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Complicated Ethics

In this post I want to complicate (express frustration at) (bemoan) (dunk on) the overly simplistic views of ethics that I call “Freshman Year Ethics.” I will try to avoid big words but as a philosophy student I am literally trained to do the opposite of that.

My three main points: that all ethical decisions are situational, that action and consequence cannot reasonably be separated, and that an ethical decision should be understood as the best possible choice, not the correct one

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Unrelated, but I need a photo so the shareable link looks worth clicking. The sweetest place on earth.

First, that all ethical decisions are situational. Growing up in a very conservative church culture, “situational ethics” was a dirty word. The radio shows I listened to, and the politicians I could understood, bemoaned moral relativism which opposed the Bible. Obama was the chief culprit behind the destruction of American Values and the Traditional Family and The Moral Fiber of This Country, because he doesn’t stand for Absolute Truth. Around then, some lefties wanted situational ethics classes taught in public schools. By teaching young, impressionable students morality as situational, I was told, such ethics classes would lead a whole generation away from Christianity. Don’t you know? Murder is never right! Lying is never right! Sexual immorality is always wrong! Forget about the situation!

What does that miss? A definition of what “murder” is, what “lying” is, or what “sexual immorality” is. The first one: “murder” is an ethically-charged way of saying “killing.” Killing is just a brute fact of the matter, but murder is a claim that a certain killing was morally wrong. Killing someone in a morally wrong way is murder. But when is it morally wrong to kill someone? Always? We seem to believe that self-defense is a good exception. If someone attacks you, and they have the capacity to kill you, and you’ve used all possible non-violent ways to deter them, then sure, kill them. Another exception is accidental killing. The reason we label car accident deaths “vehicular manslaughter” instead of “murder by car” is that the killing was not intentional, so we say that the killer cannot be held morally responsible in the same way as a true murderer. In these cases the brute fact of “I killed them” is true but the ethical claim “I murdered them” is not. Another exception is going to war, which usually involves killing. Over the past thousand years Christians have developed a Just War tradition that gives clarity on when entering a war is justified, and then once in the war, what actions can be justly taken. Maybe the deaths in Just Wars are killings, not murders.

But wait a second, you say. “Going to war” is not one action. Going to war is millions upon millions of actions. Let’s list a few. 1. An eighteen year old drops out of high school to sign up. 2. An enlistment officer uses a certain tone and messaging to convince recruits to join. 3. The generals decide to cut electricity in a city they are invading. 4. One solider uses a civilian as a human shield when fighting breaks out, but that civilian was already directly in the line of fire anyways and so was already highly likely to die. 5. The army decides to bomb a building housing enemy combatants, but only five of the seven people who decided on the bombing were aware that the next-door building housed civilians. 6. Remotely piloted drones hit a doppelganger of the intended target, but interestingly, the intended target happened to also be within striking distance, and he dies too. 7. …

We could keep going. There are millions of actions nested in “going to war,” which is why we cannot answer the question “was War X right or wrong” without massive oversimplification. What we perceive to be one decision often is a large number of decisions held together by our perspective on the situation. We make one choice, but what if there were 15 hidden choices within that choice, some of which were up to us, but others of which were out of our control? How do we account for these unchosen aspects of our choices? For this reason, all ethics is situational ethics, because all ethical decisions are made by people, and people are always in certain situations. All ethical decisions are situational.

(I only addressed murder. Lying is the morally charged way to say “not telling the truth,” which also is okay in some cases. Jokes. Parables. Misspeaking. When Hitler wants your sworn allegiance but you have decided to assassinate him for unrelated ethical reasons. Again, not telling the truth in a morally wrong way is lying. Sexual immorality is just another way of saying “sexual badness,” so that will face the same problem. Yes, you should not practice sexual immorality. But having sex is not itself immoral. Sex, in a morally wrong way, is sexual immorality. The same holds for theft, slavery, arson, libel, etc.)

Second, that actions and consequences cannot be separated. Two big schools of ethical theory are deontology and consequentialism. Simply put, what aspect of our decisions holds its morality? Do we locate the morality of a decision in the action taken, or in the consequences that result from that action? Kant says that lying, stealing, murdering, etc., are wrong not because they make others’ lives worse, but because the actions are wrong in themselves. Even if, somehow, stealing my phone would make me a better person (which honestly may be true), you still should not do it. Even if killing Leopold II of Belgium could have saved ten million Congolese lives, still a no.

On the other side of the debate, consequentialism would say that the consequences matter, not the action taken. If stealing the internet connections of everyone involved in Pizzagate (probably 200 people) could have produced .0001% more joy in the rest of the populations lives (370m people), then even though it would have been 20% less joy for them, we should have done it. 200 x 20 = 4000, but .0001 x 370m = 37,000. Therefore society would have been about 37,000/4000=9.25 times better off with those modems stolen. If numbers like that are unavailable—and they are never available—just think about it generally: we ignore the action itself and focus instead on the consequences.

What if actions and consequences are not so different? What if we stopped peddling that egregious dichotomy and recognized the spectrum between?

There are two ends of the spectrum. On the one end, you have cases that you know with 100% certainty the outcome of your actions. For those cases, the moral analysis of Kant and Mill should be exactly the same, because when a consequence is the necessary outcome of an action, we say that the action is tantamount to the consequence. If I have full certainty that killing Fred will land his children in foster care, I am not just killing Fred, I am putting his children in foster care.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have consequences that are highly uncertain. Could John Calvin have predicted that his concept of vocation would be secularized into profession, the driving force of industrial capitalism? No. He could not have. But it was the consequence of his action.

In between these extremes of total certainty and total uncertainty, we have a million degrees. Did George Bush know the War in Iraq would result in the formation of ISIS? Probably not exactly, but he could have known that eventually we would have to leave, and that regime change always creates a power vacuum, into which horrible people are drawn. So, maybe he is somewhat responsible. But not for everything that happened.

To complicate things further, not only is there a spectrum of our ability to predict consequences, but there is also the bundling effect from above. Our “single moral decisions” are usually a bundle of moral decisions, and the spectrum of predictability applies to each one of them. I envision all sorts of consequences left in the wake of my decisions, but the further those ripples move, the less I can predict what ripples they will have of their own. So then, we should be held responsible both for what—all—we chose, and the consequences to the extent that we knew them.

In 1797 Kant was asked a question that often is used as a case-in-point. A knife-bearing murder knocks on your door, and when you answer, he asks, “is your son home? I’d like to kill him.” You have some options. You could lie. You could tell the truth. You could tell the truth and then body slam the murder to the ground. Which would you choose? For Kant, lying is forbidden even here because it breaks the moral law. But my objection is, isn’t telling the truth tantamount to killing your son? If you know that this murderer has a greater capacity to kill you than you him, and your son is home, and there is no way to warn your son, then answering yes seems to be morally wrong. You can claim to be passively rather than actively killing him, fine, but he still dies and you have still participated in his death in a way that, without your participation, he would not have died.

In other words, I think we should take a wider-angle-lens view of actions. Our actions are never “in themselves” because actions always have consequences, and to the degree that they are successfully predictable, we should consider those consequences along with the action taken.

So who is right, consequentialism or deontology? And what about those Virtue Theorists who say a person’s inner state and motivations are what really matter? Maybe the most Christian answer I can give is that the Bible relentlessly affirms all three parts of the action as relevant factors: motive, the “before” step, action, the “during” step, and consequence, the “after” step. This is why reading modern ethical theory back onto the Bible is always a mistake. And so, I think that Christians can have genuine disagreements about how exactly to fiddle with the ethical priorities between motives, actions, and consequences. (There is a better way to hammer out the system than vaguely saying, “let’s use them all.” But at minimum, let’s use them all.) Actions and consequences cannot be separated. 

Third, that ethical truth should be understood as a best possible choice, not a correct one. Something that the Situational Ethics Will Destroy God’s Chosen Nation of America crowd got very wrong was that situational ethics does not mean totally situational ethics. There is a continuum of worse and worse things that, at a certain point, we all agree are wrong. On the good side we have Mother Theresa’s ministry to the lepers in India; walking the proverbial old lady across the street; donating $20 to charity; picking up litter on your walk through the park; and smiling at strangers in a non-creepy way. Then in the middle you have taking a single penny from the tips container so that the cashier doesn’t have to arduously scrounge up coins; wearing a shirt you agree with but that makes your friends uncomfortable; being sassy back to the person who unnecessarily told you to hurry up; and downloading the audio of Youtube videos that were not monetized and are not copyright, like song covers with 120 views. On the far side you have spraying non-violent protesters with full-power fire hoses; stealing millions of dollars of diamonds in an epic heist with your girlfriends; subjecting the native Irish population to a Protestant Ascendancy that takes their land and selectively eliminates primogeniture for them but not the colonizers; human trafficking; and ultimately mass genocide like in Rwanda, the Shoah, Srebrenica, East Timor, etc.

Nobody disagrees that those first things are moral; nobody disagrees that those last things are immoral. The disagreement lies in the middle things, those ethical decisions that cut both ways across our basic moral intuitions. How do we decide those? We would do much better to look to the Wisdom Tradition like in Proverbs than to a one-size-fits-all meta-ethic like Kant or Mill or Bentham. These middle issues may require complex knowledge, like what digital intellectual property means, or, when boundaries are crossed in unspoken cultural assumptions, or, whether rudeness comes from deep in the heart or from a surface level response we have conditioned ourselves to have. Kant can’t help us on those. And so we must move on, past what could pejoratively be called Freshman Year Ethics. We need to accumulate an enormous body of ethical principles which we can structure together into a system. Was the action intentional? Was it truly meant or mostly reflexive? Would the person have acted differently in other contexts? Does prejudice play a role in the person’s thinking while they make the action? Would this decision be made behind the veil of ignorance?

Paul does this in Romans 14. When presented with a dilemma in the local church, he brings up a new ethical principle and applies it to the situation. Don’t do something that would cause a weaker sibling in the faith to stumble. Don’t eat meat sacrificed to idols in front of them if you know they will get super freaked about it. But, crucially, Paul does not say that neither side is right. We know which side he was on, because he calls one side weaker and the other side stronger, rather than the one side looser and the other holier, or some third way of phrasing it.

So I don’t want to imply that there is no right answer. Unlike the caricature of situational ethics I have described above, I think that situational just means “complicated” and not “non-real.” We agree on the extreme goods and bads. So, there is moral truth! But where do we draw the twenty dimensional boundary line between them? It is so complicated that in these non-obvious cases, that we may want to talk of “morally best” choices rather than “morally right” ones. The right moral choice is always the best one. Ethical truth should be understood as a best possible choice, not a correct one.


Some ideas that have been influential in the history of ethical theory were important at the time but have since been ripped to shreds. There are no strict deontologists anymore, and barely any strict consequentialists; only a million cross-contaminated positions between. We cannot afford to oversimplify the debate into these frameworks, or we risk holding some people back from doing what is right, and letting some others off the hook for doing what is wrong.

Do not spare yourself the hard work of thinking carefully about ethics. Do the painful labor of examining the motives, actions, and consequences involved in the decisions you make. Be okay with people disagreeing, while still holding firmly to your conscience, because you could be right. Do what is morally best. Embrace this complexity, live in it, and celebrate such a God-given task: to live wisely, and so, rightly, in our time.

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