The first time I ran headlong into Situation Ethics, I was watching a George Burns interview. A man asked him how he’d handled the final moments with Gracie, his wife and lifetime partner who was dying.
In the hospital bed, Gracie asked George, “Okay…so how am I doing?” George smiled. He brought a large package over to her bed. It was a brand-new floor-length mink coat. George then explained to the interviewer, “Gracie brightened up instantly. For a handful of minutes she was her old self,” knowing that ole George, the pragmatist, would never spend a huge gob of money over someone who was about to die. He said, “You’re doing great, Gracie.” An hour later, she died.
Technically speaking, George had lied to Gracie…and on her deathbed, no less. But in the much broader picture he had made the right choice. Sometimes, Love, Kindness and Empathy trump flat-out telling the truth, which we all hold sacrosanct. You would be amazed, however, at how many people can’t process that last sentence. We’re goin’ deep on this one. I have lied many, many times in the course of my life, though, to my knowledge never with malice and never just to save my own ass. Some will say (and have said), “That may be…but it doesn’t absolve you.” I won’t argue that. Sometimes, being kind to your mate or your family trumps my concern for absolution.
In college, I majored in Philosophy. As lousy as I was in P-chem and economics at F&M, I blossomed the moment I hit my first philo course. Philosophy: old and dusty rantings from old dead geezers? Exactly the opposite, particularly in view of the times. Vietnam, with the weekly images of body-bags unloading from the back of a C-130, pot everywhere (Strangely, I never took even a single puff during college cuz I’d promised my Dad). Afterwards, a different story… Ethics, the questioning of ethics and its sometimes onion-like layers, took place in every dorm room every hour of the day. Then one day, I walked into my first philo course in Situation Ethics. I had no idea what I was getting into, but it changed my life…emphatically, and I believe much for the better.
First day of class, Dr. Luther Binkley, all five feet-two and 140 pounds of him, stood before us and posed a question. The only caveat he gave was, “Keep in mind, gentlemen, that I’m stacking the deck to make a point.” Then he opened up with both barrels. “I want you to think for a moment and then answer this question: Young twelve-year-old girl, freckles, innocent, sweet kid…and utterly innocent of any wrong-doing. Is there any situation whatsoever you can think of where you could kill this young, completely innocent girl?” 50+ young, fairly intelligent college sophomores went quiet…thinking. Clearly, this is inherently a monstrous question. The answer should be: “Hell No!” But then, about four or five hands went up. Mine was one of them. Dr. Binkley called on a guy a few rows over. The guy said, “What’s the back-story?”
Dr. Binkley lit a cigarette, paced for about a minute and then said, “Good question. The back story is this: There is a nuclear warhead located in the lower level of Grand Central Station. It will, with no doubt whatsoever, detonate in three minutes. At that point, nine million men, women, children, boys, girls, teenagers, and babies will perish. Nine million deaths…guaranteed. The little girl I mentioned is safe in a cellar in Ohio where the triggering mechanism is. The terrorists chose this girl because they know that no one could kill a little girl. Your only choice in this scenario, (no begging the question) is to deliberately kill an innocent person…or allow 9 million innocent people to perish.” Protests were registered immediately. “I don’t like this,” someone said. A guy behind me said, “This really sucks.”
There’s something hideous about being forced into making so heinous a decision. Resentment is the first response, quickly followed by anger. And yet, in that class by the end of the seminar, the reality began to filter through. One guy said, “Well, I won’t kill that girl…period!” Luther said, “Very well. You just saved her. Keep firmly in mind, however, that just put nine million other equally innocent little girls and boys and babies to death, as well as destroying all of Manhattan Island.”
Later on in the course, the situations became much more nuanced, the conclusions much more difficult to arrive at. The concept, which had been drilled into me in elementary school: ALWAYS Tell the Truth, began to come under serious scrutiny. One scenario I used at a recent get together at our house (a seemingly tepid one) caused a fight to break out…not against me but between the couple we’d invited. A soft, tepid version of Situation Ethics: “You’re visiting your mom at the hospital. Your mom has always been turn-and-stare gorgeous and she has always taken great pride in that. Only now, she looks ashen and grey, she looks like death and there are twelve tubes stuck into her in horrible places. One tube makes her drool, another keeps gurgling green fluid as it empties her stomach. She peers up at me sleepily and asks, “Do I look okay?” I answer, “Mom, you look gorgeous.” She smiles and we squeeze hands. I…just…lied to my mom. Would I do it again? Oh, yes, I’d do it every damned time.
The gal-half of the couple that had come over, took extreme umbrage with the entire concept. Her “date” who was somewhat older asked her to promise to “lie” to him if a similar situation ever arose. She said that she would not. “I ALWAYS tell the truth.” Pam and I did our best to get off-topic but the gentleman kept coming back to it. They nearly broke up over this.
The Water gets Muddier... From ivory-tower philo classes, to the Vietnam War in two easy digits… a one and a seven, 17, my draft lottery number. Talk about waking up and smelling some really strong coffee. Some lessons were easier than others. (I’ve alluded to this before.) When you fly a jet and flame-out, your first priority isn’t your own survival. It’s making sure the minimum number people are threatened with what is now an eight thousand-pound winged bomb. That decision was strangely very easy. A mental switch flips inside your brain. Every military pilot throws the same switch.
Others…not so clear-cut: Boiling down a very long story down to the bone: In Tempest training, I became adept in what was, at the time, ultra top-secret techniques for bugging, debugging and preventing an enemy from decoding our secret and top secret communication. Deadly serious business. During TEMPEST briefings, we were taught how to spot and how to respond if confronted by a spy. This was something that seemed to me as remotely possible as the cautionary old car-wreck movies like Signal 30 we’d watch in health class, so we wouldn’t crash our own cars.
And then… after-hours on a Friday night in a tiny bar outside of Osan AFB, South Korea, a young gal plopped down across from me. At the time, little towns outside of military bases had more than their share of a certain category of gal. That was a no-brainer. But then, innocuous but slightly leading questions started issuing forth very subtly. I’d been heavily-briefed on what to do, how to respond, though my heart was racing alot faster than my speech pattern. Within an hour, I was 75% sure that the gal across from me was from North Korea, not South, looking for cocky airmen who’d had too much to drink.
Next morning at OSI (Office of Special Intelligence) I relayed the info…and received detailed instructions for phase 2, some juicy bits of info that I was to let slip out after a beer or three. I was supposed to go back and accomplish this. I did. The only thing that was strange about the whole thing was that it went very much like they predicted.
Third meet-up, same bar, mid afternoon, the gal is flirting and asking more and more damning questions. The bar door was open to the main street. I saw a ROK (Republic of Korea) Jeep coast in quietly and then four Korean MPs sprinted in. They dragged her out by her hair, kicking and screaming. Later, at the OSI debriefing they confirmed who and what she was. At the time, all I felt was relief that it was over. Later, over the years, it has drifted back at strange times…like right now, for instance. I don’t know for sure what happened to the gal, though I can guess. Would I have done anything differently? I don’t think I could have. The things she was pressing for were ways to crack into our secret and top-secret coding systems. It’s still with me though and it goes directly back to Dr. Luther Binkley’s Situation Ethics class.
Very Muddy Water: Here is where I “zig” and a whole bunch of you “zag”. That’s fine. I don’t expect or even desire that everyone agrees with me. The only thing that would be nice is that, you come away from a reading thinking, “Hmmm… Different perspective. I’m not sure how I feel about it.” In the military at several points in my career, I’ve been responsible for anywhere from 80 to close to 200 airmen, some young, some (at the time) old enough to be my dad. At Davis Monthan there was a strip club and about every other week, I’d have a two-striper in my office, madly in love with one stripper, or another. These were fairly innocuous and sometimes humorous. Where it got dicey was when a more mature individual would ask for advice…when that individual was married. It usually played out this way: “I screwed-up, captain. I had a one-night fling and I don’t like this feeling of guilt inside me. I’m going to come clean and tell my wife.”
At first glance that almost sounds noble. Know how many times I suggested they do that? With a couple of exceptions the answer is zero. My first question always was: “Why are you going to tell your wife?” The answer always was: “I really hate feeling guilty.” My second question always was, “How do you think this information is going to make your wife feel?” This was almost always followed by a really, really long pause. “Like shit,” approximates the answer. Here is what I’d say, and yeah, we’re back to situation ethics. I say, “You’ve had your fifteen minutes of fun. You screwed up royally. And now, you feel guilty. That’s good. Hurting your wife, however, so you can feel better…..not so good.” I’d tell them that the penalty for that big a screw-up requires a big payback. You don’t hurt your wife, possibly destroy her, so that you can feel better. That’s your sentence. Keep your damned mouth shut and from here on out, treat your wife the way she deserves to be treated. Yup, I know that flies in the face of a whole lot of psychology. But I think it works. You screw up…there’s a penalty. And…it serves as a reminder never to make that mistake again.
The Rain Maker: An old but classic movie starring Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn. Simple plot: Burt’s a charlatan in a covered wagon, selling lightning rods to keep away tornadoes and beating drums to guarantee rain…for a small fee. He wanders into a tiny drought-stricken town and meets Katherine Hepburn, a “plain Jane,” who’s smart but emotionally on the ropes. She’s destined to be an old maid. Burt charms her. He gives her hope, though her brother, played by a young Lloyd Bridges keeps tearing it all down, over and over. The pivotal point of the movie is spoken simply and in one line by her father. He tells his truth-o-holic son, “Son, you’re so concerned about what’s true, you forget to think about what’s good.”
Ending with a Twinkie: There’s a commercial that came out about a few years ago, with Abe Lincoln and his comely wife getting ready for a ball. She asks him, “Does this dress make me look fat?” With inadvertent far-sightedness, Pam and I bought a brown leather sofa for TV watching. That way, when the coffee blows out my nose, it’s a quick swipe with a paper towel.
Know what the definition of a boor is? Someone who always tells the truth, no matter what.
Yes, we must teach our children to speak the truth. We must sear that into their brains. I did that with my son, Cameron and have no regrets. My folks did as well and they had no regrets that I know of. But with age and experience, most of us learn that speaking the truth, though it sounds noble, can on occasion, be a hurtful, unkind, unwise thing to do. With experience comes empathy, compassion and a love, which don’t always agree with truth.