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.