BITE-SIZE PHILOSOPHY (69) – What is situation ethics?

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– Rev José Mario O Mandía

What happens when we ignore the object of the act (finis operis)? If we ignore the morality of the act itself, then we will have to rely only on our good intention (Bite-Size Philosophy 66) or on the circumstances to judge the moral value of our act. By relying only on these two elements, we can fall into what is called  “situation ethics,” or to “consequentialism,” or to “proportionalism.” 

Situation ethics teaches that the situation or circumstances around the act determines whether the act is good or evil. It is thus also called “circumstantial ethics.”

Imagine two scenes. The first one happens on a Friday night. John, knowing that he will be driving, does not drink and gets home safely. The other scene happens next day, Saturday. John is at home. He is not planning to go anywhere. So he thinks there is no problem if he gets drunk. John’s attitude exemplifies situation ethics. He ignores the fact that the act of getting drunk in itself is already bad, even if he doesn’t seem to harm anybody (in fact he harms himself).

Consequentialism teaches that moral decisions should be made based on what will produce the best consequences (or the least evil consequence). If the foreseen consequences are evil, then the action ought to be avoided; but if it brings about good effects, the act can be done even if the act itself is evil.

Take the case of a young man and his girlfriend who discover that she is pregnant. They know that they have little money with which to support a child, but on top of that, they have discovered through prenatal tests that the child will be severely handicapped. So they decide to terminate the pregnancy in order to avoid unpleasant and burdensome consequences and to spare the child a life of pain.

Those who support consequentialism teach that the couple’s decision is morally justified because the consequence is good. They fail, however, to consider that the act of taking away the life of an innocent baby is immoral.

Consequentialists believe that if one intends to do good (note the emphasis on “good intention”), it doesn’t matter what means he uses.   That is why it is also called the “Ethics of Intention.” Passing an examination is a good thing, so if I cheat in order to pass the examination, I am doing a good thing.

Another problem with consequentialism is that it tends to look only at the good that one can get for oneself, but ignores the good of others or of society at large. This way of thinking is espoused by Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) who, in his work The Prince, encouraged immoral behavior such as dishonesty and murder. He says men are evil, so they can only be ruled in a ruthless way: “since it is difficult for a ruler to be both feared and loved, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

Proportionalism is the ethical theory which teaches that the goodness or evil of an action should be determined by comparing the choices based on the proportion of good and bad. Whatever seems to be greater good or lesser evil determines what one ought to do. It doesn’t matter if the act itself is “bad.”

The problem that this poses is how one is to measure that proportion, since usually many goods are at stake, and different people weigh different things in different ways. The absence of an objective reference point makes moral decision arbitrary.

All of the three ethical theories described above make it difficult for a person to defend his basic human rights (cf Bite-Size Philosophy 60 and 61) because all three lack an objective and unchanging basis for moral judgment.