Welcome back, friends and fellow bibliophiles, to the second part in our three part series on Situational Ethics and How to Deal With Them. :) I have books by several different authors to illustrate the various points in this series, and in writing down notes this morning, I grew more and more excited over this concept, as there are so many interest aspects to include! In fact, there were so many that I couldn't fit them all in, and had to save them for the next post. :)
Types of Situational Ethics
We're going to look at three areas today that often fall into the trap of situational ethics. These are the most common and widespread, and while there are other issues like adultery and sexual immorality that could be delved into, I'm going to make the assumption that there's not as much gray area there and save it for another time. Thievery, lying, and murder are three key areas that many Christians are willing to turn a blind eye to if necessary. The following are examples of situational ethics to show you how to pinpoint the violated principles, and then hopefully you'll be able to take the same mindset and pinpoint similar problems in other books you've read.
Situational Ethics in Murder
Once the murderer confesses in Ellis Peter's Dead Man's Ransom, the last chapters spin down into a disappointing spiral of trying to get the murderer out of the consequences of his act. In the end, Cadfael and another nun stand by while the murderer is taken into Wales. Granted, he's unconscious at the time and were he awake he would never have consented, but not even the young folks who perpetrate the deception get punished. The book ends in a checkmate, and Hugh Beringar, in despair, decides to let everybody off the hook and leave well enough alone.
The Violated Principle
In a story like this, we would be tempted to focus on the side details instead of the main facts: the young man was remorseful, he did it for love of someone, he was wounded and in pain when he was forced to make his confession, and in the end it wasn't his choice to escape to Wales. He was drugged and sent off by his cousin. But these are very clever blinders to disguise the fact that (1. His murder was extremely deliberate, even if hastily decided upon. You can't go into a man's room and smother him by accident. (2. Even though the murderer was not the one committing the situational ethics, since he bore no part in his escape, the people who stood by and watched it done were very much alert and knew what they were doing. Whether the murderer should have been hung after repenting is up for debate; certainly the death penalty should never be dealt out lightly. But the people who deceived and lied to get him out of the trap should certainly have received some form of punishment.
Situational Ethics in Thievery
The really best example of a stealing plot gone wrong is the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton. Milverton may be the dirtiest blackmailer in all of London, but breaking into his house to search steal his letters, then watching a murder committed, and finishing it off by returning home to lie to the police are a whole line of blatant law violations.
The Violated Principles
Shouldn't a nice detective trying to help a lady in distress be enough excuse to break a few laws? And after all, if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time when murder is committed, you're really better off keeping quiet about it so as to avoid any misunderstandings.
Actually, in this story the violated principle came a lot sooner then the night of the climax. They began when the woman wrote some indiscreet letters and then hired Holmes to get them back so her husband wouldn't find out. One bad lie only leads to another, and this case was one bad spiral, until you're left at the end vaguely trying to grasp what it was you liked about this detective in the first place.
You see, situational ethics always start with a little compromise. And every compromise after that to the character and the reader is excusable. So it's important to go back to the root of the problem that started the compromises in the first place and then we'll be able to get a clear picture of why the other compromises were wrong.
Situational Ethics in Lying
One of the most famous and classic examples of lying and situational ethics is Corrie Ten Boom's The Hiding Place, when she lies about the radios and the Jews. Excusable, we say. The Jews are God's chosen people, and lying to save them is more than enough reason to get away with a little bit of truth stretching.
But Nollie didn't. And many others didn't as well. When the soldiers came in, and some of the Ten Boom family couldn't bear to lie, God always, always saved them from the wrath of the soldiers. This is a hard case to judge, but I think we see that yes, you can lie with the best of intentions, but you can also tell the truth and God will honor that integrity. It all comes down to whether or not you believe God's sovereignty is inviolable as we discussed in the last post.
When Situational Ethics Occur
Sometimes, however hard we try to justify the characters actions, give them the benefit of the doubt, and do every last thing we can to put them on the side of right, there's nothing left to do but face the fact that they've violated God's law, and there is no way to get around it.
And like it or not, it's at that time that we have to remove the emotion from the judgment. It doesn't matter if the violator is a fourteen year old boy, or a teenage girl with no parents, or a handsome young man on the brink of marriage. If they've done wrong, then they've violated God's law, and all the cuteness or the love or the tragedy doesn't excuse that.
Let me make haste to say that by removing the emotion, it doesn't mean that we can't have any sympathy for the wrongdoer. Of course we can, and of course we should. Every one of us finds ourselves in situations where we have done wrong and we need mercy, and we should show love and grace to others with the same love and grace that have been shown to us.
However, emotions throw us for a loop. They throw characters for a loop as well. In fact, it's often when emotions are out of control that a character makes the decision to go the wrong path. Every good author makes the reader become emotionally involved with the characters, so we're going to support them in every choice they make, unless we look beyond the emotion and to the truth.
We'll be covering this more in the last post, as it's too complicated to do justice to here, and there are a lot more factors weighing into it than simply removing emotional connection. Besides, it is possible to be emotionally connected to a character and still make correct moral judgments about their actions.
What do you do when you just plain don't know if the compromise was wrong or not? Sometimes the law of man was violated, but the character had noble intentions. This is where we start heading down a slippery slope. First, we must never let a character off the hook because of good intentions. But if there are times when we think they are legitimately let free of their crimes, then we must look at their resulting actions.
Jesus, time and again in Scripture, said "Your sins are forgiven." If we were to insist upon everyone receiving what they deserved, we would all be in hell, and I for one am very grateful that I don't have to receive the consequences for my sin. And if we are given grace in real life, then it seems that characters should also be given grace in fictional stories. So what is the key to balance grace and justice?
I think we find the root of the matter in another phrase that Jesus used several times in the New Testament. "Go thy way and sin no more." Oftentimes a book with poor situational ethics simply says "Go thy way". But a book that truly shows Christian grace must also add "and sin no more". Because that is what Jesus teaches when he gives us grace. Grace isn't a license to continue sinning. It's a pardon, and a charge to follow our Lord and leave our life of sin.
Situational ethics, in the end, is empty and valueless grace. A grace that simply gives the character a free ride out of their consequences because they 'just couldn't help it'. But true grace when the character makes wrong decisions, is the grace that says "You have done wrong. But you are pardoned. Now go, and leave your life of sin." Grace does not gloss over the wrong, pretend it has never been done, or excuse the character based on motivations. It pardons, and then it erases the sin and commands the violator to turn from their wrongdoing.
And that is the grace we should be filling our minds with as we read.
Next time we'll be addressing the issue of what to do when an author handles their story wrong and inserts situational ethics as the moral resolution. Do we keep reading? Do we read the book again? Also, there are some commonly misunderstood plot resolutions that are considered situational ethics, but actually aren't. And we'll be looking at those as well.
But for now, I will close and wish you a weekend full of good books and happy reading!