This is a glossary of terminological fallacies that Christian pundits frequently commit. I often see Christian pundits use terms and categories that they clearly don't understand. They just wing it when it comes to ethical analysis. They don't seem to have even a rudimentary grasp of ethical categories and distinctions. They think they can fly by the seat-of-their-pants.
One problem is people using dictionary definitions for philosophical concepts. They fail to distinguish between the ordinary meaning of words and technical terms that designate philosophical positions or idiosyncratic positions. It's like the difference between "home," "run," and "home run," or "slam," "dunk," and "slam-dunk". What these words mean individually is different from what they mean as technical jargon.
Ethics requires precision thought. I've discussed these terms and categories before, but I'd like to collate them in a single post for ready reference.
1. Lesser-evil principle
Many people are confused about the word "evil" in "the lesser of two evils." But that doesn't mean choosing between a lesser wrong and a greater wrong. Rather, that's choosing between bad and worse.
If I can't saving everyone in a nursing home that's on fire, I have a choice between bad (letting some die) and worse (letting all die). It's not immoral for me to rescue those I can. It's not a lesser "evil" in that sense.
The "lesser evil" does mean a moral evil. It doesn't mean doing wrong. Rather, it's a contrast between a bad outcome and a worse outcome.
Take amputating a gangrenous limb to save a patient. Amputation is a bad solution. Letting the patient die is worse.
Indeed, letting the patient die when you could save his life through radical surgery is morally evil. In a fallen world, we're often confronted with situations where we don't have ideal options. The best we can do is to limit evil.
It fails to distinguish between the ordinary sense of "consequences" and "consequentialism"–which is a technical designation for a philosophical position. Here are three academic definitions:
Consequentialism is the view that morality is all about producing the right kinds of overall consequences.
Consequentialism, as its name suggests, is the view that normative properties depend only on consequences. This general approach can be applied at different levels to different normative properties of different kinds of things, but the most prominent example is consequentialism about the moral rightness of acts, which holds that whether an act is morally right depends only on the consequences of that act or of something related to that act, such as the motive behind the act or a general rule requiring acts of the same kind.
Consequentialism assesses the rightness or wrongness of actions in terms of the value of their consequences. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998), 2:603.
i) In the ordinary sense of the term, a "consequence" is synonymous with an outcome, effect, end-result, fallout, aftermath. Taking the predictable or foreseeable results of an action into account in decision-making is by no means equivalent to consequentialism, where the morality of an action is "all about" the consequences or "depends only on the consequences."
"Situation ethics" is a label popularized by the late Joseph Fletcher. The fact that he wrote a book by that title doesn't mean he owns situation ethics. Indeed, I daresay most people who use that phrase have never read his book.
i) It equivocates by failing to distinguish between pragmatic ethics and making pragmatic judgments. Pragmatism is actually difficult to define. It's not that unified. But there's a basic difference between "pragmatism" in the technical sense of a philosophical value system, and "pragmatism" in the informal sense of taking practical consequences into account when we make ethical decisions. It's trivially easy to illustrate the fact that there are many situations in which it would be immoral not to take practical consequences into consideration when making ethical decisions. The Biblical mandate to love our neighbor requires us to gauge the impact that our actions have on others. Are our actions likely to be beneficial or harmful to others? That's essential to social ethics.
Put another way, in pragmatic ethics, the practical consequences are the sole factor that determines right and wrong. Practical consequences dictate the ends as well as the means. By contrast, we can distinguish between means and ends. What's the point of pursuing a goal through ineffective methods? Even if consequences don't select for the goal, it would be counterproductive to have means that work at cross-purposes with the ends.
I can have objectives based on normative principles, but be "pragmatic" about how I achieve my objectives.
ii) As a matter of fact, there is such a thing as "extenuating circumstances". To take a stock example, killing is prima facie wrong. There are, however, special circumstances under which killing is permissible or even obligatory. Although some actions are intrinsically right or wrong, obligatory or prohibitory, there's a class of actions where the licit or illicit character of the action is context-dependent.
4. Situation ethics
"Situation ethics" was the title of a book by Joseph Fletcher. He used that phrase to designate his particular ethical system. It's a brand name.
That hardly implies that if you take the situation into account in decision-making, you are a situation ethicist in Fletcher's idiosyncratic sense. That confuses one man's position with a much broader concept. The fact that Fletcher used the word "situation" doesn't mean his usage defines the concept. The fact that words are used as brand names doesn't mean they only or primarily denote that specialized sense.
This is just a guilt-by-association tactic. "Situation" in "situation ethics" is a technical term for a particular system of ethics. But taking circumstances into account in decision-making is by no means equivalent to "situation ethics" according to Fletcher's position. For a proper definition:
Proponents of situation ethics…reject [Augustine's] stipulation that there are certain things that are always wrong…Situation ethics is thus a movement that protests generally against the imposition of unchanging moral absolutes that prohibit everywhere certain classes of actions. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998), 8:798.
5. Moral relativism
Radical relativists hold that any morality is as true or justified as any other. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1998), 6:540.
Metaethical Moral Relativism (MMR). The truth or falsity of moral judgments, or their justification, is not absolute or universal, but is relative to the traditions, convictions, or practices of a group of persons.
Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others.
Ethical non-realism is the view that there is no objective moral order that makes our moral beliefs true or false and our actions right or wrong.
Ethical non-realism is typically presupposed by moral relativists, but it is not the whole of moral relativism…merely denying that morality has an objective foundation of this sort does not make one a relativist; for moral relativism also asserts that moral claims may be true or false relative to some particular standpoint such as that of a specific culture or historical period.
Saying that the truth of a moral claim is relative to some standpoint should not be confused with the idea that it is relative to the situation in which it is made. Only the most extreme rigorists would deny that in assessing a moral judgment we should take the particular circumstances into account. Most people would agree that lying in court to avoid a fine is wrong, while lying to a madman to protect his intended victim is justified. The particular circumstances surrounding the action alter its character and hence our appraisal of it.
6. The end doesn't justify the means!
It's a false dichotomy to assert that either the end always justifies the means or else the end never justifies the means. That overlooks a third alternative: some ends justify some means.
Take "the end justifies the means". That's ambiguous. As a universal principle, the claim is false. In that respect, it's an unreliable moral yardstick.
However, we all use ends-means justifications all the time. If I have a duty to support my dependents, then I have a duty to get a job. That end justifies that means.
Normally it's wrong to chop off someone's arm or leg. If, however, he has gangrene and that's the only way to save his life, then that end justifies that means.
Cancer is life-threatening and some cancer treatments are life-threatening. So it's a calculated risk. If the risk of death by cancer is greater than the risk of death by complications from cancer therapy, then that end justifies that means.