Monday, February 04, 2013

In Defense of Situational Ethics

If God is the source of moral values, what is moral and immoral, therefore, transcends personal opinion or societal norms. Without the transcendent (or substitute “rule of law” if you are a secularist) individuals are then free to make up their own moral standards. Such moral relativism brings to mind a Hobbsian world of mayhem, because it means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong. It's a matter of personal feeling, or societal norm. Most people do not confront these consequences of moral relativism because it is hard for decent people to realize that saying “I think murder is wrong” is as meaningless as saying “I think purple is ugly” under such a system.

However, there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many (particularly my fellow Christians, who believe in moral absolutes)—the assumption that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism. It is a mistake to argue that just as an individual’s determination of right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine 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 right or wrong, it is right or wrong 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 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 argue that it is wrong to take a life in any 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 morality remains this: There is good and evil, independent of personal or societal opinion, and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, “How would God judge this action in light of context, situation, and motive?”