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  • Reverend James Squire

Back Up Those Horses-McConnell’s Situation Ethics

Updated: Feb 9, 2021

There was a letter to the editor in the Philadelphia Inquirer today (September 23) with the title “McConnell’s Situation Ethics”. It says, “Mitch McConnell and his fellow republican senators enforce their strong moral conviction about such a situation.”

Whoa!!!! Back up those horses! I don’t think that there is an ethical system that supports Mitch’s actions even Situation Ethics. What he is doing is not ethical! The only non-ethical system that fits what Mitch has done is the perspective of Friedrich Nietzsche. He embodies the theory of Social Darwinism where “might makes right” or sometimes referred to as the “strongest of the fittest”. Power over others is a central premise in this perspective. The highest value in this system is strength/power and the greatest evil to be weakness.

Before I show why Mitch’s decision does not reflect Situation Ethics, I want to reflect briefly on a concern about the moral dimensions of our country. Many feel that we are moving to Situation Ethics as a basis for our decision making. Many, particularly in the conservative mindset, want to see more absolutes that are always present no matter what. This view contains actions that are fair and filled with integrity and consistency, what is good for one should be good for all and what was right in one point of time is right in another if no laws have been changed. The more absolutes we have the less concern about “all things being relative”. It would be hard to argue that McConnell’s decision inculcates these absolutes or virtues called “Virtue Ethics". Nietzsche would be proud of the Senator’s perspective but it is not Situation Ethics.

You are right that a situation informs a decision in Situation Ethics, but there is a lot more to that ethic than just that. It came into being in 1966 when Dr. Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopal priest who had to help people make difficult ethical decisions in hospitals in the Washington, DC area. It was never meant to be a public ethic but was conceived to handle difficult situations that were part of the bioethics movement in its infancy. It was meant for individuals’ private decisions.

Fletcher wrote a book titled, Situation Ethics, that had a huge impact during the 60(s). His slim volume was about a half inch thick. It contained dilemmas such as if you are a Christian during the Holocaust and a member of the SS knocks on your door and asks if you are hiding any Jews (and you are), is it OK to say “no”? Is that ethical?

Situation Ethics has other guidelines that a decision must have that are beyond the situation that is forcing a decision. They are as follows: The decision must reflect that “you are acting responsibly in love” which raises the questions “What is the most loving thing to do?” and “What is the most responsible thing to do? The words love and justice should be able to be used interchangeably in your decision; you should be able to indicate that your action “wills the neighbor’s good” which means that your intentions are good and not about your own self- interest. The last criteria is the one that most people think is the whole picture with this ethic when it is just a part of it. That is the Machiavellian notion that the “ends justifies the means’ which is defined as “If the end goal is moral, you can do anything you want to get there.”

Sorry, but the folks making a decision about the next supreme court justice, in my opinion, don’t fit Situation Ethics. They should read some of the work of RBG to see what moral decisions looks like. I wish that one of our absolutes in America was to act on the last words of a dying ethical icon, her “verbal will” as it were. Then they would be sure to be ethical!

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