The fallacy of Situationalism and Cultural Relativism

Situationalism says that morality is determined by situations, and situations are relative; therefore, morality is relative. It says, even killing cannot be called wrong if done in self defense. Even stealing can be good if you are stealing a weapon from a terrorist. And since situations are so diverse and complex, it is unreasonable to hold universal moral absolutes. And thus, the situationalist concludes against moral absolutes because he finds all morality related to situations.

The premise of situationalism does have some truth in it. Situations do influence moral judgments. But when one says that situations influence moral judgments it does not automatically follow that all morality is relative and there are no moral absolutes. Situationalism begins on the right track but reaches the wrong conclusion. How? Let’s delve deeper.

Let’s consider the two examples stated earlier. Killing, which is generally viewed as wrong, cannot be called wrong if done in self defense. Stealing, which is generally viewed as wrong, can actually be called good if you’re stealing a weapon from a terrorist. You must note here that in each of these situations, there are actually not one but two moral actions. In the first case, it is killing and self defense. In the second case, it is stealing and preventing a genocide. In the first case, judgment is reserved because killing happened in the heat of the moment. Probably by an accident without any premeditation. In the second case, the evil of stealing is trumped by a much greater good of preventing a genocide. Thus, we must observe here that killing or stealing hasn’t become essentially good, but only balanced or trumped by greater good or evil.

If stealing is good in the above situation, it does not follow that killing and stealing does not have intrinsic moral value. And suppose if stealing has an intrinsic moral value of -10, then preventing a genocide might have an intrinsic moral value of +1000. (Note here that moral actions cannot have any empirically verifiable value due to the intangibility of moral actions. Here I’m just assigning an approximate value based on common sense.) The statement, “Stealing can actually be good if you’re stealing a weapon from terrorist” does not only talk about the moral value of stealing but it is also talking about the moral value of preventing a genocide.

And if, what I’ve stated above is the thought process of the situationalist, then he has already presupposed a moral framework. He already assigns more positive moral value to preventing a genocide than the negative value he assigns to the act of stealing. And this moral framework is not part of the situation. Rather, it is judging the situation by itself. And if there’s an external moral framework outside of the situation that is judging the situation, then, the situationalist has already presupposed a moral framework that he is trying to determine through situations. You cannot have a cake before baking it. And since situationalism is trying to smuggle a cake in the recipe of making a cake, its logic is faulty at best and its intentions questionable. Situationalism simply can not be true.

As a side note, situationalist’s own thinking pattern is not at all different than that of a moral absolutist. Moral absolutist do hold to a rigid moral framework that is universally true, but this moral framework is not rigid in it’s application. It can be applied flexibly in different situations. In Christianity, when there are conflicting morals, we are to oblige the greater good. The above thought process of weighing good and evil where conflicting morals exist in the same situation is called graded absolutism in christian ethics. The situationalist not only presupposes a moral framework but he believes this framework is true absolutely because it is used to judge different situations. And situations can be infinitely complex. If a moral framework is to be applied to situations that are infinitely complex, then it must be absolutely, universally true.

So, the situationalist actually believes exactly what moral absolutist believes and behaves exactly like a moral absolutist. But it leaves us with a question. If the situationalist already presupposes a moral framework, then where does this moral framework come from? I know the answer that the situationalist can provide. In fact it is the only answer that he can provide without explicitly invoking any moral absolutes. From cultures. People learn their moral framework from their own cultures. And cultural values can be relative.

This is basically cultural relativism. The claim is that anthropologists and sociologists have discovered moral relativism to be not a theory but an empirical fact. Different cultures and societies, like different individuals, simply do, in fact, have very different moral values. In Eskimo culture, and in Holland, killing old people is right. In America, east of Oregon, it’s wrong. In contemporary culture, fornication is right; in Christian cultures, it’s wrong, and so forth. And if different cultures can have different moral values, then moral absolutes do not exist.

But the fact that different cultures behave differently in the matter of ethics doesn’t automatically follow that there are no moral absolutes. Different cultures do behave differently in the matter of ethics, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are right. Only if we presuppose that all of different moral frameworks created by different cultures are right, then only we can say different cultures hold different moral values. But the statement that different moral frameworks created by different cultures are right is an absolute statement. It applies universally to every culture in every time. It is presupposing the very moral cultural relativism that it is trying to prove. This is basically circular reasoning. And even that with the help of an moral absolute.

The conclusion is, that complete situational or cultural relativism by itself simply can not be true. It has to presuppose a moral absolute. But moral absolutes is exactly what it is trying to disprove. And thus, any type of moral relativism simply can not be true.

But leaving aside what is philosophically true or false, we do live in a society where I can choose to subscribe to a worldview even if I do not believe it is true. I am perfectly capable and free to do that if I wish to. But we must tread with caution in the matter of moral relativism. Because if we do away with moral absolutes as relativism is trying to do, then eventually we will lose the ability to distinguish between not only right and wrong, but also right and left. That’s the only logical progression relativism offers. Everything else requires positing absolutes. There is no way of escaping from absolutes. We can have morality only through some set of moral absolutes.

The Knowledge of Good and Evil – The First Temptation

Since I wrote my last post on the topic of the Fear of the Lord, something’s been bugging me. In that post, there is one topic that I have left untouched and upon that very topic, I have based my reasoning. I have stated that, “You should obey the Lord, when you don’t know what is right and what is wrong.”. This statement assumes at least some knowledge about what is right and what is wrong. Where does this knowledge come from? This, I have not addressed.

How can I know what is good and what is evil? I will address that question later. But for now, let’s go back to genesis and look at that unfortunate event that sent the whole world into disarray. As Eve was walking in that blessed garden of Eden, she unintentionally wandered too close to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It wasn’t a significant event, as I’m sure that she would’ve waked past that tree countless times. But this time, something was different. She heard a serpent calling her. She responded. And the snake had one of the most intriguing proposition. As I read the words of this most preposterous utterance, I’m amazed that how can anyone tell so many lies in such a short sentence and still sound convincing?

But the serpent said to the woman, You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil. (Gen 3:4-5)

With this simple statement, the devil accomplished two things.

  1. He sow the seeds of the very pride in the heart of humanity that had been the instrument of his own downfall.
  2. He laid the foundation of all the vanities of man that are based on lies.

Let me explain what these two things mean. The devil begins by saying that when God said that you will die, he was telling a lie. Actually, you won’t die. The reason God was telling a lie is because he is afraid. In fact, if you eat the fruit of this tree, you will become like him. He doesn’t want you to be like him. All powerful, all knowing. That’s why he has told you not to eat the fruit of the tree. That’s what the devil says to Eve.

Now if you take that statement and look at it under a microscope, you won’t find a single thread of truth in it. You will not surely die? A plain lie. (Although Eve did not immediately die, in the sense as we normally perceive death, that is a topic for another essay) Your eyes will be opened? Nonsense. My eyes are already open and I can see plenty fine, thank you. I will be like God? I’m already like God. He made me this way. You will know good and evil? I already know what is good. And why in the nine hells would I ever want to know evil?

If that’s so plain to see, then why couldn’t Eve see through the deception? Pride. It blinds you. If you begin to see, it binds you. The devil was playing with her pride as an independent sentient being. Independence and freedom. Two of the many invaluable gifts that her creator had bestowed upon her. And pride is a possible by-product of the mixture of these two. That pride once blinded the archangel Lucifer and led to his downfall into the infernal lake of fire. That same pride also blinded Adam and Eve from seeing the truth, which consequently corrupted a perfect world.

But that wasn’t the only thing that the devil accomplished. Leveraging on the opportunity of having sown the seeds of pride in the heart of humanity, the devil told a lie and made it look like a truth. The devil made the fruit of the tree of good and evil desirable when in fact it was the most useless fruit in the whole garden. The fruit certainly had a purpose as I have pointed out earlier, but it was not advantageous for humans to eat it. We all know that prior to eating that fruit, humans already understood what good and evil was. Even after knowing that they would be doing a bad thing, they did it. And that was the first sin. They did it because they believed a lie to be true. This lie sent them in the wild-goose chase of the knowledge of good and evil that will make them like God (forgetting that they are already like God) instead of only focusing on God. It was the very first instance of man’s pride getting better of him and believing a lie, they sinned rejecting the truth that they already knew.

The same thing continues to happen to this very day. All the lures and attractions of this world are lies. Partial truths made to look like the ultimate truths. Temporary pleasures decorated to look like eternal nirvana. Because the man believes that these things are true, he runs after it. Trying to grab hold of it. And as Solomon says in the book of Ecclesiastes, all these things are futile and like chasing after wind. A lie can never deliver what it promises. But the one who believes a lie, will go chasing after it; because for him, it is the truth. And truth is the only thing worth following. And thus, the man who does evil, only does it because somewhere is his outlook of the world, he has mistaken a lie for a truth. And to this day, these things keeps us in the tangled mess of evil and away from good.

Now that we’ve taken a closer look at what it was that caused us to sin in the first place, only now we can go about its undoing. If we are to avoid sin, if we are to regain the perfect knowledge of good that our race held at its very inception, we must see through that very first temptation. After truly seeing the temptations for what it is, in my opinion, we must focus on undoing the second accomplishment and deal with the first as we encounter it. Because without having the truth by your side, you will not know when pride deceives you.

The way to go about acquiring knowledge about good is to go to God. Because he is the source of every good and perfect thing. When we begin to reach out from the ashes of this fallen world to the eternal God enthroned in heaven, we must study his methods and his ways. To all who seek him, he reveals himself for he is the God who loved us first. I have found a book called the Bible. It contains his words. There is truth in it. It will cleanses the windows of your eyes that have been stained by the dirt of this world. The truth for a truth and a lie for a lie it makes plain to see. But this book has a singular purpose. It is not self contained, rather it points towards a person who claimed to be THE Truth. But, there’s more…

Soon, you will come at the crossroads of the cross. Upon that cross, hangs the lamb of God about whom a voice in the wilderness cries, “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”. You may be a thief, a widow, a beggar or just a kid but to him it doesn’t matter who you are or what the world calls you. He loved you, and love is blind. When you encounter the cross for the first time, do not run away. It is not there to condemn you but it is the instrument of your salvation. The very pride that led us to sin in the early parts of genesis, will be laid to ruin by the sight of the cross. For when the devil sought to become the greatest of all, Christ became the lowest of all, the servant of all and he took up the cross on behalf of me and you. And as if it was not enough, he rose from the grave for love’s sake. He became the light of hope in a dark, cruel and unforgiving world. He is the truth. And his cross is the remedy for our pride. He will come to you when you call him. He will tell you what is good, when you ask him.