Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide???
Yesterday's insurgency at the U.S. Capitol demonstrates why situational ethics is killing America. No civilized society would condone the storming of the U.S. Capitol. How do we explain it? A small group of people thought it was the right thing to do. Following numerous challenges to the 2020 election results, President Trump stoked the fires of dissent. To the insurgents, in that situation, in that moment, storming the Capitol was justified. It's situational ethics at its worse. A strong set of ethics commands us that we should follow certain moral rules such as don't lie, steal, murder, and so on. The moral rule violated yesterday was: Don't destroy others' property; Don't overrun authority...and more.
Situational Ethics was developed by Joseph Fletcher. The theory holds that: Decision making should be based on circumstances of a particular situation, and fixed law should never include in it. Literally, it is “A system of ethics that evaluates acts in light of their situational context rather than by the application of moral absolutes.”
Situational ethics dictate that the moral path be decided by the context of the issue at hand, rather than have a textbook judgment for everything. Our ethics stem from what we call ‘our conscience.’ This is all fine and good, and conscience has a big role to play in ethical decision-making. However, if everything was left to one’s ‘inner voice’ then I might believe lying is good in one situation and you might believe lying is never right. What’s good (i.e., right) for me is not necessarily good (right) for you to do.
People who act unethically generally provide rationalizations for their behavior. Underlying these explanations is the concept of situational ethics where decisions are made in a subjective manner and based on the underlying circumstances. The problem here is the decision-maker lacks an ethical foundation to tell right from wrong and allows each situation to detect right and wrong rather than rely on ethical norms such as honesty and integrity. A person of integrity would never engage in pay to play schemes as was done in the so-called ‘Varsity Blues’ admissions scandal where rich and connected people paid (i.e., bribed) a broker to get their kid admitted to the college of their choice.
Another problem with situational ethics is can spawn activities known as the cancel culture. I have previously blogged about this issue. What happens in the cancel culture is those offended by the comments of another party become denounced online by those who object to the behavior. It’s a form of social and cultural boycott driven by ‘groupthink’ meaning the intolerance of others with a point of view that diverges from group norms.
A recent example of the cancel culture is a Virginia student who made racial comments (the “n” word) in a Snapchat video in 2016 nd has now had her admission to college rescinded after the video was posted online by another student offended by those comments. Clearly, the comments were wrong – even racist -- but who among us hasn’t done or said something in our youth we now regret? Mercy and forgiveness are the ethical concepts underlying situations like this one. Ethically, the test is whether it was ‘just treatment.’ If it was, then every admission should be rescinded when anyone makes offensive comments online. If we did that, it could be no one would go to college.
Another example of situational ethics, as I have blogged about before, is the rationalization given as to why it’s acceptable for young kids to cheat on online tests during the pandemic. Some say it is because it’s hard enough to learn material with virtual education, and those circumstances dictate right and wrong. Moreover, some will say it’s acceptable to cheat because the teacher really doesn’t teach. How else will these kids get by if not for cheating?
Another rationalization is to say the decision was a one-off affair. It only happened this one time and then I’ll go back to being ethical. The problem here is the so-called ethical slippery slope phenomenon. In other words, once you cheat in one area, especially if you get away with it, you are more likely to cheat again and it becomes an unhealthy pattern of behavior.
Situational ethics is killing America. It is one of the causes we can no longer agree on right and wrong. Traditional philosophies such as Utilitarianism, where the consequences of each act are considered before deciding, are not consistently evaluated to determine right and wrong.
Imagine how dangerous a situational ethic can be. In the recent shootings of black teenagers, some cops might rationalize it by saying they were black and can’t be trusted or they were wearing a hoodie and, therefore, scary. Another cop might have exercised restraint and realized such actions are always wrong – based on Kant’s concept of the categorical imperative – regardless of the situation. Right and wrong is whether the person who was stopped is the subject of a manhunt for their crimes or a material witness.
Imagine if, after the shootings, hooligans trash some stores, burn some cars, throw things at cops. They and others may say it’s acceptable because of the wrongful shootings and/or no convictions for the offending cops. Others may say it’s always wrong to engage in such actions regardless of the circumstances.
One of the phrases used today to explain one’s actions or words is to tell someone ‘your truth.’ This means what is true to you or true for you is based on your own experience and understanding. That’s a subjective truth. It is valid and meaningful but only exists for that person or for people who share that experience or belief. I think it is the underlying cause of situational ethics, especially the cancel culture. We live in a diverse society where each person’s truth may be different. Applying the concept to everyone means there could be dozens of truth for one act. How will we ever come to agreement on right or wrong unless we follow traditional moral concept?
Ethics in America is at an all-time low. We have lost our moral way. I blame situational ethics for much of it, although the primary driver is the loss of moral education, parental influence, a lack of role models in society, and the feeling that others who have lied and cheated get away with it. That’s why we must pivot from a no consequences society to holding people accountable for their actions but do so in a rightful way.
In the spirit of the New Year, I am giving away signed copies of my book to the first ten people who contact me at: email@example.com and provide a mailing address. May your 2021 be better than 2020. Let's face it, it can't be worse!
Posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 7, 2021. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.