Ethics: Casuistry, Conscience, Convenience

“Moral values are not verified by abstract knowledge: they are authenticated in our lives — by our withstanding and being true in the situations that confront us.”

Maurice Friedman

There are basically only two guides to ethical decision- making: an external source, generally termed authority, but specifically manifested as social mores, public opinion, moral suasion, secular law, religious law, or duty, and the application of these various regulators to specific cases. Reason here is merely an affirmer of pre-ordained tenets. Secondly, there exists an internal source, generally termed conscience, and perceived as intuition, instinct, inspiration, introjection, inclination, duty, or reason. Thus, within an ethical framework a person acts in a specific manner either because he is told to or because he feels that he should. Of course, authority and conscience are compatible and in normal situations they function concomitantly. But it only confuses the issue to include various ethical theories within the sphere of sources. It is far better to view these as goals rather than as sources. Thus, hedonism, utilitarianism, power, pragmatism, naturalism, or eudemonism are theories that posit particular goals as ultimately valuable, but one’s actions are motivated either by external authority or internal conscience: this is true whether the goal is pleasure or utility or goodness. The danger inherent here is that any goal can be posited and then both external and internal sources can be manipulated to assure conformity.

Once a course of action is accepted as morally necessary, one has only two choices: either he can act in accordance with the necessity or he can abstain from doing so. If the former occurs then the moral necessity is fulfilled. If the latter occurs, then it is not. What concerns us here is the etiology of this latter decision, viz., the deliberate non¬fulfillment of a moral necessity. Four basic causes for this exist. First, there is the teleological suspension of the ethical — the rather unique situation in which a person is in direct communication with the source of the moral necessity, i.e., the moral necessity is superseded by the source itself. Kierkegaard’s study of Abraham is the classic depiction of ethical suspension. It is, however, difficult to imagine its manifestation outside the sphere of religious legend; a modern Abraham would be viewed as psychopathic and harshly condemned. Secondly, there are various “aberrancies” that can result in a moral necessity’s non¬fulfillment, e.g., self-destructive tendencies, compulsive actions, or lack of awareness. In a certain sense, these are unique situations as well. The pathological killer or the kleptomaniac apparently has little control over his actions. In fact, he may excoriate himself to a greater extent than his society does. The person who feels that a course of action should be followed, but does the antithesis simply because he misses the propitious moment or because he has fallen asleep is not actually culpable, although, of course, circumstances can alter this conclusion. Thirdly, there is the case of the normal transgressor; he knows that his action is morally unacceptable (either socially or personally), but he simply does not care. Some other end takes precedence over the moral necessity, but the necessity remains in force, e.g., it is unacceptable to kill generally, but a burglar will do so if forced into a dangerous position. The totally “evil” creature — a Jonathan Wild, a Pinkie, monstrosity from Genet’s world — is probably highly unusual and he certainly does not concern us here, since he would believe a priori that murder is not to be condemned and would therefore not fall within the sphere of this discussion.

Fourthly, there is what I term the ethic of convenience: a moral necessity exists but it is abjured through expedience. It is convenient to do the antithesis and no adverse effects appear, at least superficially, to be forthcoming. The insignificant actions that can fall within this category are frequently rationalized, but the rationalizing process fails, since the person remains conscious of the disparity between the accepted moral necessity and his antithetical actions. In this context, rationalization is a weak procedure at best. The ethic of convenience should not be confused with situation ethics, since the latter explicitly affirms that an otherwise morally unacceptable action, can be, in a particular situation, morally commendable. The ethic of convenience admits only those cases in which a course of action is morally unacceptable.

If a moral necessity is conveniently ignored, if little thought is given to an unacceptable action, or if one casually, momentarily avoids a moral responsibility, then the ethic of convenience is operative. Consider the attitude of certain people toward theft: generally, it is incorrect, but specifically one may appropriate another’s property, if it is done in an innocuous fashion, i.e., if one can get away with it. The act qua act, however, remains morally unacceptable to the perpetrator. This sort of action ranges from the removal of petty items at one’s place of business, through the theft of products from large stores, (rationalized by indicating that these stores have so much or that they have acquired their products through exploitation) to the appropriation of objects belonging to acquaintances or even friends. This violation of an accepted principle (social or personal) is epitomized by a character in Hughes’ High Wind in Jamaica who, when he is about to steal something, feels the presence of God, since it is Sunday, and comments: “please God, I thieve you tomorrow,” when it is more convenient, presumably.

Another example of this phenomenon is the ethical malaise of politics.

The violation of moral necessities are rationalized or camouflaged in various ways: through a double standard; by placing oneself above the law; because it is a “special case”; because one fails to realize the extent of the matter. But these are all mental gestures made to appease the prescribed moral necessity. The blatancy of the dishonesty frequently manifested is appalling. But one becomes inured to it. As Buber notes, “One no longer fears that the other will voluntarily dissemble. One simply takes it for granted that he cannot do otherwise.” [Maurice Friedman, To Deny Our Nothingness (New York, 1967), p. 368, quoting Martin Buber.]

A third manifestation of the ethic of convenience occurs within the scientific realm. The scientist maintains his objectivity at the expense of both society and the laboratory animal. Until recently the scientist has relegated the laboratory to an extra-moral sphere. The societal implications of his discoveries did not concern him. This attitude is slowly changing, since the scientist now fears the imminent demise of humanity and is attempting to forestall it, even at the expense of “objectivity”. But the laboratory animal continues to suffer — tortured by men who conveniently ignore the beliefs by which they generally live.

Actions of convenience abound: men are seduced by society, as Niebuhr points out, into actions that individuals would never perform. [See Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society (New York, 1960).] Soldiers are frequently guilty of crimes — murder, rape, pillage — that they would find monstrous, if they were civilians. By deferring politely to authority people can act in the most reprehensible fashion, as Milgrim has shown. [See Stanley Milgrim, Obedience to Authority (New York, 1974).]

In his clever experiment Milgrim discovered that people are willing to administer large electric shocks to a protesting victim. The subjects perform in this fashion (which we must presume to be contrary to their ethical beliefs) out of deference to scientific authority, but the actual reasons that they act in this way are excellent examples of convenient action: thus, politeness, cooperation, perseverance, and the abjuration of responsibility take precedence over the victim’s pain and possible death. Within the context of the experiment, it is simply more convenient to follow the technician’s orders than to defer to one’s ethical standards. This is meant to be an ethical not a psychological explanation and the implications within the ethical realm are incalculable: “The person who, with inner conviction, loathes stealing, killing, and assault may find himself performing these acts with relative ease when commanded by authority.” All too frequently ethical precepts are abjured in favor of these actions of convenience.

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