Friday, November 03, 2023

Too Hot to Handle: A Sticky Situation

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: A couple of posts back, Immanuel Can made this comment:

“I don’t think most people understand what ‘situational ethics’ means. What I find when I ask them is they have no idea of the theory, or even of who Joseph Fletcher was, let alone what he said: they just think that whatever it is, it allows them to do as they please, and still claim to be ‘ethical’ in doing it.”

I haven’t heard the term in a few years, but I remember it was regularly referenced when I was growing up. 83% of atheists claim to believe all ethics are situational. What does that mean exactly, IC? Maybe some of the atheists hurling the term around don’t know much more than your first year philosophy students ...

Dodging Accountability

Immanuel Can: Well, as I said, I don’t think people have any idea. Some just think that if they say things like “truth is relative” or “ethics are situational”, then it means that nobody’s going to be able to tell them they can’t do something they want to do. Nobody’s going to be able to call them a bad person. Nobody’s going to be able to hold them accountable to facts and evidence, and nobody is going to be able to indict them on morality. And they think that’s all sunshine and ice cream — they’re going to get all the good effects of that belief, and it’s not going to cost them anything on the bad side.

Others are just so confused about what is true or right that they have essentially given up hope of locating any answers they can believe; and so they say “it’s all relative” or “it all depends” because they fear that making any claims about morals, or even just about facts, is going to expose them as being wrong, and is likely to make them unpopular with other people.

A Little Background

Tom: So give us some background. Who was Joseph Fletcher? What did he say?

IC: I’ll try to summarize very briefly. Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1966) was a book by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal professor of ethics. Humanism was still very popular both in universities and in the culture generally, and nominal Christian groups with universalist leanings were still very influential then. They’ve dwindled drastically since, of course; and humanism has taken a severe beating as well. Fletcher summarized the substance of his argument this way: “Every man must decide for himself according to his own estimate of conditions and consequences; and no one can decide for him or impugn the decision to which he comes.” So he argued that the only certain, objective and non-negotiable principle was “love”. Everything else, he said, was contingent — only sometimes true, depending on circumstances, and sometimes not. There are no rules, no commandments and no absolutes. You just have to look at situations, and figure out how to get the best out of them, using whatever wisdom you had, plus experience — yours, and that of others as well. These would tell you what the “loving” thing to decide was. Then that’s what you did.

The End Justifies the Means

Tom: I’ve heard it summed up as “The end justifies the means,” provided the end is “loving”, of course. The obvious question that presents itself is “Who defines ‘loving’?” The precise actions love is obligated to perform in any given situation are not always easily intuited, and you and I may not always agree about them.

IC: Right. Well, Fletcher believed you weren’t allowed to second-guess my moral judgments, and I wasn’t allowed to criticize yours.

Tom: That’s certainly convenient.

IC: Not only did he say, “Every individual is unique; every concrete situation is unique,” so there could be neither solid rules for action nor reliable judgments after the fact, but also there weren’t even any “values” that existed beyond one’s subjective viewpoint. There were no criteria for judging. Things were only “valuable” to the extent that people valued them for purposes they had, especially loving: “Love is of people, by people and for people.” (I guess he never read 1 John 4:7.) Again you see the humanist focus. He’s criticizing the idea that God could give commandments, or even define love in a specific way, or that people could pass judgments on actions others did based on God’s revealed will or commandments.

Tom: That isn’t even coherent. For one thing, the apostle John says love of God is “that we keep his commandments”. Nothing can be said to be biblically loving that violates the commandments of God.

Aggressive Babies and Conniving Teens

IC: A lot of other stuff he said would shock most Christians who think morality might be situational: for example, he thought it was quite obvious that abortion could be warranted, because the unwanted baby was an “aggressor” against the mother. But babies were sometimes useful, too: he wrote, “Getting pregnant to force a selfish parent to relent on his overbearing resistance to [a] marriage” could make premarital sex “all right”. So was artificial insemination of single women.

And his view of the gospel was just plain anti-biblical. He did not believe in a literal Fall of Man. He said that at the anointing at Bethany, “Jesus was wrong, and the disciples were right”, and therefore concluded Jesus must not have said the words attributed to him on that occasion. He did not believe the gospel: “It is not the unbelieving who invite ‘damnation’ but the unloving”, he wrote, and, citing William Temple approvingly, “an atheist who lives by love is saved by his faith in the God whose existence … he denies”. For Fletcher, the word “love” didn’t just cover a multitude of sins; it covered absolutely anything. All commandments, including the first, “like other laws … can be broken for love’s sake”.

I could go on. What part of this would today’s “situational ethics” Christians wish to believe?

An Ethic That Won’t Go Away

Tom: Now, nominally at least, Fletcher was a Christian, and that gave him a certain amount of credibility with Protestant theologians, despite the fact that he basically came up with what can serve as a rationale for justifying almost any sort of sin. Not everybody agreed with him, of course, and we don’t hear the term “situation ethics” as often as we used to. All the same, the influence of Fletcher’s teaching is still with us, wouldn’t you say?

IC: I think what has most powerfully remained in the public imagination is simply the title: “situation ethics”. They don’t know it as a book, far less as a theory. They know it only as an idea. It’s the idea that anything is morally permissible or excusable, based on situational particulars, and nobody can really judge anybody else’s behavior, therefore. More than that, I don’t think anyone retains.

“I Forced Myself”

Tom: Oh, I don’t mean that people know precisely what situation ethics is today, or define it correctly, or have heard of Fletcher at all. It really existed long before Fletcher put a name to it and wrote a book about it — at least in the sense that it has always been common to rationalize away sin by claiming that one possible outcome of our actions might possibly have ended up as some kind of net positive. You see Saul doing it when Samuel catches him playing priest:

“When I saw that the people were scattering from me, and that you did not come within the days appointed, and that the Philistines had mustered at Michmash, I said, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the favor of the Lord.’ So I forced myself, and offered the burnt offering.”

He’s arguing that the greatest good in this case would have been to seek the favor of the Lord on behalf of the people, which justifies breaking the command of God that only a priest can offer a sacrifice, and only in specific places under specific conditions. Letting the Philistines win the battle over Israel because they had not sought God’s favor would not have been “loving”. There are probably all kinds of other examples if you look for them.

IC: Sure. The thing about “situation ethics” is that it puts the decision back in our hands. No longer do we have to figure out how to obey God, but rather only to rationalize whatever it is we want. If we can figure out some line of thought by which we can present an action as “loving”, then that action becomes ethical; and nobody is allowed to second-guess us after that, so there’s no accountability either.

Tom: That’s a major problem, definitely. It’s convenient for the sinner, to be sure, but it tends toward anarchy.

Outcomes That Cannot Be Known

To me, the biggest flaw in Fletcher’s contrived redefinition of ethicality is that it doesn’t even require a demonstrable “good” be achieved.

For example, in one of Fletcher’s own hypothetical scenarios, a young woman working for the government contemplates whether having sex with a foreign agent would be an ethical act if it contributes to ending a war.

But of course the young woman cannot possibly know if her actions will do anything of the sort. She will probably never know the answer to her question, and she will definitely not know it before she acts. She can have no certainty about either the effectiveness or the morality of her act, and no way to ease her conscience about either. And yet one of the purposes for which Christ died was to cleanse the human conscience. It is the blood of Christ that makes our consciences clean, not some philosophical whitewash.

That’s a major problem for Fletcher. To make truly ethical decisions, one would have to know with certainty the final outcome of one’s actions beforehand. To simply say, as Fletcher does, “Well, it’s the intentions that matter,” that’s just hand-waving. It doesn’t solve anything. The end cannot possibly justify the means if it turns out not to be the end we intended.

Praise and Blame

IC: There’s something missing from our critique of situation ethics, Tom. I mentioned it at the start, but forgot it at the end.

There are two things for which we look to ethics: ethicists call them “praise” and “blame”. Ethics tell us when we’ve done bad things, but also when we’ve done well, when we’re good people. Now, people who embrace situation ethics often do so because it removes the blame part of the equation, and they’ll be allowed to do what they want, without being judged. But what they forget is that if the blame part is dependent on circumstances and is the unique concern of the individual, then so too is the “praise” part.

Since there are no universal and binding standards for evil, there aren’t any for good either. Nobody’s identifiably “bad”, but neither is any of us equipped to say when another person is being moral. Each person is only privately convinced, and only convinced on the basis of his own circumstances, that he or she has behaved in a “loving” way, or has failed to do so; but nobody else has any basis for encouraging or congratulating them for doing so, because nobody else can judge their achievement. Situationism has destroyed both possibilities: praise and blame.

That’s what I meant by saying at the beginning that situation ethicists “think it’s all sunshine and ice cream”. They don’t see the dark side of what they’re doing. And I think that this is because even the best of them is blinded by a desire to feel like he or she is personally a “loving” person, and because the worst of them is simply far less focused on producing good than on excusing evil. If you point out that they are losing both sides of the moral equation, they are much less happy about situationism than they used to be.

Tom: We should probably point out that this “praise” and “blame” distinction is a biblical one as well as a practical one. Think, for example, of God saying to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, a blameless and upright man.” Or again, at the end of the book, to Job’s friends, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” It is not only necessary to the narrative that Job act commendably, it is also necessary that he be commended, both for the sake of Job and for that of everyone else, including the reader. Perhaps it is for this reason that we read concerning the judgment seat of Christ, “Each one will receive his commendation from God.” This affirmation of the good is as necessary as God’s condemnation of evil. And at the personal level, all human confidence about good and evil follows from God’s pronouncements about them.

Disadvantageous Commandments

IC: There are other reasons why situation ethics, as a formal theory, has not stayed around. Firstly, because of the quasi-Christian flavor Fletcher tries to spread over his theory, which is just a sort of Christianized humanism, really. The real humanists don’t want the Christian bit, and there’s not enough that’s Christian in it to appeal to Christians either. Another thing: the theory is both irrational and a bit hypocritical. On the surface it claims that there are, and can be, no commandments except “Be loving.” But afterward, Fletcher finds it necessary to pull up all kinds of other commandments and universal claims to support that, such as “You must not pass judgment on other people’s decisions,” or “Logic is not to be ultimately trusted,” or “Dogma is bad,” or “People have a right to make their own decisions.” Fletcher needs these additional universals to solve problems with situation ethics; but being universals, each of them is really a commandment. However, these new “commandments” have a serious disadvantage; they are without the backing of divine authority, and with no more than Fletcher’s word behind them.

So the theory is a dead dog, really. But as I say, it’s poisoned the well of ethical thinking pretty severely at the public level. Today, many modern people and many Christians as well think that situationism means nobody can judge anybody’s behavior anymore. But you know what scripture says about that, don’t you, Tom?

Tom: “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.” There is, and indeed, there has to be, an external standard of right and wrong. Our own rationalizations about our actions are sorely inadequate.

1 comment :

  1. What you are describing and discussing here concerning this Joseph Fletcher touches on the thing that I have always found most confounding about humanity. Why is it, what produces, what leads to the fact that a very significant portion of humanity is unable to act logically when logic is so obvious in most situations. What is going on in your interior life that you must distort and deny the obvious and settle for poor approximations and downright incorrectness? Were you born with a natural filter, a set of glasses, that distorts your natural perceptions and interior processes or is it simply acquired tendencies based on your upbringing and surrounding to learn and want to live with what is situationally most convenient for you? One hint I am aware of is, e.g., through the experience of having met horders (an unfortunate acquaintance of mine) who, no matter what, is unable to function with a different type of reality. He must, for his whole life, hoard newspapers, toy models, paper napkins, whatever it is that motivates him to collect to the point of creating a fire hazard in his own home. This then is known to be a mysterious and incurable interior state resulting in permanent illogical behavior and unpleasant consequences. I would consider the Joseph Fletcher's of this world to be similarly afflicted with the permanent handicap of not being able to honestly deal with facts and the consequences of that for themselves and others. A challenge to the Christian who is trying to discover how God would want this type of thing addressed in his/her life.