Testing What You Would Do

How bad a thing would you do, if it were to save something really good? Apparently, this is the dominant discourse in public moral theology these days. Is it OK for Jack Bauer to torture people on '24'? Do US Muslims think that suicide bomb attacks against civilians are justifiable? US soldiers and marines in Iraq have been recently quizzed on whether they think that abuse of civilians is OK. A wag recently commented that the Republican Presidential candidates are uniting around the position that they would relish the opportunity to send to Gitmo and torture illegal alien women until they give up the names of their abortion providers.

It is the Abraham and Isaac story again -- if you say that you will obey God, would you then murder your own son, if you thought that God commands it? It is a line of questioning that probes for the exact spot where two values which are normally seen as complementary become contradictory. After all, in most circumstances, protecting one's children and serving God are not seen as competing goods. The resulting moral inquiry is conducted by constructing speculative hypothetical situations, trying to uncover the ultimate value.

Most people are pragmatists when it comes to morality. They know that there are few moral absolutes so clear that it is impossible to imagine violating it for a greater good. Thou shalt not steal, but what about a man stealing bread for his hungry children? Thou shalt not kill, but what about shooting a guy who has opened fire in a schoolyard? So polls will, I would think, exeggarate the number of people who will not rule out really awful actions, simply because they resist absolute rules. Pragmatic people keep all options on the table.

In order for pragmatism to work, one has to delve deeply into the concrete reality of every situation. One commentator on one of the blogs writes that he would torture and kill a three year old child to save the country. But that is not the question anyone faces. Now, people are being asked to look the other way when three year old children are damaged because a desperate, politically unpopular President with a history of poor judgement has determined that such damage to three year old children is an acceptable cost to saving his reputation and his party's chances in the next election cycle.


  1. Thank you for the great post.

    The word "pragmatism" also has a technical meaning of some importance in the American intellectual tradition. Charles S. Peirce, the founder of pragmatism and arguably the greatest North American philosopher ever, defined it thus: "Consider what effects that might conceivably have practical bearings you conceive the object of your conception to have. Then your conception of those effects is the WHOLE of your conception of the object." [You can read the entire essay here: http://www.pragmatism.org/genealogy/What%20Pragmatism%20Is.htm] Whereas what you call "pragmatism," to me seems to be what I know as situation ethics.

    Obivously, your use of the word "pragmatism" is a very common use of the word, and I don't mean to imply that you should change your terminology. But the technical terms could be useful for those (like me) who want ot delve more deeply into the knotty ethical situation you raise.


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