The more arrogant and self-righteous of theists tend to freely condemn atheists by saying that atheism lends itself to promoting what they call “situational ethics.” Situational ethics, they claim, is a menace to all of civilized society. Defending civilization, they argue, requires treating all atheists with suspicion and contempt – suspicion, because they are without morals; and contempt, because they seek to infect others with their immorality, particularly children.
Though clearly an ideology of hate, it is widely accepted. That, in itself, is not surprising. It is not the first time that a doctrine of hate became a cultural norm.
However, it is particularly interesting to note that these hucksters of hate tend to be among the most skilled practitioners of situational ethics. Rather than advocate moral principles that apply equally to all people, they advocate one set of very rigid principles to others, while applying a different and much less stringent set of moral principles to their own behavior.
Here are a few examples of situational ethics that I have written about in this blog.
(1) Religious “situational ethics” were found among those who condemned an atheist organization that sent a letter of protest to Jeb Bush. The protest concerned a program, called “Just Read, Florida,” which decided to use only one book – a book widely known to be a primer for Christianity. Yet, when a university used a book discussing on Islam as a university-wide reading assignment for college students (adults), these same people went far beyond sending a letter of protest. They filed a lawsuit.
(2) Religious “situational ethics” are found among members of a religion who, if they are in the majority, insist that the majority has the right to dictate all matters of policy and culture; but, if they are in the minority, insist that there are limits to the majority’s right to impose its religion on others. In America, they greet any claim that there are limits to what the members of the majority religion may dictate in terms of policy and culture with cries that this represents a “war on Christianity.” Yet, in Afghanistan, they scoff at the idea that a call for limits on the Muslim government represents any kind of “war on Islam.”
(3) Religious “situational ethics” can be found among those who insist that there is nothing wrong with posting “In God We Trust” in public buildings and a pledge of allegiance to "One Nation Under God." However, they would protest that it would be unjust to even consider a national motto of “We Trust in No God” or a pledge to “One Godless Nation.”
(4) Religious “situational ethics” can be found among those who insist that teaching something other than abstinence-only sex education is anti-Christian. However, they would consider it absurd to suggest that serving pork in the school cafeteria is anti-Jewish or that serving lunch at all during Ramadan is anti-Muslim.
(5) Religious “situational ethics” can be found among those who say that atheists are dangerous people because they practice situational ethics, and any who practice situational ethics cannot be trusted, while they show no signs of even attempting to make sure that they advocate, let alone follow, a systematic moral code that applies to all people equally.
Two Types of Situational Ethics
There are actually two types of situational ethics. One of them does not create any problem, and even religious people freely and openly embrace it. The second type is clearly problematic, and readily rejected even in most non-religious ethical systems.
(1) Rules With Exceptions
The first type – the non-problematic type -- employs moral rules with exceptions. An example of such a rule says, "Do not kill except in self-defense or as punishment for a crime for which the accused has been proved guilty beyond a reasonable doubt or as collateral damage in a just war."
I do not necessarily agree with all of these exceptions. However, the reader only needs to agree (or, at least, understand) one of them to understand how we can have a problem-free exception to a moral rule.
This rule lists a number of exceptions to the prohibition "do not kill." Those prohibitions describe situations under which it is permissible to kill. However, this type of 'situational ethics' is not the type that is seen as a problem. We can still view the whole principle -- the principle that includes the exceptions, as an 'absolute.' The rule that one ought not to kill except under conditions A, B, and C still applies equally to everybody.
(2) Different Rules
The second type – the problematic type – of situational ethics is one that uses different rules for different people. People who practice this form of situational ethics are people who say something like, "the majority religion gets to dictate policy," when they are a member of the majority religion, while saying, “The majority religion must respect the rights of minority religions,” when they are a member of the minority religion.
We could adopt the rule that, "The majority religion must respect the rights of minority religions unless the majority religion is Christian." However, this would be as problematic as a rule that states, "No person shall take the property of another without their consent unless that person is Alonzo Fyfe."
(3) The Difference
The difference between these two types of rules is that the first type does not mention any specific individuals or groups. The second type . . . the problematic type . . . does.
Each of the five examples I gave at the start of this essay are examples in which religious people claim that the rules change depending on the group they are talking about. Where they talk about ‘us’, the religious club to which they belong, they use one set of rules. Where they talk about ‘them’, the religious club to which others belong, they say that a different set of rules applies.
What is first is the fact that we see absolutely no sign on their part that they are struggling to reduce the temptation to adopt ‘situational ethics.’ They claim that it is wrong. They claim that those who reach for situational ethics are deserving of condemnation. However, they do not care enough to avoid it to look at their own words and actions. They do not care whether they are doing the right thing, or whether they are doing things that they, themselves, condemn.
Immanual Kant suggested a moral test whereby one is to ‘act only on those principles that one can will to be a universal law.’ This is a moral test that the illegitimate form of situational ethics cannot pass.
For example, let us look at the case of ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance.
The claim from those who practice religious ‘situational ethics’ is that it is perfectly permissible to have this as a part of the Pledge, and to have ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto. Yet, they would not consider allowing ‘One Godless Nation’ or ‘We Trust in No God.’
This is hypocrisy.
The claim is that removing mention of God in these slogans asserts atheism and is anti-Christian. Yet, if this is true that if we talk about a family without mentioning its car, then it must necessarily have no car. The motto, "one nation under God" is related to "one godless nation" in the same way that “a family with a car” is related to “a carless family.” The claim that, “The family went to the park yesterday,” which does not mention whether the family has a car or not, entails that (proves that; as in ‘could only be true if’) the family does not have a car is a flat-out lie.
In the same way, saying that a pledge or national motto that does not mention God entails atheism is also a lie. Yet, apparently, only non-Christians are prohibited from lying. Christians can lie whenever they want, if the lie is a useful way to gain wealth (contributions and donations), power (votes), and to promote a general hatred of others.
Somebody who prefers truth to lies will recognize that if we say nothing about a family’s car, that this is consistent with both claims. It is consistent with the beliefs of those who think that the family has a car, and consistent with the beliefs of those who think the family is carless. On the issue of “under God”, the same is true of the government’s silence on the issue. Silence is the only option that does not side with the theists against the atheists, or side with the atheists against the theists.
It is the only option that can pass the test of acting on a principle that one can will to be a universal law. It is the only option that a person who hates ‘situational ethics’ can endorse. Those who endorse one of the two alternatives (e.g., “one nation under God” or “one Godless nation”) cannot, in fact, be the opponent of situational ethics he claims to be.