“Many people seem to think that a universal conception of morality requires that we find moral principles that admit of no exceptions. If, for instance, it is truly wrong to lie, it must always be wrong to lie— and if one can find a single exception, any notion of moral truth must be abandoned. But the existence of moral truth— that is, the connection between how we think and behave and our well-being— does not require that we define morality in terms of unvarying moral precepts. Morality could be a lot like chess: there are surely principles that generally apply, but they might admit of important exceptions. If you want to play good chess, a principle like ‘Don’t lose your Queen’ is almost always worth following. But it admits of exceptions: sometimes sacrificing your Queen is a brilliant thing to do; occasionally, it is the only thing you can do.” —Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape
I’ve never been big on drinking. Nor was I ever tempted to pretend to love drinking when I was in the Army or in college. While not someone who completely abstains, I’ve never understood the appeal of regularly downing liver poison to the point of blackout idiocy. Yet nine months ago, while in Fort Worth visiting a close friend of mine, he invited me to a familiar cocktail bar in the middle of the downtown area and I agreed to go.
Thompson’s Bar, truthfully, was one of my favorite places in Fort Worth due almost solely to its history. Built in 1910, the cocktail joint became a “pharmacy” during the Prohibition era and operated an underground speakeasy that entire time. Today the bar above ground also operates a bar below ground in that same speakeasy, and just like back in the 20s, the owners make you have a password to get in.
My friend and I ultimately decided to take our drinks downstairs to that speakeasy (I believe the password on that day was “Cary Grant”), and once we settled into that familiar dark space lit only by candles on the wall and the red light of the bar, we decided to move on to heavier discussion, which, somehow or other (it’s a bit of a haze), became centered around the subjects of morality and personal ethics.
My proposition was that even though morality is objective¹, situational ethics is at the same time a legitimate stance to take. To this my friend responded, “How can you believe in situational ethics and believe that morality is objective? Those two beliefs don’t seem to go together.”
That hadn’t been the first time I had heard this objection. The assumption is that if morality is objective then— ipso facto— violating those morals can never under any circumstance be okay. But this is a non sequitur. Just because two morals, for instance, have objective value (in that morality is of more value to man than immorality), that does not mean one moral cannot be of more value than another in a given situation. The two morals still have value, but one moral’s value can surpass the value of the other in a particular moment.
An example: Lying and murder are both objectively wrong, and 99.9% of the time one should not entertain doing either. But, to use a very old hypothetical scenario, say you’re a German in the 1940s hiding Jewish children under your house and the SS asks you if you’re hiding Jewish children. Failure to answer will result in your being shot, likely entailing death also for the children you’re hiding (because then there will be no one to take care of them), so you really have only two choices— tell the Germans the truth and be complicit in the murder of Jewish children, or lie to the Germans and save the lives of the Jewish children. Now again, both lying and murder are objectively wrong, but in that situation I think a vast majority of people would conclude that it is better to commit the wrong of lying in order to save the lives of the Jewish children than be honest and cause those lives to end. In that particular situation, the moral wrong of murder outweighs the moral wrong of dishonesty.
But the converse is true of murder in this more modern example: You’re piloting a drone hovering over a house in Yemen. Inside this house are seven suicide bombers... and one child. Intelligence reveals that each one of these suicide bombers plans to hit densely populated locations— two mosques, one market, a military base, a mall, and two restaurants— but the catch is that it isn’t known when. They are meeting in this house to plan their attacks, and it is unlikely that they will ever be together in one space again. Top brass makes it clear that this is likely the only opportunity you will have to prevent all seven of these attacks from happening. But, remember, the child is in the house too. Killing children is never morally right. Children are incapable of committing actions that warrant the taking of human life, thus that element of innocence makes killing children always wrong. But in this situation, if you don’t bomb that house, these seven suicide bombers will likely go on to kill more children (and people in general). So you press the button and kill everyone inside the house, saving hundreds of innocent lives at the expense of one innocent life. In this particular situation, the moral wrong of murdering an innocent is outweighed by the moral wrong of letting seven suicide bombers go free to kill more innocents.
The takeaway is that while certain actions are always wrong, and morality and immorality are exactly what they are and will always be what they are, on rare occasions it is necessary to violate one moral or prioritize some morals over others in order to prevent greater evil from taking place. Put another way, while certain actions may be wrong, some actions are more wrong than others², and that fact doesn’t make these certain actions lose their objective wrongness; it just means that the objective values of various items— while still objective— differ in their amounts of value, in respect to each other, in different situations. In one situation (German/1940s) it is better to lie to save a child from murder, and in another situation (drone pilot/Yemen) it is better to murder a child to save more innocent people.
In regard to situational ethics playing a role in environments where objective standards of virtue are normally upheld, American history provides a wealth of examples:
April 1861, President Lincoln suspends Habeas Corpus in response to confederate militias sabotaging union railroads. This suspension on Lincoln’s part was a direct violation of Article 1 of the Constitution, which required congress— not the president— to suspend Habeas Corpus; and yet if Lincoln had not committed this violation, the United States would ultimately have only been 18 in number³ and slavery would still exist today.
October 1929, the stock market crashes. What follows is the Great Depression. Americans wait in line in the streets for soup, and many begin to live in “shanty towns” made of milk crates and tin. In 1933, President Roosevelt says “Enough” and introduces the New Deal— which was a blatant abuse of Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3 in the Constitution regulating interstate commerce. In fact the Supreme Court struck down several key pieces of the legislation. But ultimately the New Deal caused America to recover and come out of the Great Depression. And not too soon, seeing as how a Second World War was just on the horizon. Today FDR is remembered as one of the greatest presidents who ever lived.
August 1945, President Truman authorizes the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki— killing 250,000 Japanese men, women, and children. There’s no beating around the bush that this was murder. The act was intentional and with the knowledge that innocents would die. While this didn’t violate any constitutional laws, it did call into question how good the “good guys” were nonetheless. But by committing this act, Truman ultimately saved the lives of an estimated 500,000 American soldiers alone (not even counting the untold number of Japanese civilians and soldiers who would have died if an invasion had happened instead of the bombing).
While American values and the Constitution are viewed as sacrosanct by most Americans, as seen above, the occasional violation of American values and constitutional principles in times of unique crisis has— beyond a doubt— saved us and yielded the greater good numerous times. And so it is, I argue, with situational ethics in relation to objective moral truth. The sometimes-necessary bending or violation of objective morality in times of unique crisis does not make objective morality any less relevant 99% of the time.
Now a common criticism is that there will be folks who use “crisis” all the time as an excuse to do as they wish and shirk morals indefinitely. But the fact that some people will inevitably abuse the concept of situational ethics isn’t an argument against its validity, anymore than a small percentage of people cheating the welfare system is an argument against welfare programs. We realize that no matter what systems the human mind may formulate or discover, there will always be those who will find loopholes in those systems to exploit.
Eventually the conversation between my friend and I turned to lighter subjects, but from that moment forward, defending the coexistence of situational ethics and objective morality seemed more important to me than it did before, so I thought I would— at last— put it in writing.
1. I haven’t yet written on why I think morality is objective, and I’m not sure when I will, but in the meantime a great secular case for objective morality can be found in Sam Harris’ book The Moral Landscape.
2. We wouldn’t, after all, consider littering to be on the same level of wrong as bestiality, though both of those things are wrong.
3. The “Confederate States of America” would have numbered 16 if they had seceded, and out of the then-34 states, 18 obviously would have been left in the union at that point.