Friday, December 9, 2011

"The Context" is Different from "Your Perspective"

It was noted on a previous post in the comments that a strong emphasis on "context" might lead to situational ethics.

I have an observation about situational ethics. Situational ethics are by in large not based upon "situations" but upon "perspective". Folks tending to a situational mode of ethics approach issues of behavior and morality from personal or cultural angles - and a fear of insulting another culture or another person's personal choice hinders them from m. As an example, some folks today more "fixed" in the so-called situational ethics will end up saying that we cannot judge a foreign practice as barbaric or wrong... such as mutilation of a spouse or even the Holocaust... be cause we aren't in that culture and cannot presume to judge. Several articles, which I cannot find at the moment, are going around pointing at things like this.

But, let's move to the movies for this discussion. Consider the climax of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. You end up having this dialog at the end, when Anakin's new allegiance to the Sith is pondered:

Obi-wan: The Sith are evil.
Anakin: From my point of view the Jedi are evil.

Note, there was no appeal to right or wrong, or even to the context - rather, a personal point of view. What meshes with my own goals, desires, and wants? What would I rather have?

This is not *context* but rather personal desire run amuck, ignoring right and wrong, and refusing to apply morality.

Now, let us contrast this. Is it "good" to cut off your best friend's arms and legs?

Generally, we would say no. Mayhem is bad. However, if said friend has become a Sith Lord, then, in that context, yes, slice away. The context (not your personal point of view or personal desires) shows that this is good and proper.


Of course, let's consider this further. Let us say you have chopped off the arms and legs of the Sith Lord. By rights, as a Jedi, he is to be defeated and killed. That's part and parcel of the Jedi's duty - defeat the users of the dark side and make sure that they can cause no more terror. In fact, Obi-wan was sent to Mustafar precisely to kill Anakin.

And as Anakin is there, Obi-wan looks at him and says, "You were my brother, Anakin. I loved you." And then... he walks away. His perspective (I care about this man) uncuts his executing justice. And because of this... well, bad stuff happens.

And it happens as soon as Obi-wan starts to view things from his perspective, his own attachments and not from the objective realities of duty and justice.

To pay attention to "context" is not a call for self determination, but rather a call to apply objective truth to your own situation, even if it is distasteful.


Yes, I just wrote a blog post about situational ethics on a theological blog using Revenge of the Sith as the chief example. Oh well.


scott said...

I think instead of saying "situational", which has the bad connotations of no fixed values, perhaps what we mean is that we deal on a case-to-case basis. I think this is what we mean when we are saying context matters.

Are we therefore saying that the Law changes, or that it differs for people? No. Does it mean what a pastor may advise to two different people may not be the same course of action, even if the sin is the same? Yes. We take into account the context, and help them think through their individual situation, while at the same time calling them to repentance and a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called.

I think that hypotheticals are not as helpful as we would like them to be because it often means someone is either trying to figure a way around the Law (looking for a loophole), or because the truth is that situations are often so different that hypotheticals really don't help, whereas a general rule of thumb does give someone something to think about, no matter what they are doing.

Will we fail to keep the command? Yep. In that case repent and be forgiven. Are hypotheticals useless? No, but they can sometimes be used as an excuse ("But you said . . .").

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Scott - I think you hit upon it... situations are often so different that the hypotheticals don't help.

This is why I love rules of thumb.

Love your neighbor. That's a rule of thumb. And it can be applied any time.

aletheist said...

Traditional virtue ethics embraces the notion that "the right thing to do" is context-specific without degenerating into modern situational ethics. Virtue is analogous to a skill, which means that only a novice is consciously trying to conform to explicit rules. An advanced beginner is able to recognize situational cues and follow maxims (rules of thumb) accordingly. Competence involves the exercise of judgment gained through experience to focus on the key aspects of the situation. Proficiency includes the ability to "see" what needs to be done, but still requires a decision on how to go about it. Experts intuitively perceive both what needs to be done and how to do it.

The Law is necessary because humans are generally novices when it comes to doing the right thing. However, it is impossible to develop detailed instructions that will provide infallible guidance for every conceivable situation. The Pharisees tried and failed to do exactly that, and Jesus (the ultimate expert) repeatedly called them on it.