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Yoder, Situations, and Moral Reasoning

John Howard Yoder delivers a lovely zinger to the once fashionable, and still somewhat popular notion that authenticity, truly loving motivation constitutes the nadir of ethical action. Thus, the issue is not discerning the “right” action to take prior to the appearance of a specific situation, since such decisions can only be made in the moment. The only way to be truly ethical is to discover in that moment what it will mean, here and now “to love the neighbor.” This is what we commonly know as “situation ethics.” The idea is that we have an overriding principle of love of neighbor and then discover in the situation–which cannot be known beforehand–how to express that love, and thus make ethical choices.

Yoder points out however that this is not “one of several possible ways to do moral reasoning”, rather it is a way not to do it. He notes that “the function of the noun ‘situation’ is not to draw our attention to a specifiable location of the person within structures beyond the self, but rather to draw our minds away from any temporal continuity, especially from any preparation before the ‘situation’ in order to make an informed response to it.”

In other words, situation ethics is actually an escape from the hard work of moral discernment because it simply accepts the social reality that produces the “situations” which one must simply be present lovingly within. There is nothing radical about it whatsoever, rather it is a covert reification of whatever social, political, or ideological structures exist and shape the situations we encounter. To be called to be loving “in the situation” masks a perverse demand that we accept the conventions that create the situation. As such situation ethics, in any guise are always an ally of the satus quo.

One Comment

  1. Andy Rowell wrote:

    I hope you are applying to Duke’s Ph.D. or Th.D. program.

    You write daily about the people we discuss here. It is uncanny. There is a course this semester on Henri de Lubac. We talk about Barth, Yoder, Bonhoeffer, Volf, Milbank, Rowan Williams all the time. I can’t keep up with all you write on the blog.


    Andy Rowell
    Th.D. Student
    Duke Divinity School
    Durham, North Carolina

    Friday, October 10, 2008 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

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