Talk About a Mediocre Ethicist

In the last post all about me, I mentioned that it might be possible for any mediocre ethicist to outdo anything I have accomplished. Recently I read all too many articles published by the Christian Courier, all of which, strangely, list Wayne Jackson as their author.

And? I stand corrected. I have found a Black Swan: at least one mediocre ethicist has no hope of outdoing me.

Wayne Jackson – of all people at the Christian Courier! – wrote an article that Google ranked highly in the results for a search of mine the other day. So I took a look. Kierkegaard, after all, was relentlessly Christian and still had some things to say that I found interesting. CS Lewis gave us talking horses and fantasy heroines that could fight. So I try to keep an open mind about what a website with Christianity referenced in its name might have to offer.

Oh, my, was my openness something significantly less than a favor to Jackson.

The post that Google mistakenly returned was titled “A Critical Look at Situation Ethics”*1. Good gravy was this essay a mess. Jackson uses logic the way that I eat meat: randomly, unintentionally, and not in any way that might be considered good for me or anyone else … if at all. And yet, someone must appreciate his work enough to provide the quantity of links that brought his writing to Google’s and my attentions. I can only assume that some Christians celebrate his work the way that the parents of a paint-covered four-year-old who just left 700 fingerprints on a wall celebrate the tyke as the next Seurat. Sure there might have been some intention behind the work, but it isn’t anything that indicates the future delivery of something worthwhile. Hell, I’m not sure it even qualifies as intelligent design.

So how would I describe Jackson’s work? Well, I sometimes use an under appreciated phrase, “[Some person] is fractally wrong.” The implication is that under any examination, from a broad view to a microscopic close-up, that person’s writing or ideas are an endlessly varying yet endlessly repeating chaos of wrong. While the phrase may be under appreciated, it may not be underused. It’s quite difficult to achieve fractal wrongness. Jackson, however, so far surpasses the minimum expectations for use of the phrase, that I simply cannot examine every piece of wrong in A Critical Look at Situation Ethics. Fractally wrong is, perhaps, the best description I can manage. But let’s look critically at a little bit of Jackson’s fractal wrongness anyway, shall we?

“Basically,” Jackson begins, “there are three schools of thought regarding human moral responsibility.”

Okay, this is not good. Is Jackson going to use the weasel-word “basically” in order to argue that the three schools he describes are comprehensive, shoot down two of them, insist that means that one must accept the third, all while maintaining implausible deniability on the issue of lying to his audience about the comprehensiveness of these three choices?

Well, yeah. Or at least, sort of.

First, there is nihilism. Nihilism argues that there is no God, hence anything one wishes to do is permitted. …

Second, there is relativism. Relativism contends that all conduct is relative to the circumstance. …

Third, there is absolutism. This concept affirms that there is an absolute, objective standard of right and wrong (grounded in the holy nature of God himself), and this code of moral conduct is set forth in the Bible—reaching its zenith in the New Testament. Elsewhere we have discussed these ideas in greater detail (Jackson 1986, 153-160).

“Oy, vey!” as all the cool kids say these days. Ethical nihilism does not argue that there is no God, hence anything is permitted. Ethical nihilism argues that without an unequivocal, universally accessible, and universally intelligible moral standard, that to say that something is moral (or good or righteous) is without consistent meaning. Ethical nihilism need have no position on the existence of any particular god. As gods go, it needs only to defend the assertion that if there is a god of some sort, that god has not provided an unequivocal, universally accessible, and universally intelligible moral standard to each and every single human being. Furthermore, believe it or not, but ethical nihilism does not prevent a person from having a moral code by which one lives and encourages others to live. It is only necessary that the ethical nihilist use and promote the code for reasons other than how it comports to a supposed morally true and morally absolute code.

But Jackson, apparently being a Christian, writes narcissistically: the article takes everything the nihilist has to say as about Jackson’s Jesus and nothing the nihilist has to say is taken to consist of substantive statements about moral epistemology. So any argument Jackson makes about rejecting moral nihilism can be dismissed as founded upon an egregious misunderstanding of its philosophy, statements, and arguments.

But, well, Jackson forgets to make any argument about moral nihilism. It’s unclear if his “Elsewhere we have discussed these ideas in greater detail,” comment is meant to refer only to his peculiar Christian deontic ethics*2 or to all three different possibilities that he is willing*3 to consider. His paragraph breaks seem to indicate the former, but when his statement continues, it becomes less clear:

For the present, we will address relativism, or, as it is more commonly known, situation ethics.

Who knows for sure, but I think that Jackson is attempting to say that he can focus his attention on “relativism” because he’s previously dealt with CDE or possibly CDE and moral nihilism both. In any case, he seems almost to forget about nihilism at this point. But much worse than either of these criticisms, moral relativism is not synonymous with situation ethics. Not only that, but it’s not as if moral relativism is a broader category that includes situation ethics or vice versa. Moral relativism is a broader term, and it may include any number of variants of situation ethics, but it does not include all of them. The reverse is also true. This is like equating the category Europeans with the category Australians: they describe different things, and while some people who are Australians under some definition are also Europeans under some definition, equating the two is just wrong.

Having got that out of the way, then, Jackson, let’s hear your take on this unique category of yours which is “relativism AKA situation ethics” but is likely not either relativism nor situation ethics.

There are two fundamental categories of situation ethicists. There are atheistic situationists—those who totally reject the Scriptures as having any bearing on morality. Then, in addition, there are religious situationists—including those who allege that the Bible actually endorses this code of action. [emphasis Jackson’s]

Now, wait. Atheistic situationists are those situationists who reject the Scriptures’ account of morality? Please take note that despite being plural here, the capitalization is Jackson’s. The text does not refer to religious writings generally. The essay is speaking of Christian holy writings, specifically, which makes this all very weird. Has Jackson not heard of Islam? Well, I suppose one could respond to that objection with  the claim that muslims don’t totally reject Christian scriptures, they simply believe those writings are valuable but have been superseded by later works. Do muslims who practice situational ethics count as religious situationists to Jackson merely because they partially reject, but do not totally reject, Christian scriptures?

Okay. But then what about Hindu takes on morality? Presumably there can be deontic systems of Hindu ethics, but across so many believers, some of them certainly practice situational ethics. Are these religious persons, who perhaps even derive their ethics from their scriptures, properly categorized as atheists merely because they are reading from a different book?

Well, yep. Jackson’s not big on the understandings others have of, y’know, words. Nope. Jackson is a regular Humpty Dumpty, and using atheist interchangeably with non-Christian apparently causes no confusion in Jackson-land.

But let’s run with this. What does Jackson have to say about situational ethics that are derived without reference to the Christian bible? Actually, surprisingly little. The essay quotes one statement contained within a document written by the American Humanist Association and titled Humanist Manifesto II. This manifesto was released in 1973 on the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Humanist Manifesto. That the document is over 40 years old and is made obsolete by the Humanist Manifesto III, released in 2003, seems not to matter to Jackson. Nor does Jackson attempt to show that the AHA’s statement is broadly endorsed by non-Christians who practice situational ethics. There is not even an attempt to show that it is reflective of thought trends among n-Cs who practice situational ethics. Nope. The HM II has the wording Jackson wants to use to make a point, so make that point the essay will, no matter how well or poorly supported it is.

And the point could hardly be more poorly supported. In addition to failing to make even the most meager attempt to prove that atheistic situationists agree with or employ the reasoning in the HM II, Jackson fails to make even the most rudimentary attempt to understand what the HM II actually states. Dear Jackson’s Lord, just look at this passage, first quoting the AHA’s writing then continuing in Jackson’s own words:

[W]e affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction (1973, 17).

The foregoing declaration is wholly void of reason. If man is “autonomous,” i.e., he is a self-governing creature, there could never be a situation in which he could do wrong!

Wholly void of reason? Great Googly-Moogly, Jackson, why have you stolen away with my ability to even?

Let’s read the above bit for Jackson, since the content seems a little too tough for this professional author to grasp.

[W]e affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience.

Okay. I’m not entirely sure I agree with that, but there are senses in which I might. Crucially, however, no objection to the statement is made in the essay. So let’s continue on to where Jackson does see a problem:

Ethics is autonomous and situational …

Well, we already knew that the essay was going to examine situational ethics, so the second part merely affirms that the document adheres to the meta-ethics Jackson wishes to critique. The only new information then, is that “Ethics is autonomous”. And this is where Jackson blows up:

If man is “autonomous,” i.e., he is a self-governing creature, there could never be a situation in which he could do wrong!

Well, maybe, maybe not. That depends on some of the senses of the words used here. Is “autonomous” really best explained as “self-governing”? Perhaps, perhaps not. But whether it is or isn’t, Jackson is displaying the most massive cluelessness here. The AHA document states that “Ethics is autonomous,” not that humans are autonomous. The statement the AHA makes here is simply,

“Ethics is its own field of study, not dependent on or a subset of theological study nor is adherence to a particular ideology a necessary prerequisite for engaging in the study of ethics”.

When the AHA states that ethics is autonomous, that is not synonymous with saying humans are autonomous. That’s why the two different words, “ethics” and “humans,” have their own entries in dictionaries and are not generally found lumped as synonyms in thesauruses. I am sorry to have to explain this to Jackson, but it is true.

Bizarrely, that’s it for this essay’s entire consideration of “atheistic situationalism”. Immediately hereafter, Jackson asserts,

It is an exercise in futility to attempt to construct any sort of ethical system apart from the concept that man has a soul that ultimately will be accountable to God in eternity, that Heaven has revealed that concept, and regulated human activity, through the Scriptures.

That’s right. After one two-sentence quote and one two-sentence response, the “critical look at situation ethics” is entirely done with non-religious accounts of situationalism.


So is there at least a critical look at the situationalism of religious persons who find the Christian bible at least helpful and relevant when constructing a proper account of human morality?

In a word, no.

In the “critical look” at Christian situation ethics, there is not even an on-topic pull-quote. While I do acknowledge that if Jackson was going to use a single source to represent Christian situation ethics that the essay at least focuses on the right one for this context. That source is Joseph Francis Fletcher. Fletcher should be recognizable to anyone who has studied metaethics or situation ethics in the United States. In fact, Fletcher wrote a book titled “Situation Ethics” which title, I suspect, is responsible for Jackson’s treatment of Fletcher’s work as the end-all, be-all of Christian situation ethics.

Situation ethics as a method of ethical decision making predates Fletcher by quite a bit, but Fletcher was more responsible than anyone for the public consideration of an ethic of “loving concern” or agape as an alternative to hide-bound ethical systems that had little capacity for change despite great evidence for deficiencies in those systems. There is no argument that US slavery was defended by appeal to the regulations on, rather than any ban of, slavery in the old testament of the Christian bible as well as by appeal to statements attributed to Christians’ anointed savior on the topic, “Slaves obey your masters,” not least. Other aspects of the bible were used repeatedly to defend Jim Crow cultural norms and US apartheid laws as being Christian, and therefor good. Fletcher advocated that one thing rule: a form of love the classical Greeks termed agape, and which appeared using that name in early versions of what would later become the vulgate and ultimately the recognizable variations of the Christian bible, including the King James’ Bible, the NIV, and more.

Fletcher’s writings were highly controversial, not least because he stated that it was possible that sex outside of marriage might, in some circumstances, be moral. Oh, how the media loved that claim: it received quite the disproportionate focus in popular examinations of Fletcher’s work in the 1960s when Situation Ethics was first published.

So what does Jackson have to say about the hundreds and hundreds of pages of writing that Fletcher published in order to communicate the central concepts of an agape-focussed moral decision making strategy? Anything about the biblical racism that helped 1960s Christians recognize a need for something more than literalism and rigid rule-following? Nope. He makes sure to mention that sexy, sexy sex, though. Here is everything in A Critical Look at Situation Ethics that actually attempts to relate Fletcher’s position, explain it, or wrestle with its specifics:

Theological situationism has been popularly argued by Joseph Fletcher. Fletcher claims that situation ethics is a balance between “antinomianism” (no law) and “legalism” (bound by law). Antinomianism and legalism represent the same basic concepts referred to above as nihilism and absolutism. For Fletcher, “love” is the sole factor in making moral judgments (1966, 26).

But Fletcher’s theory is fraught with insuperable logical difficulties. First, it is self-contradictory. This view contends that there are no rules except the rule to love. But what if, in a certain situation, one decides that love is not the appropriate course of action? Again, according to the situationist, there are no absolutes—except that one absolutely must love in all situations!

Not surprisingly, Fletcher has a wikipedia level understanding of Fletcher’s work, if that. What is more is that Jackson cannot seem to perform the most basic reasoning. Is it really self-contradictory to assert an ethical system where decisions are made by asking firstly and finally, “What course of action would best act out agape?” Jackson believes such a decision making system is inherently illogical because one might decide to act against agape. This makes as much sense as declaring a priori that Divine Command Theory is inherently illogical because someone at some point might disobey the god in question. Jackson seems not to understand that while one could disobey a godly command, just as one could act against the demands of agape, the existence of those possibilities does not prove the systems logically incoherent. Their existence merely proves that some decisions made by real human beings in the real world do, in fact, violate one or more moral codes. Since we already knew that immoral actions exist, what is Jackson saying here?


Oh, Jackson goes on for a while.

the situationist’s “love” is purely subjective; he decides what love is in any given context.

Well, maybe. Maybe not. If we have a specific definition of love, whether or not an action is consistent with the love defined is potentially an objective question with answers that can be objectively judged true or not true. It is true that Fletcher uses different words to describe agape in different places, but this need not be a logical hurdle, nor are the failings of a single book to be passed on to become the burdensome patrimony of future intellectual efforts.

Personally, I see much of Aristotle in Fletcher, but with imagined qualities of the imagined Christian god as the virtues to be emulated*4. In fact, Jackson attempts to hit this point next, though as is typical of this essay, Jackson’s attempt is quite wide of the mark:

this ideology assumes that “love” is some sort of ambiguous, no-rule essence that is a cure-all for moral problems. That is like suggesting that two football teams play a game in which there will be no rules except “fairness.” But, fairness according to whose judgment? The Cowboys? The Forty-niners? The referees? The spectators? The sports writers?

No. This ethical decision making process assumes that love or agape is a virtue. Fairness, yes, is also a virtue. In fact, fairness is probably a reasonable a translation for the concept that Aristotle calls δικαιοσύνη in Nicomachean Ethics’ 1129b. It is rightly translated as “justice” not least because Aristotle uses the word in relationship to laws and legislatures, and yet, in this section Aristotle is ultimately contrasting the convenient, accessible, and legalistic meanings of justice with the caring, considered sense of comporting oneself justly in relation to others with whom you share a society. While Fletcher isn’t trying to state that ἀγάπη (agape) is what Aristotle calls δικαιοσύνη, I think that Fletcher is arguing that justice inevitably results from an unconditional love that concerns itself with the well-being of others (or agape). Thus, fletcher argues that moral decision making should be undertaken in a process that defines moral actions as those taken by one who truly feels agape and is seeking the best expression of agape in any given situation. The results, for Fletcher, will take care of themselves if this process is followed.

But Jackson fails to even understand what this process might entail. Fairness from the perspective of a Cowboy or a 49er should be exactly the same. Human beings might fail to act according to agape. Human beings might fail to fully understand another’s perspective. But it is only in improperly rejecting the fact that Fletcher does, in fact, define some things as morally right and some things as morally wrong that Jackson can come up with a definition of fairness completely divorced from its everyday meaning. For whatever word might describe the view that anything-goes, whatever is best for me is moral, that word is certainly not “fair”.

Bizarrely, there are quite a few more words devoted to this essay in the Christian Courier, but few of them actually examine Situation Ethics – critically or otherwise. Instead, Jackson appears content to assert at the beginning that this article is a “look at situation ethics,” while in fact spending the bulk of the essay looking at the Christian bible and Christians’ exegesis thereof. After the introduction, the “Atheistic Situationism” section, and now the “Religious Situationsim” section, the only remaining portion of the essay is Jackson’s answer to the question, “Is Situation Ethics Biblical?”

I find this more bizarre than anything else in the entire paper. Remember at the beginning that Jackson defined three approaches to morality that are, ostensibly, mutually exclusive*6. Those approaches were delineated specifically in reference to Jackson’s bible.

Third, there is absolutism. This concept affirms that there is an absolute, objective standard of right and wrong (grounded in the holy nature of God himself), and this code of moral conduct is set forth in the Bible—reaching its zenith in the New Testament.

That’s right. Jackson defined situation ethics as relativism (itself not correct, but this is the definition presented in the essay), defined relativism as rejection of absolutism without embracing nihilism, and also defined absolutism as a “code of moral conduct … set forth in the Bible”.

How on earth can a person define biblical morality as absolutism and define relativism as necessarily requiring a rejection of absolutism and then find relativism to be biblical?

That is literally logically impossible. It is as if Jackson set out the definition of “even number” and “odd number”, classified 3 as an odd number, and then set aside multiple paragraphs to ask and answer the question, “but is 3 an even number?”

No. Three is not an even number. And for anyone with any capacity to reason, one doesn’t need to examine this or that text: it’s in the definition.

Say what you will about the intellectual poverty of Jackson’s attempt to define nihilism and relativism. Say what you will about Jackson’s gross misunderstandings of situational ethics, of the distinction between “atheist” and “not Christian”, and of the common definitions of everyday words such as “fairness”, it should at least be possible for someone who writes a definition, well or poorly, to understand that by defining something to be outside a category one makes it unnecessary to ask or answer the question of whether or not that thing falls inside the category.

For Wayne Jackson, however, such recognition is too much to ask.

I would encourage Jackson to try, try again, but given Jackson’s obvious inadequacies as an ethicist and more generally as a thinker, I fear that would be neither loving nor fair.


*1: The website encourages me to cite this work thusly: Jackson, Wayne. “A Critical Look at Situation Ethics.” Access date: April 26, 2017.

Me personally? I think any back citation to this web page would look better in Jackson’s bibliography than citing anything from the Christian Courier would look in mine.

*2: I’m going to get tired of writing “Jackson’s personal take on Christian deontic ethics” every time I refer to that. For the rest of the essay, I’m just using CDE, but remember that this is Jackson’s specific version, not every possible/plausible version of Christian deontic ethics.

*3: able?

*4: rather than human virtues that the ethicist elaborates and then attempts to find modeled in humans of virtue.

*5: This, dare I say it, social justice is properly described as fairness even if the word used by Aristotle would be more literally translated as justice.

*6: and impliedly comprehensive


Sat, May27 2017: Minor grammar edits.


  1. says

    ethical nihilism does not prevent a person from having a moral code by which one lives and encourages others to live

    Since nihilists hold whatever moral codes they may have as a consequence of their own consideration and opinion, I can argue that they probably understand their moral codes better (and hold them more strongly?) than someone who accepts theirs, unquestioningly, from a higher power. Is it not immoral to accept one’s morals from a superior?

  2. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    @Marcus Ranum:

    Is it not immoral to accept one’s morals from a superior?

    I would argue that the word you’re looking for is amoral. Though it’s possible that one makes a considered decision to accept all present and future declarations of morality from a superior … and that decision, I would also argue, is immoral. But I don’t think that’s how it happens generally. it’s not immoral for a 3 year old to accept that something’s bad because a parent said so.

    Continuing to operate that way after developing the ability to make moral decisions on one’s own, however, is definitely regrettable, definitely not “good” in the sense of being productive/ beneficial/ ideal. But still, if you’ve never actually questioned it, then this is simply the absence of morality, not the presence of immorality.


    You can still odd though, right?

    Y’know, somedays I am convinced I can’t do anything but odd.

  3. usagichan says

    I was interested in the “Fairness” example. I know that it is impossible to know exactly the intent of the writer, but I assume that he is suggesting that all parties “Cowboys”, “49ers”, “Referees”, “spectators”, “writers” all have a different understanding of fairness. But, at least in my experience, most people have a shared understanding of the concept of fairness. For example, whilst it may be advantageous to one of the teams for their oponent to start on their 10 yard line, if the parties are honest about their understanding of “fairness” none of them would agree that starting on the 10 yard line would be “fair”. It seems to me that the implication is that actors will not adhere to a code or standard of behaviour where that diverges from their personal advantage – i.e. that while the various groups will tend to share a concept of fairness, they will not actually follow it unless the code is imposed?

    Indeed, there are a number of sports that pride themselves on participants pointing out their own transgressions (golf particularly, and the English game of Snooker come to mind), in effect as a group the players apply a standard of “Fairness” on top of the official imposition of rules fromm authority.
    So there seems to be a few possibilities for me – (1)that there a variety of actors will have such varying understanding of the concept of “Fairness” that they would be unable to interact on the basis of “Fairness”, (2)that a variety of actors would be unable to interpret situations in light of their concept of “Fairness” in sufficiently similar manner for them to interect in a coherent manner or (3)that a variety of actors would tend to act in conflict with the the concept of “Fairness” but in their own self-interest without constraints being imposed through authority. To be honest I think the latter is implied by the writer, but that does not seem to support the point that seems to be made (which I think implies (1)).
    On an almost unrelated Post Script, I just caught up with SWP from start to date… Really thought provoking – Tuesdays and Fridays browsing suitably modified!

  4. says

    Crip Dyke@#3:
    But still, if you’ve never actually questioned it, then this is simply the absence of morality, not the presence of immorality.

    I’ll buy that!

  5. Jessie Harban says

    First, there is nihilism. Nihilism argues that there is no God…

    Personally, I’d have just stopped right there.

    Morality is, at its most fundamental, a question of should— “What should we do?” However, what we should do will always be constrained by the facts of what we can do; if Alice and Bob have a single cookie between them, proposing that Alice get the cookie and Bob get a second cookie simply isn’t a meaningful solution.

    That no gods exist is a fact. Any moral judgement based on the assumption that this fact isn’t true is inherently invalid. And any person who starts his ethics article by treating such a blatant absurdity as even up for debate clearly doesn’t know enough about the facts to form a coherent idea of morality.

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