Lesson 43- Situational Ethics
In my last program I attempted to explain how the issue of homosexuality was just part of the bigger issue of whether moral decisions should be based on objective facts which apply to everybody or on subjective feelings which vary from person to person. In recent time, the trend has been towards subjective standards as liberal forces have popularized slogans like Whos to say?, Different strokes for different folks! and the sanctity of personal choice. We no longer talk of right ways and wrong ways to live but, rather, of different lifestyles and the inference is that all lifestyles are equally valid. In this way, the public is merely reflecting an attitude of moral and cultural relativism that is rampant among sociologist, psychologist, anthropologists, and the intellectual community in general.
I mentioned in my last program a videotape which I have in which an anthropologist, who conducted field work by living with the Yanamama tribe in the Brazilian jungle, informed his graduate students that it was the job of all anthropologists and those who study and understood other cultures to teach other people the concept of Cultural Relativism. His point was that all cultures were simply different ways that human groups have devised to answer the question of survival and that no culture had the right to critique or criticize another culture.
His position sounds so kind, so generous, so reasonable that it is difficult not to be drawn into it especially in a culture such as our which places so much value on tolerance. However, once you test it against reality, it becomes obvious that it cant be true. Logically speaking it is saying, Every answer to the same question is true, which, by implication, means there are no wrong answers. The only way to test this premise is to check it against reality by seeing what are the answers that various cultures have given to the same questions.
For example, to the question of What is the most effective way of assuring the food supply by increasing the yield of our crops? some cultures answer is to throw a virgin into a volcano or offer a child to the god of the harvest while others say it is to rotate the crops so that necessary chemicals can be replenished in the soil.
To the question of How should one treat an enemy captured in battle? the Aztecs answer was to sacrifice him to your god by placing him on a stone altar, ripping open his chest, tearing out his heart, and eating it while today our answer is to create a Geneva Convention which calls for humane treatment.
To the question of How should people express their condolences to the family of someone who has been killed?, the primitive tribes of New Zealands answer is that you should take a young girl of three or four and cut one of her fingers off and send it to the bereaved family while ours is to send flowers, or a Mass Card, or make a donation to some charitable organization.
To the question of How should males treat females? the almost universal answer in the ancient world was as subhuman, inferior, beasts of burden who were to be dominated by males and denied any say in their own destiny. In China, where male children were valued over females, many female children were drowned at birth in a bucket. In India, wives were expected to throw themselves on the fire used to cremate their deceased husband. Among the Yanamamas, any female who lacked a male protector was continuously gang raped. And, in areas of the center East today, a Muslim woman cant report a rape unless she has two uninvolved Muslim men as witnesses. If she tries to bring charges without these two witnesses, she will be accused of fornication or adultery and will be thrown into prison. Even in our own society, until recently, females were denied the right to be educated, own property, or vote. The fact that our daughters have these right today indicate that we have decided that this is a better answer. In fact, if there are no right or wrong answers then there is no reason to change anything.
I could go on with many more examples to illustrate that Cultural and Moral Relativism couldnt possible be correct but I think that these example make my point. Every year I begin my class by asking my high school students how many of them believed in the statement Different strokes for different folks! or Whos to say? and every hand in the class goes up. Then, after giving my examples, I ask the question again and no hands go up. They are wonderful slogans which have an appeal to the right lobe of the brain. However, they start to lose their appeal once they are tested against reality. Yet, within the intellectual community, these slogans are accepted as true and there are many professors who, like the professor of anthropology, consider it their duty to indoctrinate their students with the Cultural Relativism which these slogans suggest.
Eric Fromm, a famous psychologist and a secular humanist whose writings sound so Catholic that his books are often assigned in Catholic colleges and universities, almost stands alone in opposing this relativistic position. His book, The Sane Society, upon whose premise I developed a course and a radio program for the Archdiocese, argues that there are right answers and wrong answers to the question of human survival and, to the extent that we find the right answers, we move closer to the Sane Society. He calls his theory Normative Humanism, which implies that there are norms which apply to all human beings based on the fact that they share a common human nature, and he states this his theory is in direct opposition to Sociological Relativism which says that norms vary from culture to culture and Whos to say that one norm is better than another.
Dr. Fromms argument is that although human nature can exist and survive under many different conditions and cultures, it can thrive only in a culture that is most compatible with it. For example, suppose there was a group of isolated people who were using lighter fluid to fuel their automobiles and were very impressed and satisfied with the fact that they could reach the amazing speed of 10 miles per hour. Then one day, a stranger arrives in an automobile that is capable of 100 miles per hour. They are amazed and confused until he informs them that their automobiles were designed to run on 92 octane gasoline and that they will never see the true potential of their automobiles until they use the right fuel. The same is true of human nature. Human beings can exist under many conditions but we will never see what human beings are capable of being until we allow them to develop according to the specifications of their designer. Of course, if there is no designer, then there are no specifications because we are merely an accidental conglomeration of atoms which have no function or purpose. And thus there would be no right way or wrong way; just different ways.
However, if there is a designer, then there are specifications and, if we were designed with a purpose in mind, then we would function best when we operated according to our designers specifications. In other words, things are good or bad according to how well it serves the primary purpose for which it was created. This is just another way of saying when they operate according to their basic nature. And this raises the most important question of all. What is the purpose of human life? Is it to exist or develop? If it is to exist then, since there are many ways to exist, there is no one way. Throughout history, Professor Fromm points out, humans have survived under the most outlandish and negative conditions and thus, if the criteria is mere survival or existence, all of these conditions are equally valid. If, however, the purpose is to develop, then there are certain conditions which human nature needs to develop and if these conditions are missing, then they will never reach their full potential as human beings. So what is it? Were we meant to exist or develop?
If we accept the premise of the Church, God created us to reach the fullness of life and therefore each human being is called by the nature of his being, to develop whatever talents God placed in him so that he might use them for the benefit of others and the whole process of life. Therefore, the Kingdom of God, or the Sane Society, symbolizes the society that best reflects the conditions which are necessary for the proper development of human nature as it was conceived by the Creator.
If we accept the premise of the Existentialist philosophers, like Jean Paul Sartre, who says that the universe is accidental and absurd, then the answer is that we werent meant to do either since we and the universe are without meaning. Besides, without a Creator there is no designer of human nature and therefore there is no common human nature, nor are there any primary purposes and since without a goal there is no right or wrong way. there is no one way in which human beings should live which is better than any other way. However, since the Existentialists believe that existence precedes or goes before essence then the only purposes for human life, if there was one at all, would be to exist in any way that we chose. According to them, we live in an amoral universe in which there are no rights or wrongs and the only morality is whatever we choose to invent for ourselves. Morality is subjective and personal rather than objective and universal. As a result of this view, Sartre and other Existentialist developed a moral theory called Situational Ethics.
I am sure that most of you have heard of it or, if you havent heard of it by that name, you might have heard of Value Clarifications which was introduced into the public schools as a way to teach students how to make a moral decision. Its basic approach was to present a moral situation in which each student was asked to form his own evaluation of how he or she would behave in that situation. No one was allowed to criticize anyone elses choice since values were supposed to be individual and personal. The teacher was expected to take a very tolerant position and encourage the students to do the same with phrases like, Well, Johnny, you and Sarah see this situation from different points of view. Can you both accept that you see this from your own value structure and respect the others persons opinion. Notice the use of the word opinion. The obvious answer for the children was Of course! Whos to say what is right or wrong? Its different strokes for different folks! And everybody has to do it his or her own way. By the way, this course based on secular humanistic philosophy was becoming part of the curriculum while the Bible and prayer were being eliminated. Is it any wonder why Christian values are waning while secularistic values are spreading?
I once saw this strategy used by a representative of Planned Parenthood who was leading a discussion with students on the topic of abortion. One of the students stood up and declared that she thought that abortion was murder and that she would never think of having one. The discussion leader, with an ingratiating smile, responded by saying, Well thats good but can you accept that other people dont believe that and may want to have an abortion? To which the student sheepishly replied, Yes! I guess it not right to impose my values on someone else. Since both the discussion leader from Planned Parenthood and the student were black, I wondered if either of them ever considered that this was the same argument used by Southern slave owners who said, If you dont believe in slavery than dont have any slaves but dont interfere with those who dont see anything wrong with it.
And this is how our children were taught the theory of Situational Ethics without every being told the philosophical underpinning upon which it rested. Never once were they told that this came from the atheistic premise of Existentialism nor were they given any opposing philosophical position. Thus good Christian boys and girls recited the conclusions of a philosophical position diametrically opposed to their own belief system without every seeing the contradiction. But they are not alone because good Christian men and women do the same thing because they spout conclusions without ever understanding the premises from which they derive. Theyve heard of Situational Ethics but they never had any one explain to them exactly what it meant. So let me proceed to do that now.
Ive already explained in my previous tape the theory of Existentialism and how, since it believed in an accidental, absurd universe, it concluded that the universe and life itself was without any purpose or meaning. I then explained how Sartre, himself, became suicidal because, especially when life became difficult, it didnt make any sense to continue to live an absurd existence. However, Sartre discovered that when he tried to commit suicide, something in him resisted it. Therefore, one part of him wanted to die while another part wanted to live. He finally solved the dilemma by declaring that since he needed meaning and purpose in his life in order to live, and since there was no God to give the creation either, then he was free to invent his own and so was everyone else. Thus, he defined human beings as freedom, meaning that each human being was free to create any world that suited him and there were no objective, general principles that applied to everyone. Morality, according to him, was personal and situational. The only test for whether a behavior was moral was whether the person freely chose to do it. In other words, any moral decision based on the rules or opinions of others was immoral and any one freely chosen by the person was moral. Thus, the test for morality was not what you chose but rather, the fact that you chose. One can see the impact of this position in the abortion issue whose proponents defend their position simply with the word Choice! or a womans right to choose. Common sense says that one can not agree or disagree with their statement until one knows what they chose. However, to those who have been indoctrinated into the philosophy of Existentialism, what one chooses is irrelevant since all moral decisions are personal and situational. Let me give you an example that was used by Sartre himself.
Suppose a young, attractive Jewish woman in a Nazi concentration camp is faced with the moral decision as to whether she should provide sexual favors to the guards who were responsible for murdering her whole family. If she agrees, she will be assured of better food, warmer lodgings, and better treatment. If she refuses, she will be faced with the same fate as her family. What should she do? asks Sartre. His answer is that there is no general moral principle to guide her and what she decides applies only to her and her situation. In other words, it is her situation and her choice. Therefore, so long as she freely chooses to sleep with the guards who killed her mother, father, and siblings, it was the moral thing to do for her and society in general can not criticize or demean her decision.
Wrong, say the moral theologians of the Church. There is no way, they say, that you can limit a moral decisions to one person and one situation because all moral decisions are based on a general principle which may or may not be known to the person acting. For example, the hidden general moral principle which the young Jewish woman is acting upon is Save yourself at all costs, even if it means sleeping with those who murdered your family. Whether she intends it or not, this will become a general moral principle that can and will be applied to other situations by other people and, logically speaking, society would be equally unable to criticize or demean their decision.
The human mind uses individual events to create precedences which become general rules that our sense of justice require be applied to the same or similar cases involving others. As parents we all know that whatever we allow the first child to do will be used as a precedence by the younger children when they want to do the same thing. How many times have we heard, Well, you let Timmy do it, so why cant I? Therefore, say the moral theologians of the Church, by assenting to the rightness of the young womans decision, we are also assenting to the behavior of any other person who decides to save his life no matter what he or she has to do.
The Church says that she is involved in a hard case and that hard cases make bad laws. In other words, since her behavior is going to create a general moral principle whether she intends it or not, her unusual situation should not be used as a basis for establishing a principle for guiding the behavior of society in general. Thus the Church offers her understanding and forgiveness but it will not offer her approval because approval would then allow it to become a general principle. Jesus said, What does it profit a man if he saves his life and loses his very soul? and Whoever loses his life for my sake will save it and whoever saves his life will lose it. It is obvious that Save you life at all costs is a principle diametrically opposed to Jesus position and, from a practical point of view, is a lower ideal than the one expressed by Him. Let me give you a practical example because there is nothing like reality to test the validity of any theory.
According to Sartres Situational Ethics, two people involved in the same situation could choose opposing action and both would be equally moral and justified. If this is true, then there is no significant moral difference between Uncle Tom and Martin Luther King. Both of them were caught in the same situation. They both lived in the pre-Civil Rights South where they and their loved ones were forced to accept many demeaning actions. They were forced to use separate toilets and drinking fountains. Their children were forced to attend inferior schools. Their wives and daughters were often molested and their sons were sometimes lynched. Uncle Tom, a term used to symbolize, someone who bowed and scraped and fawned over his tormentors, survived by cooperating and accepting his own degradation in order to assure himself a longer life. Martin Luther King, on the other hand, decided that he would rather risk his life than to live under such degrading conditions. In fact, he once said that he realized that the moment he decided to oppose the existing system that it was only a matter of time before someone decided to kill him. However, he said, if he had decided to keep quiet in order to extend his life, that he might have lived to be eighty but, in truth, the person that they would have buried then had already died at the age of twenty eight.
Now, according to Sartres Situational Ethics, there cant be any moral difference between Uncle Tom and Martin Luther King because they both freely chose to act differently in the same situation. Yet, Uncle Tom has become a term of derision in our culture and Martin Luther King has become a national hero who is pointed to as a role model for our children. Obviously, the principle of save your life at all costs doesnt seem to have the same value in our eyes as the values expressed in an old black spiritual whose words are:
Oh freedom.Oh freedom. Oh freedom over me
And before Id be a slave, Id be buried in my grave
And go home to my Lord and be free.
Clearly there must something that we call human dignity which is more important than life itself, otherwise there would be no meaning to the words courage and cowardice. Yet, all of us can understand and sympathize with the predicament that the young Jewish woman in Sartres example was in and if we were in the same predicament we would hope that we would have the courage to take the higher road. She obviously was one of those hard cases that makes a bad law.
But what exactly does hard cases make bad laws means and why is that so. It means that extreme situations which rarely happens should not be used to create general principles to guide people in normal situations. For example, we would not want to establish the speed limit on Broad Street based on a man rushing his dying child to the hospital. Yet, at the same time, we can understand why, under those circumstances, he might break the speed limit and run redlights. So what are we to do when these hard cases occur? Let me give you an example taken from real life.
There is a movie named Abandoned Ship which is based on a real incident. A passenger liner sunk in the Atlantic and over twenty of the survivors were clinging to a lifeboat that was designed to hold fourteen people. Consequently, they had to alternate between those in the water and those in the boat. A ships officer, who was one of the survivors, took command of the lifeboat and, backing up his authority with a gun, assumed the responsibility for the survival of the group. Since their only chance of survival was to reach the coast of Africa, he ordered them to row in that direction. However, after a few days, the sky began to darken and it was obvious that a storm was about to occur. One of the seamen from the liner informed him that there was no way that the lifeboat could survive the storm with all these people clinging to the side. The officer was faced with a difficult decision: either lighten the boat so that some might survive or risk having everyone die. He decided to lighten the boat and proceeded to select those who were to be thrown overboard because they were too old, too sick, or too weak to row. In one instance, he shot a person who was trying to climb back into the boat. It was a classic example of survival of the fittest.
When the storm arrived the tiny lifeboat was tossed around like a matchstick but they somehow managed to survive and within a few days they were spotted by an ocean liner which picked them up. When the story of what happened was revealed, the authorities brought murder charges against the ships officer who had forced the elimination of those too weak to row. Eventually, he was tried and convicted. However, the court, understanding that this was a hard case, showed him leniency by giving him a minimum sentence. And that is what we are suppose to do with hard cases. We can not accept this as a model or precedence for human behavior, yet, at the same time, we can understand that they were faced with an extraordinary situation. However, there is a big difference between understanding and acceptance. Thus, the court, by finding him guilty, affirmed the principle that in a civilized community the strong are not allowed to eliminate the weak and, at the same time, by reducing the punishment, showed that it understood that he was under tremendous pressure. In legal terms, this is called mitigating circumstances.
By the way, this movie has been used in schools as a precedence by those who are concerned with the problem of overpopulation. They have compared the earth to the lifeboat and growing population to those who are clinging to it. Their message is that we, like the people in the lifeboat, may have to decide to throw those who cant pull their own weight out of the lifeboat so that the rest of us can survive. By this they mean that we should either drastically reduce world population through contraception and/or abortion or else allow the starving masses of Africa and Asia to starve. In fact, there is a plaque outside of a town in Georgia which states that the lifeboat earth can support only 500 million people and thus 7 billion 500 million of us have to go. Who will choose those who are to go and those who are to remain is not mentioned? Nor does it mention that at the present time, the real problem is too much food rather than too little and that the real problem is distribution. Governments continue to subsidize farmer to encourage them to grow less because an over supply drives down the prices on farm products. Also, while one half of the world faces the problem of hunger, the other half is spending billion trying to combat the health risks due to overweight.
The moral theologians of the Church are right. There is no way that you can limit a moral decision to one situation because it will always become a precedence that will be applied to the same or similar situations.
Thus, the basic premise of Situational Ethics, which is that moral decisions are subjective, situational and personal can not stand. Society survives through norms and laws and any scheme which denies this is doomed to failure. Even those who deny general norms are quick to impose their own norms when given the power and the opportunity. Witness the power of political correctness in our colleges, universities, and places of business. Thus, the issue facing us is not whether there will be norms but whose norms they will be. Will they be the norms of our Judeo/Christian heritage or those of the Secular Humanist?
In my next program I will talk about the nature of laws and norms and show that how they relate to the Normal Curve.
Well, I see that my time is up. Heres Dom.