Friday, August 11, 2006

Situational ethics vs Moral Absolutism


Philosophers have always debated between moral absolutism and relativism. Moral or ethical proposition could be judged under either assumptions; one that there are absolute standards against which moral question can be judge (Moral Absolutism), or one that standards are relative to social, cultural, historical and personal references. On the other hand, I believe that focusing on the discussion between moral relativism and absolutism is pointless. I believe that if there is absolute standards in the universe, this standards cannot be understood or revealed to any individual due to lack of information. Then, the best approach to this dilemma is to use situational ethics to judge our ethical decisions.


In philosophy, moral relativism takes the position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect absolute and universal moral truths but instead are relative to social, cultural, historical or personal references, and that there is no single standard by which to assess an ethical proposition's truth. Relativistic positions often see moral values as applicable only within certain cultural boundaries or the context of individual preferences. – Taken from Wikipedia

Moral absolutism is the position that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act. According to moral absolutists, morals are inherent in the laws of the universe, the nature of humanity, or some other fundamental source. Moral absolutists regard actions as inherently or inarguably moral or immoral. – Taken from Wikipedia

Situational ethics (also known as Situationism) refers to a particular view of ethics that states: the morality of an act is a function of the state of the system at the time it is performed. This is frequently confused with moral relativism, which states that there is no universal moral truth, that there are only beliefs and perspectives, none more valid than another. Situational ethics by itself does not say whether there are universal truths or not; it only says that the state of the system at the time of an act must be included in consideration of the act. – Taken from Wikipedia


Moral Relativism and absolutism are opposite sides of an argument about the existence (or not) of objective truth. Critics of this view assert that this argument places the burden of proof on relativism, by treating it as a theory that makes the positive existential claim "it is objectively true that there are no objective truths" as opposed to simply being the necessary consequence of a refusal to accept the absolutist's claim "there are objective truths." – Taken from Wikipedia

Then it is easier to assume that moral absolutism is correct for my analysis, but the situational ethics approach would work for both assumptions. In case moral absolutism is correct we can approach any ethical dilemma in two ways: (a) Assuming that we know what is the objective truth, or (b) Assuming that we don’t know. Here’s is my first decision on this matter. I believe that assuming that we know what is the objective truth (universal truth) is somehow misleading. Our knowledge is based on our social, cultural, historical and personal education. Then, by assuming that we know what is the universal “good”, we are assuming that we have “universal knowledge”. I believe that even if you are a very thoughtful individual or a well acclaim philosopher, it is hard to assure that you have “universal knowledge”. For example, even Aristotle that was ahead of his time and universally proclaim as a one of the greatest philosophers of all times, didn’t have “universal knowledge”. Aristotle defends the existing good customs of his time. Although he argues for many values which many of today's philosophers agree with, the things he values include slavery, sexism and rule by a small leisure class, all of which seem unethical according to today's standards (Taken from Wikipedia).

I believe that it is more sensible to assume that you don’t know the universal truth. Then it is very important to collect as much information before making any decision. We need to analyze character and situation before taking an ethical decision. It is not just about the character (moral absolutism) or situation (moral relativism). Assuming that moral absolute truth exists and it is impossible to decipher, we need as much information as possible to make the right decision.

Even some individuals that consider themselves absolutes have navigated this dilemma with other approaches that seem similar to Situational Ethics. For example, many Christians regard Christian theology as teaching a hierarchy of moral absolutes — a view called graded absolutism. Here, if there is a conflict between two absolutes, the duty to obey the higher one exempts one from the duty to the lower one (Taken from Wikipedia). Then I could also say that Moral absolutists that judge slavery, war, dictatorship, the death penalty, or childhood abuse to be absolutely and inarguably immoral regardless of the beliefs and goals of a culture that engages in these practices (Taken from Wikipedia), could use graded absolutism to make a decision in favor of such immoral proposition (i.e. a “good” dictatorship). By using graded absolutism they avoided using situational ethics.


I believe that United States have used this situational ethics practice to build its judicial system. From my understanding the basis of any political science resides on the understanding of moral and ethics. As Aristotle implied with its work, the philosophy of human affairs (political or social science) is the second half of his ethics treatises. Aristotle's Ethics states that the good of the individual is subordinate to the good of the city-state, or polis (Taken from Wikipedia).

United States have understood the importance of having a law that evolves with time (due to Legal Realism). A law that is sensible to social, cultural, historical and personal references and it is not confined to a static view given by an individual or group. We need to avoid the danger of Legal Realism. Legal realism is a family of theories about the nature of law developed in the first half of the 20th century in the United States (American Legal Realism) and Scandinavia (Scandinavian Legal Realism). The essential tenet of legal realism is that all law is made by human beings and, thus, is subject to human foibles, frailties and imperfections (Taken from Wikipedia). For this reason we need to allow the law to correct itself with time, to allow the law to evolve.

It has become quite common today to identify Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., as the main precursor of American Legal Realism. No single set of beliefs was shared by all legal realists, but many of the realists shared one or more of the following ideas (Taken from Wikipedia):

· Belief in the indeterminacy of law. Many of the legal realists believed that the law in the books (statutes, cases, etc.) did not determine the results of legal disputes. (Taken from Wikipedia).

· Belief in the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to law. (Taken from Wikipedia).

· Belief in legal instrumentalism, the view that the law should be used as a tool to achieve social purposes and to balance competing societal interests (Taken from Wikipedia).

If you believe on Legal Realism, there is a need to create the tools to allow the law to change. I view the United States (US) judicial system as one that gives the tools to the people to allow the law to evolve. Other countries do change their laws (i.e. constitutions) but lack the tools to make these changes more dynamic. The fact that the US judicial system have different levels (statutes, prescedemts, and ethical common norms) allows the society to give a dynamic approach to judging between good and bad. If we don’t know the universal truth the best way to approach a decision is being able to collect as much information at that time. By fomenting a discussion of new points of view and allowing the law to take into account those new perspectives, the US judicial system avoids judging on static laws that do not reflect today’s reality.


Now if we have understood that human foibles, frailties and imperfections have also created religions, we should take the same approach of law with religion. Create the tools to allow religion to evolve. Again, most religions do change with time but they lack the tools to make these changes more dynamic.