Most of us know darn well that we have to make some tough decisions sometimes. Do we lie to save someone’s pride? Do we give the bum some money? Do we take just a tiny bit more than our share when no one is looking? Do we vote in ways that make OUR lives easier, but other lives much, much harder?
Back in 1966, Joseph Fletcher wrote a book called Situation Ethics. He wrote that the highest moral act in a given situation is based on love for everyone involved. Okay, it WAS the 60s, and yes, it sounds flaky, but it’s not. His use of the word love most closely approximates the definition of the Greek word, agape, which means selfless concern and compassion for all humankind.
The basic question is this: Given all that I know about moral rules, and given the unique demands of this situation, what is the most selfless, compassionate, loving thing to do? Fletcher believed that there was a loving action available in every situation. He rejected both legalistic approaches, rooted in law and tradition and lawlessness (antinomianism), which may offer freedom and creativity, but has no foundation or basis for justifying one’s actions. He wrote, “Our obligation is relative to the situation; but obligation in the situation is absolute.”
Fletcher noted that moralistic or legalistic people comfort themselves by “playing by the rules,” paying attention to the finest details of the letter of the law while hypocritically pursuing their own interests or ignoring the bigger picture—similar to Kant’s doing one’s duty for the appearance of it. You all know you can obey rules and laws that can lead to terrible, cruel outcomes. Fletcher insisted that we are smart enough to include the particulars of any situation. Authentic morality will sometimes demand that we break the rules, in the name of the only universal law—the law of love.
This may sound mushy–an easy way out. Au contraire, dear reader. Here’s what you need to do to be moral: explain how your action was the truest, most moral, and most loving action available, regardless of the rules, or our own needs or desires. This explanation will likely be a modern-day hybrid of Mill, Kant, and Aristotle (proudly featured in earlier blogs). Rather than let you off the hook, the situation ethics orientation may be the most demanding of all.
And then, there’s John Rawls to consider.
John Rawls, (1921-2002), proposed a method that free and rational persons could use to establish a just society. His ideas provide another way of thinking about Kant’s categorical imperative. What Rawls proposed we consider our laws and social customs from behind a veil of ignorance–in other words–we imagine ourselves absolutely ignorant of our own race, gender, age, disability, intelligence, strength, national origins and so on.
Rawls imagined that if free and rational people could be temporarily separated from all the attributes that made them unique, and see the world from behind this “veil of ignorance,” they would create a just society. Think about it. If you didn’t know your sex, race, financial status, size, sexual orientation, family situation, talents, and so on, and you were asked to make rules about how people should treat each other and get along, you would have no motives other than fairness for all.
Of course, it’s not possible to see the world through the veil of ignorance. However, the image provides another way to try and remove our self-interests in the pursuit of a just society.
Absolutes are hard to define, and even at their best, absolute moral rules are messier and more complicated than their definitions might suggest. Rigid adherence to set of “true all the time, true no matter what” kinds of rules can lead to questionable stances of moral superiority or narrow-mindedness.
Although it might be nice if we were all perfectly and completely humble, such is not the case. When do you suffer from moral superiority syndrome? Which groups get your secret or overt scorn? Smokers? Health fanatics? Welfare queens? The filthy rich? Republicans, Democrats, environmentalists, ranchers? Of course, Dr. Bossypants is not suggesting that you must be equally accepting of everyone in the world. However, she is suggesting that you be aware of your occasional lapses of intolerance, and she urges you to get out there, using your best moral compass to lead us onward. As Michelle Obama said, “When they go low, we go high.” It is definitely the narrower path, but the views are spectacular.