Friday, May 16, 2008

"Situation Ethics"

I first heard about “situation ethics” in the Sixties. The concept has bothered me for forty years.

“Situation ethics” asserts that right and wrong behavior are defined, not by a set of overarching principles or beliefs, but by whatever’s required by the specific situation.

Okay, so that’s different from “Old School” morality. Let’s see how it works.

Since September 11th, there’s been a lot of talk about torture. The overarching principle would be, “We don’t torture” The words “no matter what” are understood. “Situation ethics” suggests that the situation itself will determine whether or not we torture.


“A major catastrophe in which thousands of people will be killed can be averted if we torture the terrorist for information that could stop the catastrophe from taking place.”

Thousands in jeopardy? “Situation ethics” says, “Torture away.” This assumes, of course, that the torturing will result in averting the catastrophe, a premise that would appear to be problematic in an era of death-craving fanatics.

If a terrorist’s willing to die for their beliefs, they might not be put off by a little torturing. They might even inject some mischief into the proceedings by divulging totally unhelpful information.

The belief that torturing works may merely be a matter of the torturers’ projecting their own fears onto the people they’re torturing.

“I’ll tell you what. If they tortured me like this, I’d be singin’ like the proverbial canary.”

To more accurately understand the situation, we may just need braver torturers.

There’s also a problem with the “numbers” issue. What exactly is the number of people required to be saved before torturing becomes okay? Thousands? You say, “Go for it.” What about hundreds? How ‘bout sixty-two people? Is it okay to torture to save sixty-two people? What about thirty-seven? Or twelve?

How about one person? Can you torture someone to save one person? If it’s a child? If it’s a guy who’s “this close” to finding the cure for cancer? If it’s a loved one? If it’s you?

“Situation ethics” requires you to make these crazy calculations. There’s a person buried in the ground, and if you torture the person who buried them, you could, maybe, save their lives.

“Who did they bury?”

“Rob Schneider.”

“I never cared for that guy.”

Is this really how we want to base our decisions? I’m not saying you torture the burier. I’m saying decisions should not be based on a lack of enthusiasm for lowbrow comedy.

If “situation ethics” were merely concerned with torturing, it wouldn’t be terrible, because torturing doesn’t come up that often in every day life. Unfortunately, “situation ethics” has “jumped the fence.” Look around.


Strategy maven Chris Matthews pronounces: “In the Democratic Party, the candidate runs to the Left in the primary, then tacks to the Center in the General Election.”

I hear that, and my reaction to the candidate is, “Who are you?”

other than a person who’ll say whatever it takes to get elected.

If the candidate’s adjusting their principles to specific situations, how do you know what – if anything – they actually stand for? The standard response to my complaint:

“It’s politics!” The words “you simple-minded moron” are understood.

Two problems:

One: “It’s politics” doesn’t make it right.


Two: It’s not just politics.


“We’re not trading Garvey.”

Rumors fly that beloved Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey is on the trading block. These rumors are immediately refuted by the Dodgers.

“Steve Garvey is family. You don’t trade family. You can take this to the bank: We are not trading Steve Garvey.”

Next day’s headline:

"Garvey Traded"

Wha’ hoppin’?

The Dodgers’ explanation:

“Negotiations were at a very delicate stage. Any indication of our intentions would have seriously damaged our ability to move forward.”

“Situation ethics”:

A lie’s not a lie, if you have a good reason.

Of course, if you’re at all interested in principles, you might want to steer clear of

Show business.

But even in the world of lying to your face and stabbing you in the front, this one gave me incredible whiplash:

Back in the Nineties, the president of NBC flew to Washington to testify on the issue of sex on television. The complaint was there was too much of it. And America, through its elected representatives was deeply concerned.

The president of NBC appeared at the hearing, duly chastened.

“We got the message,” he announced.

What did he do then?

Well, a few weeks later, the president of NBC moved Friends, a blockbuster comedy with sexual hi-jinx at its core, to the eight o’clock time period – seven o’clock Central Time. This time period had previously been branded The Family Viewing Hour, a period set aside for broadcasting television shows suitable for family viewing.

Let’s summarize here:

After proclaiming to Congress that he “got the message” about reducing the amount of sex on television, the president of NBC returned to Hollywood and re-scheduled a sex-driven comedy to The Family Viewing Hour.

And that was acceptable?

No. It wasn’t acceptable.

It was mandatory.

The president of NBC explained that as president, he was obligated to NBC’s shareholders to maximize their profits. He fulfilled that fiduciary obligation by moving a valuable asset – Friends – to a time period where it could make NBC and its shareholders more money.

It just happened to be during The Family Viewing Hour.

A person says one thing in one place with total sincerity, and another thing in another place with total sincerity, and there’s no concern that the two things that were said are exactly the opposite.

What is that?

“Situation ethics.”

If I wanted to summarize “situation ethics” in two sentences, I’d have quoted a famous line said to have been delivered by some studio boss, who was furious at one of his writers. Ranting and screaming, the studio boss decrees:

“That son-of-a-bitch is banned from this lot! I never want to see him back here, until we need him!”

I’ve never known how to proceed in the world of “situation ethics”. All I can do is to look on in amazement.

And write about it.

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