The Deadly Myth of the Consenting Adult

The following excerpts are from a thought-provoking article about government and ethics, “The Deadly Myth of the Consenting Adult,” by John Zmirak.

Those who have used Pope Francis’s love for the poor to trash the market economy are doing something very common in media coverage of the Church: they are entirely missing the point.

Pope Francis’s statements on the tragic reality of extreme poverty in the developing world, and moral poverty in rich countries, were never intended as tea leaves for pundits to read in search of guidance for public policy. Yes, there are political implications to many Church teachings, but that is not why the Church teaches. You can deduce from the Christian call for chastity certain conclusions about how to regulate public media, for instance, but that doesn’t mean that every time the pope reasserts Church teaching on human sexuality that he is pushing for censorship laws. Your first reaction to a sermon ought not to be calling your congressman, but searching your heart.

The Golden Rule is so ubiquitous that it’s easy for us to assume that it’s universally accepted – at least in theory – while far too rarely practiced. 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.

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.

Attempts by Marxists, feminists, and other activists to clean up some of the mess we make by fixing “structural injustices” ring hollow to our ears; these people’s borrowed consciences rest on stolen Christian mores which their ideas eat away like acid. In fact, any ideology that focuses on power relationships (rather than love and justice) is programmed to liquidate every human value in the end. The Berlin Wall and the Gulag were planted like unkillable kudzu on the day Karl Marx shrank man down to a godless, economic animal. When Simone de Beauvoir adopted the ethics of her master, Jean-Paul Sartre, and decreed that women become as callous as the most solipsistic French playboy, she was building in her mind all the abortion clinics of the future. Ideas have side-effects.