Texts about necessary ethical ambiguity
June 9, 2021 12:07 PM   Subscribe

Hi. I'm rereading some works by Debeauvoir and other fun work people usually get into, early in college. Does anyone have text references for ethical ambiguity and it's uses in culture or history? When it may look as though someone is doing something "wrong," but the situation is far more complex? More within.

Hi. I'm rereading some works by Debeauvoir and other fun work people usually get into, early in college.

Does anyone have text references for ethical ambiguity and it's uses in culture or history? When it may look as though someone is doing something "wrong," but the situation is far more complex?

Pieces referencing emotional or psychological complexity welcome also.

Not necessary: Critiques of Debeauvoirs linear moral compass or character.
posted by firstdaffodils to Education (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
I'm not sure if this is an example of what you're looking for, but "it's uses in culture" called to mind George Marcus's essay "The Uses of Complicity in the Changing Mise-en-Scène of Anthropological Fieldwork," which considers a "classic" case of an anthropologist becoming complicit in something and almost accidentally gaining a relationship with the people he was writing about to a somewhat more recent case of an anthropologist working on a study of some people who turned out to be on the hard right in Europe and the issues that posed for ethnographic writing. There's also the American Anthropological Association's multiple collections of ethical dilemmas posed in the online Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology.
posted by Wobbuffet at 1:57 PM on June 9 [1 favorite]


There is a recognition of something called "mental reservation," that sounds very much like the sort of thing you're after:
It was argued in moral theology, and now in ethics, that mental reservation was a way to fulfill obligations both to tell the truth and to keep secrets from those not entitled to know them (for example, because of the seal of the confessional or other clauses of confidentiality). Mental reservation, however, is regarded as unjustifiable without grave reason for withholding the truth. This condition was necessary to preserve a general idea of truth in social relations.

Social psychologists have advanced cases where the actor is confronted with an avoidance-avoidance conflict, in which he both doesn't want to say the truth and doesn't want to make an outright lie; in such circumstances, equivocal statements are generally preferred. This type of equivocation has been defined as “nonstraightforward communication...ambiguous, contradictory, tangential, obscure or even evasive.” People typically equivocate when posed a question to which all of the possible replies have potentially negative consequences, yet a reply is still expected (the situational theory of communicative conflict).

In Catholic moral theology, the issue lays out as follows:
The traditional teaching of moral theologians is that a lie is intrinsically evil, and therefore, never allowed. However, there are instances where one is also under an obligation to keep secrets faithfully, and sometimes the easiest way of fulfilling that duty is to say what is false, or to tell a lie. Writers of all creeds and of none, both ancient and modern, have frankly accepted this position. They admit the doctrine of the "lie of necessity", and maintain that when there is a conflict between justice and veracity it is justice that should prevail. The common Catholic teaching has formulated the theory of mental reservation as a means by which the claims of both justice and veracity can be satisfied.

If there is no good reason to the contrary, truth requires all to speak frankly and openly in such a way as to be understood by those who are addressed. A sin is committed if mental reservations are used without just cause, or in cases when the questioner has a right to the naked truth
posted by jquinby at 2:01 PM on June 9 [2 favorites]


Response by poster: Okay these are very useful answers, yes!

Would also love responses from classic literature or psychology. Theology is welcome, hopeful for a balance of religious and non religious, and no preference for particular religion, if this makes sense. Do prefer the thread not weighted toward Christianity or majorly dominating theologies. Thank you!!
posted by firstdaffodils at 2:16 PM on June 9


Accordingly, If you're interested in some of the history and (Catholic) theological minutiae of the issue, this article does a pretty good job of walking through the hows and whys.
posted by jquinby at 2:21 PM on June 9


Response by poster: Moreso interested in existentialist philosophy but a dash of catholicism is ok.
posted by firstdaffodils at 2:36 PM on June 9


Probably not relevant, but more than a few of Sherlock Holmes' cases ended with Holmes agreeing to a cover-up for the greater good, so to speak. Like a case where a blackmailer died and victim was ransacking his place to find the incriminating item, or something like that. Holmes knew who killed the blackmailer, but chose not to inform Scotland Yard.
posted by kschang at 7:03 AM on June 10 [2 favorites]


IIRC, there's also how UK's ULTRA intercepts in WW2 and other intelligence coups could have reduced casualties both military a civilian, but to protect the source they cannot use the information immediately, so many more died. It's either cities got bombed because they can't reveal they've intercepted the comm and send interceptors to block the bombers, or convoy ships died because they can't reveal they're reading German Enigma messages sent to the U-boats and warn the ships and escorts. One or the other.
posted by kschang at 1:51 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Would "The Trolley Problem" be relevant to this?
posted by kschang at 1:52 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


I gather Nietzche is well-known for something like this. Though it sounds like not exactly like de Beauvoir. He seeks to show how things considered 'good' from the perspective of one moral system are 'evil' from the perspective of another. And vice versa. So maybe not exactly moral ambiguities from within a single system. (Though that may be there too -- I confess I'm not a big Nietzche reader.) The place to start is Beyond Good and Evil or The Genealogy of Morals. Or check out the Stanford Philosophy Encyclopedia's entry on Nietzche and morality.
posted by bertran at 9:41 PM on June 10 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Bertran- I would say those references are classics and an extension of Nietzsche would have moreso been what I'd been looking for (I'm aware there are obvious answers online). This para in particular:


"I gather Nietzche is well-known for something like this. Though it sounds like not exactly like de Beauvoir. He seeks to show how things considered 'good' from the perspective of one moral system are 'evil' from the perspective of another. And vice versa"

Beauvoir could blend into some of Nietzsches work, but so much of her work lies with within the complexity of social relationships directly, rather than abstract thought or relationships.



Regardless, I really love a lot of answers that have surfaced here. Intersectionality of ethics is particularly interesting to me, it is always interesting to see in which ways people interpret the material.
posted by firstdaffodils at 10:59 PM on June 10


Yeah, I didn't think Nietzsche was exactly what you were looking for.

You might like the film The Counterfeiters which deals with a certain situation of moral complexity in a pretty plainly laid out way. Though a situation maybe not as psychologically subtle as what you are seeking.
posted by bertran at 12:20 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Oh maybe you'd be interested in the short story by William Carlos Williams' The Use of Force . It's about a country doctor who has to conduct a throat examination of a little girl. It's a battle of the wills, and the stakes are high with diphtheria. Is his use of force justified?
posted by Dressed to Kill at 6:45 AM on June 11 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Very nice to see a William Carlos Williams reference here, thank you 🙂
posted by firstdaffodils at 11:56 AM on June 11


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