Ethics has more branches that Baskin-Robbins has flavors. There’s Normative, Meta, Applied Descriptive Virtue, Consequential, Deontological, and many more. The latest from the Middle East, notably the events behind CNN’s banner headline screaming “SPECIAL REPORT — AMERICA AT WAR,” and the president’s decision to go to war create a classic example of Situational Ethics.

Ben Bycel

The usual mundane example used to describe situational ethics is this: Two trains loaded with passengers are coming from opposite directions toward a collapsed bridge. You only have time to pull one switch to save one of the trains. What do you do?

Throughout his tenure, President Obama has been reluctant to use military force, in great part based because of his general ethical belief that might does not make right. We would never expect President Obama to mirror the actions of Robert Duval’s character in Apocalypse Now, who is forever defined by his comment to his men: “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” as the smoke from bombing a Vietnamese village drifts by. Duval’s character had no ethical ambivalence about war.

President Obama, however, always appears to be conflicted about the ethics of the use of force. After all, he did promise to end two wars and even won the Nobel Prize in great part just for that promise.

In his Nobel acceptance speech of December 10, 2009, Obama said:

“Where force is necessary, we have a moral and strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct. And even as we confront a vicious adversary that abides by no rules, I believe that the United States of America must remain a standard bearer in the conduct of war. That is what makes us different from those whom we fight. We lose ourselves when we compromise the very ideals that we fight to defend. And we honor those ideals by upholding them not just when it is easy, but when it is hard.”

What philosophical framework allowed the president who gave that speech to bring this country into a new war this month?

Situational ethics, in great part.

Situational ethics allows one to adjust, alter, or shape one’s underlying philosophical viewpoint based on new facts. Situational ethics allows individuals to morally justify carrying out acts that they normally find abhorrent.

John Dewey, the great American philosopher, pointed out in his book Ethics, “ … reflective morality demands observation of particular situations, rather than fixed adherence to a priori principles.”

Situational ethics proponents argue that other ethical frameworks are theoretical, and unrealistic. Rigid ethical frameworks, they argue, may play well in a university classroom but have little to do the ambiguities of real life.

Critics of situational ethics disagree. They believe it is essential to have a clearly stated ethical framework that does not allow a variance from fixed ethical positions.

In a Hastings Center Report, writer Daniel Callahan summed up the philosophical criticism of situational ethics: “By the 1970s, situation ethics had been roundly rejected as no ethics at all.”

President Obama, faced with facts such as the murder of civilians, beheading of American journalists, national borders being overrun, and possible threats to the U.S., made his decision to go to war.

There is no question that situational ethics presents a slippery slope. For example are the ethical opponents of torture, regardless of the greater good that might come from such acts, right to stand by their ethical view that using torture only leads to more onerous acts? Who is to judge? History? God?

Certainly not me or any other mortal.

So where do I stand? While I understand the comfort of thought and conscience that holding fast to a rigid set of values brings, I strongly believe in situational ethics.

I still, however, have no idea, what I would do in the train switch hypothetical. Maybe, urge people to take a bus.

Benjamin Bycel is an attorney and writer. He was the founding executive director of the Los Angeles Ethics Commission and of the newly reconstituted Connecticut Ethics office. He serves as an expert witness in cases dealing with political and legal ethics. If you have an ethics question, send it to


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