Situational Ethics

By Fred Smith

Remember the old philosophical exercise that had four people in the boat and only three life jackets? The students were charged with deciding who would stay behind. We were led by academicians to consider the fact that there are no absolute values, but situations that create relative truths.

I'm currently in conversation with Dr. Laura Nash who is a former professor of ethics at Harvard. She is writing a book with the sociologist Peter Berger on Management and the Christian experience. She is doing it as a research project. It has given me an opportunity to ask her a few questions about ethics. When I asked her what the reason was for situational ethics she said that traditional ethics were considered too rigid. Situational ethics gives a floating base to a more flexible code of ethics and behavior. To me, it means we are substituting man's law for God's law.

I personally have never felt that God's law was inflexible. I see Scripture as having two types of principles: the rigid for which I will use the metaphor of an I-beam, and the flexible that is the steel cable. There are times in a building when you want the flexibility of a cable. The cable has integrity with flexibility. I see the Golden Rule as being one of the flexible principles of Scripture. Just because I like vanilla ice cream doesn't mean that I insist that everybody else eat vanilla ice cream as the basis of doing for others what I would want them to do for me.

I believe it was Samuel Johnson who said if a man comes to your house for dinner and espouses the belief of relative truth you should count the silverware before he leaves.

One of the most important details before a symphony orchestra performance is the tuning process. The concertmaster stands and calls for an A440 to which they all tune. Under situational ethics it seems it would be better just to tell people that they know best how they like their instrument to sound and so tune it according to their own pleasure. For harmony there must be a fixed A440.

I know I am oversimplifying a large body of knowledge called situational ethics, but to me it simply means "in my case I will make an exception." Situational ethics broadens the playing field to make winning easier. The ultimate test of our ethics is the exceptions we make, those "small" inconsequential ones we let build into habit. They are no longer noticed. Then there is the occasional larger one that we rationalize. These become "our price" for which we sell a piece of our soul. The large exceptions become the weight limit on our bridge — the ultimate test of our ethics.

I asked Dr. Nash if she thought Harvard, or any other school of higher education, could be successful in teaching ethics. She doubted it, for ethics are spiritually based, not intellectually based. Corporate marauders, wall street pirates and governmental piranhas with their intelligence could make A+ in any academic course of ethics, but still flunk the practicum. It's the great American myth of education that people will do as well as they know. It is not head knowledge, but a grounded set of values that leads to an ethical life.

The heat of daily living refines the character and demonstrates ethics ---- or their absence.