Monday, June 28, 2010

Situational Ethics and the TV Hero

Burn Notice is another popular TV show about good guys walking a thin line of morality to do good things. Michael with his team is right up there with Highlander, Robin Hood, Batman and Superman. Why do we like these heroes so much?

As a civilized society, we insist that crimes and misdemeanors be handled be law enforcement agencies and the court system. No longer may the individual fight back when he has been wronged, harmed, threatened, or violated; except during the immediate instance of the crime and then only within socially approved parameters. But fictional heroes can fight back in clever ways. They get to beat the bad guys at their own games. And they get to do so in aggressive, powerful ways. We cheer them on because we know first-hand how stressful it is to live amid crime, bullying, and exploitation.

Why cannot we as individuals fight our own fights? We cannot fight back with the weapons of the fictional heroes. We cannot blow-up cars, infiltrate businesses, or lie to maintain a cover identity and an entrapment scheme.

If we do, then we have to consider a principle of morality called situational ethics: the ends does justify the means. War is a primary example of situational ethics: soldiers are encouraged to kill. Undercover cops and covert government agent are other prime examples of professions requiring the use of situational ethics. Mannerly behavior is also an example: it is good manners to tell the white lie when the social situation calls for it.

So what about determining truth? Does one's religious faith determine truth, or does empirical evidence? Is the scientific acceptance of the truth that global climate change is occurring with global warming trump the conservative stance that what will be will be, so why worry? Pray and all will be well. According to the idea of situational ethics, it is OK to fight a war thereby destroying environments, societies, and lives, However, it is not OK for a leaky pipeline or exploding oil rig to despoil an environment, destroy a cultural heritage, and change a culture.

At times I think about how pervasive in our lives is the rationalization of doing questionable things accepted due to situational ethics. This world is not black or white. Rather, the grayness of the situation oft determines the ethical decisions we make. And we are good people.

1 comment:

  1. I am rereading Edward Llewellyn's Salvage and Destroy, a science fiction novel (c)1984, pub. Daw Books, Inc. In this paperback copy on p. 133, the main character Lucien Titus, an alien of the species Ult, says of Earthlings within days of visiting the planet Earth for the first time:

    "Human ethics are indeed situational."

    This judgment is uttered by Lucien as the first person narrator of the tale.