From: John W Burgeson (email@example.com)
Date: Mon Oct 21 2002 - 21:43:42 EDT
>>AT: What puzzles me here is how does one not fall into situation ethics
if what is very likely to be a wrong can be mitigated by other factors?In
your view, are there absolute wrongs? For example, the taking of an
obviously innocent life (at whatever point where it would be reasonable
to conclude that the entity is a human life)? >>
Situation ethics is not necessarily an evil. Let me expand on that.
There are three types of ethical foundations:
1. Deontological. Follow the rules
2. Consequential. Strive for the best outcomes
3. Virtue. Look for the action which best defines who you are -- your
An example. How much should I give of my income to my church and other
1. Deontological. The rules says 10% and that's what I'll do. I will
calculate the 10% to give the most favorable outcome (ie the least
2. Consequential. The church really needs a new roof. I'll fund it.
3. Virtue. I give in a way that if someone finds out how much I will have
no reason to be embarrassed.
In practice, of course, all three ways often work together.
Another example. It is 1937 and the gestapo is at your door. In your
basement are hiding your Jewish neighbors. The gestapo asks "Are there
any Jews in your house?"
1. The rule is, don't lie. You answer "yes."
2. You answer "no" to try to achieve the best outcome for those in the
3. You answer "no," because that's how you view yourself.
I reread Fletcher's book every few years. It makes a lot of sense.
Are there "absolute" wrongs? I try to stay away from the words "always"
and "never." But I can think of some wrongs for which I can identify
nothing that would make them less than absolute. Child abuse involving
deliberate torture comes to mind.
You conclude by saying: "For example, the taking of an obviously innocent
life (at whatever point where it would be reasonable to conclude that the
entity is a human life)? "
This cannot be an absolute, for I can specify a situation where taking
the innocent life is the ethical and moral thing to do. There are many
examples of this in the literature. Try this one.
You stand at a railway switch. Just ahead of you on the right track is a
new born lovely baby girl. Just ahead of you on the left track are twenty
people, including your loved ones, President Bush, Mother Teresa, Billy
Graham, several small children, etc. You get the drift.
The switch is set left as the runaway train approaches. You can hit a
button and send it to the right. You can stand by and see 20 people
killed, or you can push a button and be responsible for one (innocent)
I do not ask you what you would do -- I do not know that I would push the
button -- or not. I offer the example only as an illustration that the
"taking of an innocent life" is not all that cut and dried.
Some people see a difference between inaction (stand by) and action (push
the button). It is easy to change the example (set the switch to the
right initially) or make it so you MUST set the switch one way or
Have you looked at the six testimonies on my web site yet? I'd be
interested in your comments.
John Burgeson (Burgy)
(an eclectic site about science/theology, quantum mechanics,
ethics, baseball, humor, cars, philosophy, etc.)
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