Monday, June 21, 2010

Ethics and Justice. Part 7: 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 or mores. 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.” Relativism is the idea that there is no definite right and wrong. There is no truth, and even if there were, we couldn’t recognize it. Right and wrong, and truth are manifestations of traditions and norms within various cultures. Right and wrong and truth are individual matters, determined by individuals. We cannot impose our values on other people.

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 and unlawful 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.

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