In recent centuries, particularly in the West, the prevailing concept of what is considered a good or evil human act has become blurred by the normalization of situational ethics and the denial of objective (absolute) truth. For this reason, it is necessary to understand not only the terms and views of the world that practice them, but reinforce the teaching of God through his revealed Word and his Holy Spirit guided Church.
Situational Ethics is just what it sounds like; ethical actions that are judged by the circumstance or situation of the moment. Under this scenario, a human action is not judged exclusively by the act itself, but made subject to the context in which the act occurs.
Situation ethics state that lying and stealing, for example, are potentially OKAY under certain circumstances. If the lie or theft is for a “greater good” - like lying to avoid hurting a person’s feelings or stealing food because of hunger – then it is not morally wrong. An extreme example would be murder considered an “honor” killing to defend the reputation of a family.
Not only do situational ethics blur the line between what is good and what is evil, but it is grounded in (knowingly or not) the idea that there is no real, objective good or truth. Truth is no longer absolute, or even matter of fact, but a malleable construct of personal interpretation. We hear this today in the popular phrase, “my truth.” My truth is not only subjective, it is plain nonsense. My truth is not about truth at all, but about personal perception, what we used to call “opinion.” By raising the bar of opinion over fact, we have entered into an age of complete unreason.
While situation ethics has muddied the waters of truth, fact versus fiction, and good and evil, God has made the water crystal clear, and the Church has reasonably constituted some additional guidelines for us to follow to ensure that God’s perspective remains the only perspective that matters.
The law of God informs us clearly regarding proper conduct. The apostle Paul stated in Romans 7:7 But I would not have known what sin was if it were not for the law. For example, I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, Do not covet. God would not have us ignorant, for he wants us to be holy as he is holy, therefore he handed down laws. Now the many ceremonial laws handed down by God to the Hebrews have been done away by Christ, but the Ten Commandments still reign supreme as the law of God for humanity. These ten commands – given by God to Moses - are divided into two categories with verses 1-3 covering the relationship between humanity and God, and 4-10 regarding human interrelationships. Here we have absolute rules of conduct. In no place or at any time did God ever say, “…but if you are in this circumstance….it is OKAY to ignore my Law.” God’s law is unqualified.
The Ten Commandments are self-explanatory, and absolute, which is why there is such a fuss to have them taken down in public places. They don’t meet the subjective needs of many people so they must be torn down or altered. And though these laws should be straight forward to the Catholic, if an action is unclear - the Church has wisely set forth 3 moral factors that help us come to a conclusion as to the moral character of an action.
The Three Moral Determinants
Assuming that the person is of sound mind, has full knowledge of the situation and acts voluntarily, (even human laws agree that in order to be culpable, the person cannot be deemed mentally disabled or coerced), the Church considers the factors of Object, Circumstance and Intention for judging a human act morally good or evil.
1. Object. The object is the “what” of the person’s action. An object may be watching a movie, drinking a beer or eating an apple. To be considered morally good, the object must be good and in accordance with the Law of God. Example: if the object is a pornographic movie, it is evil in God’s eyes (lust).
2. Circumstance. The circumstance is the “when and where” of the person’s action. Time and place may alter the judgement of a morally good or evil action. Example: a police officer decides it is a slow night, cracks open a beer and falls asleep on the job. Drinking a beer or sleeping, otherwise neutral, is evil under this circumstance. Likewise, there is no circumstance (including war) - that makes rape, theft, torture or murder acceptable.
3. Intention. The intention of an act is the “why” or reason for the act. In criminal courts it is referred to as the “motive” which in itself may incur lessor or greater culpability. Example: eating an apple if hungry is neutral, but stealing one from the grocer makes it morally wrong; hungry or not.
In and of themselves, many human actions are morally indifferent, such as walking, talking, sleeping and eating. It is the combination of the objective, the circumstance and the intention that makes a human action morally good or bad. If any part of the action is evil – the entire act is considered morally evil. And this is where situation ethics has parted ways with God. Humans find excuses for their conduct that God does not accept.
Because human actions may be highly complex, God has made it clear how we should conduct ourselves. If there is any doubt, use the tools above to discern if an action is morally good or evil.
Hell is full of good wishes or desires. – St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153 AD)