral imperative of loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and mind — and the inclusion of one’s neighbor into this love.

    Doing this, he taught a virtues based morality that was first interiorized, and then practiced in community with others. It included not only those who were friends, but also enemies. He taught that we should actively practice forgiveness, mercy, humility, service, hope, and compassion (and much more). We are to act in love toward the sinner, those who are marginalized, the prisoner, and the hungry. If we are serious in our reading of Jesus, we cannot escape this.

    These are the ways in which culture is impacted. If, however, we as his followers simply adapt ourselves to the subjective, feeling-based values of whatever makes us happy, then we have become part of the problem. In fact, to a large extent, this is the problem. The values of our culture have subverted us.

  18. Does Complementarianism allow for consensus?