Friday, April 11, 2008

In Defense of Situational Ethics

Christians believe that God is the source of moral values and therefore what is moral and immoral transcends personal or societal opinion. Without God, each individual makes up his or her own moral standards. This is known as moral relativism. Moral relativism is scary and dangerous because it means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong. It's a matter of personal feeling, or societal norm. Most secular people do not confront these consequences of moral relativism because it is hard for decent people to realize that “I think murder is wrong,” is as meaningless as “I think purple is ugly.”

However, there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many Christians who believe in moral absolutes. They assume that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism and therefore regard situational ethics as incompatible with Christian morality. I think it is a mistake to argue that just as individuals’ determining what is right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine what is right and wrong also negates moral absolutes. This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of moral absolutes. A moral absolute means that if an act is good or bad, it is good or bad for everyone in the identical situation. This is also called universal morality.

But “everyone” is not the same as “every situation.” An act that is wrong is wrong for everyone in the SAME situation, but almost no act is wrong in EVERY situation. Sex in a loving relationship is good, but when violently coerced, it is rape. Truth telling is usually right, but if, during World War II, Nazis asked you where a Jewish family was hiding, telling them the truth would have been evil. Likewise, it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. That is why the Ten Commandments say “Do not murder,” not “Do not kill.” Murder is immoral killing, and it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. Pacifists say that it is wrong to take a life in every situation. This is based on the mistaken belief that absolute morality means “in every situation” rather than “for everyone in the same situation.”

The key element in Christian morality remains simply this: There is good and there is evil, independent of personal or societal opinion; and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, “How would God judge this action?” My point is simple – because universal morality says that an action is wrong for all PEOPLE, that doesn’t mean it’s wrong in all SITUATIONS.


jenn said...

I'm confused. You say "because universal morality says that an action is wrong for all people, that doesn't mean it is wrong in all situations." Wouldn't the "situation" involve people and actions? How can an action for all people be wrong if all people are involved in the situation that is not wrong? The action in the situation would have to be wrong if it is always wrong for all people.

That sounds like a tongue twister! Hope it makes sense to you!

Kerrie said...

Me driving 80 mph and running multiple red lights to get my mom to the Emergency Room in Baylor is a situation that would not make my actions necessarily wrong for me at that time. Allowing her brain to bleed out causing a stroke while driving the speed limit at 60 mph would be though.

However next time we're calling 911!

Charles North said...

Jenn - that was a tongue twister! But your question makes perfect sense. I think my whole post was a tongue twister - though I intended it to be a brain twister! Kerrie's example is a good one - the speed limit on I-30 is 60 mph. That applies to ALL people. But Kerrie's situation (her mom's emergency) makes her driving 20 mph over that limit okay, even though the law still applies to her. Or take "zero tolerance" policies in public schools. A school may have a policy that forbids weapons. That prohibition applies to ALL students. But what if a student brings a stone Indian arrow head to a "show and tell" history class? Would that situation allow for violating the "universal" policy? I think so. Of course, the school may confiscate the "weapon" and suspend the kid, which only serves to encourage immaturity and lack of thinking as kids grow up.

Charles North said...

I want to make it very clear how serious this post is. I believe that blurring the distinction between moral relativism and situational ethics is the number one reason why most Christians cannot process morality outside the narrow confines of law. On the other hand, I believe that understanding the distinction is the key to unlocking the chains of legalism that destroys intelligence and spirituality.

Mark said...


I appreciate such a challenging subject. As I grow older and more cynical, I really think most people don't want to think about these kinds of things. People don't want to be challenged since it might mean they're wrong.

I'd like to pick apart the speeding argument. Let me start by saying, giving the situation, she made the right decision and put the sanctity of life over the abiding by the civic law.

But, no matter the situation, there was a clear violation of the law. If Kerrie were to have been sighted by a police officer for her speeding, she would have no choice but to throw herself at the mercy of the courts.

That's what makes this case interesting! One "Law" had to be broken in order for another "Law," sanctity of life, to be upheld.

That is what separates situational ethics (SE) from moral relativism (MR). MR simply exuses bad behavior by saying,"its not bad to me." MR excuses behavior and refuses to take responsibility for consequences.

SE places two "Right things" in conflict and forces an individual to make a choice. In Kerries case, she had two choices. She weighed the consequences and, I am assuming, was willing to take on the consequences of the choice.

Charles North said...

Mark. That's a great way to distinguish between moral relativism and situational ethics. Thanks.