A simple example will clarify my topic: killing is wrong (principle); killing bad guys is right (eg, a military rule of engagement). This topic (ie, situational ethics) emerged from a recent conversation with a friend. Situational ethics provide a balance between principles and pragmatism.
My friend was challenging my principle not to vaccinate myself (because I’m an asymptomatic virus carrier). I accept the consequences of my choice and priorities (eg, no air travel). In his view, satisfaction ranks higher than my principle. I disagree. Situational ethics teaches that ethics are never absolute.
My choice and priorities might (indeed) shift when air travel becomes a need (eg, sickness) rather than a want (for me). Again, our ethics are never absolute. An early biblical example: when Jesus was arrested then Peter denied knowing him for 3 times. Our survival ranks higher than our principles.
Situational ethics becomes complex when we must make a (no-win) choice. Example: the trolley problem. “The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number.” (eg, IMDb, Wiki)
In complex situations, risk management will (often) be at the core of our decision-making process. Essentially, we strive to minimise the risk and maximise the reward. Hence, the trolley problem is usually solved by sacrificing less and/or older lives and by sparing more and/or younger lives.
A few centuries ago, the Pareto efficiency by Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923) was still in use:
- “Given an initial situation, a Pareto improvement is a new situation where some agents will gain, and no agents will lose.
- A situation is called Pareto-dominated if there exists a possible Pareto improvement.
- A situation is called Pareto-optimal or Pareto-efficient if no change could lead to improved satisfaction for some agent without some other agent losing or, equivalently, if there is no scope for further Pareto improvement.”
Situational ethics is nothing new. We have always used it without even knowing it. For many – if not most – of us “The only principle is that there are no principles.” Also a quote by Kurapika, a fictional character.
“There are no principles; there are only events. There is no good and bad, there are only circumstances. The superior man espouses events and circumstances in order to guide them. If there were principles and fixed laws, nations would not change them as we change our shirts and a man can not be expected to be wiser than an entire nation.”A quote by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), a French novelist and playwright
The Trolley Problem (2017) in The Good Place (SE02 Ep05)
Note: all markings (bold, italic, underlining) by LO unless in quotes or stated otherwise.