This is an inquiry into a specifically Christian ethics, one that at first sight looks multiply parochial. It is an extended argument for quite traditional Roman Catholic positions on moral matters. Moreover, it instances a more or less Augustinian approach to ethics and may thus represent a (large) minority position even within the Roman Catholic community, which has been dominated philosophically by Aquinas. And, its original polemical targets were particularly prominent a half century ago, and arguably reflected a zeitgeist that has withered on its own. Nonetheless it still has some bearings on persisting issues germane to any Christian ethic, protestant or Catholic, as well as on some more or less secular ethical views, and applications to current culture are readily available.
The principal aim is to lay out some of those features of a Christian ethic that distinguish it from “situation ethics.” Hildebrand insists that Christian ethics requires moral commands or general moral principles that are non-negotiable, that must be observed in every case without any modification in the light of possible consequences, or in light of the peculiarities of a situation, or of the person in the situation, or some combination of these. The prominence of “absolutism” or anti-consequentialism in specifically traditional Roman Catholic teaching is brought out in John Finnis’ introduction to this edition, where citations from papal encyclicals, most notably Veritatis Splendor, with its stress on intrinsically evil acts, figure prominently. Moreover, this edition includes as an appendix an address by Pope Pius XII on “moral law and the new morality” dating from 1952. The notions of law and of intrinsic wrongness thus figure prominently throughout, but there is no attempt to argue for the superiority of a distinctly deontological ethics over more teleological approaches to ethics and natural law. In fact there is no sharp distinction drawn in these terms; nonetheless the principal concern is with the idea that certain actions (or less commonly omissions) are always and everywhere impermissible. Although clearly wedded to Roman Catholic traditions and emphases, the analysis is deployed against a trend, againstthe creeping influence of situation ethics both in the culture at large and also among some Roman Catholic scholars and Catholic institutions.
That trend may have been particularly noticeable in the latter half of the last century, and it appeared to some as a capitulation to a more general spirit or trend, particularly prominent in the late 50’s and ‘60s, which opposed what was perceived to be a kind of legalism, a morally rigid stress on the letter of the law (the rule, the command, the principle), in favor of the idea that one should simply love or do what love, or some similarly strong pro attitude, required. One important source of situation ethics was the wildly popular Situation Ethics: The New Morality (1956) by the protestant theologian Joseph Fletcher. Many of that book’s readers, both devotees and critics, shared the sense that it summed up the antinomian sensibilities of the 60’s counterculture. Nonetheless it is not difficult to find applications of Hildebrand’s critique to the less optimistic and more ironical culture of today.
The notion of “situation ethics” is vague and some versions arguably contain inconsistent elements. Versions of relativism, non-cognitivism, and emotivism reside uneasily, not always with explicit acknowledgement, with act and rule utilitarianism in Fletcher’s work, to take one example. But clearly utilitarianism is cognitivist and rules out cultural or individual relativism.
However, Hildebrand is less interested in a direct analysis and critique of some version of situation ethics, than in an analysis of what it rules out, and why. There are I think no strawmen in his argument. He attempts to show how some of the motivations of the situation ethicist deserve careful attention and respect. In fact, he holds that by doing justice to some of the “valuable contributions” (p. 9) of situation ethics a clearer elaboration of Christian ethics becomes possible. Here the details are of general interest; Catholics, protestants, secularists, whether philosophers, theologians, or even novelists (sic!) may find in his detailed discussion of pharisaism, self-righteous zealotry, self-righteous mediocrity, the self-righteous timorous person, and the tragic sinner, significant distinctions and contrasts that are often mischaracterized or overlooked.
Situation ethics is sometimes motivated by an aversion to pharisaism, which may be construed as a thoughtless application of rules or principles to every morally fraught situation. But Hildebrand argues that the most essential ingredient in pharisaism is not a spiritless devotion to the letter of the law, but rather pride, the urge to judge others, the complete rejection of charity or mercy, and the use of moral principles as a means to self-glorification. The Pharisee is thus opposed to the spirit of the law, the spirit of repentance and self-abasement. The true pharisee (obviously an ideal type in Hildebrand’s taxonomy) is thus opposed to God as God, as infinitely above his creatures. It is, arguably, those features of pharisaism, rather than reliance on rules or principles per se, that accounts for the negative connotations of “pharisee” which the situation ethicist responds to.
The pharisaism of “the pharisee” can be usefully contrasted with the mitigated pharisaism of the self-righteous zealot or the self-righteous mediocre individual. The self-righteous zealot does not oppose the spirit of the law, but she is primarily concerned with the violations of other persons. She is a moralizer who focuses on moral wrong, the violation of a law, principle or code, rather than on the complexities of the situations within which all people choose, and regularly fail, when measured only by that law. The law is a blunt instrument in her undiscerning hands, and its being so serves her purpose, since use of the law as a tool in sensitive self-evaluation would disable her focus on the violations of others. Hildebrand mentions the main character in Mauriac’s Woman of the Pharisees as an instance of this type. She tends to mix social improprieties with moral failings; moral rules are just further specifications of “what is commonly done.” Thus she may even be suspicious of saints, since they seem to stand outside common norms. To the extent that the situation ethicist detects and rejects this banality and bluntness, he must get positive credit.
The self-righteous mediocre person, on the other hand, lacks the perverse focus on morality instanced by the self-righteous zealot. His principle concern is that he be morally secure, and his attempts to abide by the letter of the law enable the desired sense of security. Once secure, he can get along with the ordinary business of life, business, politics, family etc. in a favorable state of mind. He is not overly focused on others or heedless of his own failings, but his attempts at external conformity suffice for him. He does not attempt to edit away any of the demands of the letter of law, but he does not heed its penitential function. The important thing is to be correct, and he is, like the zealot or the true pharisee, intolerant of the failures of others with respect to the letter, and also tends, like the zealot, to mix moral with merely social correctness.
Both of these types of self-righteousness can be contrasted with what we find in a morally timorous man. He uses conformity to the letter of the law to avoid risk taking. His primary concern is with safety. He does not have the pride of the Pharisee, or the hardness of the zealot or the mediocre man in judging others. But the letter of the law shields him against any deep and sometimes risky investment in morally difficult circumstances. Typical proponents of situation ethics are particularly likely to contrast this feature of the timorous man with the kind of risk taking and deep responsibility of the truly moral man who on their view must dare to act for the best without guidance or guarantee.
The situation ethicist contrasts the “tragic sinner” with all of the types mentioned so far; although the tragic sinner does not deny the relevance or importance of principles or laws, she does not advert to them to establish moral superiority, or retreat to them to avoid risk and conflict. In fact she holds them in such high regard that a violation causes her great pain. But we can imagine a situation in which she can only achieve a great life good (for example the fulfillment of a great love) by violating a moral requirement. Her capacity for love, her earnestness in the face of her situation and the impossibility of achieving a life of deep fulfillment and even nobility without the violation makes her a “tragic” figure. It is easy to sympathize with the claim that she is morally superior to the self-righteous or the timid, and to infer that “rule worship” would constitute a personal failure in her situation.
It is even possible to have a kind of moral admiration for those who feel no pressure from rules or moral laws, and thus are anything but tragic, but who act spontaneously from motives of kindness, generosity, or fellow feeling. Tom Jones in Fielding’s novel may rightly get more admiration than the grim and judgmental legalists who surround him at church.
Finally, the situation ethicist may go so far as to accord some positive value to sin itself. There is a kind of sinning that expresses spiritual energy, a concerted rejection of self-righteousness, and may lead to various goods. On the one hand it may lead to a deeper recognition of unworthiness, of the sort unknown to the “correct” but self-righteous person. Or it may seem to function as a felix culpa, understood as calling forth of greater “soul benefits” than would otherwise have been possible. It is in relation to these ideas about the tragic sinner and the “happy fault” that Hildebrand’s discussion of situation ethics intersects with his account of “sin mysticism.” The two are logically distinct, but Hildebrand notes their confluence in the thinking of many, due to a shared detestadon of pharisaism in all its modalities and of spiritual sloth or merely conventional observance of moral principles, which figure prominently in both.
The foregoing summary does not, of course, do more than touch upon a few of the features of the detailed moral phenomenology explored by Hildebrand in his effort to credit the “valuable contributions” of situation ethics. It is easier to say briefly how situation ethics nonetheless fails to escape justified criticism from the absolutist. The principal criticism is simple; none of the praiseworthy elements in human moral struggle highlighted by the situation ethicist depend for their existence on the exclusion from full ethical life and deliberation of fundamental laws, principles, divine commands or any other deontological elements. This point is quite clear; none of the positive traits of the tragic sinner (to take the case most favorable to the situation ethicist’s position), her passion and multiform depth of character, would necessarily be absent from a person who flatly refuses to contravene a moral rule. Arguably such a person exhibits even greater depth of character. The ability to sacrifice a kind of self-fulfillment in obedience to moral law can bespeak a remarkable personal development and energy that logically requires the hardness of the rule. Variations in this basic critique are spread throughout the first nine chapters; though the basic critique here is worth emphasizing, and varies somewhat in sundry applications, this book ends up being somewhat repetitious .
There are other criticisms of situation ethics worth mentioning here. Consider Hildebrand’s attack on the relativism of situation ethics. Situation ethics is relativistic since it denies that there are any “values” that govern more than one case at a time. It thus endorses the most extreme form of relativism, individual relativism. A consistent statement of this view is very difficult to formulate, as the writings of Montaigne attest. It implies the claims that ideas of moral progress and moral advice are empty, and that there can be no moral exemplars or moral education (142). These claims arguably entail some version of non-cognitivism, but the situation ethicist does not endorse non-cognitivism. He may insist that one can know some such general principle as “always follow conscience” but this principle is empty, or in Hildebrand’s terms, merely “formal.”
The individual relativism of situation ethics also requires a denial of common experiences of the differences between cruelty and kindness, generosity and selfish hoarding and the like, which Hildebrand regards as pre-theoretical “givens” (cf. Charles Taylor’s notion of “thick description”). In fact, Hildebrand argues that despite the situation ethicist’s emphasis on the contingent multiplicity of ethically charged “situations” he in fact fails to appreciate the full complexity of ethical life. He may miss the way judgement on evil is ideally, at least in the Christian vision, combined with an appreciation for the complexities of human lives and the universality of moral weakness. The Christian is well situated to assert, with St. Augustine, that “man’s heart [is] an abyss” (quoted on 118). The dominical admonitions to refrain from judging (in the sense of assuming a Godlike ability to see everything that is in a person) respect that abyss, and are combined with the sense that there, but for the grace of God, go I. Thus situation ethics may itself be subject to a kind of simple mindedness, when it is not simply confused. These are not parochial criticisms.
Hildebrand also employs a tu quoque that has some force against the situation ethicist. A fundamental motive of situation ethics appears to be the desire to avoid judgementalism. But the situation ethicist often seems eager to dismiss as legalists, slaves to convention, hypocrites, cowards, or insensitive to context those who take seriously rules or principles (understood as more than rules of thumb) or who believe that there are real distinctions among virtues and vices. Thus, he exhibits thoroughly judgmental attitudes towards much of humanity, perhaps especially those who take moral matters seriously.
In ch. 10 Hildebrand sets out what he considers to be three “basic errors” of situation ethics, at least in its more extreme forms.
First, the situation ethicist ignores or tends to discount the force of the moral “ought,” which he may view as a mistaken importation of juridical notions into ethics. He tends to contrast the person acting under obligation with the person (much to be preferred on his view) who spontaneously does what is right or good. This contrast, between duty and sentiment or inclination, so prominent in arguments between Kantians and “sentimentalists,” is irrelevant on Hildebrand’s view. He contends that each and every “moral value response” including those in which a person acts with passion and enthusiasm, is experienced as “something that should be;” each “contains an element of obedience” (128).
Hildebrand’s language here is (as is often the case in this book) vague or slippery. Is loving ones enemies “obedience” to a command or law, or not? At first sight Hildebrand seems to discount any contrast between the deontic and the axiological, as we might now put it. We might expect the result to be anti-supererogationism, a view characteristic of the protestant reformers. Compare that to the contrast, found in Aquinas, between acting from principle or under a law, and acting for the good. Aquinas distinguished precepts, which are universal in their scope (like laws), from counsels, which are addressed to the few who have the capacity and inclination to pursue the life of perfection. For Thomas, the open-texture character of the counsels makes the morality of love superior to mere obedience to or conformity with divine law or commands. But Thomas does not draw a clear borderline between duty and supererogation. It is, for example, not clear whether “love thy enemy” is a precept or a supererogatory counsel. It is similarly unclear whether acts of charity (such as almsgiving) are duties or lie beyond duty, and so on for other cases. In view of the evident difficulty here we can appreciate Hildebrand’s apparent conflation of precepts and counsels and his treatment of the love commands (Mk 12: 29-31) as foundational for the entire “moral” (unexplained) domain. But there is a further related difficulty in this neighborhood.
The first edition of this book preceded the groundbreaking essay “Modern Moral Philosophy” (1958) by Gertrude Anscombe, who argued that the idea of a “moral ought” was a leftover from a time when divine law and divine commands were essential to ethics (metaethics). She argued that since the belief in the divine has largely disappeared, the notion of a “moral” ought, which elicits so much philosophical puzzlement, should be abandoned. The notion of the moral, with its lingering hint of something demanded (and thus perhaps of “obedience”) is now meaningless. That being the case she advocates a return to a more or less Aristotelian virtue ethics for the purposes of contemporary debates on ethics. Hildebrand makes unexamined uses of “moral” quite central to his discussion; such expressions as “moral demand,” “moral value response,” “morally relevant values,” positively clutter this book. It is of course true that he has not abandoned theism. It does not follow that he is entitled to a continued use of these expressions, since he refuses to make a clear distinction between obedience to divine commands or divine law and any other “moral” (unexplained) responses (cf. the discussion on p. 132 of “general morally relevant” values vis a vis “general principles and laws” and “positive commandments of God.”) Some such distinction is back of Anscombe’s critique. Otherwise put, he does not account for “moral obligation” by grounding it in a command issued by God or a standing obligation in natural law, but neither does he account for it some other way. Given his very heavy reliance on unexamined uses of “moral,” Hildebrand’s failure, in later (post 1958) editions, to respond in at least some minimal way to Anscombe’s critique will be considered a serious defect by many, including those who dissent from Anscombe’s view.
Secondly, situation ethics is criticized for eliminating the general (general principles or rules) from ethics. The situation ethicist’s motivation for doing so resides in his belief, which is surely widely shared, that it is obvious that there are situations which not only permit, but require (“morally”), violation of such rules as “promises are to be kept” or “one must not swear falsely.” Hildebrand considers the case of swearing falsely to a tyrant, perhaps in order to save a life. Rather than insist (as Kant might have) that even in such a situation one must not swear falsely, Hildebrand suggests that in some such situation the “oath” might lack “the intrinsic presuppositions” (131) for authenticity (and thus would not be a real oath) so that “swearing” falsely might be permissible or even required. Nowhere, however, does he say exactly what those presuppositions might be. This looks like mere evasion, and not just to a situation ethicist.
It of course does not follow that there can be no account of those “presuppositions.” Nicholas Wolterstorff argues (in Justice: rights and wrongs, 2008) that commands, standing orders or laws obligate if and only if they are issued by agents who have standing and its associated potestas. A sergeant’s order obligates only where he has standing in relation to those he commands. He has no such standing in relation to those not in his platoon, so his production of the locutionary act of uttering an imperative sentence does not constitute the illocutionary act of issuing a command, when directed upon, say, the army’s commander-in-chief (or the writer of this review). There are very plausible arguments for the claim that tyrants lack standing to issue some commands, extract oaths, et al, so those commands are not real commands, those oaths not real oaths (Hildebrand: not “authentic”). Hildebrand’s failure to respond to a quite compelling objection with little more than flat assertion will look serious to those seeking some philosophical illumination of the fundamental concepts in play here (obligation, command, duty, etc.). Wolterstorff shows just one way to respond.
Hildebrand looks to be on firmer ground when he criticizes the situation ethicist’s use of “conscience” to do all the moral work. The ability of conscience to warrant the very opposite of what morality requires is too well known (cf. Huck Finn’s misguided conscience, and “the Corsican Matteo Falconi” mentioned on p. 136). Conscience, Hildebrand rightly insists, only gets content by a struggle with precepts of some kind or other. But as already suggested, he does not give us an account of divine commands or natural law that shows how to sort the good precepts from the bad. Rather he alludes to features of a Christian life and Christian formation (the “imitation of Christ”, 142). Practically that might suffice. Philosophically it does not.
Thirdly, Hildebrand argues that the situation ethicist has a wrong conception of the relation of natural law to revealed law; he seems to assume that the latter invalidates the former. Hildebrand denies that natural law precepts can ever be invalidated. But there are special cases where a revealed call supersedes natural law. St. Francis disobeyed his father. His doing so was in response to a “call” which superseded, but did not invalidate, principles requiring filial obedience. The specifically Christian sources of Hildebrand’s ethics become particularly evident here. Once again someone who seeks philosophical illumination rather than Christian edification may feel shortchanged; are such natural law precepts as “parents are to be obeyed” binding always and everywhere, or not? If not, what considerations favor disobedience? Or are there cases of non-compliance that don’t amount to disobedience? Utilitarian or consequentalist reasonings would not be countenanced by Hildebrand. What then? Individual directives from the Holy Spirit? Is there some scale of higher and lower “moral values” that can in principle be accessed by any morally responsive person, or would specifically Christian formation be necessary to discern any exceptions or overriding factors?
In this book Hildebrand does not, so far as I can see, do what many Christian philosophers have tried to do, namely show in what ways an ethics devoid of theological reference must be defective, for example through failure to square with some widely shared ethical intuitions or beliefs. Hildebrand remarks that separation of morality from God causes it to lose the “breath of the eternal” (147). This idea from Kierkegaard challenges heart and mind when surrounded with the profound rhetoric and dialectic of his authorship. In Hildebrand it has only a faint appeal if any.
Thus the lingering parochialism of this work. Nevertheless, the detailed dissection of the moral simulacra that motivate some people to adopt situation ethics, or even attempt to abandon moral concerns altogether, will no doubt prove useful to many readers, and add to the substantial burden under which situation ethics already labors.