TW Viewpoint | Zebras and Situation Ethics

November 7, 2018 | Gary Molnar

The Zebra's stripes are one of the most instantly recognizable patterns in the animal kingdom. There are no gray zebras. Zebras are black and white. What about when it comes to making moral or ethical decisions in our lives? Is it always a matter of black and white or are there gray areas?


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Zebras originate from Africa and are animals of the equid, or horse, family. They are social animals, typically found in herds. There are three types of zebras: the plains zebra, the Grevy zebra, and the mountain zebra. Zebras of all types share a common characteristic which makes them one of the most recognized and well known of animals - distinctive stripes. The pattern of the stripes is unique to each zebra; however, the stripes are always black and white and clearly delineated.

Our knowledge and understanding of the world and human relationships is ever expanding. Some people look at the rigid moral standard of the past and deem it not relevant to the ethical dilemmas facing our complex modern world. This is not new, in the 1960's a system of ethics was developed to address this very issue. One of the leading architects of this new system was an Episcopal priest named Joseph Fletcher. His solution has become known as Situation or Situational Ethics.

The Collins dictionary gives the following definition for Situation Ethics: "a theory of ethics according to which moral rules are not absolutely binding but may be modified in the light of specific situations."

Situation Ethics is a philosophy that evaluates actions in light of the situational context rather than by the application of moral absolutes. The theory states that moral principles may be cast aside in certain situations to promote greater love. The moral principles Fletcher specifically referred to are the moral codes of Christianity and the type of love he encouraged was "agape" love, a selfless concern for others. Fletcher believed that there are no absolute laws other than the law of love. To Fletcher's way of thinking all other laws are mere guidelines on how to achieve love, and thus they may be broken if another course of action would result in more love.

The basic premise of Situation Ethics is that the end can justify the means. A person's actions are not judged to be right or wrong, so long as the person's focus is on showing love. This solution calls for us to always strive to show love, changing our moral behaviour depending on the circumstances. Right and wrong becomes even more fluid when one considers that we have no universally agreed upon definition for love-but that is a topic for another day. Unlike a zebra, Situation Ethics is never black and white; there are only various shades of gray.

Though based in part on the Bible, it is not a very sound biblical principle. The God of the Bible, speaking in very black and white terms, describes the choice He has given all people:

Deuteronomy 30:19 (NKJV): I call heaven and earth as witness today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live.

According to God there are only two choices. We can choose the way that leads to blessings and eternal life or we can choose the way that leads to curses and death. His instruction is to choose life. God's law recorded in the Bible clearly delineates right from wrong which is contrary to the premise of Situation Ethics. God's law, like a zebra, is always black and white.

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