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  • Reverend James Squire

The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical




“You can’t be what you can’t see.” This is part of my wheelhouse of expressions now. When I taught ethics, I always saw all my students as being at the college level which is why I taught them a college course. My secret would sometimes be in jeopardy as a current student would say that their college aged sibling was taking an Ethics course at a top tier school and they were studying the same thing that we were. In fact, they would say, “We are doing more!”


They loved the ideas and language of ethics that made a difference in their lives. They said that they could impress a date or parent with them because they were not part of ordinary verbiage. One of my outstanding student athletes who captained his team for two years in college, loved to drop the words when interviewed by sports writers who didn’t have a full awareness of what a student athlete could learn. Their hands down favorite was the phrase we studied called “the teleological suspension of the ethical.” They loved the way that it sounded. They loved the way that they knew what it meant when asked questions about its meaning. They knew how they could apply it to their lives.


That phrase should be a headline in our news sources now for it speaks to the ethical dimension of the war in Ukraine. The recent events discovering the war crimes of torture and killing of civilians with their hands tied behind their backs and a shot to the head in execution style has caused an international response of horror. Women and children were raped before being put to death. The Russians have indicated that all of this has been staged adding great insult to the injury in the hearts and souls of the Ukrainian people.


This discovery of the most egregious war crimes means that the whole issue of ethics and the war have been elevated to a level that may call for a different ethical framework. It may call for the teleological suspension of the ethical. The seemingly complex title of a new approach is paradoxically simple to explain.


The expression means that telos (beneficence or the greatest good for the greatest number) is in conflict with standard ethical practices with promised commitments. Hence, what is normally seen as good must be suspended because of an extreme situation. An example would be an no holds barred fight which occurs when there are no rules because all the rules have been broken. Another would be the way that we suspended certain surgeries and research to deal with the extreme situation brought on by the pandemic. Prior to the pandemic we could not imagine suspending certain research or surgeries. It had us take a new ethical look at who gets treated and who doesn’t. Extreme occurrences require an ethical framework to respond. Another variation on this theme of suspending the ethical is the Machiavelli Notion of “the ends justify the means.”


Here is the situation and question before us. All of our strategy in thwarting Putin is based in a commitment not to do anything to have him use nuclear weapons leading to World War III. Do we really think that someone who would advocate torture, rape, and death would not use nuclear weapons if he felt that he would be tried and convicted of war crimes? What would we do if he did not have access to a nuclear arsenal? Have we forgotten that post Holocaust maxim where the world said, “Never again!”? The world did not say, “Never again if….” The Ukrainian people have been fighting a war for all other countries including us who espouse peace. Is that an ethical reality that we want to hold as our standard? I believe that when Putin feels cornered by war crimes that it will cause an extreme reaction that will occur even if we continue to take a position of non-involvement. This is an extreme situation that requires a different ethical response. But first that ethical question must be raised, “Will NATO and our lack of involvement stop him from the thing that we fear the most, a nuclear escalation?


One of the things that people forget about the narcissist personality such is that Putin and Trump are mirroring. Narcissistic mirroring is seen when like minded people only have respect for those of a similar nature. That is why Trump and Putin and Trump and the North Korean leader got along so well. They saw this brutal inhumane treatment of others as a shared (mirrored) characteristic. Mirroring guarantees one important aspect that guides actions and attitudes in the narcissistic personality. For Trump, it will always be Trump first, the nation second. Even though Putin is expressing his love of Russia by his actions, it will always be Putin first and the Russian nation second. Remember his question, “Why should there be a world if there is no Russia? What he was really saying was why should there be a world without Putin in power. That is what will inform his decision making.


We sit on the ethical sideline with a fantasy that Putin will finally speak the truth. We have our own model that should inform our ethical decision making. When Trump was not convicted of either impeachment, people said that this will change him. It didn’t. Let’s learn from that lesson and treat Putin accordingly before one more Ukrainian is left dying with hands tied behind his back with a bullet in his head and one more woman or child is raped and killed.


The teleological suspension of the ethical sounds impressive. Its call to action is even more impressive when dealing with extremes of disease and behavior. “You can’t be what you can’t see.” We need a change in vision.


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