Ethical Philosophies of Situational Ethics & Christian Moral Reasoning Essay


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Write a 500-word essay discussing and evaluating the ethical philosophies of situational ethics, conflicting universal norms, and non-conflicting universal norms.  What do you think of the ideas of Fletcher and Cant as well as the concept of hierarchalism?  How should a Christian look at the idea of proper decision making? (30 points)

Write a 500-word essay discussing the article “Christian Moral Reasoning”. Summarize its main points.  Discuss its strengths and weaknesses.  Evaluate it as a whole. (30 points)

Comments on Norms and Ethical ThinkingNormative ethics is another name for deontological ethics. What we intend to do now is to examine more carefully the way norms and principles are identified, defined, and applied to specific situations in life. The previous discussion on ethical theories provided the necessary background for this analysis. The basic question is, Are there norms and principles that one should use and follow in the process of making ethical decisions? Different answers have been given to that question.1 We will examine some of them.Absence of Norms (Antinomianism)Some thinkers have concluded that there are no objective norms we can use to define how we should live. That is to say, there is no law that can guide our ethical decisions because the norms commonly used are either without objective value (based on personal opinions) or else without empirical meaning (they have no practical value). This is usually called antinomianism (lit. “against the law”). This view prevails among existentialist philosophers and particular among atheists. A good example is Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900). He proclaimed the death of God and concluded that there are no absolute values because they died when God died. God died when humans became adults, that is, when they acquired enough knowledge to live without God. Therefore, individuals are free to create their own set of values in their search for power.One of the best exponents of this view is French existentialist/novelist Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He rejected any kind of objective ethics because for him life is meaningless, absurd. Since there is no God, all is permitted. The best we can do is to be heroic atheists by assuming full responsibility for our own acts. We are absolutely free because there is no God who can assume responsibility for human existence. Life is absurd, he argues, because there is no explanation or justification for human life outside of our own radical freedom. Since we are not conditioned in any way by what happened or by what will happen, we do not need to take into consideration anything outside us when making ethical decisions. This is practically ethical egoism.This approach to ethics is extremely subjective and anti-rational. Humans are by nature social beings and this requires that we establish ways in which we can co-exist in peaceful relationships. The absolute freedom promoted by this ethical approach is impossible to implement and would lead to social, civil, and moral chaos. In fact, when we argue for an ethics based on no-norms, we are establishing an absolute norm according to which every person is his or her own norm of ethical behavior. In other words, this system seems to affirm what it is denying. This is what could be called a logical inconsistency.Absence of Universal NormsMost ethical systems reject the no-norms approach in favor of some kind of meaningful guides for decision making. Some argue that there are relative norms but not universal norms. For instance, according to this view, lying is not universally wrong—one should not say that lying is always wrong (although it is usually wrong), because in some cases it would be correct to lie. This is what we have already called “teleology” or “rule-utilitarianism.” (You may want to review the previous lesson.) Utilitarianism rejects universal norms but accepts some norms that will assist us in determining which action will probably bring the greatest good. This is particularly the case with rule-utilitarianism, according to which there are not absolute norms but absolute ends.In this ethical system, norms are relative—one does not have to obey them always. The relativity is determined by or is based on the result of the action. The end (the greatest good) determines the means, in fact it becomes the means, to be used in order to attain the desired end. There is circularity in this approach and that limits its usefulness. Besides, a relative norm is relative with respect to something that is not relative. Therefore, there has to be a non-relative norm for a relative norm to function. In other words, general or relative norms presuppose universal norms.One Universal NormSome ethicists have argued that there is only one universal norm to which we are all obliged. We addressed this question when dealing with deontological theories, but now we should examine it a little more carefully. The best example of the use of this approach is found in the ethical system developed by Joseph Fletcher, who has argued extensively for situational ethics.2 The term “situational” may give the impression that he is promoting a system without norms-the situation in which we find ourselves determines what we should do-but that is not what he means. For Fletcher, there is one absolute law, the law of love. He rejects legalism because it puts the law above love, and antinomianism because it lacks ethical principles.In situationism, we have love over law. Love is above everything else and any other value is useful but not unbreakable (not absolute). Under any circumstance, one is required to do the “most loving thing.” In order to understand this system better, let us analyze some of its basic presuppositions:Only one thing is intrinsically good—love. According to Fletcher, something is good because God wills it and not because it is good in and by itself. God is goodness and love. Love is the only human thing with intrinsic value because it makes humans like God (for Fletcher, the image of God is love). The opposite of love is evil, defined as indifference. To ignore another person and his or her needs is to depersonalize him or her, and that is evil.The ethical Christian norm is love. According to Fletcher, the law could be obeyed only for love’s sake. Law and love sometimes conflict with each other. When that happens, our Christian duty is to place love above law. This means, he argues, that there is no one commandment that under certain circumstances (situation) may not be broken for the sake of love. This is, he states, sacrificial love, called in the NT agape. It is a responsible love that does not exploit the other.Justice and love are the same. Justice is defined by Fletcher as giving to others what is their due, and love is what is due to others. In loving (being just), we should seek to bring the greatest good to the greatest number of persons (utilitarianism). If love does not calculate the ultimate consequences, it will become selfish.Love our neighbor as ourselves. For Fletcher, love is an attitude, not a feeling. If we love ourselves for our own sake, that is wrong, but if we do it for God’s sake and the neighbor’s sake, then it is right. We love ourselves when we love God and our neighbor. That does not mean that we must like our neighbor.The ends justify the means. The only act that is by nature good is an act of love. Consequently, the only thing that can justify an action is that it be done for loving ends. This means that a loving end justifies any means—if what you want to achieve is a loving thing, then you are free to employ any means to achieve it. What is morally important is the end, not the means you will employ.What is loving is determined by the situation. Love does not prescribe in the abstract what ought to be done but rather functions circumstantially. In other words, love has to see the facts, the situation, before determining what is the loving thing to do.An example will clarify this point and the previous ones. To the question, “Is adultery wrong?” Fletcher will answer, “I really do not know. Please, give me a case.” Consider this: A married German woman who had two children was captured by the Russians during WWII. The rules of that particular prison camp stated that she could be released to Germany only if she were pregnant. She decided to ask a friendly camp guard to impregnate her. Soon she was sent back to Germany, welcomed by her family, gave birth to the baby, and made it part of her family. Was this adultery justifiable? Fletcher would say, “Yes, it was justifiable.” For him, the only universal norm is love. Consequently, violating one of God’s commandments may be justifiable.Situational ethics has some good things that should be acknowledged, although the system is not totally valid for a Christian ethical system. It is good in that it emphasizes a normative approach to ethics and establishes at least an absolute norm. It also provides a possible solution to the problem of conflicting norms by singling out love as the supreme principle. It takes into consideration the circumstances of an action in the process of making ethical decisions. Finally, its emphasis on love and the value of the person are well-taken. Yet the system is limited by some serious problems:First, reducing an ethical system to just one norm makes it weak and almost useless. If love lacks concrete content independent of the situation, then the meaning of love is relative and not absolute-it depends on the nature of the situation. In other words, love in itself has no significance or content. For instance, in Christian thinking, loving one’s spouse means by itself not committing adultery. But if adultery is not necessarily wrong, as situational ethics proclaims, then loving one’s spouse remains undefined.Second, the basic assumption of situational ethics is that law and love are at least in tension with each other, if not in opposition to each other. That is not necessarily true. In fact, in the Scriptures the law is an expression of love. There is no intrinsic conflict between them.Finally, situational ethics does not take seriously into consideration the moral conflicts that exist within fallen human nature. The human heart is very deceptive and could easily misuse love if it lacks content or if its content and meaning is to be determined subjectively by the situation in which we find ourselves. The natural human tendency is to act in selfish ways and to exploit others, and this is often done under the name of love. Love, in order to be genuinely Christian, needs to be defined by the values and norms of the Bible.Non-Conflicting Universal NormsAccording to this view, there are many valid universal norms which are never in conflict with each other. They sometimes appear to be in conflict but there is always a third alternative. Each norm is considered to cover a particular area of human experience and therefore it never conflicts with another absolute norm. Probably the best illustration of this system is provided by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), one of the greatest philosophers of the Enlightenment. He argued that there is a plurality of moral principles derived from our sense of absolute duty-our sense of responsibility.According to Kant, ethics cannot be based on empirical facts, that is to say, on the observation of how humans act. Human experience reveals only what humans do and not what they ought to do. A norm that will regulate human life must be an imperative located outside the situation in which we find ourselves. He suggested the principle of duty for duty’s sake and not for the sake of personal happiness. He called this “the categorical imperative.” He explained it saying that we should act in such a way that the ground of our actions—the norms—could become universal laws of nature. Otherwise our actions will be self-destructive. For instance, murder is always wrong. How do we know that to be the case? Because to will that it becomes a universal law would be the same as to will that there be no more people to murder. If there were no more people to murder, then the ethical imperative (murder is right) could not be enforced. Consequently, murder is ethically irrational.Kant believed that there were many absolute norms for human conduct (e.g., prohibition of murder, telling the truth). He argued that if we were confronted with the conflict of telling a lie to save a life or telling the truth and letting a person die, we should never lie even to save a life. The fact, he continues, that someone dies because we told the truth does not mean that we are morally guilty. Lying undermines the truth that holds us together. According to him, if a person dies, that should be taken to mean that truth brought harm by accident. The person who told the truth did not intend to murder, neither did he do the harm.Other Christians thinkers believe that there are principles that should never be broken. God, they argue, will not permit universal moral norms to conflict, and if it appears to be a conflict, one of the two options is not evil. Some would argue that a falsehood is not a lie because a lie is an intentional deception that violates someone’s right to know the truth. It is not really a lie, they say, to falsify for the sake of saving an innocent person. We are not obliged, they suggest, to tell the truth to a robber, to a murderer, or to an enemy.In evaluating this approach to norms, we can make the same criticism made against deontological theories (see the previous lesson). It tends to be legalistic and to dehumanize people. To argue that there are many absolute norms which never conflict because they operate in different spheres (business, science, sports, etc.) is to compartmentalize the areas of human responsibility and duty in an artificial way. There are no separate sets of ethical principles for each aspect of our lives. Besides, it is difficult to argue that in a world of sin and evil we will never find a situation in which a conflict of norms is not present. The case of lying is a good illustration. If I tell the truth, then I would not be doing all I could (controlling information) to save a life; yet it is one of my duties to save life. That does not mean that lying is right, but it means that I had to choose between two conflicting norms.Conflicting Universal NormsIt appears that there could be cases in which we have to make a decision between two conflicting norms. This is recognized by those who believe in conflicting universal norms. They argue that if one is caught in a real dilemma, one should do the lesser of two evils. The evil may be excusable or forgivable because of the tragic dilemma one faces, but it is an evil nonetheless. Ideally, they argue, neither norm should have been broken, but because of the evil conditions of life, what should not have taken place took place.This approach to norms is based on two fundamental concepts: that there are many absolute norms and that it is wrong to break any of them. Promoters of this view tend to believe that there is always a way out of the conflict without making exceptions to the universal norm. But they acknowledge that the presence of evil in the world creates the possibility of moral dilemmas. Consequently, we are forced at times to choose between the lesser of two evils. That means that whatever decision is taken is wrong. But because of the dilemma, that wrong is forgivable. Atonement is available through Christ. This understanding of normative ethics is attractive to many Christians. Nevertheless, it implies that sinning is, under certain circumstances, inevitable. A person is considered guilty while trying to do his or her very best.Gradation of Universal NormsThis understanding of normative ethics is also called hierarchalism. It organizes ethical norms on the basis of the relative values they represent. When any of those values appear to be in conflict, we are free from the binding obligation of the lower norm. There are intrinsically higher norms, e.g., lying is always wrong but it is transcended when it is required to save a life. In this system, norms are graded on a scale of good ranging from the least good to the most good. The system includes a teleological element because the intention is to do the greater good. In order to grade norms, the following principles have been suggested:God is more valuable than persons. God is the source of all finite persons and, therefore, He is more valuable. Whenever there is a conflict between the values of finite beings and God, one must choose in favor of God. One must always obey God.Persons are more valuable than things. This means that in making decisions we should give priority to norms that promote the well-being of persons. One wonders whether this principle would not lend itself to the exploitation of nature, creating an ecological crisis.A complete/actual person is more valuable than an incomplete one. An incomplete person is defined in this ethical system as one who has limited capacities to receive and/or express love. There are cases where it is impossible to help both persons effectively, e.g., the life of a woman is threatened during childbirth. Should the child be saved or should the women be saved? This system will argue that the woman should be saved.Potential persons are more valuable than actual things. A human embryo is a potential human being and is more valuable than an inheritance. According to this view, if having a child means losing an inheritance, it would be right to lose the inheritance.Many persons are more important than few persons. If confronted with the decision of saving either five lives or one life, we should save the most lives possible.Acts that promote personhood are better than acts that do not. Some acts promote healthy interpersonal relations; they are of more value than the impersonal ones (e.g., building a chair). If there is a conflict between levels of values among possible human actions, we should always yield to those courses of action that promote better personal relationships. Should one spend more time with the family or should one go to the baseball game? According to this system, one should spend more time with the family.This hierarchy of norms is interesting and some of its ideas are very useful. Unquestionably under certain circumstances some norms and rules take precedence over other norms and rules. The emphasis of this ethical approach on the value of persons is excellent. One of the problems it faces is that it seems to be too mechanical and almost impersonal. It gives the impression that what we have to do is to memorize the hierarchical principles and the ethical dilemmas will be solved. But that is not always the case. Could it be that under certain circumstances a person is less valuable than a thing if that particular thing is indispensable for the well-being of the rest of the world?If we were to establish a Christian gradation of moral obligations, it should be established along the lines of (1) God first, then (2) my neighbor (parents, relatives, humankind), (3) myself, and (4) things. It should be framed within the context of love as defined in the Scriptures.ConclusionNorms are indispensable in any society. They contribute to the well-being and preservation of human life on this planet. In a Christian ethical system, norms play a significant role because God has revealed His will to us in His moral law and in the life of Jesus. We will discuss in the next lesson how those norms and principles are to be identified through the study of the Bible. The conflict among norms, discussed above, appears to be real and difficult to solve. When confronted by such a dilemma, perhaps the best solution would be to ask for divine guidance and wisdom and then to proceed to choose what is best for others. On the question of how to identify what is best for others, a hierarchy of ethical principles like the one discussed above could be helpful. But in the final analysis, the decisive element is one’s personal relationship with the very source of morality, God Himself, and a solid knowledge of the Scriptures. He is always willing to grant us forgiveness for our shortcomings in a world of sin.

“Christian Moral Reasoning”

[From New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, by O. M. T. O’Donovan, edited by David J. Atkinson, David H. Field, Arthur F. Holmes, and Oliver O’Donovan (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), pp. 122-127. Copyright © 1995 Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515.]

Christian moral reasoning involves the exercise of two kinds of thought together: 1. reflection; and 2. deliberation. Reflection is thought about something; when we reflect, we ask ‘What is the truth?’ Deliberation is thought towards action; when we deliberate, we ask ‘What are we to do?’ The metaphors contained in the two words illustrate the difference: reflection is ‘turning back’ on something; deliberation is ‘weighing up’ alternative courses of action.

An alternative pair of terms, derived from Aristotle, is often used to make a similar distinction: ‘theoretical reason’ and ‘practical reason’. But if we describe reflection as ‘theoretical’ as opposed to ‘practical’, we may obscure the point that moral reasoning, too, has a stake in reflection on reality. Practical reasoning, or deliberation, depends upon a reflective grasp of some truth. We must, of course, distinguish moral reasoning from purely theoretical disciplines of thought which involve only thinking-about, and especially from theoretical disciplines which involve thought about human action: e.g. history, or the behavioural sciences. For it is possible to think about human action without projecting it. Not until what was, or is, or will be done becomes a factor in our thinking towards what is to be done, are we engaged in moral reasoning. Nevertheless, though reflection unharnessed to deliberation is not moral reasoning, deliberation cannot happen at all without reflection. Thinking—towards always supposes some thinking—about. We can, precipitately, act without thinking. But we cannot think towards acting without some propositional or ‘theoretical’ elements in our thought.

There is one important theological account of moral responsibility which apparently denies this linking of deliberation and reflection. Karl Barth argued that moral knowledge is different from factual knowledge in that it is ‘unconditioned’, i.e. we are not at an observer’s distance from it but immediately challenged by it. Because we are touched by the good immediately, it is a ‘concrete individual command’ to us, not a general rule waiting to be filled with content. It tells us, ‘Do this and do not do that‘ (Ethics, pp. 64-78). Barth suspected that the space allowed for discursive thought, reflection on the one hand and deliberation on the other, was a way of trying to ‘master’ ethical knowledge, to make it a ‘conditioned’ truth over which we might have a scientist’s distance.

His primary concern, an entirely fitting one, was to guard against the idea that the exercise of the will in choosing between alternatives is its own justification. Decision can be moral only as it answers to the reality that confronts us, and supremely to the unconditioned reality of God’s command. That point is safeguarded by insisting that deliberation cannot stand on its own, as though the acting subject were unconditioned. It must follow from reflection on reality that does not lie within the subject’s control.

But what is that reality? Solely the commanding God who meets us, argued Barth; while our account intends to allow created reality, provided it is real and not the distorted construction of sinful imagination, to command our reflection and direct our deliberation. Here there is a difference of theological emphasis, centring on the question of creation. Nevertheless, the command of God, for Barth, is one and the same with God’s promise. It does not only tell us what to do and not to do, but it tells us about ourselves, that we are created as mankind, reconciled in Christ and redeemed. It gives us knowledge of ourselves which is part and parcel with our knowledge of what we must do. In judging what to do we must, said Barth, ‘guard against caprice . . . by seeking to grasp and structure the concept of man in terms of the Word of God directed to man’ (Ethics, p. 119). There is, then, a created reality, the structure of human existence, which determines our knowledge of what God, creator, revealer and commander, requires of us here and now. If that is not saying precisely the same as has been said by speaking of moral reflection and deliberation, it is saying something parallel to it.

  1. ReflectionReflection, if it is to provide a ground for deliberation, must describe the elements of teleological order which make deliberation intelligible and necessary. ‘Teleology’ means the rational account of purpose. But purpose is a notion with two poles, a subjective and an objective. On the one hand there are the purposes of the agent’s mind which, in its aspects as ‘will’, directs our action; on the other, there are the purposes implicit in the world which is so ordered as to make our active purposing intelligible. Teleology traces the correspondence between the purposes we form and the purposedness of reality.But not every feature of reality evokes intelligible purposes. Most of the information in a scientific textbook, for example, engages us only at the level of disciplined curiosity; and, indeed, science as an intellectual endeavour abstracts systematically from teleology. Yet we need to see the teleological order in the world if it is to appear to us a place that we can act into. That is why moral deliberation cannot begin immediately from the findings of the human sciences. Those findings, to be a useful part of moral reasoning, must first be integrated into an understanding of reality which can ground deliberative freedom; and that requires the teleological insight of philosophy or theology.But how can claims to discern objective purposes in the world be tested? Such claims may often reflect cultural prejudices and are usually contentious. Why should we not agree, to take the famous comic example, that if we had not been meant to eat each other, we would not have been made of meat? From a formal point of view there is nothing to choose between that and the claim that we have brains for understanding and hands for manipulation. A powerful philosophical tradition has sought to rule out all such teleological judgments on formal grounds, but this is a mistake. There are true and false ones; and those that are false fail simply because what they discern falls short of what is there to be discerned.Christian believers maintain that the purposes of God, disclosed by revelation, are the only final measure against which to prove our claims to find purposive order in the world. It is not that God’s purposes sweep our human discernments aside, replacing them with simple bare commands to be obeyed. From our point of view they may sometimes seem to do that, because they challenge our prejudices and perceptions, so that there are times when we must simply hear God’s word and obey, without fully understanding why. But if that were all there was to it, God’s purposes would simply be imposed upon the world; and in that case: he would not be the God who created the world and then redeemed what he had created. God’s purposes interpret the teleological structures of the world, for they uphold it and affirm it, though they also judge it. Moral reflection attends to what is shown us of God’s purposes in creation and redemption, on the one hand, and to the order of the world, in the light of God’s purposes, on the other.In the first place, we reflect upon the history of God’s dealings with the world: in creation, in the coming of Christ and in the promised fulfilment. Each area of moral interest must be viewed in the light of the whole of this history. For example, marriage is not only a gift of creation; it is taken up into the reconciling fellowship of Christ, and is superseded in the eschatological kingdom. Telling the truth is a task entrusted to Adam, in the Genesis story, as he names the animals; it is also a responsibility of redeemed mankind, who has been told the truth about itself in Jesus Christ and is summoned to confess it; and the full disclosure of the truth is promised in God’s final act of judgment. Work is a gift of creation; it is ennobled into mutual service in the fellowship of Christ; it gives place to the sabbath rest of the kingdom. And so on. But this understanding of God’s purposes in salvation-history can be won only through reading the story of Christ and its interpretation by prophets and apostles. Scriptural authority is foundational for Christian ethics, as for all Christian thought, because it is the means through which Christ is made known to us.In the second place, we reflect upon the immanent purposedness of the world itself, as it is shown in the light of revelation: the significance of fellow humanity, the ‘neighbour’ with whom we are destined to various forms of community; the significance of non-human nature, placed under our protection and serving our benefit but with its own dignity before God; the significance of the human body as the mode of personal presence to others, and of the conscience as the place where we become aware of ourselves before God. The knowledge that we gain of the purposes implicit in these structures is theological knowledge and cannot simply be taken as self-evident; yet it may coincide with the fragmentary, but not negligible, moral perceptions which all human beings share. Christian reflection can appreciate these perceptions positively and can learn from them, but without supposing them to be autonomous or self-sufficient. They reflect to us the light that God has shed upon the world through his disclosure of himself, like the moon which reflects the light of the sun.
  2. DeliberationTo say that deliberation is thought towards action is not the same as saying that it is always towards decision. A number of writers in recent years (e.g. James McClendon, 1924–, and Stanley Hauerwas, 1940–) have protested against the idea-christened ‘decisionism’ or ‘quandary ethics’-that moral reasoning is solely a discipline of decision-making, as though nobody had any use for it until some quandary arose that had to be solved. Deliberation is not a form of thinking to which we have only occasional resort when we find ourselves, by accident, caught out with a divided mind and something needing to be done. Thought towards action is not restricted to thought towards some particular act, but includes, more embracingly, the whole of our active existence. Our deliberative agenda is not exhausted by the question, ‘What shall we do next?’ We also ask, ‘How shall we live our lives?’ and ‘What attitudes shall we take to specific areas of practical concern?’The question ‘How shall we live our lives?’ invites an answer in a kind of moral language quite different from the language we use in reporting our decisions, ‘I ought’ or ‘I ought not’. This is the language of the virtues and dispositions, much used in the NT and especially the epistles to sketch a general outline of the quality of Christian life. What is the relation of these two kinds of language? Is a virtue merely a disposition to repeat acts of a certain kind, so that when Paul says, ‘Be kind to one another . . .’ (Eph. 4:32), it is shorthand for the advice that we should first perform one kindly action, then a second, then a third and so on? But that would mean that we could never deliberate about the shape of life as a whole, but only about the next particular thing we have to do. Yet we do, at least, reflect about our own and others’ conduct as a whole, finding general terms for the ways in which we behave ourselves: love; joy, peace, patience . . . , or contrariwise impurity, superst

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