In his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt talks about the difference between situational ethics and an ethic built on internal character. Situational ethics is pretty much what it sounds like: looking at a situation and trying to apply ethical thinking to it. It says, “in this situation, what is the right thing to do.” He then compares this to an older sort of ethics which is based on character. This sort of ethics says, “in this situation, what does a good person do.”
There are several problems with situational ethics. First of all, how do we know what the right thing to do is? What are the standards? Do we value justice higher than mercy? Personal autonomy higher than the good of the community? Situational ethics also struggles with the fact that sometimes the same actions are morally different. So at my son’s school, it is considered sexual harassment to ask someone for a hug. Why? Because there are times when it may be sexual harassment and sorting out when it is and when it isn’t is too difficult and subjective so they just ban asking for hugs. The final problem with situational ethics is that it tends to be very specific to the situation at hand and offers little guidance for other situations – even when they are variations on a theme. So, asking for a hug has been declared sexual harassment, but what about hand holding? Horny kids making out in the halls? What if standing back-to-back and bobbing up and down becomes the thing and some kids end up making it a booty-rub – is that sexual harassment or kids being ridiculous?
An ethic based on good character is a much better alternative, but here again, we have problems. Surprisingly, we pretty much agree on what good character looks like – kindness, fairness, courage, responsibility, awareness of other’s feelings, etc. The problem is that we humans can be shockingly bad at understanding what these traits look like in practice. Thus we had generations of good, loving family people who were also virulent racists who willfully inflicted suffering on their fellow humans. Which is how situational ethics gained the upper hand in the first place.
One of the things I have become more aware of with age is that we humans pretty much know how things ought to be, but we often don’t actually know how to execute well. But we rarely admit our ignorance – to ourselves or anyone else. But the reality is that we’re supposed to be learning both as individuals and as humanity as a whole. We don’t have all the answers and we never did.
I believe that whatever culture-wide problems we face must be addressed first within our own hearts and families before they can be properly addressed elsewhere. This is where the Christian notion of being in but not of the world around us becomes very important, I think. As long as we are making our choices based on what it takes to get by in the world we live in, the culture will not change. And as much as we try to teach our children to do the right things, they will see us making our own choices based on the culture we live in and do likewise. And that is how we have this endless cycle of humans knowing what right and wrong are supposed to be, but having no idea how to actually do it. In order for the culture to change, we must change. We need to understand that we are actually creating the world we live in through the choices that we make. If we are harsh and unyielding, we are helping create a culture that is harsh and unyielding. If we are firm but forgiving, we are helping create a culture that is also firm but forgiving. We have to get it out of our heads that we’re just trying to get by in this world and firmly embrace our responsibility for creating and shaping this world. The first (and often the only) step is to be the sort of person we’d like to see this world modeled after.
The second step is teaching our kids to be the sort of people that we’d like to see the world modeled after. Which is where our fight against situational ethics really gets going. I have seen with my own kids that there is a tremendous disconnect between who my kids desire to be and perhaps even think of themselves as being and how they actually behave. All of my kids will tell you that family is very important to them and that they should be nice to everyone. And all of that goes right out the window when a toy is desired by more than one person or a sibling is demanding attention at an inopportune time. When I stop them and point out the lack of love, patience, kindness, etc, I am invariably met with “yeah but . . .” followed by a detailed description of the situation that they want fixed. “Yes, I told her she was stupid and not my friend anymore but she won’t let me see that toy.” IOW, fix the situation and then I can be loving and kind and patient. Situational ethics!
As a parent, it’s very easy to get pulled into this sort of conflict. After all, sharing and not being super annoying are also important things to learn. So, often we do just what the child demands: fix the situation. What I am learning to do more and more is to refuse to fix the situation. I will take the child who is demanding that things be set right and ask them to display love, patience, kindness, forgiveness or whatever character trait we both want them to have. Which is hard for them. After all, often they are in the right! But the other thing I ask them to do is trust that God knew what he was talking about when he said to be kind, loving, forgiving, etc. Which is often even harder. Because God’s ways don’t often get the immediate results that situational ethics do. if I just insist that the toy be shared, it gets shared. If I ask the other person to back off, wait and find something else to do, it could be hours before they get their turn. But over time what is happening is that each person learns that refusing to share also means they have traded time with a human being they love for more time with a piece of plastic. And sharing problems work themselves out more quickly. And when a sibling doesn’t have to be super annoying to get your attention, they often skip being super annoying altogether. It’s interesting to watch it work out because God’s ways do work. Just not right away. Which is good preparation for the life of faith that my children and I desire for their lives.
One of the other interesting things that I have found is that often my kids mean to be good, loving people, but have no idea what that actually looks like. In the past, I would find myself scolding a child for not being kind or considerate and they would respond, “sorry” and mean it, but do the same thing next time. I wasn’t following the good parenting adage that telling a kid what not to do isn’t enough – you have to tell them what to do instead. So now, instead of scolding I will often say, “a more loving way to handle that would be to . . . (fill in the blank).” If the kid apologizes I will actually tell them, “don’t be sorry. I just know you want to be a loving person and probably hadn’t thought of that before (or forgot).” Later, if the kid starts to pick up their old way of dealing with a situation, I might gently remind them that there’s a better way of handling it. Which will often prompt a response of “yeah but” and we go back to the last paragraph.
It takes more work and more patience than just stepping in and setting everything right, but building character takes time.