- Morality & Situation Ethicsby Dietrich Von Hildebrand
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In this book von Hildebrand defends exceptionless moral norms against "situation ethics": the view that, since every situation is unique, moral decisions cannot be based on rigid universal laws. Rather than refuting situation ethics outright, von Hildebrand's strategy is to acknowledge its healthy opposition to Pharisaical self-righteousness and legalism, while simultaneously showing how true charity and humility cohere with and indeed require universal precepts. Von Hildebrand's phenomenological method structures the book, contrasting prima faciesimilar types to highlight different moral attitudes. Partly for this reason (though also because proportionalism had not entered Catholic academia in 1955), his interlocutors are primarily novelists rather than academics. He expresses his argument in the language of his value-theory, according to which moral goodness pertains to value (which is "important in itself") rather than to our objective perfection; he relies less, however, on his theory's distinctive claims than on premises shared by Aquinas and especially Augustine. It is a particularly timely book today for those concerned about maintaining countercultural absolute prohibitions without falling into Pharisaicalism, for this book threads precisely that needle.
John Finnis's new foreword provides valuable historical context, tracing proportionalism's rise through the Humanae Vitaecontroversy up to Veritatis Splendor. The English translation of Pius XII's appended 1952 allocution, which helped inspire the book's writing, is also a welcome addition (despite jarring typos).
Von Hildebrand's introduction identifies his goal as "separating the chaff from the wheat in situation ethics." The "wheat" is situation ethics' refusal to reduce morality to rules and respectability; its insistence that intention and circumstances matter; and its abhorrence of harsh, simplistic judgments. The "chaff" is its claim that good intentions can redeem intrinsically evil acts; its idolization of freedom, which seeks to "throw off our creaturehood"; and its view of sin as a healthy bulwark against self-righteousness ("sin mysticism").
Chapters 1 and 2 address situation ethics' targets: the Pharisee and his lesser imitators. Von Hildebrand identifies Pharisaicalism as a supreme form of pride, which treats morality and God himself as his own "throne." Hence the Pharisee is charity's antithesis: he hates the true transcendent God and the law's spirit, which he cannot subordinate to himself, and rejoices over others' sins because they reaffirm his moral superiority.
Chapters 3, 6, and 8 address situation ethics' hero: the "tragic sinner" who hates yet clings to his sin (exemplified by a divorced-and-remarried couple). Von Hildebrand admits the tragic sinner may be better than the self-righteous one, since the former at least desires true morality. But he insists this superiority is despite the former's sin and the latter's correctness, and not because of them as "sin mysticism" claims. He grants that the "happy fault" can produce humility and contrition, but denies that this justifies sin, or that it always occurs: sinners can be quite Pharisaical in their anti-Pharisaicalism! (Notably, von Hildebrand's treatment of Dostoevsky's Sonja contains the book's clearest departure from [End Page 638]eudaimonism. He thinks Sonja mistakes a moral value—purity—for a mere, and therefore dispensable, objective-good-for-her; for Aristotle, the mistake is failing to recognize this good'sindispensability.)
Chapters 4, 5, 7, and 9 address situation ethics' fundamental concern for the spirit of the law. Chapter 4 describes pernicious ways of choosing letter over spirit, but insists that, where absolute prohibitions are concerned, the spirit always requires the letter. Puzzlingly, though, he admits that self-defense "departs from the letter without violating the spirit," despite maintaining the relevant prohibition's absoluteness. The relation of object and intention needs clarification here. In chapter 5 von Hildebrand joins situation ethics in opposing the legalistic "moral bureaucrat," who recognizes only juridical, contractual obligations. He upholds, however, the importance of juridical obligation, and resists classifying all strict obligation as merely juridical. Chapter 7 concedes that persons are more than their actions, but insists that actions do commit the...